Let’s get one thing out of the way up front. Producer/Director Roger Corman is responsible for some great movies. His many films starring Vincent Price and based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe immediately come to mind. But Corman knew he was in the B-movie business and took pride in making films with next to no budget. More often than not, the result was flimsy, plot hole filled stories in films containing cheap rubber monsters, reused footage, little to no special effects, and excessive exposition attempting to cover for a lack of action. Yet Corman’s movies rarely commit the ultimate sin of being boring. You may be laughing at the wrong times or horrified for the wrong reasons but you are entertained. I don’t think this is entirely by accident. I’m not suggesting that Corman set out to make films that are so bad they are good but, again, he knew the business he was in. He has often claimed that none of his films, regardless of critical reception, have ever lost money. Corman has an ability to suture together all the cheesiest elements into a Frankensteinian creation that, while not necessarily pretty, still has heart and earns the acceptance of the viewing audience.
What follows is a tiny sampling of Roger Corman films that fit comfortably into the so-bad-it’s-good category. For these half dozen examples, I focused on movies in which Corman took on the directing role. There are even more films that could equally qualify in which he was solely a producer, including 1987’s Slumber Party Massacre II which I discussed in an earlier article. I also limited this list to the 1950s as I feel that was when Corman created some of his best worst films. With a filmography spanning from 1954 right up to today, however, there is a lot to choose from.
- The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955)
Although directing credit for The Beast with a Million Eyes went to David Kramarsky, it is fairly well established that executive producer Corman directed a large number of scenes for the film. This makes it only his second directorial effort and his first for the sci-fi/horror genre. It will come as a disappointment, but perhaps not as a surprise, that The Beast with a Million Eyes does not contain the vaguely Chinese-dragon-like beast depicted on the theatrical poster. For that matter, I don’t recall a screaming damsel in her underwear either. The Beast with a Million Eyes tells the story of an alien creature that lands in the California desert with the intent to take over the world…or, perhaps, just a small, struggling date farm. The alien, being incorporeal, is never seen. The title refers to the alien beast’s ability to control the minds of other creatures and thus see through their eyes. Instead of witnessing a monstrous beast terrorizing a population, we see a dog, a cow, some birds, and a farmhand with a brain injury act vaguely menacing towards a date farmer and his family. If that sounds like a cop-out, you’re right. Corman reportedly chose to produce the film precisely because it did not require a visible alien and thus the budget could be kept to a minimum.
Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer, and Dona Cole star as the Kelley family whose farm is, for some inexplicable reason, the focus of the alien attack. The standout performance is that of Lorna Thayer as wife and mother, Carol Kelley. Carol spends a large portion of the film burning dinners and bemoaning her lot in life. She considers her husband a failure and blames him for her unhappiness. Her jealousy for the youth and potential of her own daughter, Sandra, leads her to admit to hating Sandra…while Sandra is listening…on Sandra’s birthday. When she kills Sandra’s dog with a hatchet, admittedly in self-defense, you almost wonder if she was glad to do it.
The death of Sandra’s dog is necessary because it is being controlled by the alien mind and attacking Carol. Given the limited budget, however, ‘attacking’ is a very strong word. What actually occurs is that the dog walks amicably towards Carol with his tail wagging, causing her to run in terror. The cow attacks are even less convincing as people just fall down as the film cuts to a close up on the cow’s face. Bird attacks are depicted by flocks of flying birds followed by someone throwing the same one or two fake birds at the Kelley family car repeatedly. The film quickly runs out of animals, however, so the family, with little justification, concludes that the animals are being controlled by an alien mind. Fortunately, the alien itself decides at this moment to telepathically provide a lot of exposition to confirm all the Kelleys’ wild assumptions. The film’s conclusion occurs out in the desert before a three-foot tall spaceship that looks more like a coffee percolator. It is here that the Kelleys come face-to-face with an alien. But, wasn’t the whole point of the story that the alien had no physical form? Apparently, production company vice-president, Samuel Z. Arkoff, was unhappy with the lack of visual alien so insisted that one be put in the film. The explanation given is that the physical alien is another victim of the alien mind who used it as a ride to Earth. The day is saved by a combination of love and divine intervention…as you would expect in a science fiction story.
Available for streaming on Tubi.
- Day the World Ended (1955)
In Day the World Ended, survivors from an atomic war contend with a mutant monster and each other. Paul Birch returns, fresh from fending off the beast with a million eyes, as former Navy Commander Jim Maddison. Jim has spent ten years preparing his home to allow him, his daughter Louise (Lori Nelson), and Louise’s fiancé to survive the apocalypse. Unfortunately, Louise’s fiancé has gone missing with no explanation given for why he seems to have wandered off. Jim built his house in a canyon surrounded by cliffs high in lead-bearing ore as a means of protection against radiation. This means others that happened to be in the area were also protected and survived. Soon refugees from the radioactive fallout find their way to Jim’s home, all within ten minutes of each other. The house becomes crowded by the additions of geologist Rick (Richard Denning), petty crook Tony (Mike Connors), Tony’s stripper girlfriend Ruby (Adele Jergens), prospector Pete (Raymond Hatton), Pete’s mule Diablo, and a man named Radek (Paul Dubox) who apparently didn’t quite make it into the canyon in time as he is suffering from severe radiation sickness and signs of mutation.
For those disappointed in the lack of poster-depicted monster in the previous entry, good news! Day the World Ended includes a monster that is a very close match for the one on the theatrical poster. Imagine your, um, terror when you see this neckless monstrosity lumber awkwardly into view with its scales, claws, fangs, horns, three eyes, long ears, and tiny vestigial arms growing out of its shoulders. You would almost think that creature creator Paul Blaisdell just took everything he could find in his workshop and threw it together. The only thing more ridiculous than the monster is the ideas regarding how genetic mutation works. I’ll happily accept, for the sake of the story, that radiation can create monsters. Where Day the World Ended starts to lose me is on the assumption that all mutation is the same. The characters assume that Radek will mutate exactly the same as the monster and thus they keep him around to get a better idea of what they are up against. Before Jim hid his family away in the canyon, he was involved in H-bomb testing performed by the military. He saw and sketched pictures of three animals that were mutated by the radiation. His sketches show all the animals growing scales, horns, and fangs not unlike those of the monster in the canyon. One animal, a monkey, had even grown a third eye, large ears, and tiny extra arms on its shoulders.
In the end, neither radiation nor mutation has any long-lasting impact. After more than seven weeks without rain, a storm comes and just washes all the radiation away. The monster, whose mutations had made it immune to radiation, is unable to survive clean, pure things. The real danger in the canyon turns out to be Tony. Having rid himself of Ruby in a shockingly brutal fashion, he decides to kill off everyone else so he can have Louise all to himself. But Rick and Jim are not going to stand by and allow Tony to treat Louise like property, especially when it gets in the way of their plans to do pretty much the same thing.
- Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
With a title like Attack of the Crab Monsters, you know exactly what to expect and, once again, atomic radiation is to blame. A group of scientists and sailors come to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean to study the effects of nearby nuclear testing on the local wildlife. The fact that a previous team mysteriously disappeared without a trace is curious but no cause for concern for this second group. Before the team has even made camp, one of the sailors clumsily falls into the water and is pulled to the surface minus his head. This also does not raise any alarms. After watching the seaplane that dropped them off explode in the sky (in what seems to be just an unfortunate coincidence unrelated to anything else happening in the film), everyone settles in to get to work.
Attack of the Crab Monsters is probably my favourite so-bad-it’s-good Corman film simply because its premise is so far out there. Yes, radiation has resulted in two giant, man-eating crab monsters and they are fabulous. Larger than a man with creepy, human-like eyes, they somehow manage to seem cheap and impressive at the same time. But why stop at merely big crabs? Although it is never shown in action, the crabs have the power of pyrokinesis and use it to melt rock, fusing it into glass as they destroy the island from underneath. That’s not bad but we need to think bigger. The minds of whomever these crabs eat are absorbed, causing the crabs to effectively become multiple individuals housed in a single crustacean. Sounds good but then why do they continue to attack their human friends? The answer is obvious. As biologist Dale (Richard Garland) explains, “Preservation of the species. Once they were men. Now they are land crabs.” Having eaten scientists, these crabs are now very intelligent and are planning an all-out assault on the world of men. How do we know this? I failed to mention that these crabs can also talk with the voices of the men they ate. Not with their crabby lips, but telepathically or by telekinetically making metal vibrate.
This is all wonderful stuff but the crabs still seem a little vulnerable. A bullet between their sleepy eyes should make short work of them. That is, of course, unless their physical properties make them immune to bullets. Leader of the scientists and all around know-it-all Dr. Karl Weigand (Leslie Bradley) indicates that the molecular structure of the crabs is entirely disrupted. In full science babble mode, he explains to handyman, Hank Chapman (Russell Johnson, best known, ironically, as the Professor on Gilligan’s Island), that there is no cohesion between the atoms and thus blades, bullets, and other weapons can pass through the crab bodies like ”a finger through mercury”. Now we’ve gone too far as there is no way to destroy the monsters. Dr. Weigand comes to the rescue again. The crabs are “negatively charged” and thus positive energy (what you and I would call electricity) can turn them instantly to ash.
If all this doesn’t sound completely entertaining, you’re probably on the wrong site and definitely reading the wrong article.
- War of the Satellites (1958)
Both Roger Corman and Joe Dante can attest to the fact that any film is immediately improved by the presence of Dick Miller. Character actor Miller often took on small roles as an everyman usually put upon by the hassles of life. He appeared in many Corman films and every film Dante directed until Miller’s passing in 2019. Miller became known as “That Guy” for appearing in so many small parts in so many movies that people would inevitably say, “Hey, it’s that guy.” It is sometimes claimed that A Bucket of Blood, another Corman film, was Miller’s only leading role. One year prior, however, Corman cast Miller as the hero in War of the Satellites.
What first strikes you about War of the Satellites is how little the writer seems to understand what a satellite is. The story starts with Earth scientists, and their United Nations backers, watching their tenth attempt at a manned satellite be destroyed by a mysterious energy barrier in space. The idea of sending crew after crew after crew to their deaths against some unknown force is horrifying, especially given that the story works just as well with only two attempts. Equally mind-boggling is that, despite the use of the word ‘orbit’, each satellite has come in contact with the barrier once it reaches a certain distance from Earth. That’s not an orbit and those are not satellites.
The second thing to occur to you when watching War of the Satellites is that it is not a war between satellites. Calling it a war at all is a bit of a stretch. Earth receives a message from an alien race (the Masters of the Spiral Nebula Ghana) via what looks sort of like a large bottle rocket found by two annoying teens making out in a convertible. The message indicates that the barrier is in place to prevent mankind’s exploration of space as we are deemed a contamination. Nice of them to wait until they killed ten spacecraft worth of astronauts before telling us this. With no clear justification, the aliens follow up their message with worldwide fires, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and similar. Fortunately for us, we have Dave Boyer (Dick Miller) to give a rousing speech at the U.N. to remind everyone that we are Earthlings and we are not going to be pushed around! Dave, Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot), and Dr. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon) prepare for immediate launch into space with a team of volunteers. Unfortunately, no one knows that Dr. Van Ponder has been killed and replaced by an alien lifeform with the ability to duplicate itself.
The launch of the satellite is a complicated affair. For some reason, it involves the launch of three separate rockets that eject pieces into space that then magically stick together to form the satellite. Be sure to take a moment to enjoy all the rockets and satellite pieces moving around on strings against a starry background. Once completed, the satellite is surprisingly spacious with long corridors and numerous rooms that seem to serve little purpose but usually contain at least one leather-bound lounge chair. In actual fact, the production could only afford two lounge chairs and the endless corridors were accomplished by moving around a small number of door frames.
It doesn’t take long for the crew to realize that Dr. Van Ponder is not human. It is Dave who notices that Van Ponder is perfectly symmetrical, right down to his fingerprints. Naturally, actor Richard Devon is not symmetrical nor was there any attempt to make him appear symmetrical but we won’t worry about that. A physical fight ensues including the firing of guns in a spaceship. Of course, in the end humanity prevails and the satellite is able to break through the energy barrier. How this saves Earth from the rampant destruction induced by the aliens is never touched on. Regardless, Dave, Susan, and whatever crew members remain hurtle off into the unknown reaches of space at the speed of light. Did I mention it’s not a satellite?
- Teenage Caveman (1958)
Star Robert Vaughn once declared Teenage Caveman as the worst movie ever made. With credentials like that, how can lovers of cheese not be intrigued? The film starts with a narrator telling the biblical story of creation before segueing into everyday caveman life. You’ll immediately notice that all the cave women and cave children and even some of the cavemen have carefully styled and modern haircuts. Robert Vaughn himself appears to be wearing some kind of product in his hair and is very clean shaven. Vaughn portrays, well actually none of the characters really have names. Despite these cavemen being very talkative and capable of discussing some fairly complex concepts, they have yet to consistently grasp the idea of naming things. The closest Vaughn’s character has to a name is The Symbol Maker’s Son.
The Symbol Maker’s Son, like all (26 year old) teenagers wants more than his lot in life. Specifically, he wants to be able to travel beyond the river to where the forests grow lush and the land is populated by stop motion brontosauruses, plastic elephants, iguanas with extra bony plates and horns glued to them, and puppet tyrannosauruses. Unfortunately any travel beyond the river is forbidden by The Word of The Law. Breaking The Law is punishable by death, or by the tribe not talking to you for a while, or sometimes it just seems to be overlooked. Upholding The Law are the wise men of the tribe. These include three guys who sit all day every day worshipping The Three Great Gifts of Man. The gifts are a small fire, a wheel with no purpose, and the ability to make something only to then destroy it (represented by clay). Clearly the wise men are not a progressive group but The Law is not without some justification as the land beyond the river contains “dirt that eats men” and “The God That Gives Death with Its Touch” (they really need to invent names).
Chalk it up to the recklessness of youth, but The Symbol Maker’s Son repeatedly ignores The Law. He is at least partially goaded into it by The Black Bearded One who has eyes for The Symbol Maker’s Son’s girlfriend, The Blond Maiden. (Sigh.) On the other side of the river The Symbol Maker’s Son watches an alligator with a crest glued to it fight a lizard, kills a squirrel with a rock, spots a giant armadillo, and invents both the pan flute and the bow and arrow. It’s not all fun and games, however, as one of the other teenage boys he convinces to join him is killed by quicksand and he comes up against The God That Gives Death with Its Touch. This is a shambling, humanoid creature with bulging eyes and what appears to be a large beak.
Teenage Caveman concludes with a twist I guarantee you will not see coming. It comes in the form of a long exposition told by a dead man. Then, just as you are starting to accept this new interpretation of events, a second narration adds yet another, even more unbelievable layer. Don’t be surprised if you are left questioning everything you thought you knew about reality.
Available for streaming on Tubi.
- The Wasp Woman (1959)
We end this article as we started, with a disappointingly inaccurate theatrical poster. A gigantic wasp with a woman’s head would be a great practical effect, but The Wasp Woman is a Corman movie. Instead we get a normal sized woman with antennae, vaguely insectile eyes, and a bad complexion. Susan Cabot, seen in The War of the Satellites the previous year, stars as Janice Starlin. Miss Starlin is the founder, owner, and namesake of a very successful cosmetics company. Unfortunately, sales have dropped considerably. In a board meeting Starlin is forced to face the uncomfortable truth; the public has come to look to her as the face of Janice Starlin Enterprises but after sixteen years she is not as attractive and vibrant looking as she once was. As she puts it, “Not even Janice Starlin can remain a glamour girl forever.”
Enter Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark). Dr. Zinthrop is a scientist working on a youth serum based on enzymes from the royal jelly of a queen wasp. As proof of the success of his serum, he injects a white, long-haired guinea pig. Within minutes, the guinea pig has reverted…to a white lab mouse. Starlin is very excited and agrees to fund Zinthrop’s continued research on the condition that she herself be the first human trial. The experiments move forward, despite warnings Starlin receives from one of her own researchers to steer clear from wasps and wasp jelly. “Socially the queen wasp is on level with the black widow spider. They’re both carnivorous. They paralyze their victims and then take their time devouring them alive.” You wouldn’t think that was at all relevant to using their jelly for cosmetic purposes but then you wouldn’t be familiar with sci-fi horrors from the 1950s.
After three weeks of injections and some progress, Starlin grows impatient and starts sneaking extra injections of a higher dose of the enzymes. At another board meeting, all the men can’t stop staring at Starlin as she appears almost twenty years younger. That same day, Dr. Zinthrop wanders out into traffic and gets hit by a car. In a coma with suspected brain damage, he is unavailable to help as Starlin develops headaches. He also cannot warn her about negative side effects to the enzymes that he has witnessed in a cat. Where this is heading is painfully obvious and the film makes no attempt to hide who the horrible wasp woman is that is attacking and eating victims in the office at night.
Perhaps The Wasp Woman is meant as a metaphor for the struggle women have in the male dominated business world. Despite being the head of her own company, Janice Starlin was dependent on and judged by her looks. Despite being their boss, most of the men she worked with treated Starlin with veiled condescension. Perhaps Roger Corman was ahead of his time in addressing the male-driven female obsession with beauty. Or perhaps, he just wanted to make a monster insect movie and the writing simply matched the attitudes of the time.
This is my contribution to the So Bad It’s Good Blogathon. My cheese loving accomplice on this site has also written an article for the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Rebecca of Taking Up Room for allowing us to share our reverence of all things camp.