Tag Archives: Roger Corman

Tales of Terror (1962)

2.5 stars out of 4.

When you have such a diverse and astounding canon as that of Edgar Allan Poe, it becomes a challenge to select which of the masterpieces to adapt to film. Roger Corman had established a formula of taking a singular Poe short story and adapting it into a full narrative framework, but was in need of a different approach for the fourth film. This time he decided to make an anthology film of multiple shorter Poe adaptations.

Tales of Terror is that result, a film made up of three adaptations: Morella, The Black Cat and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Unfortunately for some of my personal favorite Poe stories, the resulting film feels more at times like a contractual obligation or money grab than a fully realized film.

The film is introduced and linked by some brief but well written narrated passages read by Vincent Price, who appears in all three segments. If the resulting film had been as interesting as these brief passages then this review would not be necessary. As it stands the film reduces three Poe stories to weakened pastiche of the previous films, a smart and funny take on Poe, and a great Poe tale buried in staple melodrama respectively.

Morella opens the film, or to put it more correctly, an adaptation of Morella in the traditional Corman Poe framework. A young girl arrives at the same house set found in all the previous films, in order to find her father. All she finds is a house in disrepair and a drunken brooding Vincent Price with some bad makeup demanding that she leave. Price blames her for his beloved wife’s death and has shut her out of his depressed existence ever since. She has now returned in a vain attempt to reconcile with her estranged father due to a terminal illness. This reveal of course softens some of Vincent’s brooding and there is a hinting of building a father-child relationship anew. Of course, the discovery of Morella’s corpse on Vincent’s bed hardly raises an eyebrow which should set up the final conclusion. Wifey cannot stand for their daughter’s return and her vengeful spirit suddenly rises up in a pitiful process shot to swoop through the house and kill her. Then her body rises restored and begins to strangle Vincent in the burning mansion, in the manner by which Vincent is destined to die in virtually every film he appears. This adaptation virtually disregards Poe’s central conceit of the newborn child’s gift of life being taken directly form the wicked Morella and directly causing her instantaneous death. It also drops the possible insanity of the narrator. Along with dropping Poe’s idea it loses all credibility as an interesting short film and becomes merely a microcosm of the first two Corman Poe films reduced a to a 25 minute exercise in dull boredom.

The Black Cat thankfully picks up from this disappointment and provides the only real satisfying point of the film. the story is really a combination of the titular story and The Cask of Amontillado, with some elements from The Tell-Tale Heart of course. Peter Lorre has a ball playing Montresor, a town drunk who lives only to reach each night where he can drown himself in more drink. He has a pretty wife at home who is tormented by his drunken protests for their meager funds to drink away. Montresor is reaching the end of his fortunes, and returns home to drunken hallucinations and his hatred for his wife’s black cat. One night he is thrown out aof a tavern and stumbles onto an extremely convenient wine merchants convention. Here the foremost tasting expert is giving a demonstration which Montresor scoffs at. Of course the expert is Fortunato Luchresi played to the ultimate hammiest by Vincent Price. Then begins a wine tasting off between the two and much is made of Montresor matching Luchresi’s extremely overdone fastidiousness by downing wine with abandon.  Of course Luchresi is stuck with taking the drunkard home and there meets Mrs. Montresor, which begins their budding romance. And of course Montresor will find out about their little romantic dalliance and exact his revenge. Lorre is excellent in maintaining a comedic bent in his walling up of the two in the cellar. The requisite Corman nightmare sequence is quite weird, even for one of these films, for Montresor is tormented by his wife and friend whom he has killed and at one point they remove his head an begin to play ball with it.

All in all, The Black Cat alone is the reason for sitting through this film and paved the way to the later films along a similar serious-comedic bent: The Raven (1963) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964). Price and Lorre are a joy to watch playing off one another and for a brief time the film picks up an energy not seen anywhere in the first section.

Lastly comes Tales‘s version of M. Valdemar. Here the idea of a man on his deathbed being placed into a state of hypnosis to escape the pains of death is placed in a setting of melodrama featuring a evil hypnotist. This of course in and of itself would be silly in any normal context, but the film plays it perfectly straight which is a major help. the other strength is the hypnotist being played by Basil Rathbone who lends an incredible believably to the small role which is essential in telling this adaptation. One can seriously believe his evil intent simply due to the performance which is pointed, clipped and quite cold. Thankfully the segment is not allowed to last long enough to wear out its welcome and the film hits the end credits which leave the audience wondering why they chose to sit through the exercise in the first place.

Tales of Terror is a failed experiment that never really works, except in The Black Cat segment, where as with the best of these films, the script deviates from Poe enough to make things seem fresh without losing the original spirit. One story is a flat out rehashing of previous films, one is a darkly funny little gem and the last is merely okay. All in all one must ask what happened to all the creativity and effort that made the first three so remarkably interesting? This question would sadly again be asked in the end of the next film in the cycle: The Haunted Palace (1963). And that one wasn’t even based on Poe at all despite the advertising. It’s actually based on H.P. Lovecraft.

What disappoints me most about the film is the lack of regard to Poe’s work, which is so visually oriented that it almost cries out to be faithfully adapted to film. The anthology format allows for multiple stories to be adapted, thus providing a broader portrait of the great legend’s canon but in Tales of Terror the focus is more on wringing the most out of the drive-in crowd instead. There is a constant feeling throughout of doing the film by-the-numbers as if to fulfill contractual obligation. The previous three films had vitality and the work’s spirit despite deviating heavily from Poe in details. Corman’s heart really isn’t really in the film, except perhaps in The Black Cat.

EDITIONS: MGM’s transfer is one of the older ones in the cycle, but the anamorphically enhanced image is quite clear of print defects. Dupes and transitions are dirty, then click into the homogenized feature. Overall pleasing to an extent but not representative of film. Colors are fine as with all of these releases, if a bit muted. Sound is clear with very occasional defects. These films were released in HD on broadcast HDTV channels a few years ago, and have begun to leak out on Blu-ray in Europe.

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman, Vincent Price

The Premature Burial (1962)

All of the Corman Poes had some great poster artwork.

3 stars out of 4.

It’s truly amazing to see what one can do with so little when one puts in the necessary willpower. This single idea is the meaning behind Roger Corman’s entire filmmaking career. He became legendary for stretching tiny budgets to the absolute maximum, and producing results of such a similar uniform quality that audiences came to know exactly what a Corman production entailed.

The Premature Burial is no exception. in the third of his Poe series, Corman departs from the successful formula established on House of Usher (1960) and wonderfully developed on Pit and the Pendulum (1961). This time the Poe experience is brought away form the rather Gothic and medieval trappings and into the realm of a character study. As all Poe enthusiasts are aware, the Corman films merely use the words of Poe as a backdrop and setup for an entire film. because they utilize the short stories there isn’t enough material to cover an entire film narrative and so with varying degrees the films depart from their source material.  The best of them actually deviate the most, becoming freer to create their own particular worlds and in turn remain faithful to the spirit of Poe, if not in the exact details. (Pit and Masque of the Red Death respectively)

And so the film in question is obviously about a man terrified of being buried alive. Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) suffers from a fear of developing catalepsy and being buried alive, just as he believes his father was many years ago. He has refused to marry his sweetheart, Emily (the wonderful Hazel Court, borrowed from Hammer) because of this but is convinced perhaps wrongly that they should marry anyway. (As if the thousand strikes of ominous lightning that interrupt their wedding ceremony doesn’t tell them anything.) Guy’s malignant fears of premature internment have been awakened by attending a exhumation that happens to reveal the occupant was indeed buried alive. His overly convenient doctor friend warns Emily that Guy’s fears may, if properly motivated by events, actually cayuse the condition of catalepsy he so fears.

After the marriage, Guy retreats into himself and builds and elaborate tomb complete with a multitude of escape methods all in the event of a premature burial. Still, he finds himself confronted by memories and visions of the exhumation, references to death and premature burial and finally the fears of his father’s fate. Are these indeed true, and has Guy begun to actually go mad or could there be something else at work…

As with all the Poes, this is the primary conundrum for the audience. The casting of Milland over Vincent Price furthers the different flavor of Burial, and allows for a fresh look at what could have quickly become boring and routine. Milland brings his leading man charm that became so increasingly underused by Hollywood, and this non-use led him to productions like Corman’s. This is at a completely different angle than Price, who would either coldly or joyously throw himself into whatever the role dictated. Milland always retains a certain steely sense of sophistication, much like his portrayal of the jilted husband who plots an elaborate way to murder his wife in Dial M For Murder (1953). In the final denouement of the film, this becomes absolutely exemplary and a joy to watch, however brief the result may be.

And here we are with yet another inherent flaw in these films, the fact that the short 80 minute or so running time does not allow for an adequate space for the plot reveals to actually work and take hold in the audience’s mind. here it’s a great one, but the handling is so rushed that it loses almost all credibility. Inf act it takes the second viewing to fully appreciate the entire story in context and the ending because  one isn’t simply hit over the head with hit in the last minute of the reel!

Part of the fun of the Poe films is seeing where the same sets were reused from picture to picture, or actors, props, costumes and not to mention those damn red candles that appear in every film. (Seemingly when making House of Usher someone got a great deal on red candles.) But on Premature Burial, this isn’t as readily apparent as on some of the others. It seems as if Corman and his team tried to create a different film from the previous two so that it may reside in the same world, but has its own distinct personality. In fact, the film that reminds me most of Burial besides the other Poes is Hammer’s The Mummy (1959).

This is a brisk little film that may not prove to be very surprising, or shocking in any regard but it is a nice little reminder of what craftsmanship can do with good talent in even the lowest of production values. An essential Halloween treat shrouded in fog. It is worth viewing alone for the Poe series requirement of a color tinted nightmare sequence, this time depicting how Guy’s burial tomb goes horrifyingly wrong.

EDITIONS: Released by MGM on DVD some time ago, Burial is one of the best looking of the Poes on disc. The Panavision frame is well presented in a 16:9 anamorphically enhanced transfer. Print damage and wear is light but occasionally noticeable. Color looks good, though grain is seemingly reduced a bit. Dupes and transitions are a bit dirty but then click into the main feature cleanliness again. Audio is clear in Dolby 2.0 mono with only some very faint hiss on occasion. Later repackaged with The Masque of the Red Death at a reduced price. Look for these films to hit Blu-ray in Europe, sourced from the HD transfers that first appeared on HDTV networks a few years ago.

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Filed under 3 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman

The Pit and The Pendulum (1961)

A diabolical…shave.

3.5 stars out of 4. Delicious.

The Poe story is only used for the last act of the film. Vincent Price gets to do much more in this film than House of Usher. Pit virtually has the exact same structure as  Usher, but allows itself some creative freedom to weave a story that will entertain and try to remain faithful to the spirit of Poe. This freshens things up and livens the proceedings so that Roger Corman’s second Poe film is among the best films of his career.

Written by Richard Matheson (of Duel, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Twilight Zone fame), Pit and the Pendulum incredibly atmospheric for such a low budget production. Spurred on by the unexpected success of House of Usher, American International rushed another Poe film into production and obviously threw a little bit more money at it. Poe’s story is now set in 16th century Spain, where Francis Bernard has arrived at the castle of Nicolas Medina to discover why his sister Elizabeth died.  Elizabeth was the wife of Nicholas, who vaguely mentions that she died of a blood disease. This is not enough for Bernard and he decrees his intention to stay until he finds out the truth. (This doesn’t sound in anyway familiar does it?)

Family friend Doctor Leon arrives for dinner and reveals that Elizabeth died of heart failure, essentially dying of sheer terror. They go to where she was found in the dungeon locked inside an iron maiden. This was Sebastian Medina’s (Nicholas’s father) torture chamber, used during the Spanish Inquisition. Elizabeth had become obsessed by it and inadvertently locked herself inside the maiden. (Although having done this would have killed her instantaneously due to the nature of the maiden’s design-but no matter.) Her dying words were “Sebastian”.

In talking later with Nicholas’s sister Catherine, Bernard is told of the night Nicholas saw his father kill his brother and torture his mother while hidden in the dungeon. Sebastian believed his wife guilty of infidelity and after killing brother Bartolome with a fiery poker, with a slow pleasure brings about her death. Catherine believes this to be the reason why Nicholas feels so much guilt over Elizabeth’s death because her untimely demise hearkens back to his childhood trauma.

This gives some much needed backstory and allows the audience to really question Nicholas’s motives. Slowly but surely Elizabeth’s presence begins to sweep through the castle. Is it her vengeful spirit, or someone trying to drive Nicholas mad?…

Everything is more confident in Pit. The camera moves with a definite assurance that was never present in Usher, and the story is unfolded at a pace that keeps the viewer entertained with events. We never fall out of the atmospheric trance as happened in some dry moments in the House. The set design far outstrips the previous film, and instead of the meager house we are treated to a cobweb infested dreary cavernous Spanish castle. (Although there seems to have been a massive closeout sale on red candles in all of these films.) None of these sets look recycled (which is common in Corman/AIP films) and this allows the viewer to enter a new place mystified at its various dark corridors and torture chambers.

The characters are more defined, especially the lead character who is played much more like a human being and less like a cardboard plot pawn. Vincent Price is given much more screen time and chews away with glee as the timid Nicholas. This furthers the film’s twist ending where the evil receive their just desserts. It just feels more alive than House of Usher. The first film can be forgiven for staying close to the source and having such a small budget, but the degree to which Pit comes alive onscreen on a limited production is to be commended.

Pit and the Pendulum is a much more confident film than House of Usher and it is this factor that really makes the film a success. Combined with a deeper performance from Price and a larger budget, it is clearly the superior film. It never has received the reputation it deserves, for Usher is better remembered because it was the first film. Of all the Poe cycle, this is really one of the few that stands out even though it essentially disregards the Poe story. (And this coming from a Poe nut.) It is simply a fun yet refined ride. Only Masque of the Red Death (1964) and possibly Tomb of Ligeia (1965) are better.

MGM’s single layer 1.85:1 letterbox transfer is rather outdated, but presents the film’s Panavision frame well. Color is represented well and the Dolby 2.0 mono is clear. Unfortunately this is a non-anamorphic transfer. (Laziness.) Repackaged with House of Usher (this edition goes out of print frequently) and coming soon in a new packaging from Image Entertainment. (Likely to be a large recycling of many MGM owned horror films in their old transfers. Again.)

EDIT 10/29/12: The MGM transfer is actually quite bad. Viewed today it is easier to see all of the over-digitalization and grain reduction. Artifacts abound across the letterboxed image, that despite being framed a bit better than the LD reveals far too much tinkering. The cheap TGG Direct/Image DVDs floating around are sourced from the wonderful HD transfers that aired on MGMHD and elsewhere a few years ago. They do look better than these outdated ones, but the releasing company decided to place them interlaced SD three films to a disc. Stupidity. We will just have to wait for the complete series to leak out of Europe on Blu-ray.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman, Vincent Price

House of Usher (1960)

Look at it. Doesn’t this poster just scream elegance?

3 stars out of 4. Recommended. Essential for Vincent Price and horror fans.

Roger Corman’s House of Usher is the first in the American International series and stars Vincent Price in the role that would firmly cement him in the mind as a horror star. Persuading the producers to adapt a work by Poe must have been some undertaking. While the resulting film is obviously made on a shoestring budget, Corman doesn’t allow this to effect his direction nor the atmosphere. The house does indeed come alive as another character as the story details.

If you can allow your imagination to fill in the gaps made by the budgetary constraints, House of Usher adequately recreates the essence of Poe and actually gives a relative close approximation of the original story.

The film follows the original Poe story. An interloper arrives at the House of Usher which is surrounded by an area of extreme decay. The film gives the interloper a purpose. Phillip Winthrop has arrived to find his fiancee, Madeline Usher. Her brother Roderick, absolutely refuses their happy union, claiming that the Usher bloodline is cursed for eternity. Madeline has become ill and is essentially confined to the house. Roderick himself is unable to endure any assault to his senses and looks half dead already. Phillip refuses to leave without Madeline and repeatedly tries to take her away. Finally, Madeline dies and is interred in the family crypt below…

The photography is in CinemaScope and color, which for AIP was far beyond their limited means. Corman attempts to give the film an air of prestige with these two pricier (no pun intended) elements but the widescreen photography alienates more than it impacts. There is a certain awkward feel to the film as if at certain moments everything gets switched off and we are stuck with mere static elements. (Plus the CinemaScope process didn’t help. I’ve never seen a single film made in CinemaScope that didn’t look wrong in some way. It loses focus, places odd emphasis in composition and just looks like the early variant it was. Pit and the Pendulum was filmed only a few months later, and it’s Panavision image looks brilliant.) The use of color is well done, not overbearing but not faint like so many films produced by companies jumping to color.

With Price’s brilliant performance (as always! Did the man ever give a bad performance?) one wishes that there could be a stronger film surrounding his Roderick Usher. What happens is that Corman gets lost between faithfully following Poe and entertaining a 1960 AIP audience. This initial stumbling isn’t too detracting, and Corman fully realized his intent in later films of the Poe cycle. The difference between the AIP film and the masterful 1928 French silent version is that the earlier film runs on atmosphere alone. Either one must follow the story material exactly in order to heighten the tale visually or one must elaborate on it to such a degree that the film is free to create its own impact. House of Usher tries to have it both ways as a crowd pleaser, and a prestige film adaptation of Poe.

In any case the success of this film finally made an American competitor for Hammer films in the horror market. The lasting appeal of House of Usher led to it being selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2005.

MGM’s DVD is an early one. It is 2.35:1 anamorphic with a decent Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack. Also included is a rambling but informative commentary from Corman. It has been repackaged numerous times, but usually as a double feature with the next Poe film, Pit and the Pendulum. The print source is relatively free of damage, though there are still quite a few of marks, spots, pops, hairs, and other damage. It is also a single layer transfer from the early days of the format, so it is certainly in need of a new transfer as are all of the other films of Corman, Price and the others that were later released under the MGM “Midnite Movies” banner. I don’t think a Blu-ray of such an important film is all-that unreasonable. Since MGM has shown no real interest in ever revisiting any of these films, (and some of the transfers are very poor) imagine a Criterion Blu-ray edition of  all the Corman Poe cycle and the prestige Price films; Abominable Doctor Phibes, Doctor Phibes Rises Again, Theater of Blood, Witchfinder General. That’s a thought for sore eyes.

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Filed under 3 stars, Corman Poe series, Roger Corman, Vincent Price