Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel – USA, 2011 – review

‘Some men take on the world. Roger Corman created his own.’

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is a 2011 documentary feature directed by Alex Stapleton (and co-written with Gregory Lockyear) that profiles the prolific Hollywood producer-director associated with decades of B-pictures, often in the horror and exploitation fields, whose “exploits” nonetheless resulted in numerous interesting and cult-classic movies and launched careers of some cinematic legends.

Corman’s World is not the first documentary about the iconic low-budget director-producer extraordinaire (also see Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel, 1978) but it makes a more complete, fond late-career retrospective.

Cineastes, especially those of the cult and creature-feature variety, will feast on this career appreciation of Corman, from his rickety 1954 debut Monster from the Ocean Floor through juvenile-delinquent non-epics, Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe Gothics, 60s biker-hippie dramas (Easy Rider was almost a Corman production, but Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda didn’t like the penny-pinching of Corman’s partners at American International, so Columbia Pictures reaped the immense profits instead) and 70s action-exploitation and sex comedies.

The narrative includes a galaxy of noteworthies. Some, such as actor David Carradine were sadly no longer with us when the documentary was released in 2011.

We catch up with the contemporary Corman early on, overseeing as a producer a monster movie called Dinoshark, a campy outing for the Sci-Fi Channel (prior to its rebranding as Syfy). On this opus crew evidently tried to save money by communicating via child’s toy walkie-talkies rather than professional transceivers.

This leads cohorts and critics to lament that for all the hundreds of features and the learning experiences they represented, all the cult-name recognition, all the genuinely good movies like House of Usher, Corman never graduated from the drive-in schlock demographic to “quality” pictures approaching those of filmmakers he mentored and admired.

This is especially poignant given all the stellar talent Corman discovered and nurtured on the job, many of them interviewed: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Bartel, Jonathan Demme etc. Dinoshark, meanwhile, doesn’t seem too far evolved from Monster from the Ocean Floor

Gene Corman hints that his brother’s starry view of the “respectable” studio establishment never recovered from the early disappointment of losing his credit on The Gunfighter, a “quality” Gregory Peck western that Roger helped get to the screen. Since then everything has been on Roger’s own cheapskate terms.

Then there was the least-seen of Corman’s storied productions, the serious 1962 racism drama The Intruder, marking young William Shatner’s cinematic debut in a villainous-bigot role stirring up racial hatred in backwater towns. It was not intended as exploitation (despite the retitling I Hate Your Guts), and Corman was wounded by his big message movie’s rejection by those few audiences who attended.

If the clips that are shown seem a little stiff and obvious, the lined faces of the Intruder background players could have come right out of a newsreel; Corman’s skimpy crew shot perilously on location in Deep South Ku Klux Klan territory, something that took considerable, well guts.

Though his liberal-progressive politics would leak out time and again in some material, Corman himself, in a vintage American late-nite TV interview, explains his overall aesthete, that chintzy, fast-return-on-investment horror/sci-fi/action/smut quickies like Caged Heat appeal to his moral code. Multi-million-dollar budgets should be spent on urban renewal and social programs, not fancy sets for Big Important movies (more recently, low-budget producer-director Charles Band expressed to me very much the same opinion).

Is it a bit much to believe that T&A nurse comedies represent some kind of heroic altruism as long as they’re low-cost enough? Well, for the duration of this you may buy into it. Corman is invariably soft-spoken and gentlemanly, no matter how downmarket the movies. In fact, maybe he’s a little guarded and reserved, a showman who knows enough not to reveal too much.

Jack Nicholson, on the other hand literally breaks down and weeps at remembering how Corman gave him his first break working on stuff like The Terror (infamously shot without a script, just because Corman had paid for a few days of working with Boris Karloff and fancy Gothic sets; American International just freestyled a horror semi-storyline in the post-production). If there’s an Oscar for Best Documentary Performance, Nicholson picks up it here. Penelope Spheeris, meanwhile, worries that Corman is largely forgotten by current youth culture.

The really soft centre of Corman’s World, in addition to everyone’s obvious affection for Roger, is a sidelight on the long-married Corman’s beautiful wife and producing partner Julie. She tells such great life-with-Roger tales as the time she didn’t know if their engagement was on or off – because Corman was shooting on location, and phoning to discuss wedding plans would have meant long-distance rates.

For all that, for all the gratuitous toplessness, rubber monsters, dismemberments, explosions and Dick Miller cameos, Roger and Julie Corman come across as the most normal and well-adjusted couple in cinema. Hard luck, those of you who had placed long-haul bets on Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Yes, the nitpickers will point out how documentarian Alex Stapleton offers no discussion of how Corman’s economical reincarnation fantasy The Undead appears to have a script penned in a form of iambic pentameter. Or why isn’t James Cameron here? He was a graduate of the Corman film boot camp too (Piranha II: The Spawning).

Or what about Corman’s infamous Marvel superhero feature The Fantastic Four, subversively made with no intention of formal release, in some kind of sleazy legal manoeuvre? Not even an acknowledgement of Little Shop of Horrors reborn as a hit musical. For full coverage of Roger Corman’s world, you’d need a set of encyclopedias.

What remains, though is Corman’s World, and it’s one any movie buff will want to visit, bad matte-painted backgrounds and stock footage and all. The Anchor Bay DVD release contains extras in the form of more celebrity Corman tributes (a bit redundant, since the whole feature is QED a Roger Corman tribute) and extended interviews.

Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES & MANIA

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