American International Pictures conjures images of bold poster art, outrageous taglines, and weird movie titles. After all, this is the film studio that brought us movies like High School Hellcats, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (starring Michael Landon as a bad boy), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (the studio is credited for inventing the beach party genre), and Yog, Monster from Space (surprisingly, not a Scientology thing).
The independent production house was also known for a fast turn out, making movies in mere days and sometimes on budgets smaller than your college tuition. The stories were absurd and sensational, but they did more than titilate curious audiences. As Anthology Film Archives reminds us, AIP “challenged the established Hollywood studio system, and displayed an uncanny knack for anticipating and exploiting current trends. Its decades-long success was the result of a rapid-fire reaction and response that consistently beat the competition to the punch.”
Anthology Film Archives is looking back at the best of AIP in a retrospective that runs through September 3. We’ve highlighted a few of AIP’s most important movies — but the list is hardly complete. The company has released hundreds of films. Consider this your starting point.
The Corman-Poe cycle
King of the B’s Roger Corman is known for his low-budget films, featuring exploitation-savvy storylines, with just enough social commentary to make them unique. But Corman will always be remembered for his Edgar Allan Poe cycle (listed, below), which won the director his greatest acclaim. The filmmaker worked with luminaries like horror legend Vincent Price, film noir icon Peter Lorre, and cinematographer Floyd Crosby — who won one of the first Academy Awards ever given. “I was in a position where I was able to work with an Academy Award-caliber cameraman on low-budget films,” Corman told us during a recent interview. “Following the Hammer films, this becomes, I think, the most important moment in the post-1960 horror film, signaling a return to an all-out effort to terrify the audience… and a willingness to use any means at hand to do it,” Stephen King wrote of Corman’s 1961 Poe movie, The Pit and the Pendulum. Corman was the creative force who helped get AIP off the ground, working as a director and producer. In 1970, he founded his own production company, New World Pictures, but his legacy with AIP is secure.
House of Usher (1960) The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) The Premature Burial (1962) Tales of Terror (1962) The Raven (1963) The Haunted Palace (1963) The Masque of the Red Death (1964) The Tomb of Ligeia (1964).
X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes
A scienst (Ray Milland in a great performance) experiments with X-ray vision with disastrous results. Roger Corman directed and produced this 1963 low-budget gem, which the filmmaker shot in 15 days for a measly $300,000. Corman did the best he could with the movie’s special effects given his slim wallet, but the results are interesting and forced him to get creative. Corman is currently in talks to possibly remake the movie.
The Wild Angels
AIP started its legacy with teenage-themed movies. As Anthology Film Archives writes:
The United States in the 1950s was a nation in the midst of seismic transformations. A time of postwar prosperity, an ever-increasing car culture, and the eclipse of movies by the new medium of television, the era also brought the crystallization of a creature that had only recently emerged as a full-blown social and demographic phenomenon: the Teenager. No longer ushered straight from childhood into work and marriage, and newly liberated from home by the wide availability of the automobile, those who found themselves poised between childhood and adulthood comprised an enormous segment of the nation’s population, and, from the perspective of the merchants of entertainment, an audience ripe for exploitation.
But with the 1960s, AIP become “harder-edged,” and focused on subgenres like blaxploitation, outlaw, and biker films — as in the case of 1966’s The Wild Angels. Featuring an all-star cast (now, anyway), including Peter Fonda (as a Hell’s Angels chapter president!), Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, and Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life wife at the time), director Roger Corman also cast real-life Hell’s Angels for the biker tale. This was AIP’s way of tackling counterculture themes, which seemed like a natural fit for the studio’s sensational taglines.
This is what Jack Nicholson was doing before he became one Hollywood’s great bad boys — writing a drug movie for Roger Corman that starred Peter Fonda as an LSD initiate, and Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper as his trip guides. Needless to say, there was a lot of acid being passed around during the making of The Trip — even from straight-laced Corman, who felt he couldn’t make a movie about LSD unless he tried it for himself.
Pam Grier established herself as a blaxploitation icon in several AIP pictures — including Jack Hill’s 1974 film Foxy Brown, in which she played a revenge-seeking woman who disguises herself as a prostitute in order to take down the mobsters who murdered her boyfriend. “Foxy Brown represented, for me, one of the first truly independent women in cinema,” Grier said in a 2014 interview. Also see Coffy by AIP, which features Grier’s badass character hiding weapons in her afro.
AIP and Roger Corman gave many big-name directors their start in cinema, including maestro of the lurid, psychological thriller, Brian De Palma. His 1973 film Sisters is one of his earliest odes to Hitchcock. The director even got Hitchcock music collaborator Bernard Herrmann to work with him for his tale about conjoined twins, which was inspired by a real-life story.
Mario Bava is considered the grandfather of the giallo horror genre — sexual, gory horror-thrillers that helped shaped the slasher genre, while also being inspired by it. He made an Italian gothic horror film in 1960 that was originally banned in the UK due to its violence. Black Sunday’s sets are painterly, star Barbara Steele is otherworldly, and Bava’s story about a vampire-witch is riveting.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
The campiest art deco horror film starring Vincent Price you’ll ever see.
A twist on the traditional vampire narrative, featuring an 18th-century African prince turned undead blood-sucker in modern-day Los Angeles, 1972’s Blacula inspired a wave of horror movies starring African-Americans — previously unheard of.
Martin Scorsese almost got fired from his second big directing gig while working on 1972’s Boxcar Bertha, about Depression-era folk hero Bertha Thompson, an outlaw in Arkansas (played by Barbara Hershey). AIP wanted producer Roger Corman to take over after Socrsese’s first day of filming, but Corman believed in the enthusiastic young filmmaker (who drew 500 storyboards for the movie) and insisted they keep him on. The rest, as they say, is movie history.