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Repertoire Of Horrors: The Films Of Roger Corman

Roger Corman, who has produced approximately 350 films, says he's always set out with one main objective in mind: to entertain the audience.
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Roger Corman, who has produced approximately 350 films, says he's always set out with one main objective in mind: to entertain the audience.

Roger Corman -- often referred to as the "King of the B Movie" -- is something of a Hollywood legend, famous for making low-budget cult horror films like Piranha and Little Shop of Horrors. But Corman has also mentored many now-famous directors -- including Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Ron Howard -- and employed many a star before they made it big. (He worked with Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000, released the year before Rocky.)

This year, Corman's films are being re-released on DVD, one a month or so as part of the "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" series. Ultimately, 50 titles will be released.

Corman, who has directed more than 50 movies and produced around 350, started to find success with "creature features" pretty early on in his career. In many cases, he would just come up with a title before fleshing out his ideas. His 1957 movie Attack of the Crab Monsters was just one example.

"I had no story," Corman tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "I do this quite a bit: I'll come up with a title, and then I'll write the first treatment or outline, and then work with a screenplay writer on the script."

Make It Fast, Make It Cheap, Entertain The Crowd

To Corman, a filmmaker's first order of business is to entertain the audience. If there's any social commentary involved, it should never be too intrusive to the plot.

"We then try to make as intelligent a story where we can, off of something that is maybe a little bit outlandish," he says. "We try to bring a little bit of logic to film."

Corman's other chief rules: Make it fast, and make it cheap. He's known, not to say notorious, for being unwilling to spend more than he absolutely must. He'll reuse movie sets: He shot the 1960 horror comedy Little Shop of Horrors -- which featured Jack Nicholson in a bit part -- in two days and a night on a borrowed set built for another movie entirely. He didn't pay a dime for it.

"I had an office at a small rental studio in Hollywood, and somebody had built a rather good set for a picture there," he explains. "And I said, "Well that's a really good set you have there. And if nothing's coming in, I'd like to experiment.' "

Years later, the filmmaker still has warm feelings when he thinks about Little Shop.

"For many years after it was made, it was shown at midnight screenings. And Warner Brothers made a multimillion-dollar bigger version of it, which was a good picture but wasn't quite as funny," Corman says. "Our picture was certainly not as good or big as a Warner Brothers picture, but there was a spirit to it. We were all young people. ... We were all just fooling around."

Chasing Childhood Horrors, In Hopes Of Catharsis

Corman never changed his approach to filmmaking -- even when bigger-budget monster films began seeing success in Hollywood. His 1978 film Piranha came out shortly after Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and Corman says he was bothered a little bit by the success of the film: He and his colleagues, he thought, had done well making similar movies for years. (Even Vincent Canby, then-lead critic for The New York Times, said Jaws was basically a big-budget Roger Corman film.)

"It was also a better film," Corman says now. "And when I saw the film, I thought, the studios are beginning to catch on to what we're doing -- and indeed they did."

For Corman, horror is a genre that appeals to the masses for reasons going back to early childhood. Kids are frightened by monsters under the bed, and when they get older, they tell themselves it was all part of their imagination.

"I think the task of the filmmaker is to break through and hit that horror that still remains in the unconscious mind," Corman says. "And there's a certain amount of catharsis there. And I think that's one of the reasons -- if not the main reason -- why horror films, novels, even plays, are so popular."

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