The Reusable Sci-Fi World Of Roger Corman

Many people know producer Roger Corman for his heyday during the 1960s and early 70s, a  time filled with looming castles ramparts, grotesque dungeons and heaving bosoms. Renowned for his body of work where he produced and directed a variety of horror  ‘classics’ like Little Shop of Horrors, The Pit and the Pendulum House of Usher and The Raven Corman can be credited for bringing the likes of Vincent Price and gothic horror to the masses.

Corman is renowned for always keeping his eye on what was popular at the time and much like the current trend of companies such as low budget masters ‘Asylum’ was well know for taking inspiration from the themes and popular ‘trending’ styles of films at the time.  Corman borrowed, copied and paid homage to every sub-genre of sci-fi, horror and fantasy he could find, mirroring at first the atomic monster movies of the 50s, then the flouncing horror of the likes of Hammer in the 60s moving through to the more gore and gritty ‘real’ grindhouse horror of the 70s American movies of the time. Films like Death-Race, Children of the Corn, Piranha and of course the much maligned and copied 1994 release of Fantastic 4  were all bought out through his New World Pictures distribution company and hold a certain pride of place for helping develop the evolving home video market.

However, it is not his more recognised large body of horror work that piqued this writers interest but rather the fascinating way in which the producer changed tact and theme in the early 1980s and moved into the market of science fiction.

Obviously seeing how much both Star Wars and Alien took at the box office during the late 1970s and early 1980s Corman saw a potential opportunity to catch the wave of sci-fi popularity and ‘cash-in’ on this new evolving market for space opera and xenophobic terror and went on to produce a series of films that, as was the norm for Corman have more than a passing resemblance to these films.

The first and probably biggest success for Corman was Battle Beyond the Stars. Much as Lucas borrowed from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress for Star Wars Corman dipped into the same creative well and tapped Seven Samurai for his first space epic. Mirroring Seven Samurai and even more closely The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars involves a peaceful race called Akir (named after Akira Kurosawa) who employ a variety of freelancers, assassins and mercenaries to help then defeat John Saxon’s evil Sador whose Star Destroyer like ship contains the most powerful weapon in the galaxy, no not the Death Star but the Stellar Converter. Manned full of melon-headed mutants who fly froggy like ships the film is silly fun that has not one original idea though-out its running time. Going as far as to re-cast Robert Vaughn in exactly the same role he took on The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond The Stars (which also has big star names such as George Peppard and Sybil Danning and her two major assets) is a fun cheap space opera that unashamedly nicks all the best bits from Star Wars, Buck Rogers and numerous westerns. The film has a certain notoriety not only for being a cheap parody of Lucas classic space opera but for also employing as a young eager film-maker by the name of James Cameron who assisted in developing the sets, ships and special effects for the film.

In-fact those said special effects, ship models, explosions and fantastical sets were so good that Corman decided to reuse them… a lot – in every subsequent sci-fi film he made. The first major re-use of footage was for a film called Space Raiders in which a team of space pirates takes on board a teenage stowaway for a series of intergalactic adventures. The most obvious use of re-used models, footage and sets is for the Space Raiders ship – which is exactly the same ship (Nell) that is used by the Akir in Battle Beyond the Stars. Quite recognizable the ship looks like a cross between a cow and a melted candle and a camel. However, it’s not only Nell that is recycled in this film, but Sador’s froggy ships also appear a lot too, coincidentally exploding in exactly the same way as they did in Battle Beyond the Stars.

Corman was also not afraid to borrow from just one source as not only did he hold Star Wars in such high regard for plundering but also Ridley Scott’s Alien was also a great source of cinematic inspiration as Corman produced a line of more adult space operas, most notably Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World (aka Mutant). One of the most blatant uses of pre-used, re-used (again) footage is during the first few minutes of Forbidden World when the titular hero Mike Colby awakens from his cryogenic sleep when is attacked by a set of ships, again looking like the Froggy ships from Battle Beyond the Stars, which are this time joined by the large circular ship that the reptilian mercenary ‘Cayman of the Lambda Zone’ flew in said film. However thanks to some nifty laser cannon work Mike escapes to the Forbidden World in a ship that (shock) also comes from Battle Beyond the Stars, this time being the glowing UFO that the albino Nestor use.

It’s not just the explosions, ships and space battles that are re-used in every film as the ‘waste not want not attitude’ of Corman also led to sets, interiors and computer graphics also being used. On every screen in every film the same computations and circuit diagrams (that look like they’re done in MS Paint) can be seen, as too can corridors, consoles, metal gantries, seats, and wibbly wobbly special anomalies. The surprising thing was that while these effects look basic, the sets standard and continually recycled, they actually work – essentially they are Doctor Who corridors to be seen running down again and again but the fun is to spot them and while they may well seem laughable now its fun to think of James Cameron building, re-configuring and painting these bits again and again.

If you have never seen a Roger Corman 80s sci-fi film they are readily available to buy as part of The Roger Corman Collection and at a relatively inexpensive price as well. So if you want to see John Boy from The Waltons take on John Saxon in a space-ship camel thing, evil pyramids full of giant maggots and demons, rip-off Aliens with gratuitous nudity or Doug McClure fighting Humanoids from the Deep they are all there to pick up (from Amazon) and for you to be impressed that this master of cinematic recycling has something to offer as far as space-operas go with films full of squishy monsters, gore, latex effects and thankfully not on iota of computer graphics in sight.