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EIFF 2009 - Roger Corman

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EIFF - Roger Corman

He may be called the king of the B-movies but Roger Corman’s influence on cinema is incomparable, just ask Robert De Niro or Martin Scorsese. Miles Fielder traces the director’s roots

The Hollywood legend Roger Corman is guest of honour at the 63rd EIFF, which is this year hosting a very welcome retrospective dedicated to the man they rightly call the king of the Bs. Given the 83-year-old auteur has written, directed and/or produced upwards of 400 films since making his debut with the 1954 B-movie noir Highway Dragnet, the retrospective is a best of rather than exhaustive review. However, the 11 titles confirm that Corman gave us quality as well as quantity. They also remind us that his contribution to cinema is incalculable.

Corman’s hefty filmography is almost completely comprised of low-budget exploitation flicks. Getting them made required a combination of creative invention and business savvy. As the joke goes, Corman could negotiate the production of a film on the phone, shoot it in the phone booth and finance it with the coins from the change slot. The results of his efforts can be judged from the self-explanatory title of his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.

In doing just that, Corman pioneered or reinvented just about every exploitation film genre – from Gothic horror to true crime, biker movie to delinquent drama, science fiction thriller to psychedelic trip – and he gave some of the big Hollywood names their first break, among them Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda and directors Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Joe Dante (who is also coming to Edinburgh this year). Corman’s films betray their sometimes virtually non-existent budgets, but that doesn’t mean they’re not well crafted.

His most widely celebrated films remain the series of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he directed in the early-1960s. Those showing in Edinburgh – The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The House of Usher, The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia – exemplify the cinematic, literate and, yes, even political nature of his filmmaking.

As Corman himself has said, ‘I’ve always wanted to make films that were well-crafted, intelligent and had something going on beneath the surface – all of my films have a political subtext. All of my films have been concerned simply with man as a social animal.’

The centrepiece of the retrospective is the In Person event with Corman. In the flesh, Corman is thoughtful, gracious, candid and very funny, pleasant attributes one might not immediately associate with the man who made the gruesome true crime dramas Bloody Mama and The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Less surprisingly, perhaps, is that he’s great with the anecdotes.

By the late 1960s he had made the biker movie The Wild Angels (a Golden Lion nominee at the 1966 Venice Film Festival) with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra and the psychedelic flick The Trip with Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, and as Corman himself has admitted, ‘I was turned on in the 60s; I tried a lot of things.’

Corman’s got the stories, and he knows how to tell them. A year ago he was in London to pick up a lifetime achievement award presented to him by a small film festival dedicated to all things extreme in cinema. Asked then by a member of the admiring audience how the real Hell’s Angels had reacted to appearing in The Wild Angels, Corman recounted an anecdote about a run-in with the Angels’ infamous leader Sonny Barger. ‘The film having wrapped without incident,’ Corman said, ‘I was watching a television interview with Sonny Barger during which this known felon made a death threat to me. Later, he called me up and said he was unhappy with the negative way he and the Angels had been represented in the movie and he repeated his threat to kill me. So I said to Sonny, “You threatened to kill me live on television. Who do you think the cops are going to go to if I’m found dead? I think you should forget about murdering me and instead, if you’re really unhappy about the film, take legal action against me.” So,’ Corman recalled with a grin, ‘Sonny said, “Yeah, I think you’re right about that, Roger.”’

Corman’s ongoing influence can be felt throughout this year’s EIFF programme, but it’s worth checking out the 11 of his own that have inspired at least two generations of filmmakers. In addition to those mentioned above, the retrospective includes the rarely seen The Secret Invasion, Corman’s WWII men-on-a-mission movie that pre-empted Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen by three years and preceded Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Inglourious Basterds by three decades. Best of all, though, is an even rarer screening of Corman’s personal favourite, The Intruder, his 1962 race-relations pot-boiler starring a young William Shatner.

Of it, Corman said, ‘There is always a political undercurrent in my films. With the exception of The Intruder, I tried not to put it on the surface. And when I did with my picture about race relations in a Southern States town, it turned out to be the only film I made that didn’t make a profit. But I’m still very proud of that film.’

Roger Corman Season starts with House of Usher, Filmhouse, Thu 18 Jun, 1pm, £6.50 (£5.50); Roger Corman: In Person, Cineworld, Wed 24 Jun, 6pm, £15 (£12).

The Trip

  • 1967
  • US
  • 86 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Cast: Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Dennis Hopper

A television director (Peter Fonda) takes LSD (scored from Dennis Hopper) for the first time, with his friend (Bruce Dern) as chaperone. With a man's mind literally turning inside out on screen, Corman's kaleidoscopic acid trip (from a detailed script by Jack Nicholson) is an essential flashback to swinging 60s…

The Masque of the Red Death

  • 4 stars
  • 1964
  • US
  • 95 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Cast: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher

Prince Prospero thinks nothing of garrotting the locals and burning their village. But when his cruel Rabelaisian excesses bring about his fate, a dance of death truly begins. Captured through a delicious colour spectrum by Nicolas Roeg, this is far from camp. Its opening tambourine death rattle warns of a relentless…

The Tomb Of Ligeia

  • 1964
  • US
  • 81 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Written by: Short story:, Edgar Allan Poe, Screenplay:, Robert Towne, Paul Mayersberg
  • Cast: Vincent Price, Elizabeth Shepherd, John Westbrook

Prior to her death, Ligeia Fell vows to return from the grave. Time passes, and her doctor husband finds himself a new wife. But Ligeia's will is stronger than time and mortality, and her reappearance is one of inevitability - and dire consequence. One of the most unsettling and taboo of cinematic gothic horrors, this Poe…

Bloody Mama

  • 4 stars
  • 1970
  • US
  • 90 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Cast: Shelley Winters

Demented 'Ma' Barker (Shelley Winters) leads her emotionally damaged sons (including a young Robert De Niro) on a murderous, cross-country rampage. As the body count escalates, the twisted, dysfunctional family begins to implode and disaster becomes inevitable. Capitalising on an outstanding central turn from Winters…

The Wild Angels

  • 1966
  • US
  • 93 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Written by: Charles B Griffith
  • Cast: Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd

Heavenly Blue (Peter Fonda) and his raucous gang of outlaw bikers (including Bruce Dern) hit the road in search of a stolen motorcycle and ride straight into a world of trouble. With a black leather-clad Fonda roaring across the screen to a groovy hard rock score, Corman not only steered the film into competition at the…

The Pit and the Pendulum

  • 4 stars
  • 1961
  • US
  • 80 min
  • 12
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Cast: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders

On travelling to the Medina castle, Mr. Barnett finds his sister dead from shock. But what caused it? Is her husband to blame? And why is the castle filled with torture devices? As the past controls the present, the film flaunts and haunts its gothic delights, from Vincent Price's versatility, to the tinted caress of…

The Raven

  • 4 stars
  • 1963
  • US
  • 86 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Written by: Richard Matheson
  • Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson

With throwaway disregard for Poe's poetic Lenore, Corman casts a comic spell about three ageing wizards. As Vincent Price and Peter Lorre vie for power (and camp credentials) against dastardly wizard Boris Karloff, a young 'n' dumb Jack Nicholson saves the day by grimacing away. This is Corman at his most satisfyingly…

Roger Corman: In Person

  • 90 min
  • E

Roger Corman is the Rome of post-war American cinema; all roads lead to him. Before inventing 70s American cinema, by giving 'the brats' their break (stand up Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich), he reinvented the genres they worked within a decade earlier. Whether re-instating the psychology of terror within the horror…

House of Usher

  • 1960
  • US
  • 80 min
  • E
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Written by: Richard Matheson
  • Cast: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe

Amid sets both Gothic and gorgeous, Roderick Usher's dubious possession of his sister, Madeline, is barring her beau, Philip, from marrying her. But the strength of Philip's intentions pales next to the siblings' latent madness: an incestuous malady quenched only by fear and fame. Through a crimson command of colour and…

The Secret Invasion

  • 1964
  • US
  • 95 min
  • E
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Written by: R Wright Campbell
  • Cast: Stewart Granger, Raf Vallone, Mickey Rooney, Edd Byrnes, Henry Silva, Spela Rozin, William Campbell

1943, and five hardened criminals are sent to the Balkans, to convince an Italian general to rally the partisans against the Nazis. Cue stuff blowing up, monks carrying machine guns, and Mickey Rooney's Irish accent! Beating 'The Dirty Dozen' to the slaughter by three full years, and featuring a cast to die for, its…

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

  • 1967
  • US
  • 100 min
  • E
  • Directed by: Roger Corman
  • Written by: Howard Browne
  • Cast: Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Uncredited: Jack Nicholson,

Legendary mob boss Al Capone (Jason Robards) goes to war with bitter rival 'Bugs' Moran (Ralph Meeker) and the Chicago streets run red with blood. Clever use of voiceover lends the film a documentary feel, while the flashbacks stick close to the facts without losing the thriller momentum. Corman turns this well-known…

Comments

1. Fritz Clapp22 Jun 2009, 7:50pm Report

For decades Roger has told the story of a Hells Angel from Berdoo named Otto threatening him. Only this past year has he changed the story to say it was Sonny Barger, probably because Sonny is famous and Otto was not. Whatever the reason, it is libelous and Roger should apologize.

2. Fritz Clapp22 Jun 2009, 8:12pm Report

Here is an online example of Roger saying it was Otto:
http://www.filmfax.com/archives/amc_monsterized/roger_corman.html

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