Obituaries: Roger Corman, influential filmmaker who was much more than the 'King of the B Movies'

Roger Corman, film director and producer. Born: 5 April, 1926 in Detroit. Died: 9 May, 2024 in Santa Monica, California, aged 98

To say Roger Corman was simply “King of the B-Movie” is to overlook his huge influence at the dawn of a new golden age of Hollywood cinema at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s.

Corman directed more than 50 films and produced literally hundreds of others, churned out in days on shoestring budgets. He produced a sensationalist mix of action, adventure and fantasy, across various genres from westerns to sci-fi, with more than a dash of humour and counter-culture and a modicum of sex and nudity.

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His films initially found an audience with teenagers on the American drive-in circuit and then in mainstream cinemas in the US, UK and elsewhere. Most are now long forgotten, but certainly not all.

Roger Corman directed more than 50 films and produced hundreds of others  (Picture: Mark Mainz/Getty Images for AFI)Roger Corman directed more than 50 films and produced hundreds of others  (Picture: Mark Mainz/Getty Images for AFI)
Roger Corman directed more than 50 films and produced hundreds of others (Picture: Mark Mainz/Getty Images for AFI)

The original 1960 version of The Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days on sets left over from another movie. It featured an outlandish plot about man-eating plants and an early appearance by Jack Nicholson. There was a big-budget musical remake with Rick Moranis and Steve Martin in 1986 and a long-running Broadway and West End stage version.

Corman’s importance was first formally recognised in Edinburgh when in 1970 the film festival held a retrospective and published an accompanying book in collaboration with Cinema magazine.

At that point he had made a series of stylish Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and a couple of counter-cultural milestones in The Wild Angels and The Trip, which paved the way for Easy Rider and a radical rethink of product, costs and markets at the major studios.

Corman developed audience tastes, and he also shaped the sensibilities of a generation of film-makers. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Ron Howard all worked for Corman at the start of their careers. Before James Cameron made Titanic, he directed Piranha II – The Spawning for Coman.

And he helped launch the careers of many stars. Jack Nicholson worked for him as a writer, but Corman also gave him the chance to appear onscreen too.

Corman maintained a close relationship with the Edinburgh Film Festival. Interviewed at the festival in 2009, he said: “The major studios actually started learning from us. When Jaws came out, Vincent Canby, the head critic of the New York Times, said, ‘What is Jaws but a big-budget Roger Corman film?’.”

The son of an engineer, he was born Roger William Corman in 1926 in Detroit, though the family subsequently moved to California. He attended Beverly Hills High School before studying engineering at Stanford University.

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After wartime service in the navy, he did a course in English Literature at Oxford University under the provisions of the GI Bill, he had a brief spell at 20th Century-Fox in the mail room and wrote a screenplay about an outlaw on the run which was sold to a small studio called Allied Artists for about $4,000 and filmed under the title Highway Dragnet.

He put his fee towards Monster from the Ocean Floor, on which he was producer. It cost between $12,000 and $30,000, depending on whose account you believe. The film’s gross was variously reported as between $185,000 and $850,000. Anyway, the point is it made money and lots of it.

In the 1950s his films as producer and generally as director too included The Fast and The Furious, a title that was licensed to Universal half a century later for an entire franchise, and such self-explanatory titles as Attack of the Crab Monsters, Teenage Caveman and Machine-Gun Kelly, starring the then little-known Charles Bronson in the title role.

Corman stepped up a gear when he signed a deal with American International Pictures and made Fall of the House of Usher, with Vincent Price in top form as the doomed aristocrat. It was the first in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that took Corman beyond the teenage drive-in audiences.

In the mid-1960s he tapped into the commercial opportunities afforded by the growing counter-culture, producing and directing the biker movie The Wild Angels and also The Trip, the title being a reference to drugs rather than tourism. The latter starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and was written by Jack Nicholson just shortly before they all appeared together in Easy Rider.

The Wild Angels has acquired a cult status over the years and Fonda’s speech at a fellow biker’s funeral was sampled in Primal Scream’s song Loaded. “We wanna be free,” Fonda says. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do… We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man.”

One of his last films as a director was the First World War aerial drama Von Richthofen and Brown, released in the UK as The Red Baron. He worked on it six days a week in Ireland in 1970, but made a flying visit to the Edinburgh Film Festival on his day off to attend his retrospective.

Edinburgh continued to provide a showcase for his films, including the female gangster drama Boxcar Bertha, Martin Scorsese’s second feature film and Corman’s last as a producer for American International Pictures.

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In 1970 he set up New World Pictures, which both produced and distributed films. Perhaps slightly surprisingly New World took on the American distribution of films from Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa.

Films he produced at New World include Grand Theft Auto, Death Race 2000 and Piranha, directed respectively by Ron Howard, Paul Bartel and Joe Dante. All three worked as interns for Corman and became top Hollywood directors. New World was eventually sold in the 1990s to 20th Century Fox, where Corman had begun his movie career.

In later years Corman made cameo appearances in several big-budget movies directed by his former apprentices, playing congressmen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather sequel and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and the FBI director in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Corman is survived by his wife Julie, to whom he was married for over 50 years, and by their four children.​​​​​​​


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