New Documentary Celebrates the Low-Budget Art of Exploitation Maestro Roger Corman

In 2010 producer/director Roger Corman received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. There are surely those who say that the man responsible for The Beast With a Million Eyes and Private Duty Nurses is a dubious choice for an honor shared by the likes of Elia Kazan, Akira Kurosawa, and Jean-Luc Godard (who was awarded an honorary Oscar during the same ceremony as Corman). But Alex Stapleton's new film, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Anchor Bay Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming), a career-spanning biodoc, makes a persuasive and stirring case for Corman's importance in both the business and the art of movies.

There are few things more entertaining in Corman's World than Corman himself, in a funny way. A tall, straight-backed man with a round face, neatly trimmed hair (even during the '60s), and an unflappable patrician bearing and plummy speaking voice, he provides a continuous contrast to the blood, beasts, and boobs of his oeuvre. Stapleton doesn't dig too deeply into the whys and howcomes of a Stanford engineering grad finding his way into the fledgling exploitation-film industry, but by the mid-'50s, Corman was scraping up tiny budgets for lurid horror films such as It Conquered the Earth and Attack of the Crab Monsters, which he would shoot in days (usually less than a week) and then dump into drive-ins to help rid the burgeoning postwar teen market of that week's allowance money. It's a strategy Corman has stuck to his entire career: Spend as little as possible to make entertaining, campy fare designed to hook young people and other underserved markets and never lose money. Ever. The framing device that Stapleton uses for his story is contemporary footage of the octogenarian Corman on the Mexican set of Dinoshark, one of a running series of Corman titles made exclusively for the Syfy channel.

But as Corman's World makes clear, he can't be written off as a cynical schlock mogul in the Samuel Z. Arkoff mode. Stapleton makes prominent mention of The Intruder, a now-obscure film that starred William Shatner as an outsider fomenting racial strife in the small-town South, which Corman filmed on location in Missouri in 1962. But even Corman's less socially conscious titles are worth appreciating for what they are and what they contributed to cinema. The series of Edgar Allan Poe stories he brought to the screen during the '60s retain their creepily elegant low-budget thrills. Since Corman was always looking for new boundaries to push in the realms of culture/taste, he was among the first to explore what was becoming the '60s onscreen via films such as the biker epic The Wild Angels (1966) and the lysergic The Trip (1967). Stapleton includes Corman recounting how he and his producing partners narrowly lost out on the chance to make the new film from Corman vets Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Openly inspired/emboldened by Corman's films, Easy Rider went on to become a cornerstone of the New Hollywood revolution and one of the most profitable independent films of all time.

Fonda and many of the other key players in that revolution show up as talking heads in Corman's World, and no wonder. Corman has long been celebrated for giving a whole generation of young actors and directors their first jobs, including interviewees Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdonavich, and Ron Howard. Corman paid them almost nothing, but as long as they could bring in their work on time and under budget, he largely left them alone to do what they wanted and gave them the kind of hands-on experience that filmmakers often spend a decade or more working up to in mainstream Hollywood. The experience was literally formative for all the before-the-title names who weigh in here. Corman's World is at its most affecting when Hollywood titan Nicholson becomes overwhelmed with emotion discussing all he owes his old employer.

Stapleton's film goes on to document Corman's plunge into the world of post-revolution exploitation, where all the violence and sex that had to be danced around in earlier decades could be splashed across the screen by the bucketful. From blaxploitation to epochal drive-in crap like Death Race 2000, the '70s were good years for grindhouse, and Corman and his New World pictures were in the thick of it. (A surprising side note: The Me Decade also found Corman becoming a U.S. distributor for foreign arthouse titles, including classics such as Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers and Federico Fellini's Amarcord. He might have made good-natured crap himself, but he knew truly good films when he saw them, and plus there was money in it.)

Stapleton's doc isn't quite the fast-paced romp that, say, clip-o-rama exploitation celebration Not Quite Hollywood is, and Corman is almost the antithesis of a flamboyant character. This account more or less leaves off at the beginning of the '80s, when the death of the drive-in and the rise of cable TV and the VHS tape helped drive the exploitation market into straight-to-video, a true underground. But if Roger Corman ever needs more of a tribute than the more than 400 films he's made to date and the affection and respect of his peers, Corman's World will do nicely.

CORRECTION: Roger Corman received an honorary Academy Award in 2010, not earlier this year, as previously reported.