Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie by Chris Nahawaty

[This book] is a rollicking account of the life and career of Roger Corman - one of the most prolific independent producers, directors, and writers of all time. Known for low-budget cult classics such as Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979), and Galaxy of Terror (1981), Corman is the self-proclaimed king of the B movie, and it is thanks to his films that actors like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson found the limelight.

As told by Corman himself and by the showbiz legends that got their starts alongside him, [this book] provides a comprehensive oral history of more than six decades of American cinema. Renowned directors and actors including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert de Niro, and Peter Bogdanovich candidly recount working with Corman in the years before their big breaks, as if trading anecdotes at a Hollywood cocktail party.

Brimming with never-before-published behind-the-scenes photographs and ephemera drawn from Corman's personal archive, [this book] provides an unprecedented glimpse into the world of a film legend. Full-page reproductions of classic Corman movie posters trace his impressive filmography, and critical essays on Corman's most daring and influential films - including The Intruder (1951), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Boxcar Bertha (1972), and The Big Doll House (1971) - make the case for Corman as an artist like no other. [This book] is the definitive chronicle of a singular career and personality - the giddy, fun-filled companion to a Roger Corman drive-in retrospective. 

I've always been a fan of Roger Corman, but after reading this book, I'm also inspired by the man. I knew about some of his movies, having grown up watching them, but wow! The man is literally unstoppable, a true work-horse, and an innovator in every sense of the word. And still making/producing movies today, in his mid 80s! I had no idea just how long he'd been in the business, nor did I know how many people he helped out along the way. Granted, his tactics weren't always the most popular, but his credentials are impressive (bring up his page on IMDB and there's over 400 entries listing him as producer. Four hundred plus.)

The movies of his I love best are the ones based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, starring Vincent Price. Back when I was in grade school, our local NBC affiliate (WTHR, Channel 13 - back in the days before cable) showed movies at 4 pm weekday afternoons. I would race home when it was Price week, as they almost always pulled out all the Corman flicks: Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher...all fabulous films with one of my favorite horror movie actors, very atmospheric and creepy. Never mind that I was young enough that the plots were sometimes over my head. Those movies made a big impact on me. Of course, Corman would have been happier if I had somehow bought copies of those flicks, as he was always looking to make money on his movies.

And make money he did. The things I learned from this wonderful love letter (because that's really what it is - a love letter from a fan) are amazing, such as the fact that Corman almost never lost money on his films, able to produce/direct/distribute at a profit. Think about that for a moment. At least 90% of the time, maybe even 95%, he made a profit. What other Hollywood type can say that? Corman worked his casts and crews to the bone, always asking them to do as much as was humanly possible in the least amount of time for very little dough. Many of the actors/directors/other staff quoted mention how they "survived" the Corman School of Filmmaking, not a real school but the very experience of working with/for Roger. And work they did, grueling schedules on shoots plagued with problems.

And yet, everyone interviewed speaks of their time at Roger's feet with love and admiration. I would liken it to summer camp or something similar. Also, not many people worked with/for Roger more than one or two films, specifically if they showed talent; Corman himself would tell them it was time to move on. He showed them the ropes, gave them a crash course education, and then kicked them out of the nest. He did what any good manager should do - he grew his people so that they could move up in the business. And grow them he did, lots of very famous names, such as those listed in the book blurb, not to mention the women he mentored: actresses like Pam Grier and Angie Dickinson to directors like Penelope Spheeris, Amy Holden Jones, Deborah Brock, and Katt Shea. He gave women a chance when others simply wanted them for their...um...assets. Roger knew they had assets, and not the ones that were visible. He truly broke new ground, and did it over and over again.

If you're a film fan, this book is for you. If you're a B movie fan, this book is for you. And if you're a Roger Corman fan, this book is definitely for you. Big, beautiful, and yes, even a bit cheesy at times. Everything that makes a Corman film a Corman film.

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