Fans of exploitation and b-movies should certainly be aware of the legacy of Roger Corman. His frugal brand of sensational cinema is responsible for such classics as Deathrace 2000, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Trip. He also kickstarted the careers of some of the best actors and directors of our time. For the casual movie-goer, his name may not be immediately recognizable, but there’s no questioning his influence on modern moviemaking. Director Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel tells the tale of this b-movie mogul’s rise to not-quite fame and not-quite fortune.
The film follows a fairly straight-lined trajectory, retracing Roger Corman’s career starting with his early days as a messenger at 20th Century Fox. Eventually he worked his way up as a story reader, providing creative notes on scripts that came across his desk. In the film he talks specifically about his work on The Gunfighter, starring Gregory Peck, which he received no credit for. This was the deciding factor that drove him to leave Fox. Soon Corman would be writing and directing his own movies for American International Pictures. While most of his films at the time were low budget genre pictures, Corman took a more serious turn with The Intruder, featuring a young William Shatner. The film dealt with racial segregation and civil rights, but ultimately wasn’t the critical or financial success he’d hoped for. It was his big screen adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe — typically starring Vincent Price — that brought him the acclaim he was looking for. From there, Corman founded New World Pictures and began cranking out films like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Galaxy of Terror, and Piranha. While his films have remained cult classics, many of the filmmakers Corman employed have gone on to great success, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, James Cameron, Joe Dante, and Ron Howard. New World Pictures was a breeding ground for young talent. While everyone was moving on to great critical and financial success, Corman continued toiling in the world of b-movies.
While the majority of Corman’s World is a retrospective of Corman’s body of work, it opens with an observational framing device following Roger as he oversees the filming of his latest monster movie masterpiece, Dino-Shark. Some might assume that Corman is trapped within the confines of the b-movie world, but there’s nothing depressing about a man who sticks to doing what he loves while rejecting the temptations of big budget Hollywood blockbusters. You get a sense that he could be making multi-million dollar blockbusters, but simply refuses to do so. In one piece of footage from the Tom Snyder show, Corman describes the ever-increasing Hollywood budgets as obscene, insisting that some better money management could free up those funds for more important, world changing endeavours. It was the birth of the blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars that seemed to have the biggest affect on Corman’s world. Suddenly b-movies were a-movies and he was competing directly with similarly themed films featuring bigger stars and bigger budgets. Still, he managed to continue to produce and benefited from the birth of the home video market, which was the perfect platform for his work. There’s an awareness throughout the film of a lack of appreciation towards Corman’s legacy. Penelope Spheeris says she thinks that the average 25 year old cinephile wouldn’t know who Roger is, but I find that hard to believe. They might not know his work specifically, but I would imagine they would’ve heard of him. As a response to this lack of recognition, the film builds towards Corman’s lifetime achievement Oscar cermony, which works as a satisfying pre-mature button on a long and influential career.
Corman’s World boasts an insanely impressive list of interviews, including appearances by some of the top talent to emerge from Corman’s golden years of cinema. Robert DeNiro makes a brief but uncharacteristically enthusiastic appearance, and his pal Marty (Scorsese) also chimes in with his thoughts on shooting Boxcar Bertha. We also hear from Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Pam Grier, Bruce Dern, and of course, the great Dick Miller. Peter Fonda shows up to discuss his roles in the various Hell’s Angel’s and LSD inspired films, and Jack Nicholson talks about Easy Rider being the opportunity that Roger let slip through the cracks. In fact, Nicholson’s interviews are probably the best in the film. He was heavily involved in Corman’s movies, working as a writer, director, and actor. He clearly respects his roots and has never forgotten where he came from. There’s a really touching moment where Jack actually chokes up when trying to stress how much respect he truly has for tCorman and the opportunity he provided him. Along with the veterans, we hear from modern filmmakers who were inspired by these films, including Eli Roth, Paul W.S. Anderson, and the now deceased George Hickenlooper. Oddly, Quentin Tarantino (who tends to pop up in all of these types of docs) appears only in footage at Corman’s lifetime achievement Oscar ceremony. I would’ve loved to hear him share his thoughts on some of his favourite Corman films as he’s always an energetic and passionate speaker.
Not unlike Mark Hartley’s ‘Not Quite Hollywood’ and ‘Machete Maidens Unleashed’ (which also touches on Roger Corman’s work in the Philippenes), film fans will have a blast with Corman’s World. While hardcore cinephiles might not need the history lesson, I think most people will have a lot of fun watching some familiar stars of the film world discuss their early careers working with Roger Corman. There’re tons of great clips from various movies that will definitely send some people off to the video store (if one still exists in your town) with a list of must-rent DVD’s. Whether you’re a Corman expert or not, Corman’s World is defiitely worth the watch. — Jay C.