The following story is co-published with Jim Knipfel’s Patreon.

Even more than Dick Clark, Roger Corman defined and dictated what American teenagedom looked like, sounded like and meant. From the mid-’50s to the mid-’80s and on into the 21st century, both at AIP and his own company, New World Pictures, he produced over 400 car chase movies, rock’n’roll rebellion pictures, monster movies, beach party films, drug movies, gangster films, women in prison films, sci-fi, sexploitation comedies and biker films. He not only captured youth culture and reflected it back at the drive-in audiences, he helped mold American teenagedom into something that scared the shit out of parents. Sometimes it scared the shit out of teenagers, too. In so doing, he became a legend, one of the most prolific and successful independent filmmakers in history, and undoubtedly, the most important.

Although he had no formal film training (he studied engineering and literature) and almost no money to work with, Corman instinctively knew how to blend violence, sex, explosions, humor and music in the proper rhythm and at the proper pace for the picture at hand. He knew exactly what his audiences wanted, when they wanted it and he gave it to them. He developed a formula, and it worked. It’s reported that more than 90% of his 400-plus films turned a profit.

He also had an instinctive eye for talent, launching the careers of (do we even need to parade the names again?) Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, John Milius, Robert DeNiro, Joe Dante and on and on. Although Corman’s only Oscar was the Lifetime Achievement Award he received in 2009, his proteges have cleaned up. It’s been pointed out that it would be easier to count those Oscar winners who haven’t come out of the Corman school than all those who have. This may help explain why pictures produced by Corman were always a cut above the usual indie genre crap. These people may have been working for no money, but still the acting is better, the direction is better, the cinematography and editing are better, and we ended up with classics like “Death Race 2000,” “Targets,” “Dementia 13,” “Rock’n’Roll High School,” “The Big Bird Cage,” “Piranha” and “Humanoids from the Deep.”

Much of that was the result of Corman’s own years as a director, when he learned how to make quality films fast and cheap. If he didn’t have the money to do something, he figured out a way to do it for no money. It was a lesson that paid off.

He knew exactly what his audiences wanted, when they wanted it and he gave it to them. He developed a formula, and it worked.

After seeing what happened when his first script was turned into a film (1954’s “Highway Dragnet”), he decided he’d be better off producing and directing his own pictures. After a couple of no-budget Westerns and monster movies, (including “Apache Woman,” which marked the screen debut of the great Dick Miller, who would go on to become the most regular of Corman’s regulars), the brand-spanking new AIP (then known as the American Releasing Corporation) picked up Corman’s drag racing picture “The Fast and the Furious,” and he quickly established himself as their go-to in-house producer director. Over the next 15 years Corman would direct roughly 50 films for AIP and produce many, many more, often after being handed a title or some poster art and nothing else. He’d then get in touch with his regular collaborator, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, and they’d be shooting a few days later.

In the second half of the ’60s, American youth culture changed dramatically, and so did the focus of Corman’s films. Instead of innocent rock’n’roll, drag racing and simple monster movies, Corman started making drug movies, biker films and sloppy hippie satires, all of which continued to make money. Then in the early ’70s when he discovered that his films were being re-edited behind his back, Corman split from AIP and set up his own production company, New World. He backed away from directing to focus more on producing, which allowed him to pass along all the lessons he learned as a young director with no budget to a new crop of young directors, to whom he gave no budgets.

Meanwhile, all those actors and directors and crew members who’d worked with him in the past began to infiltrate the major studios and started making pictures of their own. In the mid-’70s, with “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” the big studios finally learned the value of making Corman-style movies. Difference was, they started making Corman movies with multi-million-dollar budgets that went on to earn hundreds of millions in profits, effectively killing the drive-in market.

Corman still went back to directing on occasion, and directed his last film, “Frankenstein Unbound,” in the early ’90s. In his later years, he received countless accolades from around the world, was the subject of a couple documentaries and published a bestselling memoir.

In his final years, Corman was an incredibly wealthy man, drove a really nice car and still kept a hand in the business. Word of his death last week at age 98 was a sad day indeed. He is a towering cultural icon who, if judged by his influence over the past 70 years, arguably was the culture. At least the good part.

Here are some of the more significant films Corman directed during his stretch with AIP.

“Day the World Ended” (1955)

For obvious reasons, post-apocalypse films had really started coming into their own by the mid-’50s, enough so they can now be counted as a subgenre unto themselves. But like most subgenres (like asteroid films) there really only seems to be one plot on hand to work with, and Corman’s first stab at the post-apocalyptic isn’t much different. After a devastating H-bomb blast, seven people find themselves thrown together in the home of a rancher in a desert valley convinced they’re the only ones left on Earth. So, there’s the geologist (Richard Denning), the mobster (future Mannix star Mike Conners), his shrill girlfriend, the rancher, the rancher’s (of course) beautiful daughter (Laurie Nelson), um, the professor and Mary Ann. Oh, and there’s that horrible mutant creature too, but he’s the least of anyone’s worries. There’s the radiation poisoning to deal with, sure, but even that seems secondary compared with how much everyone seems to get on everyone else’s nerves. In fact at times this plays less like an apocalyptic monster picture than a version of Sartre’s “No Exit” with better scenery. The central plot here focuses on the tussle between the geologist and the gangster over which one will get to start impregnating the rancher’s daughter first and get this whole “repopulating the Earth” business underway. Time’s a-wastin’, after all.

For such an early effort it remains a solidly competent film with some fine performances, and even if we’ve seen the same story a dozen times or more (many of them in AIP pictures), it’s still remarkably stark and grim. That may be because the whole budget went to the mutant suit, and everyone else was grumpy because Corman couldn’t afford to buy them lunch.

“Swamp Women” (1956)

While watching the Mardi Gras parade (apparently for a very long time, given that the stock footage keeps switching from day to night), a smug oilman brags to his gal about a new oil-rich chunk of bayou he’s just acquired, and she of course insists on seeing it. Cut to a local police precinct where, in spite of all the drunken madness in the streets, the cops are discussing a cold case. While all the men responsible for a diamond heist have been executed and their girlfriends imprisoned, the diamonds were never recovered. A female cop goes undercover with the idea of staging a prison break with the involved molls in hopes that they’ll lead her to where the diamonds are stashed. So, for a bit there, it’s a women in prison film. Then it becomes a jailbreak film. Then a chase film, then given that the diamonds are hidden in (have you guessed yet?) the swamp, it becomes a jungle adventure picture. Then because the escapees find themselves in the same part of the bayou at the same time as (have you guessed this one, too?) the smug oilman and his gal, it becomes a hostage movie. So now along with sniping at each other as they search for the diamonds while fending off gators, the escapees have to deal with their new hostages too. It’s an early Corman foray into color (which hasn’t held up well), and while he certainly crams in as many genres as will fit and the acting is fair, on the whole it remains a surprisingly slow and drab effort. 

“Not of This Earth” (1957)

1957 was a key and crazy year for Corman, during which he directed a remarkable nine films. Following the tantalizingly and deceptively titled “Naked Paradise” (take a look and see what I mean) came what would become one of his most memorable, popular and re-made films. Paul Birch (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) plays, um, “Paul Johnson,” a mysterious and anemic stranger in black who shows up at a small clinic demanding a transfusion. The doctor’s a bit confused by this at first, until he tries to take a blood sample. It seems the enigmatic Mr. Johnson has a very rare blood disease (known to the layman as BEING AN ALIEN) and requires several transfusions daily. To simplify things he hires the doctor’s sexy blonde nurse Nadine (the very busy Beverly Garland, who mostly worked in Westerns and noir before moving to AIP in the mid-’50s) to come and live in his mansion so he won’t have to go out. The only other person living there is a horndog ex-con handyman who’s as confused by all the weirdness as anyone. All he knows is that his boss pays him in gold, so he doesn’t ask too many questions. Well, before long the hot nurse and the horndog (and the hot nurse’s slow-witted cop boyfriend) team up to uncover the Horrible Truth behind their boss’s peculiarities (hint: he’s a fucking ALIEN), It was again filmed for no money on two sets, but remains one of Corman’s sharpest and best. It’s also a rare instance in which the Corman-produced remakes are almost on a par with the original, most notably the ’80s New World version, in which Corman gave Traci Lords her first non-porn role.

“Attack of the Crab Monsters” (1957)

That same year also gave us one of the stranger and more interesting entries into the increasingly crowded giant monster genre. Russell Johnson takes a glimpse into his own future by playing a professor who finds himself on a deserted island with a small group of castaways. Instead of a cultural cross section, this group is made up of Corman regulars (like Pamela Duncan), and instead of a shipwreck during a three-hour tour, this group is there intentionally to study the aftereffects of an H-bomb test but find themselves stranded after their plane blows up. And instead of wacky hijinks and bumbling antics, they find themselves terrorized by, well, look at that title again. This could have very easily been just another boilerplate giant monster number with a lot of rear-projected footage of real crabs, but Corman gave things a twist. See, these aren’t your normal giant crabs. First of all, they’re not exactly “giant,” like the giant crabs in “Godzilla vs. Ebirah” or Ray Harryhausen’s “Mysterious Island.” No, these are more “really, really big crabs.” Plus they’re superintelligent, they have psychic abilities, almost humanoid faces, and a taste for human brains. So that complicates matters. Oh, and did I mention the island was sinking, too? Just like in that episode of “Gilligan’s Island,” except there they didn’t have to worry about really big superintelligent brain-eating crabs. For all the craziness, it’s a beautifully stark and atmospheric film, and the sharp b/w photography looks fantastic. Even the crab monsters themselves look pretty great, which was a fairly new development for a Corman monster movie. To top it off, nutty plot aside, it’s a picture that takes itself seriously, which is the only way a picture like this can work. It’s a unique and intelligent standout when compared with its competition at the time.

Over the course of the rest of 1957 Corman directed a couple rock’n’roll movies, some more horror films, some mild sexploitation, then closed out the year with one of the best and longest Corman titles ever, “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent” (you gotta wonder who came up with that one, and what they’d been drinking), an adventure picture about, well, these Viking women, see, who build a boat and sail off to find their lost Viking men, only to be captured by the same tribe of barbarians who captured the men they were looking for.

Anyway, after taking a minute to catch his breath after that one he was off again, and 1958 was just as busy as 1957.

“War of the Satellites” (1958)

As he tells it, minutes after hearing the news about Sputnik on the radio Corman was on the phone with a distributor. That afternoon he was meeting with a screenwriter to start hashing out an idea. And six weeks later “War of the Satellites” was in theaters, the first picture to cash in on the brand new space race mania. For all the rushing it’s actually a very smart Cold War film with some unexpected effects and twists, and offers Corman regular Dick Miller (who specialized in comic roles) one of his very few leads in a rare dramatic turn. It may not be the most scientifically accurate of the Cold War space race films that would follow, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

“She Gods of Shark Reef “(1958)

Another early color film for Corman, the first 20 minutes of “She Gods” plays in almost complete silence (save for some brief narration), as Jim (Don Durant) kills a man during a fight. In order to get away he insists his nice brother Chris (Bill Cort) take him to a secluded island near the Congo on his boat. As you might expect a storm whips up, smashes the boat on a reef and casts the two of them on the shore of a mysterious island. The only other inhabitants are young, nubile women and their shrill house mother/priestess/business manager (Jeanne Gerson) who explains two things. First, the island is a hub for a major prostitution ring operated by The Company, and two, Jim and Chris are taboo and made Kangaro the Shark God (really just a regular shark) angry and hungry. Then there’s an interpretive dance. It’s never explained why despite all the references to Africa the island features lots of grass skirts, hula dancing and ukuleles, unless that storm was far worse than I’d figured. Anyway, for some reason these two guys trapped on an island full of beautiful young prostitutes keep trying to escape. They finally do get away, at least out to the reef, but only after Chris decides to bring one of the girls along and Jim decides to steal a mighty cache of pearls from The Company, neither of which makes an escape any easier. As in “Swamp Women,” the early color cinematography is a little shaky, and the location shooting left several scenes all but unintelligible (or maybe it’s just my print). Not exactly one of his best, but like all the others to this point it made money.

“A Bucket of Blood” (1959)

In his only other leading role in a Corman film, Dick Miller (who would still have supporting roles in most of Corman’s other films) gives the performance of a lifetime. While he was dependent on youth culture as the source of his primary audience, Corman was never reluctant to satirize it at the same time he was reflecting it, and here he and screenwriter Charles Griffith send up the late-’50s beatnik cafe scene in a funny and sharp homage to the Vincent Price classic “’House of Wax.” Miller plays inept loser Walter Paisley, a coffee bar busboy who desperately wants to be an artist like everyone in the crowd at the cafe. But those snobby, finger-popping beatniks (including future game show host Bert Convy and Julian Burton as the local king of the beatnik poets) only mock him and brush him aside like an ugly puppy. In his small boarding house room Walter tries to sculpt something out of clay to prove he’s an artist, and accidentally kills the landlady’s cat. When he shows up at work the next day with his sculpture of a dead cat (complete with knife) he’s finally hailed as a True Artist. But to maintain his newfound fame he has to bumble his way into more, um, sculptures. Among Corman’s no-budget comedies it’s one of the finest, and a hell of a lot snappier than his hippie satires of the early ’70s, hoo-boy. To promote the film, AIP took out newspaper ads promising free admission to anyone who showed up at the theater with an actual bucket of blood. It’s not clear if anyone took them up on it.

“The Wasp Woman” (1959)

After Dr. Zinthrop (genre regular Michael Mark near the end of his long career), a beekeeper for a health food company, is fired for claiming the jelly of the queen wasp has youth-restoring qualities, he’s quickly snapped up by a cosmetics firm. The company’s CEO Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot in her last film) is a glamorous and vain woman, a real Joan Crawford type, who’s been noticing the creeping effects of age in the mirror and a related drop in the company’s sales. After seeing what Dr. Zinthrop’s wasp serum (love that word) can do for old guinea pigs and cats, she insists on becoming his first human subject. Well he warns her that the side effects are unknown and even offers a lecture on the mating habits of the queen wasp, but still she insists. Sure enough the serum works like a charm there up to a point, but as you’ve probably guessed, then the side effects start making themselves evident. It may not be the greatest drive-in horror picture ever made, but it’s nothing if not entertaining, and I’ve always been a sucker for a movie with a good serum. Plus it’s got another great jazzy Les Baxter score, and if you look closely, you might even catch a rare Corman cameo as a doctor in one of the hospital scenes.

“House of Usher” (1960)

In 1960, AIP’s Arkoff and Nicholson asked Corman to make two b/w horror quickies to release as a double bill. Corman countered with an alternative. Instead, he suggested, he would combine the budgets for both films (still not exactly “whopping”) and make one bigger film in color and Cinemascope. They agreed and Corman, being a literature scholar, decided to go with Poe’s classic, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In comparison with everything he’d done before (and with a little help from production designer Daniel Haller ), “House of Usher” was a beautiful and lush period piece that looked nothing like your typical Corman film. Add to that a script by the great Richard Matheson and a swell turn from Vincent Price as the extremely sensitive Roderick Usher, and Corman’s Poe film not only made an awful lot of money (by then nobody expected anything less), it also became one of the very first AIP pictures to actually get good reviews. Over the next five years, Corman would go on to make five or six more Poe films (and two films designed to cash in on the success of the Poe films) including “Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Raven” and “Tomb of Ligeia.” Some stuck more closely to the source material than others, but nearly all of them starred Vincent Price and featured elaborate sets designed by Daniel Haller. Among the films he directed, to this day the Poe pictures remain at the top of the Corman list. They really are gorgeous films, and gave an awful lot of audience members an excuse to never actually read Poe.

“The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)

Then on the flipside of the lavish Poe productions well, there was this. Long before the Broadway musical or the movie based on the Broadway musical, there was the original film, a sweet and wacky romantic comedy about a boy and his man-eating plant. Plot-wise it owes a bit to “Bucket of Blood,” but today the original film is mostly remembered for two things. First, Corman had become a little obsessed with shooting schedules, so as a personal challenge made “Little Shop of Horrors” in a remarkable two days and a night. And second, it represents a very early big screen appearance by Jack Nicholson (who’d made his screen debut starring in AIP’s Crybaby Killer), playing a flamboyantly masochistic dental patient. You know the damned story, but if you haven’t seen it in awhile it’s worth taking another look. The over-the-top performances (especially from Dick Miller as a picky flower eater) are funny as hell, and the special effects (notably the man eating plant Audrey Jr., who was voiced by screenwriter Charles Griffith) are better than you’d expect. For my money the standout scenes are Seymour’s visit to the sadistic dentist, the Dragnet routine at the police station between our narrator Sgt. Joe Fink and his partner Sgt. Stu Lee (get it?) and the final shot, which has always creeped the hell out of me. As a silly, goofy comedy it’s a lot of fun, but the fact that it was shot in under three days makes it pretty fucking amazing. Perhaps the greatest talking killer houseplant movie EVER.

“Last Woman on Earth” (1960)

Four years before AIP’s far superior “Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price, Corman made this end of the world cheapie, saving money by limiting his cast to three actors. AIP regulars Betty Jones Moreland and Anthony Carbone star with “Edward Wayne,” the pseudonym adopted by legendary writer/producer Robert Towne in his acting debut. Ev (Moreland) is the lovely, long-suffering wife of Harold (Carbone), a corrupt and recently indicted asshole businessman. He’s taken her on a vacation to Puerto Rico with his lawyer Martin (“Wayne”), ostensibly to prepare for his upcoming trial. Nobody but Harold is having much fun at the cockfight (a scene played mostly with sound effects and a couple quick stock shots), so he suggests they go out on his yacht for some scuba diving. When they resurface and return to shore — don’t you hate it when this happens? — they find that everyone else on the island, maybe everyone else in the world, has died mysteriously. The question then becomes well, what do they do? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be not a whole hell of a lot. While the acting and cinematography are quite good, the story just kinda plods along grumpily until the end, leaving viewers like myself wondering why the hell Harold had to suggest that stupid scuba diving idea in the first place. If they’d stayed at the cockfight and died with everyone else 10 minutes in, it could’ve saved a whole lot of time and effort.

“Creature from the Haunted Sea” (1961)

The ever budget-conscious Corman shot this one back-to-back with “Last Woman,” using the same leads, the same yacht, and a location that looks awfully familiar (though here it stands in for Cuba). Fortunately, depending on your sensibilities, he tells a much zippier story. The opening theme and credits sequence let us know we aren’t supposed to take what follows too seriously. This time around it’s another zany comedy, a parody of both spy movies and rubber suit monster pictures, with Towne, still using the same pseudonym, starring as a spy (“My real name is XK-150”). , who infiltrates a gangster’s (Carbone) otherwise bumbling team of cronies. After the Cuban revolution, the gangster is hired by deposed military officials who want to use his yacht to smuggle some treasure out of the country. Once on the water, the gangster decides to get rid of the Cubans and keep the loot for himself. Best way to do that, he figures, is to create a fake sea monster out of seaweed, paint, and a couple rakes. Once the monster kills one of them, the others will flee. That was the idea, anyway. He wasn’t planning on a real monster showing up, which kinda throws a monkey wrench into things. It’s a film full of bad puns, visual gags, goofy names and spy movie jokes. It’s a sloppy, nutty shaggy dog tale, but if you’re in the mood it can work. Being stoned helps too. And in either case it’s better than that “Last Woman on Earth.”

“The Intruder” (1962)

Even if he dropped the occasional political message into his drive-in films, Corman was never known as a political filmmaker, but he was always blessed with an almost eerie prescience. That’s what made “The Intruder” an even more dangerous film for him. Based on a novel by Charles Beaumont (who wrote the script and became a regular Corman screenwriter before moving on to “The Twilight Zone”), it was a blunt and early look at the state of race relations in the American South. The project was seen as so risky that AIP passed on it, which is something they’d never done before. Every other studio passed on it as well, forcing Corman to find an independent producer and distributor willing to take the chance. More than that, he even took out a second mortgage on his home to get it made. But the risk wasn’t only economic. They shot in a small Southern town, and when the locals learned what the movie was all about the death threats started flying. As Corman tells it, when they finished their last shot, he and the cast and crew all got in their cars at the location, turned the wheels to the north and just kept driving. In his first starring role, William Shatner plays Adam Kramer, a professional rabble-rouser with a shadowy background and a shiny white suit. As the film opens he arrives in a small Alabama town where school integration has just been made the law and sets about, well, rousing the rabble. To leave the story at that is a little unfair. Kramer and all the side characters are much more complicated than you’d expect for a political screed (especially considering there were only four professional actors in the film). But ooooh, that Kramer is a sleazy bastard. It’s a tough, blunt and complex picture, the one Corman always cites as his very best, one that was barely seen when it came out, and the first of his pictures to lose money. This was released a year before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, and apparently those people who went to see it thought it was going to be an alien invasion movie. When they saw what it really was they labeled Corman a communist. Proud as he was of the film, after “The Intruder” he decided to keep his political messages on the subliminal side. These days the film seems timelier than ever.

“The Terror” (1963)

After finishing “The Raven” (the only comedy in his Poe series) with Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson, Corman realized he still had a nice castle set on his hands and didn’t want it to go to waste. So he nabbed Karloff and Nicholson and decided to make another movie. Given the rush, there was no time for niceties like, y’know, a script, so much of it was ad-libbed. Although principal shooting only took four days, what was there was kind of a jumble, so the post-production went on for another nine weeks and at different times the film was directed by Corman, Monte Hellman and Nicholson, with Coppola handling most of the second-unit shots. Once it was all together, nobody knew what the fuck it was about. To this day Corman can’t explain the plot. Nicholson can’t explain the plot. In fact, anyone who claims to understand the plot is a liar. Nicholson plays a soldier in Napoleon’s army who spots a lovely and mysterious young woman while riding through the desert, and follows her to Karloff’s castle. Then, um, stuff happens, and it ends with a big flood. Yeah, it’s kind of a fascinating (well, scratch that “fascinating” part) train wreck. But on the bright side, it was because of this film that Peter Bogdanovich got to make “Targets.” It’s a long story.

“X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” (1963)

If “The Intruder” was Corman’s best picture, I think I have to say “The Man With the X Ray Eyes” is my favorite. By this point in his career, he’d clicked into a solid, well-paced personal storytelling style, and made a film that’s funny and bright and creepy and smart, and one that offers a lot to ponder about, y’know, religion and junk. Plus it stars not only the great Ray Milland, but the even greater Don Rickles too, in his first acting role. Originally Corman was thinking of a film about a jazz saxophonist who takes a lot of drugs and finds that he can see through physical objects. Problem there is where do you take it? So he returned to the tried and true mad scientist formula in order to explain things a little more logically. After another great credits sequence (Corman films had the best credit sequences ever), we meet Dr. Xavier (Milland), a researcher who is on the verge of a major breakthrough when he loses his funding. He has these new eye drops, see, and they might allow him to see beyond that lousy 10% of the spectrum our eyes have been stuck with for so long. And sure enough, with the cumulative effects of enough drops, one day he can see through the pages of a book. Then through the clothes of sexy co-eds, just like the old ads for X Ray Spex used to promise (the stinking liars). Then he can see into the bodies of hospital patients and diagnose them without all that messy exploratory surgery. Then he starts going a little funny in the head, and after accidentally killing a fellow researcher, he has to go on the lam. That’s when he hooks up with that seedy Don Rickles, who sees in Dr. Xavier a way to make oodles of cash and see lots of naked chicks. When Rickles turns sinister, boy, watch out. Meanwhile the increasing effects of the drops allow Xavier to see more and more, until, near the end, his vision is closing in on the center of the universe and potentially God Himself, which culminates in a shocking climax and a sadly unused great final line. It’s an incredibly intelligent and far-reaching script disguised as a silly sci fi movie, and if someone had the time and inclination, it might be interesting to do a close study of Xavier’s travels across the American cultural landscape, from research labs to carnival sideshows to Vegas to a tent revival. I mean, I’m not going to do it but it’s something that strikes me every time I watch the film. And I watch it a lot.

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