Roger Corman: 10 essential films

On his 95th birthday, we salute a living legend of cult genre cinema: producer, director, trailblazer, talent-spotter and ‘The Pope of Pop Cinema’, Roger Corman.

X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Roger Corman has more than 400 IMDb credits to his name – the earliest from 1954, the latest from 2021. This makes him one of the most prolific movie producers in history. His films are famous for always coming in on time and under budget (in 1990 he released an autobiography entitled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime). 

Corman’s prowess at making films quickly and cheaply has been matched by his skill at discovering talent. A stunning array of actors and directors – including but far from limited to Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and John Sayles – got their big breaks working for him. And Corman’s talent-spotting has continued right up to the present day. During the early months of the pandemic, his Corman Quarantine Film Festival inspired budding directors to get creative within the limited means afforded them during lockdown. 

In the 1950s and 1960s – and occasionally afterwards – Corman directed as well as produced. These films were offbeat and lively and often morbidly funny. Although the low budgets were clear to see, the creativity and sheer entertainment value won Corman acclaim from audiences and critics alike. Here are 10 of the best from that period.

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

Throughout his directorial career, Roger Corman worked with a stable of actors over and over again. Although many of them – Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern – went on to become leading men, Corman’s most frequent collaborator would remain a character actor, albeit a much-beloved one.

A Bucket of Blood gave Dick Miller the rarest of things: a starring role. He plays Walter Paisley, a sweet-natured busboy at a beatnik café whose artistic aspirations lead him down an unexpectedly murderous path. Packed with riotous gallows humour and sensitive to the emotional turmoil of the creative struggle, A Bucket of Blood is well deserving of its status as a B-movie classic. 

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) poster

Corman surpassed himself in the speediness department on The Little Shop of Horrors: the film took only two and a half days to shoot. Fittingly, the tale of a bumbling trainee botanist (Jonathan Haze) who accidentally creates a carnivorous plant, is full of chaotic, slapdash energy and ramshackle charm. 

Adding fuel to the frenzy are memorable small performances from two Corman mainstays – Dick Miller as the flower-eating Burson Fouch and Jack Nicholson as masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force. The 1986 musical remake might have had a bigger budget and starrier names, but the unruly joys of Corman’s original are bountiful indeed. 

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

In Pit and the Pendulum, Vincent Price plays the son of a member of the Spanish Inquisition whose wife has died in mysterious circumstances. When her brother (John Kerr) arrives at Price’s castle to investigate, he discovers a host of horrors lurking in the dungeon…

Corman directed eight films that were based on short stories by Edgar Allan Poe; seven of which starred Vincent Price. Pit and the Pendulum was the second. The creative marriage of Corman, Price and Poe yielded numerous delicious moments of campy gothic horror. This film’s finale, involving the titular torture device, is one of the highlights of the whole cycle. 

The Intruder (1962)

The Intruder (1962)

The Intruder is an unusual entry in Corman’s filmography. The story – a silver-tongued white supremacist (William Shatner) arrives in a small town to dissuade the populace from integrating the local school – has an overt social message. The mood is sombre and tense. There’s no cartoonish gore or wacky antics in this one. It’s a powerful tale of how easily a charismatic demagogue can wreak havoc on society, a moral that still has an unfortunate resonance today. 

Also setting it apart is that – unlike all his directorial efforts up to that point, and despite a warm critical reception – it was the only one of his films to lose money at the box office. Distressed by the failure, Corman never made anything remotely similar again. 

X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963)

X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963)

In his second Corman venture (the first being the previous year’s underwhelming Premature Burial), Ray Milland plays a mad scientist who invents eye drops that will give anyone who takes them x-ray vision. When he tries them on himself, his new powers of perception rapidly drive him to insanity. 

X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes catches Milland at a point in his career when he was transitioning from leading roles in traditional Hollywood fare to the lower-budget schlock in which Corman specialised. The story may be ridiculous, and the special effects laughably dated, but Milland attacking his performance with quasi-Shakespearean relish makes the film strangely engrossing. 

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Vincent Price plays the satanic Prince Prospero, who hosts extravagantly hedonistic parties as the poor families outside his castle walls perish in a plague. The arrival of a pure-hearted peasant girl (Jane Asher) threatens to bring an end to his decadent shenanigans.

Corman was able to give The Masque of the Red Death a more lavish look than the other films in the Poe/Price cycle by shooting on sets left behind from historical epic Becket (1964), and having future director Nicolas Roeg on board as cinematographer certainly helped too. Between the brightly coloured and dazzlingly strange party sequences and Price’s gleefully villainous performance, this – fittingly – is a film of pure pleasure. 

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

The last entry in Corman’s Poe/Price series has a different feel to its studio-bound predecessors. Large parts of The Tomb of Ligeia were set on location (mainly around Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, although there is a brief but notable visit to Stonehenge).

Otherwise, however, The Tomb of Ligeia is business as usual. Vincent Price (much too old for the role, but he makes it work as only he could) stars as the mysterious gentleman whose obsession with his dead wife (Elizabeth Shepherd) has driven him to live in crazed, gothic solitude. When he falls in love with a new woman (Shepherd again), disaster ensues, and terrible secrets are revealed. 

The Wild Angels (1966)

The Wild Angels (1966)

The Wild Angels follows a biker gang who reach a crisis point when one of their members (Bruce Dern) is gravely wounded in a shootout with the police. 

Corman paid a group of Hell’s Angels to work as extras and crew members, and that – along with the dusty desert locations and wide blue skies – lends the film a gritty sense of countercultural authenticity. The Wild Angels’ success sparked a new trend for biker movies (including the watershed 1969 film Easy Rider), and Peter Fonda’s iconic “We wanna be free!” monologue was sampled in songs by Primal Scream and Mudhoney. 

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)

The unexpected box office triumph of The Wild Angels led to 20th Century Fox hiring Corman to direct The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – giving him the biggest budget and the longest shoot of his career up to that point. A semi-documentary retelling of the bloody 1929 battle between Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker), the film is notable for its unusual historical accuracy and a tremendously over-the-top performance by Robards.

Despite having more funds at his disposal, Corman stuck to his tried-and-tested way of operating: Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson both make blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances, and the project still wrapped early and significantly under budget.

The Trip (1967)

The Trip (1967) poster

Corman proved again that he had his finger on the countercultural pulse with The Trip, which was based on a script by Jack Nicholson. It follows a man (Peter Fonda), disillusioned by his impending divorce, as he tries LSD for the first time. The plot is minimal; the film just accompanies Fonda through the hallucinogenic wildness of his trip, as Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper keep a watchful eye over him.

Fearing it would work as an advertisement for LSD, the BBFC refused classification on four separate occasions. They finally relented in 2002, awarding an 18 rating. Though much of The Trip’s contemporaneous edginess has faded over the decades, there’s still a lot of entertainment value in the phantasmagorical production design, and Fonda’s LSD-induced enchantment with the washing machines in a local laundromat. 

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free