Monday, March 4, 2024

The Vincent Price, Roger Corman, and Edgar Allan Poe Cycle

American International Pictures and director/producer Roger Corman took their low budget horror productions to the next atmospheric, macabre level in the 1960s with Vincent Price starring in seven gothic adaptations from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. 

House of Usher

A suitor inquires at the gloomy Usher estate about his ill betrothed in our first 1960 Poe adaptation, but her creepy brother Vincent Price explains the siblings suffer from several afflictions, sleepwalking tendencies, and family curses. Screenwriter Richard Matheson expands on The Fall of the House of Usher with demented sins of the father backstory and claustrophobic, melancholy characterizations. The hazy, bizarre dream sequence adds a surreal purgatory-like abstract to the cobwebs, thorns, and decrepit elegance while CinemaScope color accents the decaying manor, luxurious antiques, candelabras, and scarlet frocks. Certainly the cracked manor itself embodies the sibling strife and family vile, and Price’s Roderick is obsessed with their “peculiarities of temperament.” Though refined, even classy, he’s just a little too attached to his sister, and those over the top mannerisms match the acute senses and uncomfortable relationships. His opinion that marriage is impossible because their lineage must end could be understandable. Unfortunately, Roderick’s looming, fatalistic attitude goes from casual acceptance of illness and death to self fulfilling prophecy with catalepsy, burials, and madness. The white haired Price is perfectly disturbed, moody, and wonderfully bent, crawling out of his skin in fear before the morbid dust and fiery destruction.

The Pit and The Pendulum

It’s medieval Spain and Price’s distraught Nicholas Medina suspects his mysteriously late wife Barbara Steele (Shivers) was buried alive as Corman and Matheson flesh out Poe’s psychological torture in this 1961 eighty minutes. The torrid family history and more ghosts terrorize the current houseguests amid music that plays by itself, scared to death diagnoses, hoax accusations, and crypt exhumations. The gothic mood may be slow for today’s viewers, but the lush, isolated castle, candles, and tricked out dungeon are beautiful as well as scary. Despite neck rolls and puffy pantaloons, the quality ensemble keeps up the titular clockwork suspense as the eerie, torturous cycle feeds Nicholas’ escalating breakdown. Distorted, tinted flashbacks, flowing gowns, and billowing veils invoke the ghostly ladies while Steele cackles and screams. We feel Nicholas’ trauma and mental decay as Price’s camp steals the show. After one too many frights, he crosses into horrific madness. The expected Inquisition revival finale may become too comical for contemporary viewers, but the perilous pendulum editing is well done alongside torches, iron maidens, racks, adulterous twists, and macabre toppers.  

Tales of Terror 

Not to be confused with 1963’s Twice Told Tales and Price’s trio of Nathaniel Hawthorne stories, this 1962 Poe trilogy skips the usual anthology framing device in favor of heartbeats and those who don’t stay dead in “Morella.” There’s immediate, foggy atmosphere as drunken, grieving Price’s ill daughter returns to the cobwebbed family manor. He’s not happy to see her because her birth caused the death of his beloved wife – whose creepy corpse remains in the shrouded bedchamber. Mournful Price recounts the decades of resentment and his wife’s deathbed vow of revenge before his horror at the ghostly overlays and restored corpse. The freaky switcharoos make for great morbid implications complete with a fiery finish and satisfied smiles. Peter Lorre also does his best bumbling asides in “The Black Cat,” for he hates his wife’s feline and wants her money for more wine. Thirsty, he crashes the local wine tasting convention and challenges Price’s deliciously dandy, cat loving sommelier Luchresi. The unorthodox swallow versus the sophisticated sniff, swish, spit leads to an illicit romance, and the jealous Montresor borrows from “The Cask of Amontillado” before brickwork, nightmares, ghostly taunts, and meowing toppers. Wife Debra Paget suspects Dr. Basil Rathbone’s ulterior motives in the could have been full length in itself “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Lush colors and interiors accent the debates on the prevention of dying versus monstrous tampering with the beyond once Price’s Valdemar is hypnotized at the moment of death. Since our charlatan has control, there is no relief from the moaning limbo. The croaking voice and decomposing pasty begat an oozing zombie Price for one final gasp. Despite the humorous second tale that should have been first disrupting the morbid atmosphere and nothing super terrifying, this remains an entertaining anthology showcasing three different Vincents. 

The Raven 

Viewers expecting a faithful adaptation may be disappointed in this lighthearted 1963 medieval romp. The psychedelic montages and rapping at the chamber door recitations start spooky enough, and the cobwebs, skeletons, bubbling cauldrons, and dead man’s hair from the family crypt provide mood. This is however, a chance for all involved to laugh at themselves with who’s trying to steal who’s magical equipment, oversize robes, and spell ingredients such as dehydrated bat’s blood. The bewitched coachman, wild carriage rides, and perilous window ledges match the colorful costumes and crafty bird scenes. Sure, the special effects are corny puffs of smoke and neon lasers on top of borrowed castle footage. The score provides comical beats but the wit is carried in the personalities, banter, and ad libs. Not so deceased unscrupulous wife Hazel Court switches allegiance, and ornery, fluttering Peter Lorre has been turned into a talking raven yelling at his dim witted son Jack Nicholson (The Shining). He accuses Grand Master Scarabus Boris Karloff (also of the great 1935 The Raven) of being a dirty old man for bending his wand, and Scarabus feigns innocence amid self-aware trickery gone awry.. Milk drinking, fatherly wizard Price just wants to practice his magic quietly at home, and it’s amazing how he plays Dr. Craven so straight faced when saying things like “diabolic mind control.” Everyone knows what they are here to do, and the ensemble does it again in the unrelated, bemusing follow up The Comedy of Terrors. Although there’s some redundant action, the eerie meets preposterous moments are well paced with time to chuckle over the duplicitous winks and magical blackmail. The fun, fiery finish all comes down to a wizard’s duel with floating chairs, rubber bats, and confetti.  

The Haunted Palace

This 1963 tale adapted by writer Charles Beaumont borrows more from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward than it does Poe’s titular stanza with townsfolk burning Vincent Price’s warlock Curwen for using the Necronomicon to raise Cthulhu and cursing Arkham’s descendants. 100 years later, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) inherits the family ruin and slowly becomes possessed by Curwen’s spirit amid bizarre deaths and deformed villagers. The colonial mayhem, fog, and lightning establish the sinister atmosphere while eerie music sets off the subsequent ornate Victorian style. Smoke and mirrors effects make for a few very chilling moments, and Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man) is perfection as the creepy and most definitely not so innocent caretaker. Lovely wife Debra Paget has her suspicions on Curwen overtaking her husband, but the picture runs out of time before completely exploring their tender relationship and its explosive break. Our Man Vincent differentiates well between the two men, subtly struggling with his inner resistance before great outbursts and physical altercations. The slick, ruthless Curwen replaces his gentlemanly descendant as the man handlings, resurrections, and naughty implications escalate. Certainly, the Necronomicon back story and Cthulhu allusions could have been better explained with more tentacles and dungeon scenery, and the recycled fire footage makes for an abrupt end. Fortunately, this is an entertaining and scary little picture nonetheless. 

The Masque of the Red Death

Our Prince Prospero leaves the villagers to die of the Red Death while the rest of the nobility gather at his castle to wait out the plague with evenings of pleasure, masquerades, and debauchery in this lavish, vibrant 1964 treat. Beaumont skillfully weaves Poe’s tale of disease and comeuppance with his vengeful “Hop-Frog” short, creating a devilishly charming yet dreadfully spooky examination on deceit, pride, and gluttony. Mortal fears and brief religious arguments layer the knives, ritual dreams, and drunken decadence before Death Incarnate enters wearing the red Prospero has forbidden. Vixen Hazel Court is sinfully good in her bewitching, satanic ways versus angelic in white peasant Jane Asher (Alfie), who’s righteous, innocent naiveté is at risk from Prospero’s suave viciousness. Outlandish hats, plumes, and colorful costumes accentuate Price’s pomp and revelry even as his fatal commands are subdued and chilling. His frightening face to face mayhem provides social commentary on corruption, elitism, and evil as superb horror should.

The Tomb of Ligeia

Price’s Verden Fell vows that his late wife Elizabeth Shepherd (Damien: Omen II) will defy death, becoming a sun-sensitive reclusive until the beautiful Rowena (also Shepherd) stumbles upon his ruined abbey. They marry despite Ligeia’s Egyptian antiques, black cat, and lingering spirit permeating their lives as Robert Towne’s (Shampoo) 1964 adaptation of Poe’s short story weaves Bronte mood, morbid interiors, necrophilia allusions, and feline ambiguity. Director Corman also departs from the surreal dark look of the earlier Poe films with bright English locales, gothic priories, Stonehenge strolls, and tender romance contrasting the will power versus grief and life over death itself suggestion. A  very disturbing and well done dream sequence, scratches, swats, and possessions provide scares while Shepherd’s chemistry and emotion remain believable as the creepiness increases. She’s freaky in the duel showdown as Ligeia, too. Though simultaneously showing his age yet looking younger, Price’s Verden is surprisingly sympathetic, even sad and pathetic with his dependence on his little dark glasses. What hope has he when Ligeia has her claws in him, even from beyond the grave? This Poe finale is not about today’s horror in your face but remains a stylized treatise on pesky cats, fatal innuendo, and frail mortality.

Want even more macabre? Also part of Corman’s cycle, 1962’s The Premature Burial features Ray Milland instead of Vincent Price. Price himself also later appeared in the unrelated one man anthology An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe in 1970.

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