October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best Roger Corman-directed horror films is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
The big book on cinema cannot be written without a sizable chapter dedicated to Roger Corman. The legendary filmmaker, with more than six decades working in the industry under his belt, has certainly left his mark. Many of Hollywood’s greatest icons cut their teeth working with Corman and countless blockbusters can be traced back to his school filmmaking. It’s no exaggeration to say that Roger Corman played a significant role in making movies what they are today.
Corman is largely known for his eye for talent. As a studio head for many independent operations, Corman consistently gave would-be stars a shot to showcase their talents back when they were no-names struggling to break into show business. Throw a rock in Los Angeles and you’re likely to hit someone who got their start on a Corman production. Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, and Peter Fonda are just a few of the names that worked with Corman in the early stages of their careers.
“The Pope of Pop Cinema” is also known for being frugal. His films are often made cheap and fast, and most of the time they look like it. That’s not to say his productions lack quality, but they tend to be a little rough around the edges more often than not. And when the films are bad, it hardly matters because Corman is a marketing genius that can sell an audience anything. The director claims that all his films, with the exception of one, have turned a profit.
Today we celebrate Corman’s work with the ten best horror films he’s directed. It was no easy task either. With more than 50 titles to his name (as director), some good stuff had to be on the outside looking in. Sorry Tales of Terror and Tower of London, perhaps you’ll have better luck next year.
Without further ado, these are the ten best horror films directed by Roger Corman, as chosen by Brad Gullickson, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, and myself.
10. The Terror (1963)
Alright, so The Terror is not one of the best ten horror films directed by Roger Corman. Hell, he didn’t even direct the whole thing. Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Jakob, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill all directed a scene or two. And depending on who you ask, Jack Nicholson stepped behind the camera for a bit. So why include it? Because the story behind the film is remarkable. (Also, we’re a democracy, and votes are votes!)
Nicholson stars as a French soldier in the early 1800s who gets lost alongside a beach. He comes across a castle belonging to Baron von Leppe (Boris Karloff) and soon unravels a strange mystery involving the baron’s dead wife (Sandra Knight), a witch, and a man named Eric. Dick Miller also shows up to this 19th-century castle in France just sounding like a dude from the Bronx.
The concept for the film was developed when Corman’s scheduled tennis game was canceled giving him a free weekend. Using leftover sets from The Raven, he decided to quickly shoot something. Corman’s attempt to make a feature over the course of one weekend resulted in a 9-month ordeal and the longest production the director ever faced. The film itself is a mess, but interesting, and the story behind the production is fascinating. 5 stars? (Chris Coffel)
9. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Before the Broadway musical and 1986 film, there was Roger Corman’s original The Little Shop of Horrors, released in 1960. His story follows Seymour Krelborn (Jonathan Haze), an awkward florist who works with the sweet Audrey (Jackie Joseph) and curmudgeonly shop owner Gravis Musnick (Mel Welles). He reveals his plan to help revitalize the shop: a strange plant he bought from a Japanese florist on Central Avenue. But he quickly realizes that this plant, which he names Audrey, Jr., has a taste for human blood. What ensues is pure chaos as Seymour tries to both hide his secret and feed his new plant. The already-gonzo film also features a delightfully unhinged performance from Jack Nicholson as a pain-loving patient at a dentist’s office. So next time you hum “Suddenly Seymour” or think fondly of Frank Oz’s Audrey II puppet, make sure to thank Roger Corman. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
8. The Raven (1963)
When looking for a faithful adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story or poem, you shouldn’t come sniffing around Roger Corman. The man is a meddler and only interested in brand recognition. That being said, even by Corman’s standards of loose adaptations, The Raven is a wild swing away from the source material. But that’s okay. If you want the original, read the original. It still exists. If you want a madly weird, magical comedy that sees Vincent Price and Peter Lorre square off against Boris Karloff, and why the hell wouldn’t you, then you’ve got a damn gem of a movie right here. The Raven is a goof, a lark, a giggle. It’s designed to leave you snickering, thumbing its finger in the eye of serious, academic desires. When you click into its vibe, it’s rare to find a Corman film as light and airy as this one. Cherish its flighty nature. (Brad Gullickson)
7. The Pit and The Pendulum (1961)
Sometimes it’s nice when a film does what it says on the tin. The Pit and the Pendulum, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story of the same name, does indeed feature a pit and a pendulum. That would be more than enough for a simple woman like me. But Roger Corman’s 1961 film has wit, charm, and depraved talent in spades. With a script by the great Richard Matheson (The Legend of Hell House, I Am Legend) and fantastic scene-gnashing by Vincent Price and Barbara Steele, The Pit and the Pendulum is atmospheric period horror done right. A crowning achievement within Corman’s career, the film tells of Francis (John Kerr), who travels to Spain after the death of his sister. Her husband, Nicholas Medina (Price) is the descendent of the Spanish Inquisitions’ most blood-hungry torturer. With his suspicion piqued, Francis starts to doubt that his sister died of a “blood disease.” Price is a prize, honey baked ham; mugging for the cheap seats and for all of Corman’s radical close-ups. A slow descent into madness, The Pit and the Pendulum exemplifies the campy gothic thrills of the Corman-Poe-Price partnership. (Meg Shields)
6. House of Usher (1960)
“Evil is not just a word, it’s a reality,” Vincent Price says to Mark Damon in Roger Corman’s brooding gothic masterpiece. A significant film, marking the first time Corman and Price would adapt the work of Edgar Allan Poe, House of Usher features exquisitely detailed set designs and costumes, brought to life with vivid colors and an abundance of fog. The Richard Matheson screenplay diverts from the original short story, making it about a man (Damon) that visits the family mansion of his fiancée (Myrna Fahey) only to discover that the family suffers from a terrible illness. Price stars as Roderick Usher, the fiancée’s brother and keeper of the mansion. Price gives one of the best and most unique performances of his career. Lacking his signature mustache and sporting bleached-blonde hair, Price is in constant agony as he suffers from being ultra-sensitive to sounds. The faintest footstep can push him to the brink of madness.
House of Usher will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the first Corman film I ever saw, having purchased it from a mom-and-pop video store when I was 16. It’s the perfect gateway film for those looking to get familiar with the work of both Corman and Price. (Chris Coffel)
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