To fans of classic indie films, Roger Corman is a legend—his prodigious output enlivening movie-going for generations. Known for drive-in fare, and working with barely-there budgets, the pioneering producer-director helped launch the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Ron Howard, as well as Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda.
Teenagers, especially, flocked to his biker flicks (i.e. The Wild Angels, 1966), acid-drenched groove-fests (The Trip, 1967), sci-fi mind-bogglers (The Last Woman on Earth, 1960—with the tagline “They fought for the Ultimate Prize!”), bad girl doozies (in 1960’s Sorority Girl the improbably named Sabra is “smart, pretty and all bad!”), rock ‘n’ roll bashes (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, 1979, starring the Ramones). All this and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).
Corman/Poe: Interviews and Essays Exploring the Making of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe Films, 1960–1964 celebrates Corman’s popular cycle of eight films based on the darkly imaginative writer’s most famous works, with astute analysis by author Chris Alexander.
Corman’s ties to Poe began with a school assignment to read "The Fall of the House of Usher." Years later, after making contemporary horror films, he decided to try classic material. That leap began with House of Usher. Drawn to “the mystique of the story,” Corman was also enticed by economics; Poe’s works were in the public domain. Shot over 15 days for about $300,000, with a tour de force performance by Vincent Price, the film proved a commercial success. The macabre die was cast.
In chapters devoted to each of the Corman-Poe films, Alexander, a filmmaker and former editor in chief of Fangoria magazine, sets up the storyline, then enlists Corman himself in a Q&A. Their exchanges provide subtext, and more, to what’s on the screen. Lushly illustrated with photos, posters, memos and the like, the chapters end with the author’s observations. (He calls Usher “a bubbly cauldron of repression, psychological and sexual abuse, mental illness, death, and the crude banalities of human evil.”) There are also lots of lively anecdotes, including:
- When Corman lunched with actress Jane Asher, during the making of The Masque of the Red Death (1964), she introduced him to her boyfriend, Paul. When asked by Corman what he did, Paul replied that he was in a band. Corman didn’t press further, or he’d have learned that Paul was in a band with three other lads—his last name being McCartney.
- Filming of "The Black Cat"—one-third of the anthology, Tales of Terror (1962)—led to an audition call for felines. The chosen cat belonged to a trainer, but as it sometimes declined to follow direction there were also “backup” kitties.
- The feathered star of The Raven (1963) proved problematic. As Corman puts it, “that damned bird caused me no end of trouble.”
Want to know more? There are particulars about how Corman amassed his savvy crew of regulars (including High Noon cameraman Floyd Crosby), location details (that’s the Palos Verdes coastline in House of Usher), musings about the casts, scrutiny of the screen liberties taken with Poe’s writings, and more.
There have been several previous works about Corman, the Poe films, and their legendary players. This entry should nonetheless please both ardent fans as well as genre newbies, with its compilation of production facts, perceptive scrutiny and gorgeous production design.
Southern California native Pat H. Broeske is a longtime reviewer for Mystery Scene. As a mystery devotee, and a former film industry journalist, she often writes about the intersection of Hollywood & crime, including film noir.