Value Engineering: Roger Corman Within His Own Context

by Michael Ned Holte
Date Published: October 10, 2010
Roger Corman on set. Courtesy of New Horizons, Los Angeles.

Roger Corman on set. Courtesy of New Horizons, Los Angeles.

Roger Corman invented the horror-comedy. Or, if he didn’t, he’s still willing to take credit for the hybridized genre that includes his features A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). While both films have long been regarded as cult classics, the latter has truly become a household name—in large part through its adaptation over the past half century into a big-budget Hollywood film and an enormously successful Broadway musical.1But for all its eventual success, Little Shop, like A Bucket of Blood before it, was made fast and cheap.

Both films were written by frequent Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith and shared numerous key crew members and actors; both productions were shot at Chaplin Studios (later A&M Records, now Henson Recording Studios) on La Brea Avenue near Sunset Boulevard.2But, beyond these similarities, A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors are legendary for their extraordinary economy—Corman’s signature.

“I started with A Bucket Of Blood,” Corman recalls, in his familiar baritone voice. “I just wanted to make a very low budget horror film, and I wanted to do a horror comedy.” For the record, he claims he never saw Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), a potential early candidate for the horror-comedy marriage—albeit one that lacks the gruesome quality and visceral detailing of A Bucket of Blood. According to Corman, the idea for the blending of horror and laughs—dark comedy—emerged in a screening for one of his earlier horror films.

There was one horror sequence that worked perfectly. It built up, you could feel the tension building in the audience, and at the exact moment I wanted them to scream, they screamed. Right after, there was a little laughter. I thought, “What did I do wrong?” I didn’t do anything wrong. It was sort of an appreciative laughter, as if they had understood what the filmmaker had done and I understood what their reaction was. And from that I got the idea of combining horror with comedy, and I wanted to try it out on a very low budget film.

The result was A Bucket of Blood, produced for a meager $35,000. The 66-minute feature tells the tale of a murderous artist named Walter Paisley, played by Corman regular Dick Miller, and is set in the wacky milieu of the beatnik art world that was immediately familiar to Corman and screenwriter Griffith—and probably anyone working in Hollywood in the late 1950s.3

In one evening, Chuck Griffith and I traveled from coffeehouse to coffeehouse—these were the late beatnik days—and made up the story of A Bucket of Blood in one night. We ended up at Chez Paulette, where actress Sally Kellerman was a waitress, and Sally sat with us as the place closed up and we worked on the final sequence. Chuck then wrote the screenplay, and I shot it in five days. I was very pleased with it. The reaction was exceptionally good. The idea of the comedy, combined with the horror, against a parody of a beatnik coffeehouse worked very well.

While several other films rapidly followed—The Wasp Woman, Ski Troop Attack, and the first of many Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, House of Usher—the horror-comedy concept lingered, eventually manifesting as The Little Shop of Horrors. The story behind its inception is legendary by now, but one senses that Corman never tires of telling it.

I was having lunch with the head of a small rental studio where I had my office, and he said they had this rather nice set they had built, and it was a shame that they were going to have to tear it down. I said, “I’ve always wanted to see what I could do with two cameras. I’ll rent that set for two days if I can experiment with it.” He said, “Sure. Why not.” We redressed the set a bit. Chuck and I went out to exactly the same coffeehouses and made up the story of Little Shop of Horrors. And I shot it in two days.

A multiple-camera setup was a hallmark of the rapidly produced television sitcom, and Corman applied the thrifty approach to feature filmmaking with obvious success. But, the decision to shoot a film in two days was hardly a product of necessity: the idea for a funny film about a man-eating plant didn’t exist until the set was already in place. Corman’s Little Shop was the result of a dare—between the competitive director and himself—and a spectacular, mythmaking display of value engineering, analyzing cost and benefits in microscopic detail without losing sight or total control of the bigger picture.

While generally positioned as an “independent”—not to mention an “outsider,” “maverick,” or “rebel”—Corman quickly grasped the mechanics of the Hollywood industry like a consummate insider. His ability to crank out The Little Shop of Horrors in two days for a reported $27,500 is a credit not only to his brio, but also to his detailed understanding of the somewhat arcane guild systems endemic to Hollywood productions. Little Shop was shot on Thursday and Friday, but Corman actually hired the actors for five days—a better deal than the daily rate specified by the Screen Actors Guild—and rehearsed them thoroughly Monday through Wednesday. To avoid breaking the bylaws of the Directors Guild of America, a number of the film’s exteriors, shot in downtown Los Angeles, were directed by a second unit comprising screenwriter Chuck Griffith and actor Mel Welles, with a few neighborhood vagrants hired as additional, cut-rate assistants.

Still from <em>A Bucket of Blood</em>, 1959.

Still from A Bucket of Blood, 1959.

Before beginning his career in movies, Corman was trained as an engineer at Stanford, and in his lively 1990 memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, he employs this autobiographical backstory to great effect in explaining—some might say justifying—his legendary thrift. Corman’s career as an engineer—in 1948, at U.S. Electrical Motors on Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles—was nearly as brief as the shoot for Little Shop: he started on Monday and quit on Thursday, telling his boss, “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I really have to quit. Today.”4Later that year he landed his first job in the industry, as a messenger at Twentieth Century-Fox Studios, earning $32.50 per week. Still, his training as an engineer paid dividends. In nearly six decades of filmmaking, Corman’s obsession with efficiency—literally inventing new industry standards, mostly in the interest of turning a profit—would influence nearly every movie bearing his name as director or producer. Corman would be among the first to agree his value engineering and interest in the bottom line have often been at the expense of the higher concerns of art. But few could argue with Corman’s understanding of the market. “Roger knows the bottom-line distribution business as well as anyone,” observed Jonathan Kaplan, who inaugurated his own prolific career as a director by making Night Call Nurses (1972) for Corman.

I did White Line Fever, which was really a Roger Corman truck driver movie, in 1974. It came out on a Wednesday. On Friday at 4 p.m. he called me and said, “Your picture is going to do $35 million worldwide. I’m always right within $100,000.” The picture ended up doing $35 million.5

Corman’s seemingly psychic ability to predict the market was, in fact, hard-won over the course of making hundreds of films, though occasionally the vicissitudes of the moviegoing audience puzzled, or even frustrated, the box office engineer.

A Bucket of Blood did quite well commercially, and I went wilder with Little Shop of Horrors. I thought, this picture is so wild and so weird that it’s either going to be a big success or a big failure. It was a moderate success, and I was kind of disappointed. It was a picture that made a little money like any other little picture. I said, “Wait a minute. This isn’t like any other little picture. It should have failed or been a smash hit.” To be a moderate success is a little disappointing. But then it kept going. It just kept playing on television, then on videocassette, DVD. It became the Broadway musical, and the bigger picture that David Geffen made. It took on a life of its own.

Of course Corman’s description of Little Shop’s remarkable growth parallels that of Audrey Junior, the monstrous hybridized plant that provides that hybridized movie’s hysterical horrors.

In 1955, Corman produced The Fast and the Furious, a raucous low-budget car chase film for which he wrote the original story, served, uncredited, as a stunt driver and played a state trooper on-screen. While Corman didn’t direct the film, it bears his proverbial stamp: lots of action, some romance (or at least women), a hint of social commentary, and, well, more action—all rolled into a scant 73 minutes and adorned with a catchy title that tells you, the prospective viewer, everything you really need to know when deciding whether or not to see it. Indeed, the title of that film (recycled for the 2001 hit that launched Vin Diesel’s career and three sequels) neatly describes Corman’s lengthy career, one that has largely defined the term “exploitation picture”—as much as that term has also defined him.6“Exploitation simply means you’re advertising your film,” Corman tells me. “You’re exploiting your film to its maximal potential. There’s nothing wrong with it at all. Every film, to a certain extent, is an exploitation film.”

Or, as articulated by Paul Bartel, who directed the cult hit Death Race 2000 for Corman in 1975, “Roger’s operation is an exploitation operation on almost every level: He exploits directors, he exploits writers, he exploits people in the crafts who are trying to get established. But we are also exploiting Roger.”7“We,” of course, meaning the dozens of directors (and actors including Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, as well as editors, cinematographers and others) from Bartel to Joe Dante to Jonathan Kaplan, who all worked for Corman early in their successful careers, on shoestring budgets and breakneck schedules, at the lowest—and therefore grubbiest—rung on the industry’s ladder. Before Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, and Ron Howard won Academy Awards for Best Director, they each graduated from Corman’s school of fast setups, directing, respectively, Boxcar Bertha (1972), a Depression-era lovers-on-the-lam picture (and a sequel to Corman’s own 1970 Bloody Mama); the psychological thriller Dementia 13 (1973); the women-in-prison film Caged Heat (1974); and Grand Theft Auto (1977), a sequel to the Corman-produced, Charles Griffith–directed Eat My Dust! in which Howard starred a year earlier. If Corman’s eye for fresh talent is as legendary as his ability to crank out cheap pictures, it is also a necessary aspect of the exploitation relationship. In a tale frequently recounted, Corman encouraged Howard, who was already a famous actor but was given his directorial debut making Grand Theft Auto, “If you do a good job on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.”8

By the time Corman launched his own production company, New World, in 1971, he had directed some 50 pictures—and likely a handful more without official credit—beginning with Swamp Women, in 1955. If productivity is the goal, then 1957 marks the pinnacle, with Corman directing nine feature films in that year, including genre touchstones such as Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Sorority Girl, and The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent—the last of which was also released under at least four other, pithier titles.

The sixties would be no less active. Corman adapted eight gothic stories by Edgar Allan Poe for the screen, with scenery-chewing roles given to legendary actors Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Ray Milland; but he also directed a number of films addressing contemporary stories torn from the day’s headlines. The Hell’s Angels melodrama The Wild Angels (1966) and the visually inventive, LSD-laced The Trip (1967) were both aimed directly at a young, countercultural audience with edgy subject matter and morally ambiguous messages. “Roger is a brilliant producer in terms of knowing what the market is, anticipating the trends, and then capitalizing on them,” observes Allan Arkush, who along with Joe Dante edited trailers for Corman before he invited the pair to direct. “He was a trendsetter for years,” adds Dante. “In the sixties he set every trend. Every trend that was around he was there first with a picture.”

Corman’s topicality has generally paid off, but not without one notable failure. The Intruder (1964), a risky racial integration drama starring a young William Shatner, received strongly favorable reviews and a few minor awards for its blatant social message, but failed to garner a wide audience at the time of its release. Filmed under duress on location in a volatile Missouri town, The Intruder was the first Corman film to lose money, and remains one of the very few, though the film eventually turned a profit when it was released on videocassette. “What I learned was this,” Corman admits, with remarkable transparency. “It was a subject that the public didn’t want to see.”

I picked the wrong subject. Second, it was too much of a message picture. I was too earnest in what I was trying to say. After that I changed my style. I said, “I’m going to do films that are entertainments, and beneath the surface, or subtextually, if there’s a theme or statement I want to make, it will be there. But it will be beneath the entertainment.”

By most definitions, The Intruder is not a work of entertainment. To many observers, the integration drama stands as one of Corman’s most powerful films, and certainly his most serious. Much of the film’s power resides in the hot-button topicality, but surely some of the film’s power also derives from William Shatner’s commanding portrayal of the lead character, Adam Cramer, an interloper who stirs racial tensions in a small Southern town. Against typical Hollywood narrative expectations, the audience is positioned to identify with Shatner’s racist character Cramer—really, the antagonist—who remains unredeemed at the film’s conclusion: a potent but potentially guilt-inducing use of character subjectivity from a director who has always claimed a leftward-leaning political identification.

While Corman faced enormous, largely unforeseen obstacles in distributing such a controversial picture, one might also wonder if the film’s lack of success corresponds to its unusual—or “arty”—narrative strategy. In this sense, The Intruder marks a symbolic break in which Corman-as-engineer largely leaves any lingering aspirations of Corman-the-artist behind: what if Corman had chosen to pursue “art” over profit as his objective?9(It is in this sense that the word ambitious is not necessarily a compliment.) Perhaps this perceived severance in Corman’s career was already set in motion with A Bucket of Blood’s murderous lead, Walter Paisley, whose insatiable desire for success eventually consumes a more benign need to create art. “I would divide success into two categories—a creative success and a commercial success,” Corman tells me when I ask him.

Commercial success is simply whether or not your pictures make money. Creative success is whether you take pleasure out of the creative process and whether the creative process produces a film that has some merit. And I would say, to be really successful you should be successful in both areas.10

Before I can ask the obvious follow-up question, Corman positions his dualistic formula for success as his last word, gets off the phone and returns to the business of making movies.

Still from <em>Little Shop of Horrors</em>, 1960.

Still from Little Shop of Horrors, 1960.

A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors are nothing if not “entertainments.” If the former takes a jab at the hip and heroic pretentions of the beatnik art scene, it’s a lighthearted one, while the latter plays its setting on Los Angeles’s ethnic Skid Row mostly for laughs. While short on obvious social commentary, both films nevertheless manage to tell a remarkably similar tale of ambition gone horrifyingly awry. In Bucket of Blood, the bumbling busboy Walter Paisley gains plaudits from the finicky intelligentsia for his “far-out” sculptures, which (unbeknownst to his new fans) are constructed over the corpses of victims that are at first accidental, but eventually intentional as the success goes to his head; similarly, in Little Shop of Horrors, the dim-witted flower shop delivery boy Seymour Krelboin (Jonathan Haze) feeds victims to his insatiable hybrid plant Audrey Junior in order to keep it—and his job—alive, but also for the attention the plant brings him from adoring fans inside and outside the impoverished neighborhood. And, both films feature central characters—Leonard de Santis (Antony Carbone), the savvy “bohemian” coffeehouse owner; and Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles), the blustery flower shop proprietor—who (along with the audience) are privy to the identity of the “unidentified” killer, but overcome their initial moral outrage in order to profit from the “success” of the murderer each man harbors.

Not far beneath the surface layer of entertainment, it’s easy to read these films as Faustian allegories about Corman’s own fast and furious drive for success. If A Bucket of Blood unfolds as a gruesome morality tale of murderous overreaching, with beatnik pretense providing some levity, then The Little Shop of Horrors spins out an absurdist version of the same basic story, with a similar moral “lesson”; a cartoonishly vegetal prop plant (all flapping jaws); and a cheap, ready-made stage set threading together a sequence of slapstick episodes and outlandish characters—from Seymour’s hypochondriac Jewish mother, Winifred (Griffith’s grandmother Myrtle Vail, who also appears in Bucket of Blood) and the carnation-eating weirdo Burson Fouch (Bucket of Blood’s Dick Miller, who turned down the part of Seymour), to the masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force (a young Jack Nicholson, already playing “himself” to the hilt) and the fussy Mrs. Hortense Feuchtwanger of the Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California (Lynn Storey). In addition to shooting the second unit exteriors, Chuck Griffith provided the raspy voice of the monstrous plant Audrey Junior, whose recurring plea to “FEEEEED MEEEEE!” became a hip reference for the film’s gradually accumulating audience.

It’s difficult to imagine The Little Shop of Horrors finding cult success—or even coming to be—without Griffith’s multitasking involvement. (He reportedly received $800 for the screenplay.) By most accounts, the slapstick of Little Shop and A Bucket of Blood hews much closer to Griffith’s goofball sensibility than to Corman’s serious, engineering approach. As the former Corman story editor Beverly Gray reports in her somewhat salacious 2000 biography Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life,

Those acquainted with the early films agree that A Bucket of Blood, The Little Shop of Horrors, and a third comedy, The Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), were aberrations; Joe Dante cites the legend that Corman needed to have the scripts’ humor explained to him. The consensus is that the guiding spirit behind these films was writer Charles B. Griffith, whose talent for outrageously mordant comedy came to full flower in this time period—and that flower was something of a Venus flytrap.11

According to Gray, Corman was reluctant to shoot a comedy until Griffith convinced him it was the most appropriate way to approach such a low-budget production. Before Bucket, Griffith was already a veteran of Corman’s system, having written ten scripts for or with the director, beginning with The Gunslinger, in 1956. Of all of Corman’s professional collaborations, the partnership with Griffith lasted longest, with the writer also providing screenplays or major script revisions for significant Corman pictures such as The Wild Angels and Deathrace 2000. In 1976, Griffith directed the action-packed Eat My Dust! with actor Ron Howard for New World—essentially an update of earlier Corman’s car chase picture The Fast and the Furious. But with Little Shop, Griffith literally created a monster—one of remarkable vitality that continues to grow.

Still from <em>Hollywood Boulevard</em>, 1976. Courtesy of New Horizons, Los Angeles.

Still from Hollywood Boulevard, 1976. Courtesy of New Horizons, Los Angeles.

It’s not difficult to see the hybridized plant Audrey Junior as a metaphor for the blended horror-comedy genre, but one could also easily read the freaky horticultural specimen as a thinly veiled stand-in for Roger Corman—with Griffith’s script providing a sly parody of the director’s endless appetite for fast and cheap productions. This possibility makes Junior’s incessant wailing—“I’M HUNNNNGRY!” voiced by Griffith—even funnier. On a similar note, Corman concludes his memoir by identifying himself with the monster in his horror-comedy Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). For this picture, Corman dictated the ending—“my favorite ending”—to screenwriter Griffith.

“We have always killed off our monsters with fire, electricity, floods, whatever,” I told Chuck. “This time the monster wins. The final shot in this picture,” I insisted, “is the monster sitting on the chest of gold at the bottom of the ocean floor. The skeletons of all the people in the picture are scattered around him and he’s picking his teeth. That’s it. The monster wins.”

If Corman is indeed a monster—and his gentle voice, surprisingly unrushed for such a busy guy, provides little firsthand evidence of monstrosity—then his voracious appetite for success seems driven by an obsession with exploiting the inner workings of an industrial medium more than exploiting the talent he consistently attracts. In 2009, Corman was awarded an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement—a testament to the “outsider” who understands the mechanics of the film industry as well as any “insider.” “He’s the only truly independent filmmaker there is in the United States,” noted actor David Carradine, who played the man-machine driver named Frankenstein in Deathrace 2000. “He has absolutely no recourse to any of the outside system. And within his own context he is pure in his objectives.”12

Corman’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt in 1971, after he wrapped the World War I flying picture Von Richthofen and Brown, but his work as a producer—through his New World Pictures, and later New Horizons—has resulted in nearly 400 features to date.13I ask Corman if he believes in the auteur theory—in short, that a film’s director is its true author, an influential notion first defined (as “la politique des Auteurs”) by the French director and writer François Truffaut in 1954. “I believe in it 75 percent,” Corman responds, weighing his words with typical precision.

I do not believe, as the true auteur theorist believes, that the director is the sole maker of the film. I think film is a collaborative process and I would put together the writer, the director, and the producer all joining as a joint auteur of which the most important probably is the director.

Still, it is difficult to ignore Corman’s proverbial stamp on his productions, regardless of a film’s director. All the DVD boxes for Corman Classics feature an anecdote about the film’s production—often an outrageous example of value engineering—alongside an image of Corman’s smiling face, which serves as an avuncular seal of approval. “Roger believes, I think, in the producer as auteur,” argues Paul Bartel, who directed Deathrace 2000 for Corman, only to see his satiric black comedy heavily reworked as a straightforward action film by the producer.

To a certain extent I think he doesn’t really care that much who directs a lot of the films that he produces. His feeling is that as long as he has approved the script, and that the casting is right from his standpoint, that if the director is competent […] that Roger is prepared to trust him or take a chance with him because Roger can control the film in all the stages before the shooting, and all the stages after the shooting. Roger does keep very tight control on the films that he produces.14

In 1976, Corman’s trailer editors, Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, were given their first opportunity to direct a film. The typically low-budget result—Hollywood Boulevard—was an archetypical tale of an aspiring actress’s desperate, even dangerous climb onto the bottom rung of the industry ladder. Shot with a two-camera setup and plenty of explosive stock footage, Hollywood Boulevard plays as an overt parody of Corman’s career—echoing The Little Shop of Horrors in this sense, but poking at its intended target with audacious transparency: in the film, Bartel portrays an overbearing director who nearly ignores an actress’s death in the interest of moving on to the next shot; Dick Miller plays a talent agent, for whom Corman resurrects the character name Walter Paisley; and the film-within-a-film’s fictional production company—standing in for Corman’s New World—is named Miracle Pictures, because “If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!”

No stranger to that formula, or at least good marketing copy, Corman called Hollywood Boulevard “the best ten-day picture of the decade.” And it probably was.

Michael Ned Holte is a writer and independent curator based in Los Angeles. He has contributed to numerous publications such as Art Journal, Artforum International, Pin-Up, and X-Tra. He is a member of the art program faculty at the California Institute of the Arts.