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.