Cult Movies: B-movie maestro Roger Corman was the master of doing more with less

Ralph pays tribute to the late legend and his run of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations

Roger Corman
The late great Roger Corman

ROGER Corman, who passed away earlier this week at the ripe old age of 98, was a true cinematic force of nature.

For more than five decades he was the king of low budget independent cinema, a penny-pinching entrepreneur who brought beauty to the world of B-movies and a certain dynamism to drive-in pot boilers and the occasional art house offering alike.

From The Wasp Woman to The Wild Angels, if a film looked like it could find an audience happy to pay to see it, then he was happy to make it. For me though, his finest on screen achievements came via the series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he directed for American International in the early to mid-1960s.

Starting with House Of Usher in 1960 and running through The Pit And The Pendulum (1961), Tales Of Terror (1962), Premature Burial (1962), The Raven (1963) and The Haunted Palace (1963) before finishing up with The Masque Of The Red Death and Tomb Of Ligeia (both 1964), it’s a remarkable cycle of films that all display a visual style and sense of sinister unease that belie their minuscule budgets.

Invariably starring Vincent Price, with the exception of Premature Burial which saw Ray Milland replace the ‘Merchant of Menace’ as leading man when Price was unavailable, the films are lush, thoughtful studies of Poe’s often clammy and claustrophobic stories.

Vincent Price as Prospero in The Masque of The Red Death
Vincent Price as Prospero in The Masque of The Red Death
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All are enhanced by wonderfully overwrought central turns from VP, of course, who appeared born to play the vain, tortured protagonists of Poe’s fevered imagination.

With Usher, Corman famously sold the executives at AIP on the idea by assuring them that the film would have a ready-made audience of American schoolkids, all of whom were taught Poe in class and were therefore more than familiar with his work.

When studio boss Samuel Arkoff asked, not unreasonably, where the monster that was usually central to typical B-movie offerings of the time was in Poe’s story of psychological collapse and family sin, Corman replied “the house is the monster” – and so began a series of American Gothic elegance unlike anything else in cinema history.

The fact that Poe’s works were in the public domain and thus free to adapt doubtless added to the director’s delight.

d Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime
d Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime

Not for nothing was the film- maker’s autobiography titled How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, after all.

Admittedly, not everything in the cycle is totally true to the writer’s world: The Haunted Palace, for example, is an HP Lovecraft tale dressed up to look like Poe, but they are all stylish and lovingly crafted tributes to a master of the macabre all the same.

Vincent Price and Jane Asher in The Masque of The Red Death
Vincent Price and Jane Asher in The Masque of The Red Death

By the time Corman wrapped things up with Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia in 1964, he had reached a creative peak, turning in a brace of deep, evocative, Freudian-flavoured films that remain high water marks in horror movie history.

That he made them for a fraction of what most film-makers would spend only makes his achievement all the more impressive.