Classic Feature Films: Roger Corman’s Poe Anthology

Classic Feature Films: Roger Corman’s Poe Anthology

Arrow Films’ new anthology box set, Six Gothic Tales, is available from December 8th.

 

Vincent Price is the constant highlight of Corman's horrors.

Vincent Price is the constant highlight of Corman’s horrors.

 

Scouring the web, it’s evident that there are people out there who find Roger Corman’s Poe-cycle laugh-out-loud unintentionally funny, and others who honestly believe these films are the best Poe adaptations available. That’s not to say, of course, that these views are mutually exclusive; being the best available isn’t necessarily akin to being good, since the kind of horror that Poe specialised in often does not transfer very well to the screen. Regardless, it does make one wonder how to evaluate a series of low budget 60’s B-movies.

Enter Vincent Price. Amongst a host of bonus material included in this new box-set (not least of which is a stunning, almost 200-page full colour booklet of notes, interviews, and comic strips versions of the tales) is a 1986 interview with Price for French TV. In it, the interviewer points out that Price has played in both serious films by masters like Fritz Lang, and low budget horror films such as these Poe tales, and is interested to know how the actor managed such a transition. To which Price – as irresistible being himself as he is playing any of the villains in these films – states that the ideal existential relation to life is to be “in on the joke… because life is a cosmic joke.” In line with that philosophy, Price saw his entire career as an expression of fun. It seems only right, then, that the criterion for evaluating these films should be “will people have fun watching them”?

What certainly wouldn’t be fun (unless you’re a particular type of person) would be listing all the ways in which the films differ from the stories which share their name. Suffice it to say that the majority are fairly loose adaptations. There are only two major differences that are interesting rather than (admittedly very large) nit-picking: The Haunted Palace, whilst bearing the title of a Poe tale is actually an adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft story; and The Raven is a comedy. The bonus-feature interviews explain that these divergences were likely a way to break the monotony of the series for the audience, cast and director.

That said, on with the fun. Here are some games I played whilst watching, as well as a few more serious observations.

“Burning down the House”: Spot the recurring stock-footage/set pieces

One of the truly astounding things about these films is their comparatively miniscule budget and the furious pace at which they were completed. The Fall of the House of Usher cost $250,000 and was shot in two weeks. Due to budget and time considerations, much of the footage is re-used in subsequent films, so the audience gets to see Usher mansion burning again and again. Watching the films with such limitations in mind does give the viewer a newfound respect for the crew’s ingenuity, especially given the exorbitant budgets used in filmmaking today. Whilst very obviously fake sets, there’s an impressive sense of fading opulence created in every interior shot, re-used or not.

“Dead Eyes”: Try to catch Vincent Price blinking

Despite the lack of consensus on whether Price is being serious or totally camping it up, there’s no doubt that he is incredibly compelling to watch. It’s certainly unnerving for a stare to last 30 seconds or more, regardless of how theatrical the rest of the performance. Though he’s got the starring role in every movie in the box, it’s very difficult to get tired of him, nor to feel that – like so much of everything else – his performance is just recycled from an earlier film. There are genuine moments of great acting. In The Haunted Palace Price plays a character periodically possessed by the evil spirit of one of his ancestors. The moment the spirit takes his body over relies on Price convincing us, using only his face, that he is one person one moment, and another the next. He excels at this, not hamming up the disconnection between the two personalities but making a subtle yet undeniable switch. At the same time, he does comedy very well. When asked by Peter Lorre in The Raven whether he has any bat’s blood or dead man’s hands, Price replies, only mildly shocked at the request: “we don’t keep those kind of things in the house. We’re vegetarians.”

Be very unafraid: finding the unintentional humour.

Some of these films will be popular with the so-bad-they’re-good crowd. Given the combined unkindness of the dating of special effects and the limited budget available for each production, some of the terrors (the chthonic deity in The Haunted Palace, the buried-alive clawing corpse in The Pit and the Pendulum, for example) are in reality terribly funny. The Raven culminates in a wizard’s duel between Price and Boris Karloff, where the pre-CGI magic looks endearingly like a 90’s kid’s first foray into Microsoft PaintBox. In the more “serious” films the musical score tends to be bombastic and unsubtle, and because it’s so often been subsequently parodied as “scary soundtrack-music” (trembling violins leading up to the big scare, usually signalled in a blare of brass) any suspense it might have originally conveyed has been long lost. So there’s plenty of opportunity for raising your hands to your face and quivering in mock horror.

“Am I scared yet?”: Track your comfort levels, which might drop faster than you expected.

Whilst a modern audience may struggle to actually be freaked out by any of these films in the same way they might with, say, something from the Paranormal Activity series, Roger Corman did include a lot of Poe-ish elements that will resonate more subtly with a modern audience, perhaps in an even more sinister and disturbing way than they did back in the 60’s.

The way that his wife and doctor conspire to drive Vincent Price to madness in The Pit and the Pendulum, for example, is truly disconcerting, especially when the audience finds out the motives for the trickery and treachery. His wife gently strokes his lips and, as he is comatose on the floor, asks rhetorically whether he finds it amusing that all his fears have come true in the most ironic way. In The Haunted Palace, Vincent’s ancestor possesses his body and enters his bedchamber to demand his conjugal rites from Vincent’s wife. He is not particularly willing to take no for an answer, either. Morella, the first of the three films in the Tales of Terror triptych features a daughter coming home to her father for the first time in over 20 years. The reception she receives is so cold that she has to ask “you are my father?” to which Price responds “Yes. What do you want here?” He still blames his daughter for “killing” her mother soon after childbirth.

The bad blood that exists between still living relatives is as destructive and terrifying as that passed down a long lineage, with which Poe seemed so obsessed. It’s quite often the decidedly un-supernatural that provokes the most unease, the cruelties that human beings inflict on each other for selfish ends, the way that memory haunts and leads to madness and destruction, and the extremities that jealousy can send us to.

And finally, “Pick a favourite and defend it to the death.”

The Black Cat, another episode from Tales of Terror, probably stands as the best film in the collection. It concerns a drunk and unemployed Peter Lorre (of Fritz Lang’s M fame) repeatedly stealing his wife’s money to keep himself soaked. The drunken interactions between the uncouth Lorre and a respectable Price hit just the right level of humour. Unlike in The Raven these two actors are genuinely funny, rather than trying to be funny. Yet, for all its humour, The Black Cat still manages to reach a sinister climax. This is achieved in great part due to the camerawork. The shot is distorted so that Lorre and his surroundings are accordion-stretched out to their extremities, as if we’re seeing everything through a glass from a House of Mirrors. The effect perfectly reflects both the disorientation of a hangover (which Lorre has pretty much permanently) and his mind coming apart with the guilt of what he has done.

The Black Cat takes all the best bits of the other Poe films (quite possibly literally; the eponymous cat definitely looks very similar to the cat in The Tomb of Ligiea) and meshes the humour and seriousness into something both enjoyable and unsettling. The vast majority of this box-set falls somewhere between, and whilst B-movie fans will buy it anyway, it deserves to find a wide audience.

Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is primarily a short story writer. Along with his partner, Adam runs the website The Rookery in the Bookery, which reviews literary works in translation.

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