Thursday, October 27, 2016

Nevermore: The Roger Corman Poe Series

Time to wrap up this Halloween Countdown on a suitable creepy note...

I felt like I wanted to write something about the late, great Vincent Price with my last major Halloween entry this year. But then after giving it some thought, I felt like, instead of just focusing on one film, why not cover an entire series of films that helped make it's director, and Price himself, very famous. For a bit of background, I will state that Edgar Allen Poe, who lived from 1809-1849, is one of my favorite poets and writers. His most famous piece, "The Raven", is one of my all-time favorites, and was what originally made me a fan of him. In fact, on an interesting side-note, in 1996, roughly my freshmen year of high school, I decided somewhat arbitrarily, that I was going to become a fan of the brand new "Baltimore Ravens" NFL team. The reason for this was simple: fans had voted to name the team after Poe's poem "The Raven", because Poe had famously lived the last years of his life in the Baltimore area. That in and of itself, is often a fun, and to some, "odd" anecdote, as I chose "my team" because they were named after one of my favorite writers.

So, circling back around to Vincent Price, who had been acting in films since the late 1930s as a very young man, had started to establish himself as early as the 1940s, in such science fiction and "horror" drama films as The Invisible Man Returns, The House of Seven Gables, and Dragonwyck. It was in the 1950s when he started to become something of a minor icon in horror cinema, with films like  House of Wax, The Fly and House on Haunted Hill. However, it wasn't until the 1960s that you could really argue that he had finally become a major star. In fact if the decade of the 60s truly belonged to any one actor, you could make a very strong argument that it belonged to Vincent Price. And that was due in no small part, to his work from 1960-1965 with a fairly young, up and coming director named Roger Corman.

Specifically, it was starring in seven of what would become a series of eight films, known as the "Poe Cycle".

The first, and in some ways, the best.

Film: House of Usher
Year: 1960
Starring: Vincent Price, Myrna Fahey, and Mark Damon

Roger Corman had the idea to turn the Poe story "The Fall of the House of Usher" into a full-length feature film, both because it was a good, suspenseful story, but also because it was public domain. He had been limited both by time and small budges thus far, to make often neat but "schlocky" films, such as Attack of the Crab Monsters, A Bucket of Blood, and the The Wasp Woman. So it was that he managed to not only sell the film company, American International Pictures, on the idea of the film, but he also convinced them to give him a decent budget for lavish sets, and higher production values. He managed to get Vincent Price on board, and the rest of history.

Style, personified.

One thing that I think is important and significant to note, about House of Usher, is that it basically has a cast of four people. It stars Price as Roderick Usher, Myrna Fahey as his younger sister Madeline, Mark Damon as her fiance Phillip Winthrop, and Harry Ellerbe as the butler, Bristol. Corman really did put most of the budget towards lavish and atmospheric sets, worthy of Poe's storytelling, but with such a tiny cast, he still gets a lot from them. Price, naturally, is brilliant, as the haunted (and haunting) Usher, who seems to have an acute sensitivity to almost everything, from bright light, to flavorful foods, to even mildly loud noises. Price manages to make him a sinister yet sympathetic character, which is not easy for any actor to pull off.

The basic plot deviates a bit from the original story, in that in Poe's tale, it was Roderick's friend who came to visit the lonely "House of Usher", whereas in Corman's film, Phillip is Roderick's sister's fiance, come to find out why she has stayed away from his native Boston for so long. Otherwise, the film stays fairly true to the spirit of the story, and to Poe's works in general, setting a very visually evocative gothic scene, full of a foreboding sense of loneliness, isolation, and unseen sinister forces afoot, from basically the very beginning of the movie. It would seem the Usher family, whose history has not always been magnanimous, is "cursed". Or at least that is what Roderick fervently believes. Phillip naturally wants to take his "sick" beloved away from this cracked and dilapidated home, but Roderick believes she belongs here, for all Ushers are "doomed to die".

I don't want to spoil any more of the plot, including one other major difference from the story involving the ending, but I will say that for Corman's first crack a a bigger budget, "serious" film, he did a hell of a job, even though his time and money were still obviously limited. He did a lot with a little, and looking at the film on it's face, you would not know that it was probably still a fairly cheap production. Of course, while many other actors likely could have succeeded in the role of Roderick Usher, it was Vincent Price who really sold this film, and he really does have a tendency to steal every scene he's in. He's just one of those magnetic actors, his personality shines, and commands your attention. Truly one of kind.

Not AS classic, but still pretty solid.

Film: The Pit and The Pendulum
Year: 1961
Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Luana Anders, and Antony Carbone

With Usher having been a moderate hit for AIP, they green lit another Poe film for Corman and Price. This time, they would go with the somewhat more famous story of "The Pit and the Pendulum". Right from the beginning, if one had just watched Usher, you would think you were watching a direct sequel, or at least a very similar film. The opening of the film, the look of the castle sets, even some of the tone and themes of the story, make this a very similar film indeed to it's predecessor. John Kerr plays Englishman Francis Bernard, coming to Spain upon hearing of the death of his sister. He wishes to see her body, and to interrogate her husband Don Nicholas Medina (Price), as to the mysterious details surrounding her death.


From the very beginning, Kerr is a more aggressive and stoic character than Damon's Winthrop, though that's somewhat understandable, as he found out about his sister's death months late, with little details to go on. When he arrives, he gets a bit of the runaround treatment from Nicholas, which only angers him further, before finally gleaning the truth: that Don Medina believes his wife had been accidentally mispronounced dead, and buried in the crypt alive. He also believes that she is now haunting the castle, which is driving him gradually insane. Carbone plays Don Medina's friend, Doctor Leon, while Luana Anders plays his much younger sister Catherine.

While this film actually saw bigger financial success (the biggest box office of the entire Poe series, in fact), and greater critical acclaim than Usher, as a fan I would say that Usher is the better film. As stated, they both share a fairly somber, appropriately Poe-like tone and setting, but the general plot and execution of Pit, to me, comes off as a bit more bizarre and convoluted. That is partially owed to several odd and "trippy" flashback scenes. It's still a good movie and worth seeing. I just personally enjoy Usher more.

The Odd Duck.

Film: The Premature Burial
Year: 1962
Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Heather Angel, and Alan Napier.

Now, you might assume, that the one film out of the entire bunch to NOT star Vincent Price, would be the dud of the bunch, but in actuality, that's hardly true. While not the BEST (that is yet to come), The Premature Burial is, in some ways, a more "fun" film than certain others. I would say that I probably like it better than Pit, for example. Story has it that Corman originally wanted to use Price, but as he started out making this film independently for another studio, and Price was tied up with AIP, he chose to cast the great Ray Milland instead. It just so happened that AIP, through some perhaps less than friendly means, wound up producing the film in the end anyway, but that's ultimately neither here nor there.

Another one of a kind actor.

Like Price, Milland was a singular personality in the acting world. He had a unique look and presence, as well as an unmistakable voice. My first exposure to him as a kid, was one of my childhood favorites, the 1975 adaptation of Escape to Witch Mountain, where he played the great villain Aristotle Bolt. In Burial, he plays Victorian Era aristocrat, Guy Carrell, whose most singularly defining trait, certainly as far as the story is concerned, is a near-crippling fear of death. More specifically, he is terrified that he will be buried alive, and suffocate in the coffin, something that, in that era, sadly did happen from time to time. Not only is he afraid of death, but he is also increasingly suspicious that someone close to him is plotting his death, as well.

An entertaining film, more focused on one character than perhaps any of the other Poe films, it's tone is perhaps lighter than those that preceded it, but it still manages to bring that chilly, Gothic atmosphere, that permeated the entire series. On a a somewhat unrelated side-note, around this same time, Corman made another film starring Milland, called X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, a cooky science fiction film that is highly entertaining. I would suggest watching both, as WELL as Witch Mountain if you've never seen it, as Milland, while not QUITE on Price's level, is a great, classic actor in his own right, with some great roles.

Enter the great Peter Lorre.
Film: Tales of Terror
Year: 1962
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Debra Paget.

The only "anthology" format film of the series, Tales of Terror also began the trend of pairing Price with other classic horror actors, in this case Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre. For those who are unfamiliar, an anthology format film, is one which often has a overall tying narrative, but which features separate, shorter stories, usually two or three (sometimes more), instead of focusing on one story for the length of the movie. In Tales, you get, roughly speaking, four different Poe stories, adapted into three segments: "Morella", "The Black Cat", and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar".

Lorre, Challenging Price to a Wine Tasting Contest.

Price, of course, features in all three stories, suitably stealing the show, though in all fairness, the likes of Lorre and Rathbone are able to hold their own. Morella features a long-lost daughter, come home to reunite with her estranged father in what seems to be an empty, even haunted mansion. Haunted by the spirit of her seemingly evil, selfish mother, who blamed her baby daughter for her own death. Black Cat stars Peter Lorre as a complete douchbag of a character (by design), who drinks too much, mistreats his young wife, and worst of all, hates her black cat. He winds up meeting and challenging Prices Victorian Dandy character to a wine tasting contest, which eventually leads to Price having to take his drunk ass home, which in turn leads to all sorts of other madness.

Last but certainly not least, what I personally consider the best of the three stories, is Valdemar, which features Price as a dying old man, who works with Rathbone, who plays "Mr. Carmichael", a man who uses mesmerism (hypnotizing techniques) to help lessen the dying man's pain. Valdemar, having married a much younger woman, gives his wife Helene his blessing to remarry after he is gone, particularly their family physician whom she is close to. He also consents to allow Carmichael to conduct one last experiment upon his deathbed, using mesmerism to keep Valdimar's soul around after death, to see if he can learn of the afterlife and other such things. Unfortunately, that bastard Carmichael might very well be up to no good, and things might or might not get a bit real towards the end.

All told, I would say that it's a fairly solid anthology film, though just in the 60s alone, there were better, particularly from the British Amicus films, who somewhat specialized in them.

My personal favorite of the series.

Film: The Raven
Year: 1963
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, and Jack Nicholson.

Now first and foremost, I want to point out that this is what I personally consider to be the high point of the entire franchise, and the one that eventually wound up being my personal favorite of the bunch. Having said that, it is then ironic that this is actually perhaps the very first of the bunch that I ever saw, and believe it or not, originally I didn't like it. I rented it as a teenager, and similarly to renting Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein around the same timespan, I guess I just wanted something less silly. I didn't "get" this movie, and was expecting it to be dark and brooding like most of the films in the series actually are. But with Raven, Corman wisely decided to veer into a different direction, that of "black comedy", and at the time of my first viewing, I guess it just wasn't what I was wanting out of an adaptation of one of my favorite poems.

Such a legendary cast.

It wasn't until I eventually rented it again as an adult, and then later bought it, that I really came to appreciate both the film itself, and the direction that Corman took it in. Sure, he could have played it totally straight, and it could have just been a dark, brooding Gothic horror piece. But if it had, if he had not included some of the silly, dark humor, and more fanciful elements of the movie, it wouldn't have been nearly as fun, or nearly as memorable, a film. It's worth noting that this is one of Jack Nicholson's earliest films, and it was actually Corman who helped get him (like so many other actors and filmmakers) really going in the movie business. Nicholson originally had a bit part in Corman's original 60s (and superior) version of The Little Shop of Horrors, but here he has a more substantial role as the straight-man, romantic hero (kinda) to his bumbling, grumpy drunk of a father...who just happens to be Peter Lorre.

One of the best scenes of the film, a Wizard's Duel.

As you can see above, The Raven combines elements of not only horror and comedy, but also fantasy, as the primary players all happen to be sorcerers, and this is a world in which that is apparently totally normal. Price plays Dr. Erasmus Craven, a wizard who pines for his long lost love, Lenore (see what they did there?). He's actually quite a powerful magician, but holds himself back out of fear and sadness. Peter Lorre plays, initially, the titular Raven of the story, who comes rap-tap-tapping on his chamber door (or rather, window), himself a wizard named Dr. Adolphus Bidlo (apparently being a wizard is very prestigious). He ran afoul of another powerful sorcerer, Dr. Scarabus, played delightfully by the great Boris Karloff. He talked a bit of shit, got turned into a Raven, and now seeks Craven's help, because he has a reputation for being a powerful wizard.

Look how young Nicholson looks.

After Craven uses a potion to help Bedlo back to his normal, grumpy self, Bedlo notices a painting of the lost Lenore, and comments that he saw a woman who looked just like her at Scarabus' castle. Haunted by the possibility of his love still being alive, Craven decides to set out with Bedlo to go see Scarabus, Bedlo so he can get a measure of revenge, and Craven so he can discover the truth of his thought-dead wife. They wind up bringing their kids along for the ride, Craven's daughter Estelle, and Bedlo's son Rexford (who of course, develop a bit of thing). I must say, on a minor note, it's a real trip seeing a young Jack Nicholson playing totally straight, handsome characters, as opposed to...basically every role he played from the 70s onward.

The group make their way, amidst several suspicious and deadly obstacles, to the castle of Scarabus, only to find the old man at home, and seemingly friendly. It turns out old Scarabus and Craven's father, were adversaries, but Scarabus insists they were "on friendly terms", though the younger Craven does not recall this. Now the film would hardly be as entertaining if Karloff's character were as kind as he pretends, so naturally, something more sinister is afoot. I won't give it all way, but I will say the film features a highly entertaining "Wizard's Duel" (more than one, actually), and in general, it is a highly enjoyable, classic film.

Quite possibly the creepiest, and also least Poe-iest.

Film: The Haunted Palace
Year: 1963
Starring: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, and Lon Chaney Jr.

So the scoop on this one, is that Corman actually set out to adapt an HP Lovecraft story this time, instead of a Poe one, namely "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". But AIP wanted to continue the Poe theme, so as a compromise, they allowed him to base the story (somewhat) off of the Lovecraft tale, while also loosely basing the movie itself off of a poem by Poe called, "The Haunted Palace". They also decided to throw in yet another great horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr., into the mix.

Mr. Charles Dexter Ward (or is it?)

The end result is, suitably, probably the outright darkest and brood-iest of the bunch. Which makes sense, as Lovecraft stories were always a bit more apocalyptic than Poe's. Price gets another turn playing somewhat duel roles, as the innocent and affable Ward, and his ancestor Joseph Curwen, whose spirit still seems to haunt his old palace, 100+ years after his burning at the hands of the people of Arkham (yes, that Arkham). It seems Mr. Curwen wasn't exactly a great guy, and caused a lot of sinister happenings in his time, including the disappearance of more than a couple of the town's young maidens. It seems he and his followers were preoccupied with bringing the "Old Ones" back into this world, and now, beyond the grave, he aims to perhaps continue his work, by influencing his descendant.

I think I may have actually seen this film the last out of all the Corman Poe films, though I would probably put it up there near the top. It most certainly has that HP Lovecraft feel to it, and while not purely a "Poe" story, it still counts as one of the series, especially since Poe's own work strongly influenced early 1900s writers like Lovecraft in the first place. Surprisingly, there are relatively few Lovecraft adaptations committed to film, and fewer still that are any good. So if you want to SEE one of the good ones, then make sure to see The Haunted Palace.

A good movie, but also a missed opportunity.

Film: The Masque of the Red Death
Year: 1964
Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, and David Weston.

Now this is the film that many seem to consider the best of the series, mainly because it is also considered to be the most "artsy" of the group, which is true. However, even if I were not already in love with The Raven, I would say that, in my own humble opinion, this movie is NOT one of the best, for the specific reason that it is bogged down by an incredibly unnecessary sub-plot that has nothing at all to do with Poe's original story. The movie itself IS very artsy, and for the most part incredibly well done. It might just be, in some ways, Corman's strongest work as a director. BUT, as stated, I feel it is held back from being all it could have been, by not just simply sticking the fantastic and chilling tale Poe already provided.

The sadistic Prince Prospero.

In the original story, the medieval countryside is being ravaged by a strange plague known as "The Red Death", in which victims succumb to fever, and pain, and eventually bleeding to death from their very pores. But the lord of the land, Prince Prospero, has invited all of the "important" nobles of the kingdom to hide within his fortified castle walls with him, sealed off from the outside world, safe from the menace of the plague. So while he allows his own people to suffer and die in the dead of winter by a horrible plague while he does nothing to help them, he and his aristocratic brethren revel and party in the safety of his walls.

The beautiful Francesca, and the mysterious Red Stranger.

The problem lies in the subplot that Corman's writers concocted, to I don't know, "spice up" the plot, which concerns Prospero and his mistress Julianna, being literal Satanists, and this entire dichotomy in the film between the rich, who are evil, and the villagers, who are simple, good Christians. None of which, by the way, was featured at all in Poe's original story. Poe didn't go much for allegory, he disliked it, and just tried to tell stories. And I can tell you, having first read Red Death as a teen, that by itself, without this useless God/Devil fluff, it is a very powerful, and very chilling film. Prospero and his ilk are already sinister, selfish, evil people for hiding away in a castle while the very people they count on to grow crops and run the kingdom, suffer and die outside. That is already evil enough, and reason enough to hate the guy.

But adding what I feel is an artificial plot-lineE about worshiping's just incredibly unnecessary, and adds absolutely nothing to the story itself. They could have done the entire film, exactly as it is, with Prospero being an utter piece of shit, taking an innocent girl from the village (Asher) as his amusement (because he's attracted to her innocence), trying to force her fiance and father to fight to the death, etc. etc. All of that could have made a very powerful film, with the Red Death showing up at the end to wreak havoc. Instead, with the silly Satanism shit thrown in, that part is just distracting, and I feel it dilutes the power of the rest of the story.

Don't get me wrong, it's still a good film, and I highly recommend it. But I also find myself very turned off by the Satanist aspect, and thus it gets knocked down from what otherwise might have been one of my favorite entries in this series.

The very last of the set.

Film: Tomb of Ligeia
Year: 1965
Starring: Vincent Price, Elizabeth Shepherd, and John Westbrook.

The film that wound up being the final of Corman's "Poe Cycle", is also notable for being one of the most "Gothic". Unlike his other films, it used a largely British cast, and many outdoor scenes and on-location sets, giving it more of a feel similar to AIP's semi-rival in 60s horror, the British company Hammer Films. The 60s was rife with Gothic-styled horror films, mainly from AIP, Hammer, and Amicus, mostly starring Price, as well as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

The eccentric and mournful Verden Fell.

Based on the Poe tale "Ligeia", Vincent Price plays a part meant to be much younger than he was at the time, that of Verden Fell, a man in mourning over the death of his first wife. He meets and marries another young woman, named Rowena (not Ravenclaw), though he also begins seeing visions of his former wife, and starts acting more and more odd. He ultimately has to face the spirit of Ligeia, which leads to a chilling climax. Not the greatest of the bunch, for sure, but it's still big on atmosphere, and it's unique because of it's more Hammer-esque feel.

Not quite Poe, not quite classic.

While not part of the Poe series, there were several other films around this time that easily fit right in with them, and might as well have been part of them. The first was actually directed by Corman (somewhat), and right after wrapping filming of The Raven, in fact. That was the very rushed and low-budget The Terror, which Corman made simply because he still had the sets and actors around for a few extra days and say "why not". Corman was nothing if not prolific (certainly in the 50s and 60s). The notable thing about Terror, other than starring Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, is that it was also a film where he let several up-and-coming names of note work on it, and even direct certain scenes. Some of these names include Nicholson, Jack Hill, and Francis Ford Coppola, all youngsters that Corman helped bring in to the business, as he would later do for other names such as Joe Dante, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese.

The other such films, starred Vincent Price, and were Twice Told Tales, another anthology film, Comedy of Terrors, a film that may as well have literally been a Corman production as it starred the same actors and featured the same sets as in The Raven and Tales of Terror (meaning Rathbone, Karloff and Lorre). And lastly, a neat little number called War Gods of the Deep, based somewhat on a Poe poem called "City Under the Sea", and while not a Corman film, was made specifically to cash in on the success of his Poe films. I would highly suggest all of these, well....except The Terror, that's more of a curiosity, perhaps to be given the MST3K treatment with friends.

Corman and Price: A great combo.

So all in all, I would highly recommend the Poe series in general. Though obviously, there are some that are better than others, and I have my personal favorites. I would honestly say the one I like the least, is Red Death, even though as I've mentioned, without the stupid Satanist plot, it might have been one of my most recommended. As I started out by saying, though, it is undeniable that Corman and Price were good together, and their work together in the 60s was a high point in both men's careers. Vincent Price in general is one of my favorite actors of all time, and it bears saying that were it not for his Corman Poe films, Corman might not make it on to my "favorite directors" list at all (no slight to him). So in a way, Price elevates Corman and these films all by himself, and that really says something about the man, and his legendary presence and ability.

I would say to eventually see all of these films, but I will leave you with my top recommendations, which also happen to be my favorites out of the bunch:

1. The Raven (1963)

2. House of Usher (1960)

3. The Haunted Palace (1963)

4. The Premature Burial (1962)

So that's it for this year's Halloween Countdown. I hope you all have a very safe and very fun Samhain Eve itself, and hope that you make sure to watch some classic movies (or even read some classic stories) to help celebrate the season! 

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