Streaming Spotlight: the films of Roger Corman

Seven highlights of the great director's work which you can watch right now

by Jennie Kermode

Vanishingly few individuals have influenced the history of cinema like Roger Corman, who died last Thursday at the age of 98. Without his influence as a producer and mentor, we might never have had the work of directors like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Ron Howard and Francis Ford Coppola; or of actors like Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Diane Ladd, William Shatner, Sandra Bullock, Bruce Dern, Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones. In between all this, he managed to direct a few films – 55, to be precise. Today we’re taking a look at a selection of those that our UK viewers can easily find and watch online.

The Masque Of The Red Death
The Masque Of The Red Death

The Masque Of The Red Death - StudioCanal, Apple TV

Roger Corman, Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe – was there ever a trio of artists so well suited to each other? Yes, it’s only a loose adaptation of the latter’s work, but this spectacular visual feast, shot by Nicolas Roeg and loaded with symbolic import, certainly captures the spirit. It’s also highly relevant today, focusing as it does on a cruel prince who barricades himself inside his castle with a collection of sycophantic courtiers to escape a plague which is killing the peasants over whom he has dominion. Holding gaudy revelries and toying with a peasant girl whom he hopes to corrupt, he turns his back on what he takes to be an uncaring God and seeks to ensure his safety and power by devoting himself to Satan. What he doesn’t realise is that Death knows no master. Enlivened by David Lee’s haunting score and spiced with wit, the film unfolds like a Medieval epic, full of mythic weight. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Intruder
The Intruder

The Intruder - Cultpix, Plex, Filmbox

In 1954, racial segregation of schools in the US became illegal. It would take almost two decades for things to change in practice, and in the meantime, children found themselves at the centre of terrifying clashes. Most white people didn’t think of themselves as aggressively racist, but they disliked cultural change, especially when it seemed to be forced on them from outside, and this was all too easy for agents provocateurs to exploit. While mainstream Hollywood continued to shy away from the subject, Roger Corman, still an industry outsider and a producer who never accepted that anything was impossible, remortgaged his house to make this cautionary tale, recruiting the then unknown William Shatner to play the smooth talking stranger who whips up hate in a small town. Shatner never equalled this performance, which remains chilling today. Beautifully shot, this is a film that will get under your skin and never leave you.

The Pit And The Pendulum
The Pit And The Pendulum

The Pit And The Pendulum - Apple TV, Amazon

Known in its time for a bold marketing campaign which declared "£100,000 if you die of fright!" this film was adapted from Poe’s short story by Richard Matheson, the acclaimed screenwriter also known as the author of I Am Legend, which would itself go on to be adapted into a Vincent Price film, The Last Man On Earth. Here, Price plays a disturbed aristocrat who lives alone, aside from his beautiful sister 9Barbara Steele), in a decaying Spanish castle once used by the Inquisition. When a young man (John Kerr) arrives there to enquire after his own sister, the said aristocrat’s recently deceased wife, a series of high gothic horrors unfold, culminating in the use of the titular device. What makes the film work is not just its spectacular imagery and unflinching delight in the grotesque, but the sense of vulnerability in all its characters, whose fates seem to be determined by more powerful forces against which they are helpless.

The St Valentine's Day Massacre
The St Valentine's Day Massacre

The St Valentine's Day Massacre - Amazon, Google Play

Another departure from the grand guignol tradition with which Corman is most famously associated, this take on the story of Al Capone shows that he was every bit as confident in engaging with the theatricality and self-conscious myth-making of gangland Chicago. It’s a rare case of him having a large budget at his disposal, and access not just to talent but to high end equipment, both of which really show on the screen – indeed, it might be seen as indicative of the career he could have had if the big studios had supported him the way that he supported everybody else. Its also one of few films in which a voiceover (by Paul Frees) is actually a positive thing, adding mischievous wit to a narrative which gets very dark in places. Jason Robards plays Capone, leading his gang in a vicious turf war with Ralph Meeker’s Bugs Moran. The shoot-outs are spectacular but it’s the interpersonal drama that really grips.

A Bucket Of Blood
A Bucket Of Blood

A Bucket Of Blood - FreeVee, W4Free

As the visuals in this film establish early on, Roger Corman was a high class director who could have competed with the very best, but chose to preserve his independence and make his fortune by slumming it. For some people, it’s the other way around. Sculptor Walter (Dick Miller) longs to become a famous artist. He dresses the part and schmoozes with all the right people, hanging out in his local beatnik café, and yet continues to come up short simply because he has no appreciable talent. Until, that is, he accidentally covers his landlady’s cat in clay, and the result is acclaimed as a masterpiece. You can see where this is going. It’s not a subtle film but it’s gorgeously shot and its farcical aspects are tempered by a dry wit which makes it entertaining throughout. Corman knew the art world well and there are plenty of sly jabs at the deserving to delight you too, while Miller is impressive in his ability to retain audience sympathy through it all.

The Little Shop Of Horrors
The Little Shop Of Horrors

The Little Shop Of Horrors - Plex, W4Free, Classix

Another tale of an ambitious young man who falls prey to temptation, Corman’s Little Shop Of Horrors may not have the polish or zing of its musical remake, but it’s willing to delve a little further into the darkness, and its wickedly playful script is a delight. Jonathan Haze plays earnest young florist’s assistant Seymour, whose life is transformed when he discovers a strange and unusual plant and begins to nourish it with his own blood. Corman employs the tropes of film noir in the scenes of murder that follow, making wonderfully sinister use of light and shadow. This is counterpointed by a series of absurd encounters with colourful customers, and Myrtle Vail contributes both tragedy and ham as the alcoholic mother who may be truly responsible for sealing her son’s fate. Best of all, there’s a breakthrough performance from the young Jack Nicholson as wildly unhinged dentist Wilbur Force.

The House Of Usher
The House Of Usher

The House Of Usher - BFI Player, Apple TV

Probably the most serious of Corman’s Poe films, and an opportunity for Price to show off his dramatic chops, The House Of Usher – again adapted by Matheson – tells the story of a young man (Mark Damon) trying to get to the bottom of his aristocratic host’s objections to him marrying his fiancée (Myrna Fahey). Price is the aristocrat, of course – the darkly troubled Roderick Usher, a reclusive intellectual lurking in the titular stately home in a library which has inspired generations of esoteric scholars. He’s a doomed man, and yet what that means, and the extent to which our destinies are shaped by our willingness to buy into inherited ideas, is something more complex. Though not the first adaptation of the tale (Jean Epstein’s silent version is a must for Poe fans), it makes a definitive mark, buoyed by Les Baxter’s atmospheric score and Floyd Crosby’s lush cinematography. A real treat for fans.

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