In recent years, Roger Corman’s deserved reputation as a mentor to young filmmakers has eclipsed his equally significant work as a director. From the strikingly assured Dirty Dozen precursor Five Guns West (1955) to the philosophical horror film Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Corman directed 50 films and co-directed 5 more. Though not every film in Corman’s oeuvre is a masterpiece (how could they be when he was directing three movies a year at his peak?), his hit-to-miss ratio and versatility are remarkable.
Corman proved to be equally adept at rock ’n’ roll musicals (the delightful 1957 Platters vehicle Rock All Night), gangster films (the tough, energetic Machine Gun Kelly) and satire (A Bucket of Blood, a hilarious riff on the beat movement). He is best known, of course, for horror and science-fiction films, and in these genres he directed several masterpieces that rank with the best of their era. X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) is a chilling meditation on seeing and knowledge that expresses the director’s ambivalent perspective on technology, and House of Usher (1960) is an exquisitely directed period piece rendered in color and Cinemascope.
Critics Alain Silver and James Ursini, whose earlier book on Robert Aldrich is an essential volume in any cinephile’s library, have done their part to reassess Corman’s reputation with Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring. Taking the director’s work one film at a time, Silver and Ursini make a convincing case for Corman as a filmmaker of stylistic diversity and thematic complexity. The authors synopsize each of Corman’s movies and provide credits and production history for all of the films; this allows them to comment not only on Corman’s work, but also on low-budget filmmaking in general during the 1950s and ’60s. Reading the synopses in chronological order gives the reader a clear idea of how the business and aesthetics of exploitation filmmaking changed over the course of several decades.
It becomes apparent, for instance, that the financial limitations directors like Corman faced came with a major fringe benefit: the ability to tackle issues of race, class, and gender more honestly than safer, big-budget Hollywood productions of the time. This freedom of expression allowed Corman to fully explore his favorite motif: that of the outsider taking on society. Silver and Ursini explore this theme and others on a movie-by-movie basis, and their enthusiasm for Corman’s work is infectious. Yet for all their affection, they frankly acknowledge Corman’s shortcomings, such as the poorly realized special effects in many of his monster movies, and the conceptual flaws of Gas-s-s-s!.
The writers incorporate astute visual analysis into the synopses, with particular attention paid to Corman’s camera angles and compositions. Even in his lesser films, Corman exhibits a dynamic command of camera movement and editing, and Silver and Ursini do a nice job of conveying how the visual style in Corman’s work expresses character and theme. They also address how various social and political concepts evolve over the course of Corman’s career. Corman’s complicated history in relation to feminism, for example, is well explored: the authors note Corman’s early inclination toward strong women, followed by a darker period in the years of his Poe adaptations. (The presentation of women in Corman’s films becomes almost contradictory in his later movies as a producer, as he celebrates tough, smart women while simultaneously exploiting their naked bodies.)
All of these topics are discussed in smart but accessible prose illustrated with a generous selection of stills from Corman’s productions. In addition, each entry concludes with thoughts from the director himself on the film under examination, and Corman proves to be extremely self-conscious about the content of his films. While there’s some overlap here with the anecdotes in Corman’s autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, the fact that Silver and Ursini focus on so many obscure films in the Corman canon allows for many new and entertaining stories. The book also serves as a useful reference guide, as it contains not only synopses of all of Corman’s directorial efforts, but appendices listing his credits as a producer, executive, and even as an actor in other directors’ films.
Ultimately, however, the book’s greatest value lies in the authors’ assessments of Corman’s films and their ability to clarify the subtexts of his work. Their insights touch on how the films relate to the times in which they were made (many of the movies are thinly veiled commentaries on McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, and other social issues), and also address the more timeless themes Corman tackles, including technology, betrayal and class struggle. The writers assert that these themes are generally expressed through the action in Corman’s films, rather than being stated explicitly. (The one exception to this rule, The Intruder, was a critically acclaimed film and one of his few commercial flops.) Without glossing over the director’s flaws or making excuses for his weaker efforts, Silver and Ursini have managed to give due credit to one of exploitation cinema’s greatest innovators and deepest thinkers.