Roger Corman obituary

Although Roger Corman, who has died aged 98, directed more than 50 films, he will be remembered mainly as an influential producer and genial godfather to the New American Cinema of the 1970s. The list of his beneficiaries makes up a Who’s Who of contemporary American film. Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Jonathan Demme were all directing proteges of Corman.

“You can see right away that the guy’s a superior producer,” said Jack Nicholson, who appeared in five films directed by Corman. “He’s the best producer I’ve met in the business. The man carried me for seven years. I feel tremendously indebted to him.”

But to pre-70s cinemagoers, Corman was an auteur in his own right, describing himself as the “Orson Welles of the Z movie”. The schlocky titles of the majority of his films disguise the fact that Corman was an extremely cultured, elegant and well-spoken man, without the slightest hint about him of the rock’n’roll counterculture in which he played an important part. He also had cameo roles in about 30 films, including as an FBI director in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and a senator in Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974).

The Little Shop of Horrors, 1960, directed by Roger Corman. Photograph: United Archives/FilmPublicityArchive/Getty Images

Corman’s filmography as a director can be roughly divided into three groups: the quickies (1955-60), the adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe (1960-64), and the mainstream experiments (1966-70). In the first period, on a tiny budget and in rented studios, he produced and directed such Z movies as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Teenage Caveman (1958) and She Gods of Shark Reef (1958). Science-fiction horror with tatty special effects, cut-price monsters and unknown casts, they were aimed at the drive-in movie youth market.

He would produce up to seven films a year, his fastest being The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which was reputedly shot in two days and a night. It was filmed using the same sets as A Bucket of Blood (1959), a self-referential black comedy. Corman once joked he could make an epic about the fall of the Roman empire with two extras and a sagebrush.

Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama, 1970, directed by Roger Corman. Photograph: Everett Collection /Alamy

In slight contrast was the Poe series, amusing shockers in widescreen and colour. These included House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), The Terror (1963) and, perhaps the best, The Masque of the Red Death (1964).

Greater commercial success came with such films as The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and Bloody Mama (1970), but soon afterwards Corman retired as a director. His reasons were manifold: he had made around 26 films in 10 years and felt the need of a rest; he also complained that when he made cheap films nobody tinkered with them, but as a big-budget director everyone seemed to think they had the right to maul his work. “Specifically, a picture I made called Gas-s-s-s for AIP [American International Pictures], which was completely recut,” Corman said.

“It was a controversial kind of a comedy, and AIP cut all the funny stuff right out of the film, including the entire ending. The film was never shown anywhere as I shot it, and I felt, frankly, they emasculated the picture and destroyed any possibility of success.”

He was born in the city of Detroit, Michigan, to William Corman, an engineer, and Anne (nee High). His paternal grandparents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his mother was of German ancestry.

The family moved to California and Roger went to Beverly Hills high school before beginning an engineering degree at Stanford University. It was the middle of the second world war, and he spent two years as a navy cadet before finally graduating in 1947. He entered the movies at 20th Century-Fox as an errand boy, but then, under the GI Bill, took off to study English literature at Oxford University for six months, followed by six months in Paris.

In 1954, Corman sold a low-budget script to Allied Artists. It was released as Highway Dragnet, for which he insisted on an associate producer credit. But he was disappointed with the film and, believing that he could do a better job as a producer, scraped $12,000 together to make Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954), directed by Wyott Ordung.

The Masque of the Red Death, 1964, was directed by Roger Corman and considered one of his best Edgar Allan Poe films. Photograph: AIP/Kobal/Shutterstock

After selling the film for a profit of $100,000, Corman scripted and produced The Fast and the Furious (1954). Shot in 10 days by the film’s star, John Ireland, it was distributed by a small new company, American Releasing Corporation, later renamed American International Pictures, with Corman as its house director.

In the early 60s, for AIP, he made his series of adaptations from Poe, a favourite writer of his since childhood. Using the team of the designer Daniel Haller, writer Richard Matheson and cameraman Floyd Crosby, he created garish, camp and amusing shockers, taking their tone from Vincent Price’s sibilant, ghoulish hamming.

They were sometimes referred to as “late wife” movies because, in most of them, Price had a deceased wife lying around a castle. Taking only 15 days to shoot, they contained scenes and sets interchangeable from one film to the next, but they were popular and gathered a cult following.

A departure from the horror genre of the period, and one of Corman’s favourites, was The Intruder (1961), a gritty social drama in which a rabble-rouser (William Shatner) arrives in a southern town to disrupt racial integration in the schools.

Corman’s taste for updated American Gothic was evident in the biker movie The Wild Angels (1966), which featured actual Hells Angels, and The Trip (1967), an indulgent plunge into psychedelia written by Nicholson. Both starred Peter Fonda, who went on to produce – and star in alongside Nicholson and Dennis Hopper – the Corman-influenced Easy Rider (1969).

The Wild Angels with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, 1966, directed by Roger Corman. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Corman’s blood-splattered recreation of 1928 Chicago in The St Valentine’s Day Massacre was more tightly controlled and wordier than his usual product, with impeccable performances from Jason Robards as Al Capone and Ralph Meeker as Bugs Moran. In the cold-eyed and unromantic Bloody Mama, Shelley Winters let rip as Kate Barker, the murderous matriarch of a gang of outlaws, with an unknown Robert De Niro playing her son.

Corman followed up that success with a tale of another female gangster, Boxcar Bertha (1972), hiring a young Scorsese as director.

He gave up directing after The Red Baron (1971) nose-dived at the box office. Phony German accents were dubbed in against his wishes. However the dog fights, actually filmed in the air, gave the second world war flying sequences authenticity.

In 1970, he set up his own company, New World Pictures, and continued to produce formula films for the youth market, abiding by the profitable philosophy “make ’em quick, make ’em cheap and make ’em popular”. These included motorcycle movies (Angels Die Hard); sexploitation flicks (Night Call Nurses, Fly Me, Caged Heat!, the latter directed by Demme) and horror films (Night of the Cobra Woman), but the company also distributed films in the US at the opposite end of the creative scale, such as Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) and Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973).

In 1990, Corman sat down in his director’s chair once more and made Frankenstein Unbound, with John Hurt and Raul Julia, which proved he could still spin a gory tale, though, alas, without the success of earlier years.

However, the title of his 1998 autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, still rang true. He continued to produce and executive produce films into his 90s. In 2009, he received a lifetime achievement Academy Award.

He is survived by his wife, Julie Halloran, a film producer, whom he married in 1970, and their four children, Roger, Brian, Mary and Catherine.

Roger William Corman, film director, producer and actor, born 5 April 1926; died 9 May 2024

Ronald Bergan died in 2020

The Guardian

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