"I have nothing against the word exploitation." If anyone can claim ownership of the idea of fast, cheap, freewheeling filmmaking, it's Roger Corman. In a career that stretches back to the 1950s, from the drive-in to the download, Corman has directed nearly 60 films and produced a staggering 300-plus movies. With a sensibility that captures the business of show at its shrewd best, his filmography covers monster movies, biker gangs, space operas, slasher pics, teen-trouble flicks and just about any low-rent, high-return genre out there to be exploited.
With the May 4 DVD reissue of 1979's Rock 'n' Roll High School and 1984's Suburbia (with a first-ever Blu-ray of Rock 'n' Roll High School on May 11), Shout Factory kicks off a new series, "Roger Corman's Cult Classics," which will also later include many of his greatest hits, including such beloved titles as Death Race 2000, Battle Beyond the Stars, Piranha and others.
"Roger knew what kind of films he was making and who he was making them for, but he didn't feel that he needed to make them stupid," says Corman alum Joe Dante, who went from cutting trailers, helping out in various roles on Rock 'n' Roll High School and directing Piranha for Corman to making studio pictures like Gremlins.
"When you compare the same kind of genre movies made by other people, his were usually a little smarter, a little hipper."
These initial reissues form a succinct example of what made Corman's assembly line more than just a churn-'em-out schlock factory and rather a bustling laboratory for burgeoning talent and emerging creativity. Just as his '50s films — with titles like Hot Rod Girl and Cry Baby Killer — tapped into the fervor of early rock & roll, his '60s films like The Trip and The Wild Angels captured the dichotomy of hazy-sunshine optimism and bum-trip bad vibes of the age's adventuresome spirit. Rock 'n' Roll High School and Suburbia each capture something different about the punk/new-wave era, one an innocent insouciance and the other a despairing car-crash inevitability.
In the bonus material on their respective DVDs, both Rock 'n' Roll High School director Allan Arkush and Suburbia director Penelope Spheeris separately note that the first piece of advice Corman gave them was simply to be sure to have a good chair on set to rest in. That sort of plainspoken but perhaps not-quite-obvious problem-solving is as good an example as any of the work ethic that powered Corman's prodigious output and seemed infectious among his protégés.
Rock 'n' Roll High School is arguably the leading example of the Corman method at its best. It started its life as a script called "Girl's Gym," Corman deciding he wanted something to capitalize on the popularity of disco music. After he had assigned the project to Arkush, Corman acceded to his director's notion that no one could blow up a high school with a disco sound track. Arkush inserted The Ramones instead.
The lead character Riff Randell, played with spunky relish by P.J. Soles, is an indelible figure of playful teenage troublemaking. The film's supporting cast, including such comedic foils as Clint Howard, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, makes every moment vibrant. (The background players are rounded out with such notable L.A. scenesters as Rodney Bingenheimer and Darby Crash.) What Arkush created was a film that matches the buzzing trash-culture aesthetic of The Ramones with the breezy feel of Corman's '50s juvenile-delinquent pictures, a pure pop ode to the pleasures of teen rebellion.
"Allan had the perfect vision of what he wanted to do," Corman recalls. "He knew what I wanted, a rock & roll comedy high school picture, and he never deviated from that. He gave me exactly the picture I wanted, but he gave me more."
Suburbia, on the other hand, is a straightforward youth-gone-wild melodrama given punk trappings and a docudrama's intense authenticity, capturing the hard-core underground as it was bubbling to national attention. Bands like TSOL and the Vandals play during nightclub scenes, and a babyish Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers (billed as Mike B. the Flea) puts the head of a rat in his mouth.
What ultimately makes many of Corman's productions so timeless is that they are simply good movies — well-crafted entertainments, no more and no less. Made quickly and on the cheap with a classical efficiency, Corman's best films are knowing without being cynical, in on it without being winkingly ironic, and appreciating them requires no "So bad it's good" contortions. The films have a simultaneous sense of a youthfully inventive enthusiasm tempered by the sure hand of someone in charge who knows what he's doing.
Corman, 84, just received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his work as a director and producer but also as a discoverer and nurturer of other talent. The number of directors who began with him are legion — including Academy Award winners Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme — but he also pushed along the careers of many actors, producers, screenwriters, editors, composers and cinematographers.
Corman gave opportunities to many female directors and producers, including Spheeris, Gale Anne Hurd and Stephanie Rothman, well ahead of the industry-at-large. He even acted as distributor for international movies now considered art-house classics (including Amarcord, Cries and Whispers, Small Change and The Tin Drum), racking up five Academy Award wins for Foreign Language Film. As part of Corman's lifetime-achievement circuit victory lap, there is even a feature-length documentary from director Alex Stapleton that should be making the fall festival rounds.
Yet Corman has never been running some charitable organization or altruistic enterprise. He was (and is) a tough, bottom line–minded producer looking to squeeze every bit of value out of every dollar he could.
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Perhaps even more astonishing than the sheer volume of titles Corman has had a hand in is the fact that he is still at it, making scrappy little movies from the Brentwood offices he has occupied for more than 30 years.
Corman recently produced Dinoshark, which premiered on the Syfy television channel to an audience of more than 2 million in March. He also produced an interactive Web series last fall called Splatter, which reunited him with Dante for the first time in some 30 years, and allowed viewers to vote on which characters lived or died.
"These are the toughest times for the independent filmmaker I have ever seen," Corman says, but his open-mindedness keeps him working and looking ahead.
"I believe the Internet is not here yet for making money from motion pictures, but it is going to happen," Corman says. "And when it happens we'll have eliminated most of the middlemen, the whole bracket between the filmmaker and the viewer will be reduced tremendously, and the filmmaker will have the best time he's ever had. And I hope I'm here to see it."