The Horrors of Their Pasts

Francis Ford Coppola was making ‘nudie’ movies and low-budget horrors such as Dementia 13 ten years before he made The Godfather

A genre historically overlooked and misunderstood by many mainstream critics and award ceremonies, horror and exploitation cinema has played a significant role in the evolution of some of the most successful and acclaimed film makers working today. David Cronenburg’s latest film, Cosmopolis, staring Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson, is an example of this significant shift in career from the so-called body-horror of films like Scanners and The Brood, to more conventional dramas such as Eastern Promises and last year’s A Dangerous Method.
Cronenburg made his name with a series of weird and disturbing horror/sc-fi pictures, generally working outside of Hollywood in his native Canada and on a small budget with unknown actors. His early films explored controversial and often sexual themes, featuring strange bodily mutations, exploding heads and psychologically produced children. Yet Cronenburg’s progression into mainstream drama has been a gradual one, and Cosmopolis looks to have retained some sense of the surreal from his early work, with the same exploration of an obsessive central character present in films like Videodrome and The Fly.
But while it is often possible to spot the ‘Cronenburgian’ touches even in his later films, some very successful directors’ later works have departed completely from their horror roots. Sam Raimi’s first film was the low-budget horror/comedy The Evil Dead; the same director responsible for the hugely successful Spider-Man (the twelfth highest grossing film of all time) and its two sequels. The triple academy award winning Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the 2005 remake of King Kong, first displayed his talent with films such as the brilliantly repulsive Bad Taste and Braindead. These ‘splatstick’ films needed to be entertaining, and their ultra low-budgets meant that their makers had to be resourceful (the masks for Bad Taste were baked in Jackson’s Mum’s oven), but it also allowed the freedom to be subversive and satirical. These films displayed the talents of their makers, but more importantly, that they could work to a budget. It is easy to see why bigwig executives trusted Raimi and Jackson with their multimillion dollar projects having seen that they could effectively use their given resources.
The skill to make films that would earn their money back was never prized more highly than by the king of the b-movie, Roger Corman. Corman gave many of the biggest and best directors of the last forty years their first taste of film making including Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola. Film critic Mark Kermode said that Corman thought the “best way to encourage young film makers was to get someone who wanted to be [Michaelangelo] Antonioni and get them to work on Carnosaur 2”. Under Corman, James Cameron directed his first feature, Piranha II: The Spawning (famously described by Cameron as “the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made”) and since then he has been responsible for the two highest grossing films of all time, with Avatar and Titanic. Francis Ford Coppola was making ‘nudie’ movies and low-budget horrors such as Dementia 13 ten years before he made The Godfather. Martin Scorcese learnt how to make his vision for Mean Streets work on a small budget whilst making the routine b-movie, Boxcar Bertha. Closer to home, Nicolas Roeg (who would later go on to make masterpieces like Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth) worked as a cinematographer on the Roger Corman directed film The Masque of the Red Death. On the technical front, Wally Pfister, arguably the most important cinematographer working today, has gone from shooting erotic thrillers such as Body Chemistry to working with cutting edge IMAX technology on the sets of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and The Dark Knight. It is unfair to compare these early films with what the film makers went on to achieve subsequently, but what is significant is how those working on Corman’s films learnt to make films quickly and economically while being allowed just enough creative freedom to develop their own talent. James Cameron even remarked that he “trained at the Roger Corman Film School”.
Many A-list Hollywood actors also got their first break in horror films. Johnny Depp’s first performance was an entirely wooden one in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Kevin Bacon was scared by Jason Vorhees in Friday 13th. A baby faced Brad Pitt got his break in the teen horror Cutting Class while Tom Hanks began his distinguished career in the much less distinguished Halloween knock-off, He Knows You’re Alone. Even George Clooney had to get into films somehow, disreputably in Return to Horror High and the brilliantly named, Return of the Killer Tomatoes.
The grounding in making movies for an audience and to a budget has given great auteurs the tools necessary to make their visionary films. Contemporary mainstream cinema owes a great deal to the exploitation genre; without it we may never have had some of cinema’s greatest achievements. To think, The Last Picture Show might never have existed without Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women, or Apocalypse Now without The Bellboy and the Playgirls.

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