BFI Gothic Season – Roger Corman In Conversation
‘The Gothic is about mystery: the mysteries of the past, and of what lies beyond accepted thresholds of reality: the mysteries of what cannot be controlled by science; of sexual power and charisma; of the demonised and repressed; of the mythical and the dead’ – so intones Rhidian Davis superb Sight & Sound introduction to the BFI’s exhaustive new Gothic season which opened last week, with a formidable titan of the industry to usher in a serrated season of the morbidly macabre. What more can I possibly say about Roger Corman, the producer of over 400 films across his incredible sixty year career that I haven’t already mused upon here? Well, not much more other than to say that this was a fantastic season opener, with none other than Kim Newman occupying the interviewers chair for the 90 minute cantor through his wretched career, mostly focusing on his celebrated cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptions from the early Sixties which are beloved of genre fans, and have quietly been accruing more critical praise and analysis over the past half century. This report has taken a ling time to animate as the accursed day-job nas kept me occupied, but I couldn’t let All Hallows eve slip away without at least a notional stab at a sacrifice to the horror gods of the movies now could I?
If I’m honest there wasn’t a great deal revealed here which isn’t already widely known by his acolytes such as yours truly, beginning in the 1950’s with his work for AIP in just about every B movie genre of note (including inventing many of them) before striking out as a maverick with New World Pictures in 1970, cycling through just about every exploitation and youth orientated genre there has ever been – biker movies, drug films, monster flicks, SF strangeness, bikini beach movies, animal attack atrocities, delinquent movies, women in prison pics, kung-fu chopsocky and well, I could go on. He’s widely considered as something of a schlockmeister, the ‘King of the B’s’ which is a sobriquet he quite enjoys, but given that he was a Oxford literature graduate there is a concealed intelligence beneath the prosthetics and bikini pictures, and an absolute crucial grasp of the industry as a business, and applying some of those techniques and – advertising, block-bookings, control your costs and always give the public what they want. So if the journeymen directors of Hollywood embraced the ‘one for me, one for the studio’ dichotomy then Corman will maybe be a ‘one for me, a dozen for them’, as he has on occasion crafted something more personal then the films designed to be shot in a week or two, with a budget of a couple of hundred thousand, designed to loot teenage wallets and purses at the drive-in before fading to obscurity before the next weekend’s picture shrieked on-screen. The most notable of these off reservation works, apart the Poe’s are probably the pre-Kirk Shatner starring The Intruder which looked at racial segregation and prejudice from the perspective of a bigot , and his step back in into the directors chair in the 1990’s to craft Frankenstein Unbound, a long gestating dream project of his.
But the emphasis of the evening was on the Poe films, as a childhood fan of the work of the emaciated gin chugging reprobate of 19th century he also confessed to an early adoration of Stoker and Shelley, so in 1960 he jumped at the opportunity to adapt the work of master of gothic literature, and had enough directorial intellect to design the film’s production and style around the psychological infrastructure of the source material. Poe’s books are deep psychological works which flirt with the otherwordly, the insane and the deluded so Corman felt that housing the entire shoot on interior sets where he could control all the production elements and provoke an unconscious sense of artificiality would echo the fevered perceptions of the anti-heroes erratic imagination, as always played with a malevolent nasal sneer by the screen legend Vincent Price. With his collaborators art director Daniel Haller and noted cameraman Floyd Crosby they conspired to deliberately mould the vivid colours of the costumes and production trappings to ferment a chiaroscuro effect on the film stock, heightening the dreamlike trappings and echoing the unreal impulses. It’s really quite rare for such a modest production to receive anything more than a cursory attention to details such as this – bear in mind that the film was shot in ten days at a cost of – but that atmosphere smoulders eeriely on-screen a half century hence, with more wispy tendril teared panache and pupating panic than contemporary chillers such as The Conjuring or The Exorcism of blah blah blah…
Newman treated himself to a few questions on The Tomb Of Ligeria, his favourite of the celebrated cycle (clearly he is a dolt as it’s the last of the season and suffers from the lack of originality, atmosphere and evocative atmosphere of the cabal) before moving on to further anecdotes which fuel debate, chief among them a quite amusing revelation on his counter-culture themed 1960’s cult classic The Trip – ‘Back in those days if you were going to experiment with something like LSD’ he explained ‘it was considered wise to have a ‘straight’ partner who wasn’t on anything for safety reasons. We had sourced an isolated beach outside the suburbs of San Francisco to try the material, and soon a small merry band of friends and colleagues was snaking its way down the valleys. Of course, I had selected a young actor as my straight man, a impish young chap known as Jack Nicholson’ – cue a big laugh. Speaking of Jack he also ran through how the film The Terror was essentially formulated due to some unforseen rain on a Sunday, as kicking around his house and being unable to go and play tennis he called a screenwriter friend and they formulated how they could shoot a second film on the set of The Raven which was shooting during the day. Frontloading the schedule with the ‘star’ Boris Karloff for three days of shooting he then had the other cast and crew work in the evenings for the remaining eight days of production, drafting in other directors to film on a day by day basis – Monte ‘Two Lane Blacktop‘ Hellman, Jack ‘Switchblade Sisters’ Hill, and Francis ‘Jack’ Ford Coppola, before responding to Nicholson’s complaint that ‘every jerk in town is directing this picture’ before offering him a day with the riding crop and monocle – Jack’s directing debut. The result is a Frankenstein monster assembled movie which is quite amusing to watch,I’m not sure it makes much sense from memory but I’ve got to see it again with that amusing anecdote in mind.
He also recanted the Jaws story which I’ve frequently fleshed out here – ‘oh no the studios have cottoned on and are making B movies with ten times my budgets and making a killing’, and also a general discussion around the cult favourite The Man With The X Ray Eyes before a surprising thing happened – a Q&A without any inane or wasteful questions. Out of his entire career, out of over 400 films not one has lost money, as the only black sheep ‘flop’ of his career was the previously mentioned The Intruder which just lurched into a profit with a DVD re-release with a commentary with him and Shatner. Inevitably he was queried on the shift to digital which he naturally embraced given its cost efficiencies, robust speed and quality of representation, given his age you might have expected him to be a more conservative fellow but he has always embraced new technologies and industrial developments, being one of the first moguls to jump onto digital download and alternate delivery models in the past decade – and this of course is why he has always been successful. The only star persona I spotted in the audience was Jane Asher of The Masque Of The Red Death, but fret not as we have some further events lurking upon the horizon, pregnant with other starcrossed brood of this strand of cinema, and that’s before the December schedule arrives which I’m sure will have me howling with joy. A fantastic prologue to the season I think you’ll agree so let’s just remember exactly whom got there break through Corman as it’s an unmatched list – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Armondo Linus Acosta, Paul Bartel, Jonathan Demme, Donald G. Jackson, Gale Anne Hurd, Carl Colpaert, Joe Dante, James Cameron, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, George Armitage, Jonathan Kaplan, George Hickenlooper, Curtis Hanson, Jack Hill, Robert Towne, Michael Venzor, Timur Bekmambetov, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Michael McDonald, Dennis Hopper, Talia Shire, Sandra Bullock, Robert De Niro oh, and um David Carradine, see who you can spot among this merciless B Movie medley;