Funny thing about Roger Corman: every time he shows up on interviews and such, he projects such an courtly air of gentlemanliness that it's hard to reconcile the man from the often trashy movies his name has been attached to. When we first see him in Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, he's explaining that "we feel the monster should kill someone fairly early" with all the gravitas of a well-tenured college professor.
Corman's World delves into the guy's duality a bit. What it really reveals, via a patchwork of candid day-in-the-life footage, campy film clips, and lots of interviews with colleagues past and present, is that he is one of the most admired people in Tinseltown.
This part profile, part career-spanning retrospective opens with the still-active octogenarian Corman overseeing the production of an über-cheesy SyFy channel epic called Dinoshark in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Director Alex Stapleton supplies a lot of footage of cast and crew glowingly admitting that they're honored to be working for such a legendary figure. While all involved are totally aware of the film's ridiculousness, they approach the work with a delight and hopeful interest that their efforts will live up to their producer's high standards. It might as well be David O. Selznick in 1939.
From there, the film goes back to Corman's beginnings cranking out cheap-o exploitation flicks in the '50s (like a lot of good biographies, it pretty much skips over the childhood/development years). Producing and directing for independent American International Pictures (AIP), Corman discovered that he had a knack for making genre pictures - quickly, on time and under budget - that tapped into the rebellious, rock 'n roll sensibilities of the youth market. The likes of Not Of This Earth and Teenage Doll could never be confused for great filmmaking, but they had a fun and spontaneity missing from the bloated epics and melodramas that the big studios were concentrating on at the time. They were also wildly popular with the drive-in crowd, which enabled the efficient Corman to churn them out like sausages. A good (?) example comes in the form of Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which used borrowed sets and props and a cast of hungry unknowns, including a young 'n hammy Jack Nicholson (who offers some amusing memories of the shoot). AND it was filmed in two days! The Corman/AIP collaboration peaked with the atmospheric Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from the '60s, guilty pleasures mostly shot in lurid color and starring Vincent Price.
Along the way, Corman mentored a host of now-prominent actors and directors, often supplying their first break when the big studios were closed off to them - his willingness to take a chance on eager young talent is probably his greatest legacy. Corman's World assembles an impressive array of that talent to speak here, including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdonavich, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Penelope Spheeris, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and Pam Grier. The interview segments are full of funny and interesting anecdotes (it seems like everybody who worked with Corman absolutely loved the guy). They are also filmed in a fascinating way which seems to capture the subjects in the middle of doing other things - Dern is captured mid-haircut, while Howard is seen mysteriously tramping through a graveyard.
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is full of interesting stuff that reveals facets of his career than even his biggest fans likely didn't know. The film spends a good amount of time on The Intruder, a well-intentioned 1962 anti-racism drama with handsome Canadian William Shatner as a bigoted social reformer who attempts to change the laws in a small Southern town. At one point, Corman ruefully notes that it was the only project in his 400-plus filmography to lose money at the box office. The film's failure might explain why Corman stuck with exploitation fare while many of his proteges were graduating to more durable big-budget studio films in the '70s. Speaking of that decade, the film also sports an absorbing section dealing with Corman getting the U.S. distribution rights to critically acclaimed foreign language films of that period. It seems a little strange that the same man who brought Smiles of a Summer Night and Amarcord to American audiences was simultaneously shepherding schlocky fare like Death Race 2000 to screens.
Corman moved on from AIP to New World in the '70s, riding high with grindhouse action, blaxpoitation, and jiggle comedies like 1976's Hollywood Boulevard (illustrated by a hilarious clip of baddie Mary Woronov getting her just desserts by - spoiler alert! - getting crushed to death by the Y in the Hollywood sign). The huge success of Jaws and Star Wars made the biggies realize the importance (and profitability) of the youth market, however, leading Corman into wilder and more blatantly derivative stuff like Piranha and the 1981 Alien ripoff Galaxy of Terror (a film which, strangely enough, isn't included here - not even a clip!).
The documentary wraps things up with a not too insignificant sign of Corman's once-suspect, now elevated place in the mainstream film community, when he is invited to accept an honorary Academy Award in 2009. In a longish segment, Corman is lovingly introduced by many of the same people interviewed in the film, then he delivers a humble yet elegant speech. It serves as a sweet conclusion to this admiring, wild and woolly tribute to one of filmdom's true mavericks.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Corman's World presents the film in a good 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The digitally-shot new footage has something of a blown-out look (probably on purpose) which doesn't deter the viewing experience. Various vintage film and video clips are all over the place, quality-wise, which adds to the scrapbook-like feel of the movie.
The film sports a great sounding digital 5.1 stereo soundtrack, with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Thirteen minutes of extended interviews, often with Corman associates and friends who didn't make the final cut, fill in more info on his philosophy and working methods. Special Messages to Roger (15:16) has several of the film's interviewees offering heartfelt platitudes (which only occasionally delve into suck-upiness). An energetic trailer rounds out the bonus content.
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is one of the best film-related documentaries I've seen in recent years - a fitting tribute to this erudite merchant of schlock. At the very least, the fun clips from Corman's deep filmography will provide many ideas for your next big popcorn flick night (a Caged Heat/Big Doll House double-header, anyone?). Highly recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.