MG Marshall's Double Feature of Doom! 1a
Targeting The Terror: How a Roger Corman Cheapie Inadvertently Birthed a Frightening Masterpiece
Editors note: MG Marshall's Double Feature of Doom will be on a little different schedule than the rest of the collectives content. Feature will be split into 2 parts and posted the last and first day of each month, so please come back each month for more B Movie goodness!
Welcome, friends, to The Double Feature of Doom! This is where I’ll discuss the little-known, unexamined connections between movies, ramble about cult cinema- my one true love- and as time wears on, will likely write about any little old idea that flits across my addled brain.
Well, for my inaugural article, I’ve elected to talk about a couple movies from Roger Corman. And really, how could I not start with Roger Corman? I mean, he’s the “King of the B’s,” man! Anybody else would just fall short of his glory. For the uninitiated, Corman is a low-budget writer/director/producer who had a string of hits (in his own words, he “Never lost money on a single picture…”) throughout the 1960’s for the independent production company American International Pictures. His most financially successful films were very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptions, most of which starred Vincent Price. Today, Corman is most well-remembered for two things. One is how more than half of Hollywood worked either for Corman or New World Pictures, the company he formed after leaving AIP in the early ‘70’s. Seriously, we owe so many great directors’ and actors’ careers to the influence of Roger Corman. Robert Deniro, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sandra Bullock, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, Nicolas Roeg, Talia Shire, Curtis Hanson, Robert Towne, Monte Hellman, John Sayles, and David Carradine- just to name a few- all worked for Corman early on in their careers. You could make a very solid argument that without Roger Corman the “New Hollywood” era of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s never would have happened, and so many great movies wouldn’t exist.
The other thing that’s most well-known about Corman is his legendary, infamous cheapness. Corman was notorious for his ability to finance movies with almost nothing and shoot the damn things in almost no time. The best example of this would likely be 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors (later adapted as a popular off-Broadway musical, which was itself adapted to film in 1986). The Little Shop of Horrors’ production schedule sounds almost like the stuff of urban legend, but it’s nevertheless completely true that on a budget of between $28,000 and $34,000 the film took five days to complete with only two fucking days comprising the principal photography. And this is by no means unique to just The Little Shop of Horrors within Corman’s filmography.
This intense frugality didn’t just extend to Corman’s shooting schedules, but to just about everything else. Corman famously hated the idea of wasting money on sets, props, costumes, or even actors. Entire second movies were made just so that Corman could shoot something on the sets or use up extra days he had with an actor instead of risking losing even a single penny. Case in point- The Terror, the first movie on our double bill for the day.
In 1963, Corman had sets left over from his recently-completed film The Raven (a bizarre, slapstick comedy adaptation of the Poe poem) and decided he could put them to use. He hired Leo Gordon to write a rough script, made a deal with Boris Karloff for three days’ worth of shooting, and the movie was rushed into production. The Karloff footage, which co-starred a super young Jack Nicholson in one of his first leading roles, was completed in two days; and, according to Karloff, the sets themselves were being torn down around them as the production hurried to reach completion. With roughly thirty to forty minutes of footage completed Corman, Nicholson and co-stars Sandra Knight (Nicholson’s wife at the time) and Dick Miller (a regular Corman player, later featured in everything from The Terminator to Night of the Creeps to Batman: The Animated Series, and appearing in every single movie directed by Joe Dante) shot further footage on even more leftover sets from Corman’s earlier film The Haunted Palace to attempt to graft a storyline onto the material they already had. Due to a union technicality, Corman was unable to direct the bulk of this footage himself, and the directing duties instead fell to Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, Dennis Jacob, and even Jack Nicholson himself, all of whom went uncredited.
Now, with that utter clusterfuck of a production in mind, I have to admit that the final product is actually a tad bit more coherent than one might expect, but this is mainly due to an added scene- shot when Corman admitted to himself that the Karloff footage made no sense when it was finally edited together- where Dick Miller tries desperately to explain the plot so far to Jack Nicholson. This helps matters, but it never fully solves the problem that the movie is just something of a fragmented mess. This isn’t to say that it’s outright awful. There is a certain sense of style at play in The Terror. The eerie, hallucinatory plot concerns a young, nineteenth century French soldier (Yes, he’s played by Nicholson. I don’t buy it either.) who gets separated from his unit and encounters a mysterious, cryptic young woman (Knight) whose subsequent disappearance leads Nicholson to the decaying estate of the melancholic Baron von Leppe (Karloff, imbuing the role with more pathos and intensity than was likely called for by the material). Everyone Nicholson encounters swears that the girl he met doesn’t exist, despite her close resemblance to Ilsa, the Baron’s long-deceased wife…
I ultimately have mixed feelings about The Terror. It’s just too weird to be completely unmemorable, but too slow and dull throughout much of the exposition scenes for me to call it successful. Every time it does succeed at building atmosphere or mood, it manages to undercut it completely in the next scene. But there’s still stuff to like here. The sets and costumes look gorgeous and more expensive than they probably were. The music is appropriately heavy and moody throughout. Karloff’s performance is a likeable, anchoring presence that lends the movie some much-needed weight; and Nicholson tries earnestly for, but never quite achieves, the leading man quality he would later come to be known for. There’s storms, a flooded crypt, a super random death-by-bolt-of-lightning, a surprisingly gory and realistic (for the time) scene involving eye-gouging, and one hell of a final shot.
The film fell into the public domain when no copyright notice was registered, and as such it’s become one of those horror movies that always wind up in Halloween movie marathons and on late-night TV showings in washed-out, degraded print quality, or in those cheapskate bargain DVD compilations like 50 Horror Classics or 100 Chiller Classics. It may not exactly be a classic, in fact it may not even be in the top tier of Corman’s work; but it’s worth checking out at least once, particularly when you realize that you can legally watch it for absolutely free all over the internet. It’s the kind of film one wouldn’t expect to have much of a long-lasting influence, but it gave Coppola, Nicholson, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill some of their first opportunities; and it would be absolutely instrumental in the creation another film- a lesser known one that happens to be an unsung masterpiece…