After Life: On Roger Corman and Frankenstein Unbound

illustration by Moses Lee

Roger Corman didn’t direct a film for twelve years after the failure of his Von Richthofen and Brown in 1971. He thought directing was too painful, that “producing is easy,” and that he could produce “without really thinking about it.” When he came back to direct Frankenstein Unbound in 1990, he was 64 years old, and would be working on something like his 55th film as director. By all accounts, he approached the film in his customarily unfussy manner. On the first day of shooting, he checked that the Dick Smith-recipe fake blood would show up the right hue of red. Then he directed a masterpiece.

And so what if I call Frankenstein Unbound a masterpiece? Adapted from a 1973 novel by Brian Aldiss—whose 1969 short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” inspired Kubrick and Spielberg to dream up A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)—Frankenstein Unbound is just what it says it is. It unmakes that steadiest of images, the filmic Frankenstein (1931) monster, the lumber angel, Karloff. It turns the monster’s existential anguish into pure light, loosens this erratic laser as a cinematic pen at once stilted and vaporizing. It’s as alluring as the crinoline contents of Peter Cushing’s beakers and as contemptuous of reality as Udo Kier’s strut. It sees the world through an eye composed of many eyes.

Joe Buchanan (John Hurt) invents an energy beam in the year 2031 with the power to splice away any object from the fabric of reality. He hopes the beam will be a sort of ur-war deterrent, a post-nuclear peace-keeper. Promethean comeuppance ensues: the beam side-effects huge rifts in space-time, which Joe promptly finds himself caught in. Now roving through the bucolic Swiss countryside circa 1817 in his computer-voiced future-car, he meets Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) and his beloved bride, Elizabeth (Catherine Rabett). Frankenstein’s brother has been murdered. The villagers suspect a young washer woman, but Buchanan learns it was the monstrous mess-flesh who confronts his maker not thirty minutes into the film’s runtime. “I did not ask to be made monstrous,” the monster intones (Nick Brimble, in makeup that Vincent Canby bitchily wrote “looks the way Alexander Godunov might look after a failed face-lift”), begging his maker for a mate who might assuage his loneliness.

More than loneliness, this monster—never called ‘creation,’ always called ‘creature’—suffers from a crisis of conceptualizing made-ness. He cannot reckon with what “making” means, or death, or birth. The script, co-written by Corman and F.X. Feeney, shares this creative anxiety, introducing Buchanan to a young woman taking notes at the murder trial: Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) who, despite Buchanan’s agape recognition, assures him she’s “never been published.” Where there’s Mary, there’s Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and Percy Shelley (Michael Hutchence), set-dressings onhand to motivate a perfunctory romance between Hurt’s mild-mannered mad scientist and Fonda’s coy writer. More than Whale’s original, Frankenstein Unbound restages The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in the language of straight-to-video poetry. It janks and wastes its own time. There is white space in Frankenstein Unbound, margins and care, and in calling back to Whale’s sequel’s prologue, Corman’s remix doesn’t suggest that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is based on “real events” so much as it asks what makes an author.

I love the implication of  “straight-to-video”—movies made out of ideas beamed directly at the image. Is it any wonder that horror cinema in particular is a zone stuffed full of slurry, half-formed things? Garbled dreams done cheap that bypass the etiquette of mannered distribution and bear down directly, first on our subconscious and then our long nights? Whale beheld the infinite in a monster’s capacity for melancholy, saw fit to electrolize a Creation with the solvent of pure love. In Bride as in Frankenstein as in The Old Dark House (1932), Whale moves intimately with monsters, sees kinship in how they mutate the oppression of our reality. Complaints about the filmic Frankenstein’s substituting out of Shelley’s chemical alchemies for the strike of lightning has always felt pedantic—it’s not about slow change, it’s about the shock of contact!

In reanimating Whale’s Bride prologue as the middle portion of a Frankenstein remix, Corman betrays his sympathy for mad makers more than their existential creatures. His cinema, littered as it is with copies, memories, and ripoffs, locates narrative sympathy with authors: the authorial distance between E.A. Poe and Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), the queer way Price himself becomes an auteur in that run of Poe films, the poet Maxwell H. Block (Dick Miller). There’s a sense that The Wild Angels (1966) wouldn’t happen if “Heavenly Blues” (Peter Fonda) wasn’t able to write with bikeriders and see the world as an open space to direct a dropout’s dream through. Reading Roger Corman for touches of the auteur means accounting for a near-infinity of pilfered limbs: Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Polly Platt, John Sayles, James Cameron, Nicolas Roeg. All graduates of the only-semi-official Roger Corman Film School, labor and affection extracted, then unbound. 

All Universal monsters indicate something primal about our consciousness: Dracula navigates our apprehension of lust, the Gill Man our displacement from society, the Wolf Man our sense of self, the Invisible Man our terror of that same self lost. Frankenstein, the uncanny entity jump-cutting reality, is consciousness made cinematic. It is a monstrous composite, literally edited together. It exists only as it moves and it lives and dies by light. And even as it seems contained, it continually reconstitutes its own madness. Like the moving picture that shows us beloved faces—faces we know to be dead and gone—to tell a Frankenstein story is to engage in the eerie practice of death-writing, part elegy spectacle, part re-memory.   

In some ways, Roger Corman is perfectly positioned to be the subject of eulogy and memorial. The picture director, producer, mogul, and writer was lucky enough to live until he was 98 years old. He retained agency of his own story through legacy-coded interviews and was invited to clarify and theorize both biographically and with regard to his chosen medium, the moving image. With the privilege of time, he was afforded a grace not always extended to him in his days as a working producer of B- (and lower) pictures. Word of Corman, at 98, attending the Hollywood screening of fellow cine-freak and former semi-apprentice Francis Coppola’s Megalopolis (2024???) feels, indeed, like a kind of Hollywood ending. 

At the same time: “Corman auteur theory” frustrates canned narratives of the singular, art-ahead maker, romantic and reckless enough to render poetry at any cost. If anything, Corman was ever giving deference to the cost of poetry. “If you were to look at a photograph of Roger Corman without knowing who it was, you might suspect that he was a straight-laced Midwestern businessman,” Peter Sobczynski writes in commemoration, citing the gentle tension of that image with someone who “would have even seen a film entitled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent,” which Corman directed in 1957. Will Sloan pushes that tension further, writing “…Corman is important because no one more perfectly embodies the central dilemmas [sic] of cinema, which is that it is both an art and a business.”

Death, like creation, entails a zone of possibility. Where the latter manages our speculative relationship to the ever-unreachable future, the former is that zone realized. Death takes us after now, and its potent fallout—grief—appears variably as commemoration and condemnation. We say a name and spit good riddance. Or we hear a song that recalls our lost beloved and clutch the space above our heart. Death-writing is the great understudied genre of the living. We eulogize and elegize, pay tribute, expose, denounce. We write to death all day long, in sentences that start remember how she… or in the absence of words we would have said to some him who’s not here anymore.

Roger Corman died on May 9th, 2024. Many of us didn’t know him, or only knew a little of him. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. But what about 53 words? Sloan recalls interviewing Corman, who said: “Originally we were going to make Dinocroc 2, and—this shows that you can still learn at my age—the head of the Sci-Fi Channel said that when they show a film with ‘2’ in the title, it doesn’t do well. So I said, ‘Oh did I say Dinocroc 2? I meant Supergator!” Held together in these 53 words is the constellation of Corman: a certain lowbrow delight, a carefulness of language, the showman’s authority over apocrypha, the producer’s thriftiness. The director’s urge to help us feel a certain way, and the feeling that Supergator (2007) is a part of that process.

The urge after life—from art and business alike—is the creation of memorial. Memorial for Corman feels impossible, if only for the breadth. He directed nearly 60 films, produced some 385. He worked the mail room at 20th Century Fox and pitched story beats for The Gunfighter (1950) before selling a script to Allied Artists. Corman then spun the writing fee and his uncredited, unpaid associate producer role on the ensuing Highway Dragnet (1954) into the $12,000 needed to produce his first feature, Monster From the Ocean Floor (1954). By 1964, he was the youngest filmmaker to have a retrospective at the Cinémathèque française. In April of 2020, the 94-year-old announced “the first (and hopefully last) Corman Quarantine Film Festival.”

But linear life-telling doesn’t fit the boundless energy Corman leveraged at the moving image. There’s too much contradiction. His New World Pictures was both a deliriously generative site of rangy pop trash—biker films, like Angel Die Hard (1970), women-in-prison flicks like The Big Doll House (1971), slurry “nurse films” like Night Call Nurses (1972)—as well as a major force in showcasing European art cinema to American audiences. New World distributed Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975), Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978).  “Why don’t I try Cries and Whispers (1972) in a drive-in, why not? What have I got to lose?” Corman recounted on The Movies That Made Me, a podcast co-run by one of his acolytes, Joe Dante. “We put it together with Jonathan Demme’s first film, a women-in-prison picture, Caged Heat (1974). And the picture did average business. And I think we were the only people ever delighted to do average business.”

Corman was fond of talking about the money humming under film art’s mask, a tendency that’s only vulgar if you ignore where much of the art we love actually gets its backing. In later years, he would frequently cite The Intruder (1962) as the only film of his that didn’t make money, indicating two reasons for its failure: “One: the audience at that time, the early sixties, simply didn’t want to see a picture about racial integration. Two: it was more of a lecture. From that moment on I thought my films should be entertainment on the surface and I should deliver any theme or idea or concept beneath the surface.”

Corman’s first point is well-taken. The Intruder isn’t a novel narrative in a Hollywood that saw Stanley Kramer’s well-reviewed The Defiant Ones (1958) do good business, that would award Sidney Poitier the Best Actor statue for Lilies of the Field (1963). But Poitier’s own concern over the nullifying, tokenistic ceiling Hollywood imposed on his agency is sidestepped here—The Intruder is uniquely angry compared to the studio ecosystem of mostly-polite liberalism. The film makes us breathe the same air as its central racist figure, and Corman creates tension by casting working actor William Shatner in the role, whose preternatural charm bypasses easy cartoonishness and renders the character into a kind of all-world, a hoarse-throated John Kennedy Toole figure. He is unignorable. Taylor Byars’s camera moves angrily, forcing the spectator closer and closer to a monster they’d rather reject outright.

Corman’s second point, that The Intruder “fails” because it too-willingly engages with polemics, lingers with me. It further illustrates his first point perfectly. Audiences surely were unsure of how to engage with a pro-integration film that conceived of racists not as obvious monsters but as strangely-compelling actors. They were also—as they occasionally still are—unable to see the business of movie-making as fundamentally about the business of being alive, which is to say, a reflection of our ills as well as our joys, our monsters as well as our loves. The movies are about us, and their great lie is that the action they show simply happens. The truth is that every gesture and moment is many gestures over many moments, the sum of hundreds of bodies we only see after the close, in the giving of credit. There’s always a subtext, but only because there’s a world just out of frame. Focusing directly on the image is a sound strategy—of filmmaking and film writing— to feel that world’s weight, not reduce it as meaning to be extracted. an  Mostly, Corman’s formulation about entertainment and ideas lingers with me because it’s good film criticism.

The writing of memorial is differentiated from film criticism by virtue of distance. In criticism as in journalism, celebration seeks evidence. Objection craves reason. Memorial is bound up with something slipperier: affection. Writing seriously around death is tricky in 2024. There’s too much of it, for one. But when it comes to writing commemorations of people we loved and never knew, there’s whole industries of attention bound up in churning human affection into the dead language of Public Relations. How do we write about Roger Corman without simply gushing? Or: what does a critical theory of gushing look like? I don’t think we need to claim all the bad movies as masterpieces, just as I don’t think we need to reserve “masterpiece” for unmessy art.

What does ‘masterpiece’ mean, actually? It’s rooted in old Europe’s guild system: apprentice craftspeople would fashion a ‘masterpiece’ as a way of earning their master craftsman status. If the guild thought the piece had merit, they would keep it and award the status. I can’t help but think how the system sounds a little like how Roger Corman got into moviemaking, and how he unfussily welcomed a constellation of other cinephiles into the firmament. An image emerges, filmy, disparate, jutting. Many eyes in one.

If Frankenstein Unbound challenged audiences in 1990, it may be because it’s kind of bad. It’s cheap-looking, herky-jerk, sometimes stiffly-acted. Or maybe it was because it’s bad and a masterpiece. It looks ahead (to Corman’s myriad apprentices) and back (to his ancestors and coworkers, to James Whale and Jack Arnold and Howard Hawks) in the same frame and makes a turbulent narrative of un-timing cinematic history. Uninteresting movies assume metaphor to be a one-way street: the monster means something. Bad movies propose, imperfectly, that anything might be about anything, that slippage isn’t a bug but the only way of dealing with a world whose badness thrills us and frustrates us in equal dreamy measure.

Late in its run, Frankenstein Unbound comes undone. “The rupture of space and time is spreading in a chain reaction,” Buchanan offers the spectator. The characters have been transported to an unnamed, untimed Arctic space. Combined with Buchanan’s direct address, the film conjures not Whale’s but Shelley’s prologue, from her original book. “Who knows what exists in this frozen tomorrow,” our narrator goes on; “the only signs of life in this remote place are remnants of a future civilization.” The risk bad art takes is the lag between sense and speculation: housed in this cheesy dialogue and plot contrivance is an essential contradiction of cinema: it is both eternally accessible and always vanishing. It is always out of time.

The daffiness is metaphorical and literal: Buchanan’s “remnants of a future civilization” are both the anxieties of time yet-to-come as well as a sleek futuristic laboratory hunkered in the middle of this arctic movieset. What does he do? He goes in. He’s chasing the monster, physically and poetically. Corman’s Frankenstein’s lab isn’t lightning- or beaker-based, but laser-stuffed. They blink and crinkle. The camera pushes forward, dragging Buchanan and us with it. An eerie look of recognition transforms his face: it’s his old laboratory. Or his present laboratory, in the future. The lasers recognize him back, agitated, excited. Buchanan claps his hands. Lasers jump as the camera cuts them up, a sequence of pure color, light, and motion. Sheer beauty, at the end of all things sensical.

Before any other job in the motion picture business, cinephilic Roger Corman was a film critic for the Stanford Daily, the student-run newspaper at the university where he studied Industrial Engineering. Bottom-line minded even then, he claims he did it for the free passes. The first film the young critic reviewed was John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), the work of another myth-happy craftsman usually unsure of labeling his labor “poetry.” If those student paper reviews survive in any form, they’re hidden away in time and space, like John Hurt’s laser-lightened eyes in an unstuck Arctic lab. But Corman’s recollection of his primal criticism feels like a light for how to talk about things, film or otherwise. I am struck by his clarity, by the way he looks directly at the image: “I thought the photography was so stark, so beautiful, in two ways. Every shot was perfectly composed. And the lighting—dark against light. I began to appreciate the sheer beauty of a black and white film, as well as the drama of the story. I gave it a very good review.”