Legendary director and producer Roger Corman’s career spans several decades. From 1954 to the early 1970’s, Corman directed over 50 movies. Today, he’s still producing feature length films. His low-budget approach aesthetics played a significant role in the growth of the indie movie scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Like William Castle, Roger Corman cut his teeth on cheaply-made horror movies with wonderfully outlandish premises. And just like Castle, Corman worked with horror icon Vincent Price several times. For this edition of The Chopping Block, in honour of Roger Corman’s birthday, I take a look at some of my personal favourite Corman movies.
The Haunted Palace
During his time with American International Pictures, Roger Corman adapted several Edgar Allan Poe works. The Haunted Palace wasn’t one of them. It’s actually based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Fans of Lovecraft can thank Corman for introducing cinema to the Necronomicon and the world of the Elder Gods. Maybe it’s not the best representation of Lovecraft’s word. But if you’re not an H.P. Lovecraft fan, you’ll still enjoy The Haunted Palace for its old-fashioned horror vibe. This is the kind of horror movie best watched under the blankets with the lights out for maximum effect. And there’s Vincent Price, so what’s not to like?
The Little Shop of Horrors
Arguably, The Little Shop of Horrors represents everything that makes Corman such a treasure. It’s story about a timid florist and his man-eating plant screams ‘cult classic’. Yes, the budget is low, the acting over-the-top, and the special effects aren’t so ‘special’. And yes, a young Jack Nicholson only turns up briefly. But the comedy is spot on. There’s just a clear sense of fun that characterizes this Corman effort. The Little Shop of Horrors would later inspire a stage musical and a 1980’s musical remake. If you’re thinking of seeing a stage version, do yourself a favour and watch Corman’s original movie in all it’s black and white glory.
The Masque of the Red Death
No list of Roger Corman works would be complete without a mention of one the eight film adaptations he did of Edgar Allan Poe’s work with American International Pictures. As compared to some of his earlier Poe treatments, The Masque of the Red Death feels a little more serious. That is, Corman seemed more intent on making an artistic statement. Vincent Price joined Corman for yet another collaboration as evil prince Prospero. There’s an almost nightmarish quality to the movie’s story about the satanic Prospero hosting a ball while townspeople suffer the plague. It’s both an ambiguous and lavish-looking movie boasting another terrific performance from Price.
Death Race 2000
No, Roger Corman didn’t direct Death Race 2000. For this low-budget dystopian action thriller, Corman produced while Paul Bartel directed. Nevertheless, Death Race 2000 is vintage low-budget Corman. It also happens to be vintage 1970’s grindhouse exploitation. Its story of an American totalitarian state transfixed by a brutal trans-national road race clearly riffs on the similar James Caan movie, Rollerball. Yet aside from the obvious parallels, you can’t help but be impressed with the dark humor and some of the movie’s shoestring action sequences. Later dystopian thrillers owe a debt to this Corman production. Besides, where else can you find a character named ‘Frankenstein’ racing a pre-Rocky, Sylvester Stallone.
Piranha is another low-budget horror classic that Corman didn’t direct himself. At this point, Corman was content to produce movies and hand over the camera to up-and-coming talent like director Joe Dante (The Howling). Similar to other 70’s eco-horror, Piranha is another Jaws ripoff. But it’s also Roger Corman and Joe Dante, so there’s a lot of clever winking at the audience going on. Think of it like a fun riff on 50’s monster movies.
The Pit and the Pendulum
Of all his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, The Pit and the Pendulum stands as Roger Corman’s best. To some extent, The Masque of the Red Death may technically be the better movie. Certainly, it works better as more straight and serious horror. Still The Pit and the Pendulum has the best of what made both Corman and Price such enduring icons. On the one hand, it’s a vividly Gothic rendition of Poe. In addition, Price chews the scenery in a wonderful hammy performance that is among his best. And the closing shot of the Iron Maiden is haunting.