At that point in time, the drive-in was everything. And to play a drive-in, you had to have something they could exploit. You didnâ€™t need a big nameâ€”you just had to have a great poster! Gene Corman
Attack of the Crab Monsters
In 1957, Roger Corman directed nine movies. Shot on the cheap and usually cranked out in ten caffeinated days, Corman’s output during that Eisenhower-era annus mirabilis included such drive-in diversions as Rock All Night, The Undead, and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. All of these films (well, most of them at least) have their merits. But there’s one that stands out for its willingness to grapple with weightier questions than the fates of bobbysoxers and bargain-basement bogeymen— the luridly titled Attack of the Crab Monsters. Distributed by the Poverty Row studio Allied Artists, Crab Monsters was released on February 10, 1957, as part of a Corman sci-fi double bill alongside Not of This Earth. Taken together, these two cautionary tales form the backbone of Corman’s early obsession with the apocalyptic power of the A-bomb and the hubris above: U.S. poster for Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957).
of well-meaning scientists who, a short decade earlier, had unleashed a new form of wrath on the world in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Written by Charles B. Griffith, who would go on to pen several other Corman classics like 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors and 1975’s Death Race 2000, the $70,000 Crab Monsters kicks off with a crew of scientists arriving by seaplane on an unnamed deserted island in the South Pacific. They’re there to find out what happened to a previous research team that went missing. Could it have something to do with the fact that the island is smack dab in the middle of a nuclear testing zone? Before they have a chance to find out, things go disastrously wrong: One of the seamen bringing them ashore by raft falls overboard, only to resurface missing his head. Then, as the seaplane lifts off to return to the mainland, it explodes in midair. The table is set. The team of stranded brainiacs include Dale Drewer (Richard Garland in an ascot), Martha Hunter (Pamela Duncan, wearing more makeup and tighter sweaters than one might expect in the jungle), and Hank Chapman (a pre–Gilligan’s Island Russell Johnson). Soon, they discover a journal filled with ominous entries of distress and hear the mysterious disembodied voices of the dead summoning them to the island’s caves, where they finally come face-to-face with . . . huge, radioactive, papier mache crustaceans with claws operated by piano wire able to absorb the thoughts of any human brain they nosh on! At one point, a crab monster telepathically warns: “So, you have wounded me! I must grow a new claw, well and good! For I can do it in a day! But will you grow new legs when I have taken yours from you?” As the victims of this atomic retribution start to pile up, Corman’s chilling allegory of nuclear folly becomes a briskly paced meditation on our most destructive impulses. We’ve played god and must now pay for our sins. In more ways than one, Attack of the Crab Monsters is a B movie with bite. above: Production shot from the set of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). Pamela
Duncan practices running in terror, lest she become the next entrée in Corman’s seafood smorgasbord.
D r i ve - In D e m ent i a
Monte Hellman: “I first met Roger through my wife, Barbo-
right: Production still from The Last Woman on Earth (1960), directed by Roger Corman. Antony Carbone, Robert Towne, and Betsy Jones-Moreland are two guys and a girl staring down the end of the world. Towne, who acted in and wrote the film, quickly realized that his future was behind a typewriter rather than in front of a camera. opposite, top left: U.S. poster for She Gods of Shark Reef (1958), directed by Roger Corman. Menacing tiki idols, bloodthirsty great whites, and a bevy of pearl-diving beauties with discreetly placed leis. Corman knew how to get young moviegoers to part with their hard-earned cash—even if, as in the case of this lightweight Hawaiian lark, the film didn’t quite live up to the action-packed one-sheet. opposite, top right: U.S. poster for Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), directed by Monte Hellman. Corman tapped his friend Hellman to direct this subzero monster mash, paying him the royal sum of $1,000. Hellman would prove to be more of an auteur than his silly debut for Corman hinted. His existential road movie, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop, remains one of the great films of the New Hollywood generation. opposite, bottom: U.S. poster for Not of This Earth (1957), directed by Roger Corman. Corman directed nine films in 1957. This sci-fi flick, about aliens hungry for human blood to send back to their home planet Davana, was one of the best . . . and most confusing. Martin Scorsese remembers seeing the movie as a kid and being confounded by its logic, but he admits he was hooked nonetheless. Little did Scorsese know that a decade and a half later he’d be on a Corman set, directing a movie of his own.
ura Morris, who had acted in some of his movies. I got him to invest $1,000 in a theater company that we put together. Eventually, we were shut down, and Roger said, ‘You should take this as a sign to do something else.’ He hired me on the spot to direct Beast from Haunted Cave. He paid me $1,000. We didn’t have a contract or anything. Just a handshake. And Roger’s handshake was better than most people’s contracts. Roger’s brother, Gene, produced the film. Gene’s a lot of fun. A good guy. Not quite as tightfisted as Roger—but almost. We shot it in South Dakota, and it was below zero. I think we had Velveeta sandwiches for lunch every day on the set. Pretty luxurious. Velveeta sandwiches and a cup of hot chocolate. That was a big deal.”
Robert Towne: “Roger said to me, ‘I want you to write a script
with the title The Last Woman on Earth.’ That’s the amount of instruction I was given. Nothing about the plot or anything else. That’s it. Mercifully, I can’t remember what I wrote. We went down to Puerto Rico and shot it in six weeks. I was living in a rented house there with Roger, and I remember when I first got there, I went to take a shower, and there was Roger with a wet towel whacking hundreds of silverfish that were in the shower, trying to clean it out for me. Roger is nothing if not a gentleman. Then he got me to act in another movie called Creature from the Haunted Sea. I didn’t really see myself as an actor. And that movie confirmed my suspicions. It underlined that I most definitely did not have a career as an actor. And I was beginning to wonder if I had a career as a writer, too.” 46
P oe , P o l i t i cs , and the P eace Move m ent
Joe Dante (director; post-Corman credits include The Howling, Gremlins,
“Roger was such an incredibly prolific director. And I really think he was a great filmmaker, way underestimated and undervalued because of the genre he was working in. I love Masque of the Red Death, I love The Intruder, I love Man with the X-Ray Eyes, I could go on. There’s an intelligence to his movies that is always light-years better than what the other guy did.” and Matinee):
Martin Scorsese: “In the beginning of the sixties, especial-
ly with the Poe pictures, suddenly there was a personality emerging from the Corman factory. After House of Usher, in quick succession there was The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligea, which is my favorite. They all just took your breath away. All of a sudden, Corman had become a cult and was written up in Sight and Sound magazine.” Roger Corman: “I wasn’t paying too much attention to the crit-
ics, but it felt good when the Poe films were appreciated. I felt like I was making little films. I would be reviewed in Variety and 66
opposite: Photo from the set of The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), directed by Roger Corman. Corman and his crew set up the climactic shot of his second installment in the Poe saga. Thanks to his trusted cinematographer Floyd Crosby and his ace production designer Daniel Haller, Corman managed to make the Poe films look every bit as rich and sumptuous as the movies coming out of the big studios. Eye candy on a budget.
U.S. poster from The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), directed by Roger Corman. Says Martin Scorsese, “With the Poe pictures, suddenly there was a personality emerging from the Corman factory.”
Dawn of a new worlD r
OGEr COrmAN WiTNESSED three momentous events in 1970. He
finally threw off the restrictive yoke of AiP and opened the office of his own production and distribution company, New World Pictures. He went to ireland to make the World War i epic Von Richthofen and Brown, which would end up being the last film he would direct for twenty years. And on the day after Christmas, the forty-four-year-old Corman married twenty-eight-year-old Julie Halloran at St. Paul’s Chapel in Westwood. His brother Gene was his best man. Well-educated, beautiful, and a natural as a producer on the set, Julie would become Corman’s partner in more ways than one. The sleek, art deco headquarters of New World were located in the penthouse of 8831 Sunset Boulevard. its signature feature, a groovy glass elevator, would impress just about every Hollywood hopeful who showed up looking for a break. And there were many of them. in the early seventies, New World became a revolving door of talented young filmmakers willing to work for next to nothing in exchange for experience. Jonathan Demme, who would go on to win an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, made women-in-prison
pictures in the jungles of the Philippines on Corman’s dime. martin Scorsese cut his teeth on the Depression-era drama Boxcar Bertha before moving back East to the Mean Streets. Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, New World’s mutt and Jeff team, were hired as round-the-clock trailer cutters before finally being handed films of their own to direct, Piranha and Rock ’n’ Roll High School. And later in the decade, James Cameron, who would go on to direct two of the biggest films of all time, Titanic and Avatar, was just a long-haired, low-level prop maker dreaming up spaceships with enormous breasts for Battle Beyond the Stars. Soon, this hip hothouse of boundless talent and enthusiasm would turn New World Pictures into the premier name in independent film in the seventies. Whether or not they were putting their skills to good
F r o m m ave r i ck to e l de r states m an
“Like a lot of other people, Roger started me in the movie business. I knew some guys who worked for him—Joe Dante and some others. So I went to work there in 1972 for $80 a week, in cash. On Monday, you’d lug cable in a pickup truck, on Tuesday you’d be a first A.D. if the A.D. didn’t show up, on Wednesday you’d have a speaking part because an actor didn’t show up and Roger didn’t want to pay a replacement, and on Thursday, you’d be working on a one-sheet in his office. If Roger thought you were smart, he’d work the hell out of you. All of the movies were the same: The car came around the corner of an alley and ran into some trash cans, someone shot a gun, and someone else dropped off the roof into a Dumpster. Then the Playmate of the Month took her top off. Cut. Wrap! I always felt that I owed Roger. So when I started thinking about making Frankenstein Unbound, I thought, Let’s get Roger to direct this thing. He hasn’t directed in twenty years! We paid him a million dollars to do it. It was a nice chunk of change. And we shot it in a beautiful part of Italy. It was a thrill to see him back behind the camera. He had a thirty-day schedule, and I don’t think he’d ever had thirty days to make a film in his life! He would say to me, ‘Thom, if we finish this early, do we get to keep the money that we save?’ And I was like, ‘Spend the fucking money, Roger!’” Thom Mount (producer; former head of Universal Pictures):
above: Photo from the set of Frankenstein
Unbound (1990), directed by Roger Corman. Back behind the camera (and for a major studio!) after a nearly twenty-year absence, Corman discusses what he wants with stars Bridget Fonda and John Hurt.
“I think Roger always backed away from the idea of being taken seriously as a director. He says that he didn’t understand what anybody was talking about. Then, in the early eighties, I met him at a dinner in New York, and I asked why he wasn’t directing anymore. He said, ‘You know, when I see the films that are being made now, like Toolbox Murders, where they’re using drills to carve people’s heads, I don’t do that.” Martin Scorsese:
“I think that the directing bug never really left Roger. I think there was a point after Von Richthofen and Brown in 1970 where he thought, Let someone else handle the grunt work of directing. He’d had some bumpy experiences dealing with big studios, like on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and it rubbed him up against the realities of the business. I think he got more enjoyment as a guy who directed directors. It’s funny about Roger, because he comes out of engineering—and an engineer likes to stand above things and see how they operate. Roger loves to watch the operation from a height. And I think F. X. Feeney:
“When I knew I was going to work with him on Frankenstein, I thought, I’ll get to work one-on-one with the master. And working one on one with the master turned out to be a very interesting thing, because when I went in, it was Roger and two of his employees flanking him. We sat down and talked through where the story should go, and he said I’ll need ten F. X. Feeney:
below: Frame grabs from Frankenstein Unbound (1990), directed by Roger Corman. Nick Brimble fresh out of the makeup chair as the mate-seeking Monster. John Hurt hits the road as Dr. Joe Buchanan, a brilliant scientist who gets sucked back in time to the early nineteenth century—an era of unlimited creation, be it from the minds of romantic poets or mad scientists.
f r o m m ave r i ck to e l de r states m an
he enjoyed the ant-farm aspect of producing, where he could watch a lot of films get made and direct the directors.”