Corman/Poe: Interviews and Essays Exploring the Making of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe Films, 1960-64 by Chris Alexander
Forgive me if I get nostalgic over the course of this review, but I have been a huge fan of low-budget film director Roger Corman for more than thirty years and have seen virtually everything he has directed (and that’s a lot of flicks). In the pre-internet days of VHS video I recall scouring the video shops for ex-rental copies, keeping an eye on the late-night tv schedules for obscure gems and others popping up on cult videotape labels in the eighties videocassette boom. Corman’s autobiography How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood and never lost a dime was essential reading and by the time it appeared in the nineties I had seen most of his key titles and had moved onto those (hundreds of them) he also produced. Alas, that is a rabbit hole for another day!
I do not recall exactly how I initially stumbled across Roger Corman other than via my love of trashy horror films, but Michael Weldon’s legendary book Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film certainly played a major part, featuring a number of his films as both director and producer. The youth of today have no idea how difficult it was to track down obscure trash classics in the eighties, particularly uncut versions, and I recall dancing a jig when I finally located a bootleg of Humanoids from the Deep, which had been recut by Corman’s production team, juicing up the sex and violence.
Now onto Corman and his sequence of eight films inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, which began in 1960 with The Fall of the House of Usher and concludes in 1964 with The Tomb of Ligeia. If you are a fan of vintage horror films and the art/creativity behind making b-movies then Corman/Poe was an outstanding read, even for those readers who know a lot about these films already the book if peppered with nuggets, remarkable stories, anecdotes and clever observations about film making. Author Chris Alexander is clearly an authority on the subject and the incredibly detailed interviews with Roger Corman is the overwhelming highlight, with a new interview for every film and little in the way of repetition.
Let’s pause for a moment, Roger Corman was born in 1926, is 97 years old and has astonishing recall for films made so long ago, down to fine detail and also provides a thoughtful forward. The author Chris Alexander has clearly known Corman for some time and the interviews had been gathered over a number of years and it is fantastic to have them brought together in a single text. I loved Corman’s observations about different acting techniques, for example, Boris Karloff knew his lines perfectly and did not improvise, but Peter Lorre was the opposite, which led to issues with the two legends reaching the respective ends of their careers.
I also enjoyed Corman’s many observations on how well (or not) the films had aged as he clearly had rewatched a number of them at either film conventions or retrospectives and kept an eye on how the audience reacted to certain scenes. Corman, of course, has always had a reputation for making trashy films, but the interviews counterbalance this and the two are obviously discussing horror as an art form. It is quite easy to forget that these eight films were shot on a shoestring and had filming schedules of around fifteen days! The fact that they were made so quickly is almost lost amongst the wealth of information the book provides. Corman notes that he did not go to film school, but the manner in which he built the experienced team around him, how he hired and fired, was all fascinating stuff.
So many big names were thrown about it was hard not to get overawed and I loved the many references to ‘Dick’ Matheson, who wrote many of the scripts, which Corman barely ever tinkered with and how they used Poe as a type of inspiration to interpret and expand upon his work, whilst staying faithful. The sidestep into HP Lovecraft territory with The Haunted Palace was also fascinating, as were the observations about Vincent Price, who starred in seven of the eight films, but was not a big name at the time. Corman comes across as such a genuine guy and the affection he shows for the many actors he discusses was lovely and added a charming delicate touch to the book.
Often you read that Corman was all about the money, but that is rather harsh and is not quite the truth, even if he never made another ‘serious film with a message’ after The Intruder (with William Shanter as a racist stirring up trouble) lost money in 1962. After eight Poe inspired films Corman felt the cycle had run its course and he was keen to try something else, moving onto sixties counterculture films such as Rebel Angels and The Trip. Inevitably there are comparisons to be made with the British Hammer Films, but believe it or not, Roger Corman claims never to have seen any of them when he started out with Poe!
Although Corman/Poe is highly informative it does not try to be academic or pompous in any way but makes clear Corman was a true film pioneer and his DIY approach has been wildly copied by others. It is also top loaded with many photos, gorgeous colour posters and detailed analysis from Chris Alexander on what he thinks works best about each film, keeping balanced views and never descending into fanboy territory. However, I did think the unbelievably detailed film synopsises (scene by scene) were too long and not particularly necessary.
In the seventies Corman gave up directing and only produced films and I always thought that was a great shame as behind that hard-nosed business head was a genius whose career had an astonishing ripple effect on modern cinema and the many now famous names careers he helped kick start. Chris Alexander should be applauded for capturing Roger Corman at his most creative, eight films in four years is some going and if you have never seen them, they have aged incredibly well, especially considering the hurdles in making them so cheaply and quickly. I only wish my favourite actor Dick Miller were in more than one of them, but as Corman notes Dick was always better in contemporary films (I’m not going to argue with Roger). For a snapshot on sixties horror cinema and the power of low budget film making, this was a great and endlessly fascinating book.
Corman / Poe: Interviews and Essays Exploring the Making of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe Films, 1960-1964
Produced on modest budgets for American International Pictures, Roger Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories were popular in their time as escapist horror cinema. Most starred horror icon Vincent Price and were written (and ‘freely adapted’) by the likes of Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Robert Towne. Today the series is recognized as unique and sophisticated, one that delivers decadent Gothic chills while exploring ideas of faith, sexuality, psychology and the supernatural. CORMAN/POE: Interviews and Essays Exploring the Making of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe Films, 1960-1964 is the only book to fully examine this important chapter in horror film history. In-depth conversations with the maverick Roger Corman are book-ended by engaging critical analyses of each of the eight films, which together stand as a fully realized and consistent creative vision. The book is illustrated with dozens of photographs and stills, many of which have never been published before, and features a brand-new foreword from Corman.