Roger Corman, King of the Bs, Dies at 98

Corman’s protégés number among the most influential people in cinema.

Recycling Roger Corman
Photo: Anchor Bay Films

Roger Corman, the pioneering producer and director, known affectionately as “the king of B movies,” passed away on May 9 at his home in Santa Monica, California. Corman had as much influence over modern Hollywood as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. And for good reason: Without him there likely wouldn’t even have been a Spielberg or Scorsese.

This maker of hundreds of low-budget horror, sci-fi, and exploitation films is to this day remembered by many, and rather unfairly, as a B-movie hack, but Corman’s aesthetic sensibilities have come to dominate the franchises we now call tent poles, and his protégés number among the most influential people in cinema. And he enjoyed every minute of it.

Corman came off as very humble, resembling no one so much as Mr. Rogers. He laughed at himself and his experiences frequently. Many of the movies that he made were ridiculous but they were knowingly so. Ask just about anyone and they’ll say that his creative motivation was always about saving money, and that it was clear that he had better sense of himself and what he wanted to accomplish than virtually any other person who ever worked in Hollywood.


Ellen Burstyn, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Robert Towne, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, and Peter Bogdanovich are among the actors, screenwriters, and filmmaker that he gave their starts to. As a director, he made quite a few memorable, and justifiably heralded films, including The Little Shop of Horrors and a series of films based on Edgar Allen Poe stories—such as The Pit and the Pendulum and The House of Usher. Wanting to make a movie about integration in the South but unable to find a financier willing to touch the subject, he self-funded and self-produced The Intruder. He later made The Wild Angels and The Trip, both starring Peter Fonda and which Fonda and Dennis Hopper essentially combined in 1968 to make Easy Rider.

Many of the most important films of the late ’60s and early ’70s are really just bigger-budgeted versions of Corman’s work. Scorsese’s Mean Streets was nearly made for New World Pictures. Spielberg’s Jaws had no Corman involvement, but there’s virtually nothing about the movie that couldn’t have been done under Corman’s supervision. (Dante’s Piranha, from 1978, was.)

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With the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars, Corman realized his business was in trouble. Even though his movies were, in terms of plot, script, character, and target demographic, hardly different than George Lucas’s, he couldn’t compete on budget. Jabba the Hutt would always look more believable than the Crab Monster. And as we now know, it wouldn’t take long for FX believability to become the raison d’etre for the summer season. Corman always strived to make films that were fun. Even “fun” was soon less important to the studios than spending money on special effects. Drive-in culture was replaced by summer blockbuster culture, and Corman spent the last couple of decades of his career relegated to straight-to-video and basic-cable releases.


In Alex Stapleton’s 2011 documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Corman made a surprisingly moral case for why the likes of Star Wars are a bad thing. It’s not, as many have argued over the years, that the movies are childish, but that Corman could make the same films cheaper, faster, and, as Nicholson put it, less pretentiously.

In the late ’70s, an interviewer asked Corman if it’s obscene to spend $25 million to make a movie. “Yes,” he replied, “With that amount of money we could rebuild a city slum.” Corman simply didn’t understand why that much money was necessary.

Such a response could come off as simply sour grapes but not from Corman. He was as unassuming and unpretentious as any man in Hollywood, so when he said that spending money on expensive sci-fi films is wrong, you believed it. Are the films we watch immoral because they’re expensive? Is there something about a $100,000 monster movie that’s not only more fun but more noble? I don’t think Corman would have ever suggested that his films were somehow more morally righteous than Star Wars. But thinking back on his long career, you don’t doubt that he was a man who spent his life having fun while working on his craft without regrets. There’s something rare and special about that. And I think every Crab Monster would agree.

Tom Elrod

Tom Elrod works as a portfolio manager for Taylor & Francis.

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