Low-budget genre movies are often taken for granted, towering as they do beneath the majestic and ominous splendor of multi-billion-dollar Hollywood competitors. Fortunately, a new documentary, available this week from Anchor Bay, has arrived to school you in the finer points of at least one legendary and revered cinematic iconoclast’s long-term contributions to the field of microbudget action, horror, and sci-fi delectables. Corman’s World chronicles the life and career of Hollywood outsider Roger Corman, one of the best known, most successful, and most chronically underappreciated producer-directors in the history of the moving image. Corman has been creating entertaining, silly, outrageous, and occasionally sublime films on a shoestring budget since the early ‘50s, and is still going strong today. At last count, he has directed over 50 films, and produced over 400 of them. (His most recent release, in case you’re interested, is Camel Spiders.)
Corman entered the film industry shortly after finishing college with an engineering degree. Realizing that the engineering field was not for him, he quit after three days, and got a bottom-rung job as a messenger for a major Hollywood studio. From there, he worked his way up to script doctoring, and upon realizing his efforts were not being properly rewarded, he quit his studio job, teamed up with early exploiteers Jim Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, and founded American International Pictures, one of the era’s most fondly recalled manufacturers of Z-grade drive-in fodder. As the ‘60s encroached, Corman grew weary of rubber monsters, dabbling in social iconoclasm with films like The Intruder (starring a young, inexperienced William Shatner as a sleazy New Yorker attempting to incite race riots in the rural south) and producing a stylish, moody series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that featured Vincent Price, genre staple Dick Miller, and increasingly, baby-faced newcomer Jack Nicholson.
The director’s ‘70s output included many of the earliest and most durable star vehicles for Pam Grier, David Carradine, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, and even Robert DeNiro. Corman also produced the first directorial efforts of people like Joe Dante (Hollywood Boulevard), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), and Ron Howard (Grand Theft Auto). He was also a pioneering distributor of groundbreaking art house films from overseas, importing the work of Fellini, Antonioni, and Bergman to the U.S. long before such endeavors were de rigeur. Just as the soaring triumph of low-budget DIY filmmaking in the late ‘70s was beginning to make Corman’s legacy appear assured, however, the sudden rise to power of ‘80s special effects extravaganzas like Star Wars and Jaws refocused creative and critical attention on the studio system, eternally eclipsing the more modest genre fare that Corman championed.
Corman’s World seems tailored primarily for people unfamiliar with the man’s work, and longstanding aficionados may find it somewhat spare and high-gloss. As a history and introductory endorsement, however, the film is concise and energetic, and the range of interview subjects the filmmakers were able to engage for the project would be highly impressive, were the widespread awe and respect for Corman’s career that surely engendered participation not common enough knowledge already. More obsessive fans may be disappointed by the exclusion of key films or anecdotes from the documentary’s heavily condensed chronology, but a large portion of Corman’s legendary status is attributable to the sheer quantity of films he has successfully produced and distributed, so it’s difficult to criticize the filmmakers for leaving certain things out.
Anchor Bay’s disc is somewhat disappointingly light on special features. Most conspicuously, it lacks any detailed information or goodies related to specific films Corman produced and directed. This might reflect an awareness on the part of the distributors that bona fide sleaze students are not necessarily the documentary’s primary target, but considering the range of relevant material available to them, it seems like a lazy omission. (Not even a trailer gallery, guys? Really?) On the upside, the disc does contain some extended interview footage, which helps to shed additional light on Corman’s career, and to flesh out the texture and local color that characterize the experience of working with him. For devoted fan and newcomers alike, Corman’s World is definitely worth seeing, and is sure to furnish you with a new appreciation for the passion, glory, and singularly weird aesthetic of low-budget filmmaking – or at very least, reignite the affection for it that you already have.