How Roger Corman’s Mad Moviemaking Genius Turned One Movie into FourMovies Features Roger Corman
“The best film school you can go to isn’t USC, isn’t UCLA, it isn’t NYU. It’s if you can get [to] apprentice Roger Corman for a while.”—Bill Warren
For American filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephanie Rothman and Jack Hill, the above statement rang especially true. Over the course of his nearly 70-year career, Roger Corman has utilized his clever Type A mind to produce exploitation works that advantageously acquainted hungry young filmmakers with thrill-seeking audiences. Many times, these works took Corman and his protégés to some pretty far-out places, to work on even more far-out projects. One of these places was behind the Iron Curtain, 1961 Dubrovnik to be exact. Here, the business-minded producer would turn an invitation to the Pula Film Festival into a profitable motion picture deal—one that would eventually lead to the creation of three additional variant films, a legal complaint from its lead actor, a three-part article by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas and a limited-edition box set from independent British distributor Arrow Video.
The story begins in an ancient Roman amphitheater in Yugoslavia. Corman was approached by a man named Georgi, a representative of a state-run studio, with a ready-to-shoot crime script and a proposition. “If you can give us a leading man, the lead heavy, and someone to handle the English dialogue, we will shoot it and give you the English rights for twenty thousand [dollars],” he recalls in his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. Corman read the script that day and, within a few hours, the deal was closed. The film was titled Operacija Ticijan, or Operation Titian, and was to be shot in Dubrovnik by the Yugoslavian studio and directed by Radoš Novakovic. In keeping with his part of the deal, Corman sent William Cambell to play the lead, Patrick Magee as the heavy and a green Francis Ford Coppola to act as the (uncredited) story editor. Corman, busy with another project at the time, could not be present during the film’s production and, when he finally got to see the finished product, was unhappy with the results.
Though Operation Titian is a completely competent film, Corman knew he would have a hard time selling a foreign crime drama to American audiences. So, he sent the film to the editing room, where it would be recut and reshot to create Portrait in Terror, an expanded, horror version of the original film. Later, seeing the production value in the film’s gorgeous Adriatic setting and wanting to reward him for his work on Dementia 13, Corman passed the film along to a young Jack Hill. For his directorial debut, Corman gave Hill $900 and five days of studio time—with the condition that he use at least 30 minutes of footage from Operation Titian. Hill took the opportunity and ran with it. His version would be titled Blood Bath. In a trailer introduction for Trailers from Hell, the exploitation filmmaker describes his original script as a tale about a mad artist whose twisted visions of the past drive him to murder women and embalm their deceased bodies in hot wax. This version of the film, however, never saw the light of day. Once Hill wrapped the project and assembled a first cut, he left to work on his next venture, Spider Baby. Blood Bath sat on the shelf for a while and then, for one reason or another, Corman passed the work over to another young director. This time, it was his then-apprentice Stephanie Rothman, a fresh USC film graduate who caught his attention when she became the first woman ever to be awarded the Directors Guild of America fellowship.
Rothman’s additional scenes transformed Hill’s original psycho killer story into a monstrous vampire film. According to The Trouble with Titan Revisited, Blood Bath contains roughly four minutes of Operation Titian, 37 minutes of Jack Hill’s work and 20 minutes of Rothman’s reshoots. The film was released in drive-in theaters as the B-picture to Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood. From there, the film was recut and reshot one last time to form Track of the Vampire, the fourth and final version that combines Blood Bath with even more scenes from Operation Titian to form a 72-minute television-friendly version.
Much like the behind-the-scenes stories of this wild Corman venture, the films themselves get messier and messier with each additional revision.
Here are the four films that resulted from Roger Corman’s wackiest business venture to date, ranked:
1. Operation Titian (1963) AKA Operacija TicijanDirector: Radoš Novakovic
Written by Vlastimir “Vlasta” Radovanovic, Operation Titian is a co-production between Avala Film and Roger Corman. The black-and-white thriller is set amidst Dubrovnik’s booming tourist season, where local artist Ugo Bonacic (Vjekoslav Afric) has just been murdered in his home. When an American homicide investigator gets put on the case, he and his investigative journalist partner discover that a mysterious Italian tourist (Patrick Magee) and a stolen copy of a Titian Renaissance artwork are somehow connected to the crime. Meanwhile, artist Toni (William Campbell), the only living relative of the late Bonacic and someone who has his own relationship to the stolen artwork, tries to rekindle a past romance.
Narratively, Operation Titian isn’t as clear-cut as some of its later renditions. The film delivers on the subplots it sets up and surprises with a twist ending, but, at times, can be hard to follow and relies on unimaginative conversational dialogue to deliver key exposition. It, however, earns its number-one spot for its stylish direction, fantastic worldbuilding and invigorating score.
Operation Titian often showcases its more ominous sequences in gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting. The best example of this happens immediately in the film’s opening scene, where a silhouetted man in a summer suit and hat wanders the mostly-empty Dubrovnik streets in the dark of night. As the shady figure slithers out from the dimly lit alleyway darkness and into brighter city areas, Novakovic films his shadow instead of his actual body. The result is a giant outline of the man being casted upon the town’s historic brick architecture. Without a line of dialogue from the mysterious figure, this opening scene establishes the film’s grim setting. In Novakovic’s Dubrovnik, the streets are unsafe and the city is haunted by an evil presence.
This worldbuilding continues throughout the film as Novakovic prioritizes brooding images of the city’s seaside landscape and the power of its Adriatic waters. During a later murder scene, the film builds suspense between close ups of its killer and victim. We brace ourselves for the expected horror ahead, but just as the victim realizes that she is about to be murdered, an image of her dread-filled face is crosscut with a jarring insert of a wave violently crashing on a nearby rock. It’s a stylish choice that may have been made in large part due to film regulations in Yugoslavia at the time, but one that nonetheless gives its setting a powerful and distinct voice. In Operation Titian, Mother Nature and the haunting seaside town are characters just as much as Campbell or Magee. Their threatening aura and unpredictability add to feelings of paranoia and danger. The film also has wonderful sequences of action. Between cool underwater footage, point-of-view fight scenes and dramatic moments (one of the investigators falling down crowded stairs), the film is most alive in times of conflict.
What’s more is that Titian, tonally, balances these darker elements with lighter moments of romance and humor. This is due, in large part, to its jazzy musical score. Its music, created by Bojan Adamic, adds a New Wave feel to the thriller. It feels very inspired by Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows score, improvised for the film by musical giant Miles Davis in a single night. Here, Paris is swapped for Dubrovnik—and although Titian’s somewhat confusing plot makes it so that it’s not as great as work of La Nouvelle Vague—it certainly has its shining moments that make it worth the watch (even if it’s just once).
2. Blood Bath (1966)Director: Jack Hill, Stephanie Rothman
In the number two spot, we have the directorial debut of Jack Hill and his strangely orchestrated collaboration with Stephanie Rothman. For Blood Bath, Corman was able to negotiate a deal with lead actor William Campbell to come back for reshoots. According to an interview with Tim Lucas, Campbell agreed to come back for five days of work. Campbell agreed at the time thinking it would be light work, but was shocked upon receiving the script and finding that this “reshoot” was actually the making of an almost entirely different movie.
Blood Bath is a straight horror film that follows Antonio Sordi (William Campbell), a crazed painter haunted by memories of a 15th century woman. In moments of madness, Sordi possesses the power to become a vampiric monster and is driven to kill women, paint their slain bodies and, finally, dip their corpses in a boiling vat of wax. The film also centers Sordi’s artistic contemporaries, a group of pseudo-intellectual artists that cross paths with the killer thanks to the overlap of some mutual friends.
Although the film features the work of three different directors (Novakovic, Hill, Rothman), its story is mostly cohesive and easy to follow. The film’s candid narrative points regarding questions of male artists, female subjects and artistic exploitation make it miles deeper than Portrait in Terror and Track of the Vampire. Thematically, Blood Bath is interested in the horror of being a female muse and the violence one can face in that position. During the climax (in a line that was presumably written by Hill), Sordi taunts a woman he is going to murder: “What an honor to be preserved forever, like the Mona Lisa. Beautiful beyond description. Untouched by time and age.” In Blood Bath, being a muse is not a fulfilling or beautiful thing, rather a dangerous badge that strips women of their agency and personhood. Here, women are not only viewed as objects of the male gaze, but literally turned into them through creative horror elements.
This particular production is so convoluted that it would be almost impossible to pinpoint exactly which filmmaker contributed to its overall effectiveness, but it is fairly easy to observe Rothman’s feminist voice when comparing the piece with the rest of her filmography.
3. Portrait in Terror (1965)Director: Michael Roy
Portrait in Terror is essentially an expanded version of Operation Titian. Beyond the addition of a graphic murder scene, recutting and inclusion of a previously used Corman-production score, the film follows a similar plot to its predecessor. The editing in this version was primarily to change the genre from the original crime thriller to a straightforward horror work. Essentially, Portrait in Terror prioritizes scenes whose main purpose is to advance its plot, not build atmosphere. While the editing does make the somewhat confusing story of the original film much easier to follow, it also sucks out all the style and imagery that made the original film worth watching to begin with. The result is a film that feels like a highlight reel of the original; it’s Operation Titian devoid of all its charm.
4. Track of the Vampire (1966)Director: Jack Hill, Stephanie Rothman
Similarly, Track of the Vampire is a lot like Blood Bath, except its additional padding to make the film television-length confuses its story even more. For much of the film, Track of the Vampire follows the same narrative as Blood Bath, but adds a few bizarre scenes that completely throw off its pacing and watchability.
This alteration includes a ridiculously long filler sequence of Antonio Sordi’s (William Campbell) love interest, Dorean (Lori Saunders), dancing on the beach. The film establishes that she’s a ballerina in training, but the lengthy scene adds nothing positive to the plot or overall viewing experience.
A better example of padding occurs when the film uses footage from Titian to completely rewrite the original characters and create a dramatic love triangle subplot. Using dubbing and creative dialogue, Patrick Magee is transformed from an Italian murder suspect into a domestic, jealous husband. Of course, the dubbing doesn’t match the actors’ lips and, having already seen Titian, the inclusion of the scene feels completely out of left field. But on a purely narrative level, it works—and it’s pretty damn clever. Track of the Vampire is especially crappy as a standalone film, but as a piece of the larger production puzzle, it’s quite inspirational.
Within these four films, you’re not going to find a magnum opus or an overlooked masterpiece, but what you will discover is a masterclass on editing and sound. Seen together, Operation Titian, Portrait in Terror, Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire are an encouraging bunch of films whose failures, mishaps, resourcefulness and fierce DIY attitude are a much-needed reminder of the magic and endless possibility of cinema. You watch them today and it prompts one to think, “Hey, if this is all it takes to make a movie, then I can do that too.” They’re inspiring, encouraging and a hell of a good time. They’re Roger Corman’s Film School in a box.
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.