As perilously presumptuous as it can be, every once in a while there’s an opportunity to make a bona fide “Great Man” argument on behalf of a particular individual in the arts. There’s certainly a habit of premature mythologizing engrained within cinephile culture, auteur theory has become the default mode of organizing consumption and criticism of such. Academic debates can rage on, but old habits die hard, carrying over from one generation to the next, from repertory theaters to VHS to DVDs and Netflix and new restorations of prints that survive based on the whims of the subculture.
I’m betting it’s a safe wager, though, to ask any of the anointed directors at work in Hollywood today, and find nary a soul to disagree on the most important name in genre cinema in the latter half of the 21st century. The story of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses is a story that begins with the loosening of studio control over distribution models in the ‘40s and the steadying of multiple theater chains, ones that previously had to show a mixed bag of B-pictures churned out by the studios in package deals in order to obtain their prestige products. It continues with the rise of the drive-in theater, which could show the big-budget releases of Warner Bros. and MGM on double or triple bills with lower-grade genre fare from anonymous studios.
One such studio was American International Pictures, the clean-shaven mad genius at its helm named Roger Corman, who became caretaker of a mode of quick-and-dirty production he and his proteges refined. He remained at the forefront of genre filmmaking through the upheaval of the New Hollywood era, which saw a flurry of experimentation with traditional genres released by major studios and often helmed by directors given their first opportunities by AIP. These included Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, and Peter Bogdanovich. More would arise after the New Hollywood floundered and gave rise to the blockbuster; James Cameron and Ron Howard found their groove and settled down.
The so-called Roger Corman Academy has been responsible for most public awareness of Corman’s broad influence over the development of tropes, styles, and traditions within genre cinema. They lobbied successfully to get him an honorary Academy Award in 2009, the culmination of a career that continued after a stable of legendary talent moved on but the VHS market had still to be conquered, the ‘90s rental stores to be fully stocked, and the Sci-Fi/SyFy network to be provided with their treasure trove of animal-blending monster mashups.
Such a story spans decades and major movements in world cinema, but none so crucial as the slowing of Hollywood’s genre production to a slow trickle after the mass production model of the Golden Age. Genres like the Western went out of style altogether, the musical became fashionable only as a Broadway cash-in. One can seriously suggest that without the influence and ethos of Roger Corman, genre cinema might be far more an artifact of the distant past.
Chris Nashawaty’s book contains some historical passages explaining the circumstances surrounding Corman’s upbringing or a chapter in his professional development, but largely the explanations are given over to his students and associates who recall working under his guidance with gusto, wicked humor, and deep nostalgia. Endlessly fascinating are the anecdotes of his near-absurdly practical filmmaking advice: for example, always get a shot of your main character in a phone booth with the receiver blocking his mouth, so you can dub in some exposition later if you notice a plot hole.
Corman’s talents surpassed pragmatism and a skill for instilling his work ethic in proteges, extending to a shrewd business sense and marketing genius that made him the top provider of B-pictures to the drive-ins. Nashawaty’s book earns a complementary status as coffee-table object with its full-color reproductions of the vivid, near-scandalous posters that are among Corman’s valuable contributions to American popular culture and often served as the hooks to attract an ever-hungry audience of teens and smuthounds. Hilariously, multiple filmmakers including Monte Hellman complain of Corman’s habit of including risque images on posters or in trailers, then splicing them into the film to avoid charges of false advertising.
Repeated again and again is the theme of Corman’s success rate: he never lost money on a picture save one, The Intruder, an inflammatory anti-racist drama he directed starring the up-and-coming Bill Shatner. Many reflect on the picture’s failure as a sore spot for Corman, who profited far more from his arguable creative peak, the Poe cycle with Vincent Price which includes The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death, still an iconic feature for both star and director.
Yet lacking an interview with the man himself, there’s little direct insight into the effects and motivations of these respective film’s successes and failures on Corman, which is perhaps as it should be. A late emphasis on his sole directing credit of the last 40 years, Frankenstein Unbound, proves an unrewarding detour.
A biopic is in the works, with the guidance of former protégé Joe Dante, and fittingly so. Roger Corman exists as a fascinating character within the pages of this book, polished, well-mannered, averse to certain profanities but enamored of gratuitous nudity, but never becomes totally transparent. There’s no character arc for him, only for the state of genre cinema: its ups and downs, sidestreams, tributaries, oddities, forgotten stars, footsoldiers, hidden gems, pleasures, embarrassments, and uncertain future. It’s a testament to the significance of its central figure that the book’s dual storylines never really diverge.