Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Roger Corman That Conquered the World: "You promised me entertainment! I never expected this!"

"I don't corrupt. I inform."
-Prince Prospero, Masque of the Red Death

Join us in wishing the happiest of birthdays to Mr. Roger Corman, cinema icon par excellence, who turns a still-dashing and spry 80 years old this April 5th. Corman is a role model for any American dreamer, a living reminder to be equally driven by work ethic and cockeyed artistic passion. You may joke about his eye being on the bottom line (I love Ray Harryhausen as much as the next kid, but in the end, it's the same price of admission for Creature From the Haunted Sea), but the real lessons of Roger Corman's career are resourcefulness, savvy and taking joy in the doing of the job.

As an artist and businessman with literally hundreds of film credits in various capacities, spanning half a century, it's nigh impossible to encapsulate everything Corman could mean to a film fan. But for me, there are two films Corman directed that capture his filmmaking at its artistic peak, glimpse the icon in motion, and summarize a large part of the legend and enduring appeal. Besides all that, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) are two of the director's riskiest personal explorations, and - since we're getting nostalgic and reflective here - strike a personal chord in me.

Queasy Funny

A dorky florist (Jonathan Haze in natty plaid scarf) loses everything a Faustian deal with a blood-eating plant (voice of screenwriter Charles Griffith). Meanwhile, Dick Miller eats a flower.

In the moment The Little Shop of Horrors burned itself into my 9-year-old brain forever Seymour Krelboyne holds a severed hand (omigod, they're showing a severed hand), and squeezes the stump into the hungry mouth of his pet talking plant (ha ha... ugh). Black jelly goops into Audrey Jr.'s maw, and little chunks of fake flesh flake off the hand, as Seymour's mind reels and he keeps himself from fainting by singing "Jingle Bells." Not only could I not believe the explicit gore, but for the first time I recognized black comedy in action: wanting to both laugh and vomit, I just let out a weak giggle, and stared in immobilizing horror. In the intervening years, I've seen a lot of nasty humor on screen, but very little as laugh-out-loud funny but still as heartless as The Little Shop of Horrors.

All that is cheap-jack, and on-the-fly about Corman's filmmaking is evident in this notorious 3 day production (with some later pickups, we have since learned, but the brain-boggling legend of Charles Griffith's overnight script job remains). But the recycled sets, one-take improvisatory performances, and utterly repulsive production design lends Little Shop a lot of delirious sleep-deprived energy, an ambiance of icky poverty, and competent professionals totally goofing around.

Griffith's alternately dumb-funny and deeply witty physical feat of a screenplay, a memorable monster-craze era creature, and the hysterical cast get nearly all the credit for Little Shop's success. It's Corman who is fully responsible for parlaying the grotty production circumstances into a coherent mood, style and milieu for the film, and for undertaking impossible stunt in the first place. The Little Shop of Horrors says something about the world that no one else in 1960 dared to say on film: this sickness and appalling behavior that pervades society and lurks in our desperate souls, you might as well laugh to remember you're alive. My God, I've never laughed so hard at a nerd smashing a hooker's skull with a wet rock, or a child burning to death while playing with matches.

Existential Blues and Red Deaths

Tim Lucas has called Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (also 1964) a primer in "how to shoot a horror film in color" but Corman's The Masque of the Red Death is your first supplimentary viewing assignment. With luscious, searing cinematography by young Nic Roeg, and expensive sets left over from Peter Glenvile's Becket (1964), Masque is Corman's most poetic and questing achievement, in or outside of his cycle of Poe adaptations. Inside Poe's story of the destruction of cruel hedonist Prince Prospero (Vincent Price at his very finest), whose debauched parties rage stupidly against the plague consuming the countryside, Corman finds a social critique of class and power, and asks sober questions about the nature of mortality.

It's the magical possibilities of a low budget drive-in horror movie exploring these ideas in an earnest, yearning way that makes Masque special, even if we don't have time to delve into the film today (it's a celebration after all!) In opposite mode from Little Shop, Masque makes effective use of its talented to make images of vivid, strange poetry. The path had been paved with his seminal Pit and the Pendulum (1961), but Masque is more serious overall, its comedy blacker, and its pictures more opulant. LSD and European film influenced as it may be, the Poe films and Masque in particular hint at another Roger Corman that could have been... though that Corman probably wouldn't have given us Carnosaur, so I wouldn't have it any other way.

Corman would cover some of this philosophical ground again, and more overtly, in The Trip and Gas-s-s-s, and previously in X, but never with such style or ambiguity. For me, Masque is a key '60s horror film, pointing the clear way for the few future romantic and existential meditations on death, like Kinetoscope's beloved Dellamorte Dellamore.


Once, after a night of olive pizza and the sheer-blast-of-wicked-glee Death Race 2000, I had my only dream about Roger Corman.

Corman stands in a black landscape, before a vast blank white vertical screen, his face turned to the inky sky. A swirling gust of Les Baxter music pours from the speakers, lifting him into the air. The headlights of 1000 parked hot rods spray forth strobing primary-color lights which flash brilliantly across his body, combining in lurid purples, pinks, greens. We are there only because he has promised we will be entertained. And Roger William Corman, King of the B's, floats mid-air above every drive-in that ever was, is, will be, could be.


Happy, happy birthday to Roger Corman, a man built to make movies.

Keep tabs on today's ROGER CORMAN B-DAY BLOG-A-THON at Video WatchBlog!

1 comment:

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Chris-- Absolutely right on: "The real lessons of Roger Corman's career are resourcefulness, savvy and taking joy in the doing of the job." Apart from my appreciation of the films you set apart to mention, this lesson is part of the underlying joy found in Hollywood Boulevard, the Corman-produced movie I chose to write about. Well said. I'll be highlighting your entry at my own site, to be sure, and I'll be coming back for more.