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One of the most prolific producer-directors ever, despite working with shamefully limited funds, Corman managed to churn out multiple films a year—as many as nine, legend holds—most in the vein of B-grade horror and exploitation. Corman's directorial style isn't the most nuanced, but there's poetry and elegance in the resourcefulness and creativity he displayed. And his movies are fascinating in the ways they challenge the audience to do some imagining of their own.
The following five films are my favorites from his directorial canon; Corman's work as a producer deserves a list of its own.
5. It Conquered the Earth (1956) The consummate example of Corman's early cheapies. Nothing about the film is remotely plausible, least of all the monster at the center of the action, which is meant to be a Venusian alien but looks more like a deflated beach ball. But Corman's direction, as it remains even today (he's 86), is assured and confident—by no means elegant, but certainly not inept
4. The Wild Angels (1966) One of Corman's most financially successful works—it was the 16th highest grossing film of that year, no doubt cashing in on the burgeoning counterculture it depicts. (Corman was nothing if not an opportunist when it came to new trends.) A prototype of Easy Rider, the film stars Peter Fonda as the emotionally complex leader of a renegade bike gang. The infamous soliloquy he delivers at the end represents one of the most sincere (albeit hammy) sequences Corman ever made.
3. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) In addition to his exploitation fare, Corman was known for his artful adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. The Pit and the Pendulum happens to be the best of the bunch; its hyperstylization amounts to a radically capricious subversion of Poe's text, and the vivid color schemes employed by cinematographer Floyd Crosby would prove to be a major influence on Italian giallo cinema.
2. The Undead (1957) Though admittedly amateurish in some respects—the hand-crafted sets don't do much to hide that the film was shot in a supermarket—this science-fiction fantasy is thematically ambitious. Corman's narrative centers on a mysterious device that puts characters into a sleep so deep they travel back in time, to their past lives in an age resembling Arthurian myth. Not only does he argue that dreams inform our reality, he makes a strong case that there's little difference between the two.
1. Bucket of Blood (1959) This pithy and stylish black comedy perfectly encapsulates what makes Corman a master. Shot on a microbudget over the course of a few days, using sets that would later be reappropriated for Corman's Little Shop of Horrors, it tells the story of a nebbishy recluse who aspires to the sort of intellectualism displayed by a group of beatniks who frequent his coffee shop. Its observations on the dangers of social climbing and the fleeting nature of fashion are as smart and poignant today as they were then.
Honorable mentions: Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), The Trip (1967), and Bloody Mama (1970), though I'd be hard-pressed to think of any Corman film I've seen that's completely without its pleasures.