March 14, 2020

The B Movie Poster World of Roger Corman

Book Cover - How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood, Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, 1998
“King of the B’s” Roger Corman, with hundreds (count ‘em!) of credits as a producer under his belt (as well as over 50 as a director), is famously dismissive of the term “B movie” as applied to his cinematic output. To Corman, who grew up during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, B movies were the low budget quickies made by the major studios to fill out a double-bill alongside an A picture with a bigger budget and well-known stars. As Corman relates in his memoir,
“[T]o my way of thinking, I never made a “B” movie in my life. The B movie dated from the Depression and was a phenomenon only through the early 1950s. … Everyone knew which movies were which; the studio publicity and production lists openly distinguished A’s from B’s Also, B movies earned only flat rentals on the second half of a double bill. … [T]he B’s had died out by the time I began directing.” [Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 36]
Corman biographer Beverly Gray adds that early on, Corman prefered the term “exploitation films” -- he was always very willing and able to exploit the latest headlines and fads -- but that later, as the success of Star Wars and The Exorcist helped boost sci-fi and horror into big box office gold (with matching big budgets), he settled for the gentler term “genre films” to describe his low-budget output. [Beverly Gray, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, Renaissance Books, 2000, p. 48]

Book cover - Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography, Beverly Gray, 2000
For the record, and with all due deference to the historical origins of the term and Roger’s insistence that he never made a “B” movie, we at Films From Beyond use the term “B movie” in its broader meaning, efficiently summarized at Wikipedia as “a low-budget commercial motion picture that is not an arthouse film.” (Interestingly, the first illustration on the page is a poster for Corman’s The Raven from 1963!)

Whatever you call them -- B movies, exploitation pictures, genre films, or independent films -- there’s always been a simmering tension between audience expectations of thrills and chills and the ability of B movie makers to deliver the goods on a low budget.

In the good ol’ days before sci-fi became big box office business, genre filmmakers like Roger Corman could get away with tiny budgets that could only accommodate a handful of effects artists at most (versus the literal armies of artists and technicians required today). You could also make a film with an original story and still expect to make money -- the 800 pound gorilla franchises like Stephen King, Star Wars and the MCU that could crush or shove aside anything else in their genres didn’t exist yet.

But you still had to be tuned into the cultural zeitgeist to keep your B movie gravy train chugging along. Especially in the early days, there were none better at it than Roger Corman. Like a financial wizard, he seemed to know just when to jump into a particular market and when to get out of Dodge.

War of the Satellites, released in 1958 in the midst of the panic over the Russians beating the U.S. into space, is a prime example of Corman’s ability to quickly capitalize on sensational headlines. In J. Philip di Franco’s The Movie World of Roger Corman (1979), the B movie King reminisced about his own contribution to the space race:
Book cover - The Movie World of Roger Corman, J. Philip di Franco, ed., 1979
War of the Satellites is an example of producing very, very rapidly. The first Russian Sputnik had been launched. A friend of mine, knowing I worked very rapidly, called me and said he had within the hour constructed a story line and was I interested. After I heard the story, I called Steve Brady, president of Allied Artists, and I said I could be shooting the picture in ten days and cutting it in three weeks. In roughly two months we could release the first picture about satellites. He said, ‘Done, we’ll do it.’” [di Franco, ed., pg. 16; see my review of War of the Satellites elsewhere on this blog.]
Roger’s nimbleness and ability to work quickly and cheaply was very attractive to film companies desperate for a steady stream of new releases to satisfy the voracious youth market. Beginning in the late ‘50s and through much of the ‘60s, Corman was American International Pictures’ (AIP; formerly American Releasing Corporation) go-to guy. As described by biographer Beverly Gray, it was a neatly crafted, mutually advantageous partnership:
“Once he proved he could deliver the goods, he was soon making multiple AIP features a year … Upon delivering a completed film, he would receive $50,000 as a negative pickup fee, plus a $15,000 advance on the projected foreign sale. Though he was also guaranteed a percentage of the movie’s eventual profits, Corman never counted on this potential income. His strategy was to come in under $65,000 per film, so as to have working capital for his next project. The fact that he would plan every third or fourth feature to be ultralow-budget (below the $30,000 range) would help ensure a healthy profit in the long run.” [Gray, pp. 48-49]
Vintage comic book ad for Sea-Monkeys
Show of hands: how many of you had a cool mom
who let you order junk like this?
By being so savvy with money, schedules and sizing up market demand, he was eventually able to found his own company, New World Pictures, in 1970. It was a wild ride: along the way to becoming an independent movie mogul, Corman made movies in practically every genre or theme you could think of, including sci-fi, horror, westerns, gangsters, juvenile delinquents, motorcycle gangs, auto racing, etc., etc.

As varied, action-packed and eccentric as Corman’s movies were during the period, their marketing, especially the posters, were on another level entirely. In a recent post on duplicitous advertising, I highlighted a couple of posters for early Corman quickies that egregiously exaggerated monsters that turned out to be less than awesome in the films themselves

Over-the-top exaggeration or downright deception often proved to be the rule, rather than the exception, especially with AIP’s practice, perfected by co-founder Jim Nicholson, of coming up with a marketing plan, including poster art, before the script was even completed.

The classic horrified B movie victim
Do you dare reveal the monster lurking behind the poster?
I don’t think kids of the day were bamboozled or overly concerned that the actual movie monsters were pale imitators of the lurid poster art. It was a simpler age, a pre-irony age of over-the-top hype that everyone acknowledged for what it was. The sea monkeys you ordered out of the back of the comic book weren’t nearly as cool as they looked in the ad; the prize at the bottom of your Cracker Jacks box was always a cheap disappointment; and those movie monsters … well, the posters always lied. But we kept coveting the junk in the comic book ads, emptying our Cracker Jack boxes, and going to the monster matinees, because what else were we gonna do on a Saturday afternoon?

The films represented by the posters below all involved Roger Corman in some capacity, either as producer, director or both. For a couple of them he worked with his brother Gene, who was an accomplished producer in his own right. And just like my previous post on deceptive movie posters, these illustrations employ the special un-patented Reveal-O-Rama technology -- simply click on the poster to reveal the actual movie monster that was misrepresented in the art or hidden altogether!

Poster - Attack of the Giant Leeches, 1959
Aka "Attack of the Giant Leeches," 1959. The monsters in this one were actors wearing black plastic wet suits with suckers sewn on. Click the poster to see what they looked like on film!

Poster - Beast from Haunted Cave, 1959
Brother Gene produced; Roger was an uncredited executive producer. Gotta admit, this one creeped me out when I first saw it. It's an ultra-low-budget combo of From Dusk Till Dawn and Alien.

Poster - The Little Shop of Horrors, 1960
This looks more like a poster for a genteel English comedy -- as a kid, I wouldn't have looked at it twice. Fortunately, I discovered Seymour and Audrey via late night TV.

Poster - Night of the Blood Beast, 1958
This was also produced by Gene Corman with Roger serving as executive producer. The excessive poster promised far more than the film dared to deliver. On the other hand, it's the very first (and only?) film to feature a male astronaut impregnated with alien babies. Yeesh! See my review here.

Poster - Not of This Earth, 1957
There is a creature in the film that slightly resembles the thing in the poster. It's a kind of forerunner of the facehugger in Alien, and makes a memorable, gross-out appearance in the movie.

Poster - Monster from the Ocean Floor, 1954
For this picture -- the first he produced -- Roger talked the owners of a one-man submarine into letting him use it in exchange for free publicity. Was the monster a worthy adversary? Judge for yourself.

Poster - Teenage Cave Man, 1957
This was one of Robert Vaughn's first starring roles. Kids expecting cool stop-motion dionsaurs were very disappointed. However, if you're a fan of creatures that look like they were made from stuff fished out of a dumpster, then this movie is for you!

Poster - The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, 1957
When the film was first released, the Loch Ness Monster issued a press release saying he was in no way related to this thing. Somehow, I don't think the sea serpent was the main attraction in this film.

Poster - War of the Satellites, 1958
Because the term was plastered all over the news when the film came out, the manned spacecraft in it are referred to as "satellites." Richard Devon plays an alien who can assume human form and replicate himself as needed. See my review here.

Poster - The Wasp Woman, 1959
Susan Cabot plays a cosmetics executive who tests an experimental anti-aging formula on herself and becomes a voracious monster. Kind of like Gwyneth Paltrow, except not as scary.

February 25, 2020

Shocking Scenes in 1950s Sci-Fi: Special “I can’t believe my parents let me watch that stuff!” Edition

In the all-encompassing, 24/7 infotainment/social media bubble we live in, the things that shock, frighten and disgust us keep changing and mutating like the titular monster in the remakes of The Thing from Another World. (Guess what -- since the original and the remakes didn’t shock or disgust us quite enough, Hollywood wants to do it yet again… yeesh!)

While the most extreme depictions of violence and dismemberment elicit yawns in Anytown USA, millions of Americans gasp and groan at the latest Trump tweet, then, like rats in a conditioning experiment in Hell, keep swiping at their feeds to be shocked all over again.

In simpler times, screen time meant shelling out a quarter at the neighborhood theater for a newsreel, a short subject, and a feature (or even two B pictures if your gluteus maximus could handle it). The things that spooked audiences of the 1930s and ‘40s -- like Jack Pierce’s 1931 Frankenstein monster make-up -- would be hard-pressed to nudge the films into PG territory today.

Still - Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)
Many people did not like how this scene ended.
Speaking of the original Frankenstein, that film might be the exception that proves the rule. The scene in which the monster inadvertently kills the the little girl who has befriended him by throwing her into the pond got the attention of several state film boards, which demanded that it (and another scene, in which Henry Frankenstein exalts that “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”) be cut. When Frankenstein was reissued to theaters the scenes were gone, and wouldn’t be restored until the 1980s.

Today there are no state boards demanding cuts to films, but most filmmakers don’t need censors or social media condemnation to deter them from killing off children in their movies -- that taboo is still going strong.

Eventually the classic Gothic monsters punched out on their time clocks, and the next shift -- the radioactive and space-traveling menaces of the atomic age -- punched in. There were plenty of monsters and horror elements in the new ‘50s & ‘60s breed, but most fans remember them for the thrills and not so much the chills (Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, and their ilk notwithstanding).

Publicity photo of The Duke, Malcolm & Esmeralda, hosts of the mid-1960s late night show Gravesend Manor
The Duke, Malcolm and Esmeralda of Gravesend Manor
(broadcast in central Iowa, circa mid-1960s.)
When I was in elementary school, I was lucky to live within the range of two TV stations that broadcast creature features. On Friday nights we’d get mostly sci-fi from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, including things like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Invisible Invaders, World Without End, etc. (I wish I could remember the name of the show). Then on Saturday nights the horror host ensemble of Malcolm, the Duke, Claude and Esmeralda at Gravesend Manor would introduce the old Universal classics that were part of the Shock Theater TV package. (I was even lucky enough to get a signed photograph of the cast from a friend whose dad worked at the station!)

At first it was like pulling teeth to get my parents to allow me to stay up, but I think when they realized I’d do anything for viewing privileges -- clean my room, eat my vegetables, do my homework -- they wearily relented.

There was one incident that no doubt had them rethinking the wisdom of late-night horror shows. My parents were entertaining guests upstairs, while downstairs my brother and I, already in our pajamas, were watching a Twilight Zone re-run. It was the classic episode with William Shatner as the nervous airline passenger who can’t get anyone to believe that there’s a gremlin on the wing of the plane, dismantling the engine (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," 1963).

William Shatner in the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
"Hey buddy, do you have an extra set of earbuds?
I want to catch the in-flight movie."
When Shatner’s character drew the window curtain aside to see the hideous thing’s face pressed against the glass, we both shot up the stairs, screaming at the top of our lungs. It’s testimony to my parents’ stoicism that the “Nightmare in the Basement” incident didn’t end the horror show privileges right then and there.

I would get plenty more adrenaline rushes from the late night shows. The classic Universal monsters on Saturday night were more fun than scary. I especially liked the monster “rallies” -- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein -- that featured monsters galore and were like professional wrestling matches in some dark universe.

Interestingly, it was the Friday sci-fi creatures, not the Gothic monsters, that more often haunted my childhood dreams. Of course, the sci-fi Bs had their share of lame, low-rent monsters that no self-respecting kid could possibly think were scary (see my last post for some examples). But once in awhile, I’d be cruising along, munching my popcorn and enjoying a seemingly innocuous sci-fi programmer, and bam!, it would hit me with a scene that would have me shaking under the blankets later that night. Some of the examples below I watched for the first time on the Friday night sci-fi show. I don’t think my parents had any idea how rough some of these movies were. After all, how bad could something called The Atomic Submarine be? If they’d known, I suspect the late nights would have been cut-off, and I might have grown up to be a stable, semi-respectable member of society. I’m so glad they never suspected a thing.

Disclaimer: The content below may not be suitable for all audiences, including, but not limited to, children, adults and other living things. The clips below are queued up to the scenes described in the text. Click the Play button if you dare!

The Angry Red Planet (1959): First man to be turned into jello salad

When I first saw this movie, I handled the Rat-Bat-Spider monster with equanimity. But the scene in which one of the astronauts gets absorbed and digested by the giant amoeba monster stuck with me for some time. In retrospect, perhaps the most shocking thing was the filmmakers’ decision to use their “Cinemagic” process, in which the scenes on Mars’ surface look like a glowing, red-tinted cartoon made by someone on LSD. Experience Cinemagic for yourself by playing the clip below! (Interesting facts about the making of Rat-Batty can be found at my post “How to Make a Monster.”)

The Atomic Submarine (1959): These are the voyages of the expendable crew members

Several years before the original Star Trek series, a hard-charging Captain led his men into a confrontation with a menacing alien intelligence and managed to get them killed in a variety of gruesome ways. In addition to the horrifying deaths in this scene, the shadowy, minimal sets and the echoing voice of the spaceship’s occupant set up an uncanny, surreal atmosphere.

The Crawling Eye (1958): If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…

This was my first introduction to headless corpses in the movies. The film teases the audience with a pre-titles scene in which a pair of mountain climbers haul up a fallen comrade dangling from a rope, only to find that he is **GASP!** missing his head, but it cuts to their reactions before we see anything. It delivers the goods midway in when rescuers find the headless corpse of another climber in a cabin. Even though the body is somewhat obscured by shadows, I had a hard time sleeping that night.

Fiend Without a Face (1958): This is Spinal Tap, 1950s style

A number of characters are choked to death in this film, at first by something invisible, but the creatures obligingly make an appearance at the climax, taking shape as brains with antennae sitting atop whip-like spinal cord tails. I chuckled when I first saw the stop-motion monstrosities, but stopped when one whipped its spinal cord around its hapless victim’s neck. The sound effects as the creatures lay siege to the house are both comical and hideous. (Find out more about how the “fiends” were brought to life in “How to Make a Monster.”)

Not of This Earth (1957): This was your grandpa’s Alien facehugger

When Ridley Scott’s Alien first came out, many thought it was strikingly original, but fans of old-school sci-fi were well aware that it borrowed liberally from such films as It! The Terror from Beyond Space and The Planet of Vampires. I don’t know for certain that Alien’s facehugger was inspired by the “flying umbrella” in Not of This Earth, but there are disgusting similarities between the two creatures. While no ravenous worms burst out of anyone’s chest in this movie, the blood that slowly seeps out after the thing envelops the doctor’s head and he collapses, is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine.