Roger Corman
Roger Corman
Image: Supplied

On May 9 2024, a 98-year-old man died at his home in Santa Monica, California surrounded by members of his family. His name was Roger Corman and for the better part of 70 years, his dedication to the film industry and DIY finger flip to the mainstream, changed the face of US movies for ever.

Known as the “King of the B-movies,” Corman ran his own independent film empire for decades, boasting that unlike major studios, his  outfits and output were always profitable. It was under Corman’s wing that many of the now acknowledged giants of American cinema who would become famous during the 1970s American New Wave, first got the opportunity to direct. It was Corman who gave Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Peter Bogdanovich their first directing opportunities; and Corman who hired unknown actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro in their first roles.

Corman’s own work – gory, low-brow, horror-leaning, low-budget and unapologetically B-movie embracing — also influenced a later generation of independent American directors in the 1990s, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

In the 1970s Corman’s company New World Pictures helped broaden the horizons of American audiences by distributing some of the biggest names in foreign arthouse cinema including Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and François Truffaut.

So here in belated but heartfelt tribute are three of Corman’s self-directed films that pay homage to his many interests and talents in a career that saw him helm 55 films and serve as producer on 385 others. He remains one of the most influential in the history of US movies, with a legacy that will live on for many years to come.

The art-house essential:

The Masque of the Red Death – YouTube

The third of four films that Corman directed based on the works of pioneering US gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe, saw production move to England and introduced a radical, baroque shift in tone for the series.

Made in 1964 during a peak era of productivity and creativity for Corman, it’s also notable for its change in focus, away from piles of gratuitous blood towards an ominous atmosphere of terror more implied than shown.

Starring legendary horror actor Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, a 12th century Italian Satanist who, while the black plague ravages the rural population, chooses to host a masked ball in a defiant demonstration of decadence and luxury that will not end well as death and the plague come calling for Prospero and his guests.

Shot by the brilliant master director, Nicolas Roeg, the film features memorably eerie tracking shots through luridly coloured rooms and several absurd death scenes including one in which a man dressed as an ape is burnt alive by dwarf jester.


The stone-cold classic:

The Intruder – YouTube

Perhaps Corman’s most sober and serious work, this 1961 drama stars pre Star Trek William Shatner and was written by Charles Beaumont, who adapted his own novel loosely based on the real-life story of a Ku Klux Klansman who militantly opposed the de-segregation of US Southern schools in the 1960s.

Shatner plays Adam Cramer a Southern segregationist who represents an organisation looking to stop the attempts by “Communists and Jews” to desegregate educational institutions and “mongrelise” US society. Arriving in the small Southern town of Caxton and playing on the fears and anxieties of the town’s white residents, Cramer quickly manipulates them to protest against desegregation and riles up the local Klan, who wreak havoc, attacking black families, a liberal local newspaper editor and almost lynching one resident.

You may not think it possible that Shatner, who is of course immortalised thanks to his role as James Kirk in the Star Trek franchise, could play a character so hateful and vile but Corman pulls a memorably complex and nasty performance out of the actor.

It’s a film that though it sometimes lands a little heavily with its messaging, still remains a powerful prophetic warning against the ignorance and intolerance that continues to permeate US politics, threatening to engulf it once again, 60 years later.  Its depiction of one terrible man’s ability to whip the populace into a frenzy of hate and prejudice rings all too close for comfort as we await the second coming of Donald Trump.


The diamond in the rough:

Wild Angels – YouTube

Before Peter Fonda and Denis Hopper donned their leather jackets and straddled their Harley Davidsons looking for the soul of America in 1969 Easy Rider — the film that kicked off the American New Wave — Fonda starred in this 1966 Corman film that can take credit for inaugurating the biker film trend that would envelop the B-movie world for decades to come.

Fonda stars as the president of the Heavenly Blues biker club, who leads his members in a quest for revenge after one of their bikes is stolen. It co-stars Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd with a script by Peter Bogdanovich. It also features some truly scary real-life Hells Angels and ultimately presents a deeply gloomy and nihilistic vision of angsty anarchy and inarticulate rebellion, which foreshadows the famous despairing end of Easy Rider, three years later.


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