By Jerry Chandler
By 1962, Roger Corman was well on his way to creating the film resume that unfortunately earned him such nicknames as "The King of Schlock." He’d found low budget success with such films as The Wasp Woman, A Bucket of Blood, Little Shop of Horrors, It Conquered the World, Sorority Girl, and Teenage Doll among others.
How much success had he found? It depends on what you consider successful. After being burned by the nature of the studio system, Corman struck out on his own to make the movies he wanted to make. None of them were the comparative financial successes that Star Wars, Jaws, or Avatar would be for others in later years. You certainly won’t find them regularly listed in the top ten or top twenty box office winners for the years in which his films were released. But, one thing Roger Corman could for longest time say about his films is that they earned a profit at the box office. For decades, Roger Corman could make a claim that few others in the business could; even those who had made far less than the 400+ films Roger Corman has directed and/or produced at this point. He could for a very long time say that he had made hundreds of films and never lost a dime on any of them.
Well, except for one film in 1962. It’s something of a shame that The Intruder was for decades the only film Roger Corman lost money on, because, in some ways, it was one of the best films he’d made at that point in his career.
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The Intruder was born of and during a socially turbulent time in America’s history. It started its life in 1959 as a novel by Charles Beaumont and was almost immediately optioned as film by Seven Arts. Despite their interest in the book, the nature of the material made it a difficult sell to investors and the studio found themselves unable to get anyone interested in backing the film. In 1960, Roger Corman acquired the rights and set out to make the film. Originally seeing the film with a budget of several hundred thousand dollars and starring a major name like Tony Randall, Corman found himself facing the same issue that Seven Arts had faced. No studio or investor he went to with the proposal for the film wanted anything to do with it. Eventually, after finding one investor who would offer up a small amount for the project, he and his brother Gene Corman would fund the film with their own money; risking both professional and personal financial disaster in the process as well as their mortgaged homes.
The movie would finally start filming with a production budget of roughly $80,000 or $90,000 (depending on the source) and feature in the role of its lead character a then largely unknown actor whose career had mostly involved working as a bit player on TV, William Shatner. The problems with getting the film off the ground were finally behind them. It was when the filming started that some of the serious troubles began.
The Intruder was the story of Adam Cramer, a racist rabble-rouser who journeys to the fictional southern town of Caxton just as the townsfolk are facing the desegregation of their local schools. Suffice it to say, he’s not there to make things go smoothly.
The thing about the timing of The Intruder is both the novel and the film came out while these events were actually happening in America. 1959 and 1962 were smack in the middle of Martin Luther King Jr’s rise to prominence as civil rights leader. It was during the time of protests and riots where peaceful protestors were being beaten by both angry white mobs and local law enforcement. It was the era that saw the largest of the protests against desegregation in Little Rock Arkansas and saw Virginia’s Harry F. Byrd declare a “massive resistance” policy that saw multiple Virginia schools shut down for several years rather than allow black students to enter them. It was just a few years after the Southern Manifesto was signed by a number of Southern Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives and federal troops had to be sent to a school to ensure the safety of the Little Rock Nine while being just a few years before the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To put that in a somewhat shorter way; the American South was an emotional and social powder keg when the film was being made. Because of the restrictions he faced with the budget he had vs the need to have a realistic looking small southern town on film, Corman was faced with filming The Intruder in several small towns in southeast Missouri. There were times before the filming was over where both Corman brothers were threatened with physical violence and death.
The Corman brothers had to use no small amount of trickery to get their film made; and to ensure their own safety. When locals were shown any part of the story or the script for the film, they were given watered down versions of it and incomplete bits of it so as to not actually fully show them what they were filming and what it was actually about. Some scenes where large crowds of locals were needed for Shatner’s hellraising rhetoric moments involved shooting everyone separately or multiple times. One key scene was done by shooting locals gathered around looking at almost nothing happening, shooting Shatner from behind not actually talking at a different point in time that evening, and getting close shots of Shatner at yet another time that evening from the POV of the front row viewers as he actually delivered the scripted lines in order to edit it all together into a seamless whole. A cross burning scene and the parade to the cross burning were done with somewhat similar trickery with an additional safeguard. The crew waited until the last day of filming, checked out of their hotels and packed their bags into their cars before the day’s filming, shot the cross burning scene in a deserted area, and then did the parade of vehicles before basically just driving straight out of town and heading as far down the road as they could go.
The finished product is an interesting film to watch. There are aspects of it that feel dated by now, but there are aspects of it that feel nowhere near dated enough.
Directed by Roger Corman with a screenplay by novelist and screenwriter Charles Beaumont, the movie opens with Adam Cramer (Shatner) coming to town by train. Once in town, Cramer presents himself as a representative of an organization called the Patrick Henry Society, a group interested in resisting desegregation. Cramer comes across was well spoken, well educated, and often charming. He first ingratiates himself with the locals by carefully and subtly playing on their prejudices and plays up the idea of desegregation as an undemocratic ruling tyrannically forced upon good people who shouldn’t have to be made to obey such unjust things.
For all the grief fans love to give Shatner about his acting, the performance he gives here is sometimes nothing short of brilliant. It can also be a little terrifying. In the span of moments across a single scene he can come across as the most charming and angelic man on screen, and then, with only a very subtle shift in his eyes and a twitch of his lips, reveal himself as a dark schemer and manipulator or a downright evil bastard before shifting back to the charming visitor just passing through town as soon as is needed. He handles scenes where Cramer is the “reasonable” racist- calm, collected, organized, and preaching the idea that violence is not needed to resist desegregation –and the terrifying, fire and brimstone preaching fanatic with equally convincing ease. He masterfully portrays a puppet master pulling the strings of the townsfolk and in total control, and just as masterfully portrays a sniveling coward when the script calls for it. It’s a performance unseen by many fans of William Shatner that they should probably be seeking it out if only to see just how good of a performer he can be and how good he was even in the early days of his career.
As Cramer arrives and starts weeding his way into the lives of the townsfolk, the town is already against the idea of desegregating the schools. However, the locals have chosen to grudgingly accept the fact that it will happen; but only just. Cramer quickly builds support for the cause of fighting desegregation of the local schools and further convinces some to start committing acts of terror against the local black population. Cramer leads some of the townsfolk into a black neighborhood for a cross burning; an act that emboldens the local racists.
Some in the townsfolk feed on Cramer’s words and act upon the anger he’s awakened in violent ways. A black family driving through town is stopped and threatened, and a group of townsfolk bomb a black church; an act that kills the local black pastor. The three events have the desired effect that Cramer was looking for. A segment of the townsfolk is ready to fight with any means they deem necessary to stop desegregation in their town, and the local black families are now terrified about what may happen if they send their children to school.
One of the white townsfolk, Tom McDaniel, played by Frank Maxwell, decides to stand against Cramer and goes to the black families in town to ask them to not give in to the terror tactics of some of the other people in the town. He then joins the students and walks them into the school past the angry looks of some of the other white townsfolk. Afterwards, some of Cramer’s most diehard followers corner McDaniel and beat him to within an inch of his life. He’s hospitalized with broken bones and has lost an eye. This event terrifies his daughter Ella, played by Beverly Lunsford, and Cramer sees an opportunity in her fear.
Cramer approached Ella and convinces her that she needs to do exactly as he tells her in order to resolve the issues her father created by walking the students to school. He also convinces her that if she doesn’t do as he says the results could cost her father his life.
He convinces her to go along with a plan to frame a black student in the school for a crime; telling her that it would only get him expelled and then cause the school to be forced to throw the other black students out with him. At Cramer’s direction, Ella asks Joey Greene, played by Charles Barnes, to help her with some heavy boxes that have to be moved from the storage room to another area. Joey agrees to help her, but once they’re in the storage room together Ella begins to scream. When others come running, Ella tells them that Joey tried to force himself on her.
This sets off an immediate firestorm in the town. Even as the principle sits down with Joey and both hears him out and believes that he did not do what he’s being accused of, Cramer gathers a lynch mob and marches them towards the school.
The mob arrives and finds Joey, determined to hang him then and there after beating him first. From there the film moves quickly towards its finale; an ending that, while dark, could have been much darker had it been real life rather than Hollywood storytelling.
While the finished film received some critical praise, it faced an uphill battle securing a release. The companies that agreed to release it soon pulled out of the deals to release it, and the Cormans had to take over handling the distribution of the film themselves. To some degree this was due to the reaction the distributors saw in the movie going public. A number of the general public were not happy to see such a film; especially when it cast characters like Cramer and his cohorts in such negative lights. Roger and Gene were called Communists (and more things far less polite) for releasing such a film in America, and Gene has recounted more than once the early screening stories of being held against theater walls by angry men saying he should be killed because of the film.
For many in the mainstream white population of the time, the idea of such a story told in such a way as this was like salt in an open wound; perhaps even with some of the usual target audiences for Corman movies of the day. For Roger Corman, it became something of a tragic commercial failure even as it become something of a critical success. But it was a failure he would relate in subsequent years of his being somewhat proud of. For him, the story and the movie were important. He viewed the racist climate of the day as a cancer on American society, and, as a storyteller, he sought to address it in one of the ways he best knew how.
The Intruder took nearly forty years to move from money loser to profitable film, and that was only in part because of a combination of a rerelease in Europe and a later DVD release of the film. That’s something of a shame, because the combination of being a financial failure and the raw nature of the look it took at southern towns in this era have kept it from being as widely seen as many of Corman’s other works.
The writing by Charles Beaumont is unflinching if at times almost vulgarly raw. Corman’s directing is nothing flashy here, but the style he uses works for the material. The acting ranges from oddly stilted to excellent depending on whether the scene relies on local extras or the main cast actors, but many scenes do use a combination of both. But when some of the lead actors in the film are given scenes where they can truly cut loose, they absolutely draw you into the story; perhaps at times in terrifying ways. The music is a bit of an odd duck. It doesn’t sound right at first, but slowly it becomes right to your ear as the way it’s composed ends up intensifying aspects of the story in ways a subtler score might not.
The Intruder is still out on DVD, and it is worth tracking down. It is not a feel good movie by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a light evening’s viewing at home. Frankly, it may also well be the type of film that could require for some in this day and age more than just a few trigger warnings. But it’s a film worth seeing (along with the special feature documentaries) even if you only ever watch it once.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.