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Roger Corman’s Best Movies: A Streaming Guide

May 12, 202410 Mins Read

It’s almost impossible to measure the impact Roger Corman, who died Thursday at 98, had on independent genre filmmaking and the careers of emerging young directors, performers and crew members who cut their teeth under his tutelage. As a producer, Corman mastered the economics of drive-in movies and B-pictures, turning out consistently profitable work that gave the audience what it wanted while allowing for a little creative flexibility. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Joe Dante and John Sayles didn’t exactly do their best work under Corman, nor did future stars like Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, Pam Grier and Diane Ladd. But his productions were like a trade school for New Hollywood.

The 13 films below only scratch the surface of Corman’s huge filmography, but they do provide a glimpse into his ambition and his sensibility as both a director and a micro studio boss. From the macabre comedy of early films like “A Bucket of Blood” and “The Little Shop of Horrors” to heady forays into science fiction and the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Corman’s work as a director signaled the dime-stretching ingenuity that would define his tenure at New World Pictures, where he developed a formula for making money while revealing a keen eye for recognizing talent. Beatniks, bikers, gear heads, voyeurs, outcasts and rebels — all had a place in Corman’s world, on both sides of the screen.


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From early in his career, Corman took a keen interest in the emerging counterculture, even as he personally understood himself as an outsider. That dynamic animates his fiendishly clever, ultra-low-budget comedy about a square who schemes his way into the cool crowd through macabre means. “A Bucket of Blood” would turn out to be a rare lead role for legendary character actor Dick Miller. He stars as the busboy at a beatnik bar who uses his incredibly lifelike sculptures to impress the hip clientele. His secret? Best not to break through the plaster and find out.

The standout scene in Corman’s black comedy is an early one-off by Jack Nicholson, who flashes a wicked, toothless grin as a sadomasochist who loves going to the dentist and gets the appointment of his dreams when an impostor yanks away without anesthetics. Much like “A Bucket of Blood,” with which it shares a writer (Charles B. Griffith) and sets, “The Little Shop of Horrors” is a dark and whimsical curio about a social outcast, Seymour (Jonathan Haze), who winds up killing people against his gentle nature. Here it’s to satisfy Audrey Jr., a beautiful, carnivorous plant with an insatiable appetite for human blood.


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Given Corman’s later forays into exploitation cinema, it’s remarkable that Ray Milland’s mad scientist in “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes” doesn’t have any prurient intentions for his miraculous new ability to see beyond the surface of things. It turns out to be ambition, not perversion, that corrupts Milland in the end, as the special droplets in his eyes first give him medical insight that no imaging machine could, then expand his vision to frightening and less altruistic ends, like winning blackjack at a casino. And finally, as a precursor to Corman’s psychedelic journey in “The Trip,” he catches a glimpse of the ineffable.


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The seventh and best of the eight films in Corman’s “Poe Cycle,” all produced between 1960 and 1964, “The Masque of the Red Death” catches Vincent Price at his most deliciously sinister as a European aristocrat who tries to hole up in a castle while a plague ravages the common folk outside its walls. Before leaving the local village to burn, Prince Prospero (Price) abducts a pretty maiden, along with her husband and father, with the intention of defiling her, but his plans are upended when an ominous guest turns up at a party intended for fellow elites. Shot with Technicolor pop by Nicolas Roeg, who would later have his own brilliant career as a director, the film is Corman’s most polished behind the camera, at once lurid and sophisticated.


Stream it on Criterion Channel, Max and Peacock. Rent it on Amazon and Apple TV.

As a producer attuned to the subculture, Corman seized every opportunity to appeal to audiences outside the mainstream, where commercial demands hedged toward the conventional. And so a few years before “The Wild Bunch” popularized the revisionist western, Corman bankrolled Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting,” which conceived the Old West as a sprawling psychic space, rather than territory for shootouts. Hellman’s favorite actor, Warren Oates, stars alongside Will Hutchins as hard-luck buddies who agree to escort a mystery woman across the desert for reasons unknown. This peculiar, dread-soaked assignment takes a grim turn when a third man — played by Nicholson again, in a wild card of a performance — complicates what could be a dead-end mission.


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Once again ahead of the curve, Corman put Peter Fonda behind a Harley-Davidson chopper three years before “Easy Rider” and set him and his outlaw buddies on the arid desert stretches of Southern California, where they find all the trouble they’re out there to seek. As an assemblage of talent alone, “The Wild Angels” is staggering, with Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd among Fonda’s cohorts and future auteurs Hellman and Peter Bogdanovich as part of the creative team. There’s not much to the story of the gang looking for Dern’s missing motorcycle and running afoul of Mexican bikers and the police, but the film is more about the generalized rebellion of a subculture that lives to provoke the squares, even with Nazi iconography.


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For this full-on psychedelic odyssey, Corman prepared himself through what could be called Method directing: He had never dropped acid before, so he and select crew members headed to Big Sur for a weekend and guided each other through trips. So while “The Trip,” based on a Nicholson script reportedly rife with specific visual ideas, has an antidrug disclaimer at the beginning and a cracked mirror at the end, there’s a wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality to the film that doesn’t discourage casual LSD use. As Dern leads Fonda through his first acid trip, Corman uncorks an adventure of the mind, which ebbs and flows between the sensually radiant and the nightmarish.


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Corman agreed to finance Bogdanovich’s stunning debut feature under the condition that the young director stay under budget and devise a role for Boris Karloff, who still owed him a couple days of work. So Bogdanovich used the opportunity to contrast Karloff’s aging horror-movie star with the more contemporary horror of a deranged gunman shooting down ordinary people. With its can’t-miss allusions to Charles Whitman, the former Marine who killed 14 people from atop the University of Texas tower in 1966 after killing his mother and wife, “Targets” accesses the deranged mind of a Vietnam veteran (Bobby Thompson) who kills his family, then casually takes his lunch and his rifle to the top of an oil storage tank by the freeway. America would never be the same.


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As part of a scheme to shoot quick-and-dirty movies in the Philippines in the early ’70s, Corman modified the women-in-prison exploitation subgenre to “women in cages,” with compulsory showers and mud fights, and play-torture that evoked American prisoners during the war. The films were unsavory, but the best of them, like “Big Doll House,” ran hot with jungle sweat and guerrilla action sequences. Directed by Jack Hill, who excelled at this type of fare, the film is notable for an early look at Pam Grier, commanding the screen as one of six rough-hewn beauties who band together to resist their sadistic warden and break out of a foreign prison compound.

One of the star pupils at the Corman school of filmmaking, Jonathan Demme would make great films like “Melvin and Howard” and “The Silence of the Lambs” after his matriculation, but “Caged Heat,” his directorial debut, is an example of an artist doing his best to elevate a disreputable subgenre. In broad outlines, the film ticks the usual women-in-prison boxes, with sexy convicts fighting (and showering) among themselves before turning their attention to an abusive warden (Barbara Steele). But Demme and his cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, keep the camera active, and the tone is rambunctious and fun, with a genuine warmth and esprit de corps that develops among the cast. These little differences matter.


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Timed to capitalize on the futuristic mayhem of “Rollerball,” “Death Race 2000” anticipates a totalitarian dystopia that offers a cross-country race as a bread-and-circuses distraction from tyranny. Yet Corman insisted on a darkly comic tone for the film and director Paul Bartel obliged with an action-packed, deliriously cartoonish science fiction that picked up an instant cult appreciation. David Carradine stars as Frankenstein, a driver who participates against other colorful rivals in the Transcontinental Road Race, an event that rewards points to contestants for mowing down innocent pedestrians. But in this particularly turbulent year, the race itself may be in jeopardy.


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Before “Airplane” ushered in the age of gag-a-second spoofs, directors Joe Dante and Allan Arkush cut loose on the world of drive-in movies and B-pictures with “Hollywood Boulevard,” a ragged parody that flashed the energy and referential comedy that would define Dante’s career. Billed as the cheapest movie ever made by Corman’s New World Pictures, this $60,000 production is loaded with footage from his films and delightful inside jokes about them. (The fake movies here are from Miracle Pictures: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle.”) The story, such as it is, follows a would-be actress (Candice Rialson) from Indiana who inadvertently participates in an actual armed robbery (“Where are the cameras?”) and eventually gets hired as a stuntwoman for low-budget movies, including more real-life danger in the Philippines.


Stream it on Amazon Freevee and Peacock. Rent in on Amazon, Apple TV, Fandango at Home, Google Play and YouTube.

Always eager to capitalize on youthful rebellion, Corman and his director, Arkush, hitched their wagon to two shooting stars for “Rock ’n’ Roll High School”: The Ramones, a punk quartet on the rise, and P.J. Soles, an infectious party blonde who had stolen scenes as a teenage troublemaker in “Carrie” and “Halloween.” At Vince Lombardi High School, an institution that flaunts the rigors of its football-coach namesake, Riff Randell (Soles) is losing her mind over her favorite band, the Ramones, coming to town for a concert. Her enthusiasm puts her into conflict with the school’s buzzkill of a principal (Mary Woronov), setting up an explosive showdown on campus.

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