Film: Less Is More

In the age of blockbusters, B-movie maven Roger Corman survives

Jan 11, 2006 at 2:06 pm
B-movie Buddha: Roger Corman's legacy continues to grow.

It's not a matter of legendary producer and B-movie kingpin Roger Corman getting smaller after 50 years in show business. The Hollywood movies, many of them special effects-driven fantasies, keep getting bigger and bigger: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the most gargantuan film of all, Peter Jackson's epic remake of King Kong.

The original Kong was a true B picture with a budget tiny enough to force co-director Merion C. Cooper to pay for the music out of his own pocket. Jackson's Kong is the exact opposite, a three-hour epic with more monster effects than it can handle. Corman and his low-budget movies don't stand a chance.

The days are over when Corman's B movies played small-town movie houses, inner-city cinemas and drive-in movie theaters. But Corman has carved a safe and profitable space to continue his exploitation ways. A new deal with Buena Vista Home Video brings back classic Corman productions like Death Race 2000 and Rock 'n' Roll High School for new audiences. (Both were recently lavished with special edition DVD releases.) Cable TV outlets like the Sci-Fi Channel premiere the new Corman monster movie Dino-Croc.

At age 79, Corman is still producing independent movies via the time-tested formula that made him a legend. The budgets are low. Casts are made up of familiar faces but not anyone who would be called a celebrity. The subjects are pure exploitation: sex, violence and plenty of monsters.

Asked what he would have done with King Kong, Corman has a ready answer.

"It's amazing what Peter Jackson has done," he says. "But good stories and good scares don't need astronomical budgets. I came up with the film Dino-Croc after seeing an article in The Los Angeles Times about the discovery of fossils for this giant prehistoric crocodile. It gave me the idea, and we made the movie. You don't have to spend it all to entertain the crowds."

Corman has lived well and suffered plenty of setbacks in the B-movie business. He's even written a book about his career, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. But Corman has had a shot at his own blockbuster. In 1993, he made The Fantastic Four, about the Marvel Comics superheroes, for just $2 million. The mystery is why audiences have never been allowed to see the film.

"Fantastic Four was made because the rights were about to expire unless production began on a movie," Corman says, speaking with an enthusiasm and an energy that belies his age. "The intent was always to make a big-budget Hollywood film. But this little film would serve as a test, a way to show how it could look. Once a deal was made with Fox for the version that ended up in theaters, part of the deal was that this film would be sealed away."

Corman did not invent the B-movie formula. The term "B movie" came about in the 1930s to distinguish Hollywood's low-budget product from its high-profile "A" pictures featuring stars and well-known filmmakers. Poverty Row studios like Monogram and Republic only made B movies and serials, and they proved to be Corman's inspiration.

Corman worked on Hollywood film crews after serving in World War II. He learned the craft first-hand doing numerous tasks. A script sale gave him the money to make his own movies, eight in his first two years as an independent filmmaker and producer. The Corman method includes short shooting schedules and a limited budget, not all that different from the business model of Republic Pictures. The 1950s modern-world twist Corman brought to the B-movie business was a quick connection to the teenage audiences that regularly filled movie theaters.

Corman's film output grew as teen audiences dominated box office throughout the 1960s. His company, New World Pictures, earned comparisons to Berry Gordy and Motown Records. Young filmmakers eager to gain moviemaking experience for little pay found opportunities with Corman.

Francis Ford Coppola filmed the horror film Dementia 13 on leftover sets in Ireland. Peter Bogdanovich shot the thriller Targets using the two days of work Boris Karloff owed Corman. Other Corman protégés, many of them thriving in the blockbuster era, include actors Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Dern and filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Curtis Hanson and Joe Dante.

The legacy of Corman and New World Pictures has made another impact on the Hollywood landscape, proof that high- and low-culture releases could be a successful mix.

"We combined art house fare and exploitation pictures," he says. "Our releases included Candy Stripe Nurses and Big Bad Mama along with Volker Schlondorff's The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers.

"We were the first to do that, and you can see this mix of foreign-language films and horror in current companies like Focus Pictures, which complements its art house fare with its Rogue horror film division, and Fox Searchlight and Lions Gate Releasing."

The first generation of movie brats admired Roger Corman and looked to him for the chance to make movies. Getting his movies on cable TV and video is a way for him to reach out to future movie brats. It's a way for people to remember Corman's name and what it represents. ©