Flickhead
Book Review
By Ray Young

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Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring

A new book by Alain Silver and James Ursini

332 pages, illustrated; Silman-James Press, softcover, $24.95

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    Anyone who can boast of shooting a picture under the gun, only to move on to the next project in the same breath, surely can’t be spending that much time formulating leitmotifs or mis-en-scene, or dictating scenario requirements to intuitive screenwriters. In their new book, Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring, authors Alain Silver and James Ursini contend that Corman, King of the Bs, did just that (or something like it), and take his prolific output of low budget genre and exploitation movies as a paragon of aesthetic integrity.
    “While Corman’s cyclical concepts of the universe may not have the pretensions of Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, questions of identity, the imposition of individual will, and the survival of emotional disturbance are not beyond his consideration,” they write. “As a genre director, Corman’s characters are almost exclusively people in abnormal situations and/or non-contemporary contexts.”
    The rather lofty nod to Yeats notwithstanding, those words could be applied to nearly anyone who’s ever made a movie. And discussing Corman—he of Attack of the Crab Monsters, Teenage Caveman and a series of cost-effective Edgar Allan Poe adaptations—in terms of metaphysics seems a frightening and wholly idealistic proposal. But the authors are sincere, and, as far as the pictures are concerned, have done their homework. Every film directed by Corman is examined, mostly in minute plot detail to expose their supposedly intended recurring themes.
    But even the director himself inadvertently derails such academic posturing. “I shot Creature from the Haunted Sea with whatever money was left over from Last Woman on Earth and The Wild Ride, a $30,000 picture starring Jack Nicholson that I financed,” he says in one of the numerous interview quotes sprinkled throughout the book. “While I finished Last Woman, Chuck Griffith mailed us his script for Creature and my producer on The Wild Ride, Kinta Zabel, flew down with the money she had left. We had one day to prepare for a one-week shoot with the core actors from Last Woman. I was too busy on Sunday to consider learning the lines for the part Chuck Griffith had written for me…so I gave it to an actor from The Wild Ride who had come down to Puerto Rico on his own, hoping to land some job in the cast or crew. In the end, he got three jobs, and I didn’t even have to pay for one airfare.”
    Are these the words of an artist, an accountant, or a long distance runner? To these eyes, Corman the director was always reined in by Corman the producer. Not that there isn’t a sense of art or a display of craft in some of the films. But overall Corman lacked the aesthetic cunning of Val Lewton (his counterpart in the ‘40s) or the boisterous hucksterism of William Castle (his competition in the ‘50s), and performed with the sunny disposition of an optimistic and energetic door-to-door salesman blissfully untroubled by sticky, complicated personal matters.

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Poster art for Teenage Caveman (click to enlarge).
The illustration was done by Reynold Brown; to see more of his work click here.

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    With good company and several drinks, his spin on The St. Vallentine’s Day Massacre (1967) can be very funny; The Trip (1967) is marvelous nostalgia for West Coast psychedelia; and The Intruder (1961) an absorbing if flawed meditation on power, ego and racism. But with the Poe adaptations Corman and his screenwriters came up short. For the sake of profit margins and demographics, they cannily avoid mining the author’s morbid fascination with depression and misery. In House of Usher (1960), when the snowy-haired Roderick (Vincent Price) prattles on about the walls closing in, the image is overlit and the colors garish. It never registers the morose comfort that Usher (and Poe) found in his house of shadows, those dark, serious, and probing areas which could have scared off the unsophisticated crowd looking for cheap thrills on a Saturday night.
    Extending auteur theories to Corman can be a dicey, subjective proposition. It takes an innate draw to the subject matter—perhaps an obsession—to thoroughly appreciate such alleged intentions. (Horror fans in particular—notably those inclined to overlook such things as Nicolas Roeg’s contribution to Masque of the Red Death [1964] or Robert Dillon’s and Ray Russell’s concepts for X—The Man With the X-Ray Eyes [1963]—have been Roger’s biggest supporters.) “Like many of Corman’s films made in the 1950s,” Silver and Ursini write, “Swamp Women (1955) swims against the mainstream of American moviemaking by presenting gender role-reversals. While the mainstream films of the period trapped females into the roles of ditzy vamps, epitomized by Marilyn Monroe, or virginal girls-next-door, like Doris Day, Corman relished phallic females brandishing guns and rifles, taking control of the discourse to the disadvantage of the weaker males.”
    As the generalization is weak and partial, conveniently (and wrongly) pigeonholing Doris and Marilyn, it also fails to acknowledge the prevailing women characters and their phallic indulgences in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1946), Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). On Gun Crazy Lewis had a budget that was probably equal to what Corman generally worked with, but that extraordinary film is brimming with sexual tension as it plumbs humanity warped by crisis and dysfunction. By comparison, Swamp Women is stiff and monotonous, and something of a chore to get through—despite its running time of seventy-minutes.

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Ray Milland about to see God in X—The Man With the X-Ray Eyes

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    Though the authors see him as the architect of his own artistic destiny, I think Roger Corman’s evolution is clearly marked by the talent that surrounded him. He worked mostly for American International Pictures, a place where movies were made to order based on titles that the studio brass felt would sell tickets. Boss James H. Nicholson would come up with, say, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, commission an artist to illustrate an outrageous poster, and then have the screenplay written around the marketing campaign. Corman acclimated to this assembly line, and quickly became AIP’s star director…but perhaps too prolific, even for them: before long he split his duties with other, smaller distributors such as Woolner and Allied Artists.
    But if you examine his artistic progression and the escalating awareness of tension, humor and sexuality in the later pictures, it should be noted that the quality of the screenwriters he worked with advanced as well. Early scripts by AIP staff member Lou Rusoff tend to be wooden and superficial; but those written by Charles Griffith and Mark Hanna exhibit an awareness of their absurdity and veer toward satire. As the budgets grew and shooting schedules lengthened (especially during the Poe cycle), Richard Matheson lent the work professional polish, while the eccentric Charles Beaumont introduced the director to innuendo derived from perversion and decadence.
    In the end, however, such considerations are moot, if not disposable. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Corman’s career,” the authors propose, “is that…he directed and mostly produced more pictures in just fifteen years than many directors turn out in three lifetimes.” This is the man’s true legacy: productivity, endurance and profits in the face of Hollywood’s crumbling studio system. That he was responsible for so much dross may ultimately prove to be irrelevant. The metaphysics are slim enough to fit on a shoestring, for Corman intended his pictures to entertain the masses. For that and an uncanny ability to recognize up-and-coming talent, he is without peer.

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