Thursday, August 05, 2010

Culture Shock 08.05.10: Roger Corman built legacy of B-movies, A-list moviemakers

Before the Academy Awards and the billions in box-office earnings — long before he became the "king of the world" — James Cameron was a lowly squire.

Actress Dey Young recalls Cameron as the guy who brought her coffee on the set of 1979's "Rock 'n' Roll High School."

Others tell stories about Cameron as an inventive, young special-effects technician who worked magic on the 1981 low-budget sci-fi flick "Galaxy of Terror."

But besides Cameron, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Galaxy of Terror" have two other things in common. Both are Roger Corman productions, and Shout! Factory recently released both on DVD and Blu-ray as part of its new "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" collection.

As big a year as Cameron has had with that whole "Avatar" thing, the past 12 months have also been pretty busy for Corman, who is enjoying something of a resurgence at age 84.

Last year, Corman received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his contributions to the movie industry. This year, he has unleashed "Dinoshark" and "Dinocroc vs. Supergator" on unsuspecting SyFy channel viewers. And a third movie, "Sharktopus," is still yet to come. The preview trailer for "Sharktopus" is already an Internet sensation because, let's face it, everybody wants to see a genetically engineered shark/octopus hybrid run amok and threaten to eat Julia Roberts' older brother Eric.

I mean, who wouldn't want to see that?

Yes, improbable as it may seem, the man responsible for "Sharktopus" has an Academy Award on his mantle. And that lone fact pretty well sums up the amazing and unlikely career of one of Hollywood's most successful moviemakers.

How successful, you ask? Well, Corman titled his 1990 memoir "How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime."

Never losing a dime, however, wasn't always easy. Corman re-released "Galaxy of Terror" multiple times under multiple titles until it turned a profit.

He also had other tricks up his sleeve. For instance, before striking the sets for "Galaxy of Terror," Corman put a second sci-fi movie into production just so he could get more use out of the same sets. The result was "Forbidden World," also just released on DVD.

Between them, "Galaxy of Terror" and "Forbidden World" are a crash course in the Corman formula. "Galaxy of Terror" is an "Alien" rip-off featuring the B-movie equivalent of an all-star cast and special effects that look like they should have cost more than they did. "Forbidden World," meanwhile, has an even smaller budget but makes up for that by upping the amount of exploitation, mostly in the form of a cheesy alien monster and gratuitous nudity.

Since the 1950s, Corman has produced or directed more than 300 movies. Combined, I'm guessing those movies cost less to make than Cameron spent on "Avatar" alone. But if there is one thing Corman knows how to do, it's make a movie on a limited budget.

It might not always be a good movie. But it will probably be an entertaining movie, at least in its own way. And an entire generation of filmmakers, including Cameron, rose to prominence after learning their craft from Corman.

Corman helped launch the careers of actors like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, as well as directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme.

Working for Corman is the ultimate internship for aspiring filmmakers. You learn everything you can, then you are ready to take on anything Hollywood might throw at you.

And in the process, you might make a movie like "Galaxy of Terror" or "Piranha" or "Death Race 2000" — the movies discriminating fans of drive-in, low-budget and exploitation cinema buy on Blu-ray nearly 40 years later.

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