“Nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind and no pubic hair — now go to work!” This simple instruction to director Jonathan Kaplan could be page one in Roger Corman’s manifesto. From the late ’50s, Corman directed 50 films and produced over 400, exploitation treats filled with stars-to-be (from Jack Nicholson to Sandra Bullock), literate scripts, cheapo effects, smart laughs, liberal politics and a relentless desire to entertain. He invented rat-a-tat trailers, Martin Scorsese, pun titles and the creature hybrid flick. Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Nashawaty has assembled a high-access, impeccably researched, lavishly illustrated love letter to Corman’s art, tracing how he reinvented both American independent and genre cinema with a level of imagination and influence few can match.
Using fresh reminiscences from Corman and his alumni (Nicholson, Coppola, Scorsese, Stallone and Cameron, to name a few) interspersed with smart reviews of key films, Nashawaty traces Corman’s life from his modest childhood, to his creative pinnacle at AIP and New World, to his current status as an Oscar-winning elder statesman. There are tons of gems about his lo-fi ingenuity — Dick Miller played a cowboy and an Indian in the same film (“I might have shot myself”) — and business acumen — Corman put Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom II into production without making a part one; if it were a hit, Corman could make a cheaper prequel by public demand. But the book also covers lesser-known aspects of his work: his introduction of Euro auteurs (Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut) to US audiences, his championing of women in executive positions (chiefly story guru Frances Doel) and his one flop, social-conscience picture The Intruder, which broke his heart.
Elsewhere, there are tales of the polite, square Corman dropping acid for The Trip and chatting up Hells Angels, and James Cameron winning a design-the-spaceship contest for Battle Beyond The Stars by adding tits. As the drive-in era ends and Corman is forced onto first video, then the SyFy channel, the account loses some of its charm. Still, as Nashawaty points out, his influence remains, be it in Paul W. S. Anderson’s Death Race remake or The Fast And The Furious, a title purloined from a 1955 Corman hostage thriller. No Corman, no Sharknado. It’s as simple as that.
Reviewed by Ian Freer