Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Creature With a Thousand Films

I'm kind of conflicted by what I'm about to write. For I am a geek and I love the horror and sci-fi genres. And if you love horror and sci-fi films, then the man you owe the most thanks to is Roger Corman.

Roger Corman was/is not the best director or producer to work in those genres. He obviously wasn't the first. He was never the most ground-breaking one, even at his heyday. But he was probably the most prolific one*. And as Stalin once said, "quantity has a quality all its own."

Even if you think AiP/New World Pictures put out mostly cheap cash-in crap (which is true), Corman's desire to corner areas of the market that the "serious" studios like MGM or Warner wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole often produced interesting or daring work. Corman made a movie attacking the KKK in 1962 (!), when such a film could be personal and commercial risk (The Intruder). His Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors helped to perfect the dark comedy. And X, the Man with X-Ray Eyes, really needs no defense or explanation, beyond the fact that it is a well-made and effective horror film that mines the seamy side of our desires to great effect.

And if, for whatever reason, those films just don't speak to you, then remember that Corman helped raise an entire generation of film-makers, giving them a place to learn their craft and perfect their voice. Directors like Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, John Sayles, Jack Hill, James Cameron, Monte Hellman and Paul Bartel all learned at his feet or the feet of people working for him. Corman's films gave actors like Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, William Shatner, and Peter Fonda some of their first major acting gigs.

But he made a lot of crap. Sometimes personal crap, sometimes exhilarating crap, but in the end, enough to keep MST3K running for years on his directorial & production work alone. And the older he got, the more of a cash-in artist he became. The Vampirella movie. The 1990s Fantastic Four movie. The endless Syfy/Sci-Fi channel re-makes and originals.

And while you could never claim he alone dumbed down the industry, he specialized in cheap, stupid movies aimed at teenagers, filled with blood and sex and rock 'n' roll (or his best approximations of them). He churned out endlessly padded films with no plot, bad science, attractive but lightweight actors,  and ridiculous costumes. He practically invented the car chase movie. Corman was no Val Lewton, taking a trashy genre and finding the beauty in it. He was a dumpster diver, who could recognize when someone threw out something perfectly good, but more likely to take a pile of junk to the scrapyard.

When you watch a summer tent-pole film that's clearly cobbled together around action sequences and catch phrases, market-tested to the 18-25 demographic, you're watching the inheritors of the Roger Corman tradition. The difference is that they are more scientific about it.

So it's easy to complain the loss of intelligent movies these days, the bad actors, ham-fisted direction & awful scripts. But that's the commercial model, dreamed up by a man who knew how to compete with TV without having to work on TV's model.

So don't complain about the culture wars. Roger Corman's Hollywood is on one side, really; the side of the consumer.

Let's give Roger Corman an Invisible Hand, everyone!

*I'm excluding people like William "one-shot" Beaudine, who were so prolific because everything they churned out was unadulterated crap. Corman certainly put out crap, but almost all his crap is at least trying to do something.