Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films (part 1 of 2)
Roger Corman has always been regarded as the filmmaker who, if he didn’t invent the B-movie, certainly perfected it. During the course of his decades-spanning career, Corman has produced, directed, written, and acted in numerous films across multiple genres. He became noted (some would say infamous) for the efficient way he used finances to get his movies made.
Corman is also noted for helping now-legendary actors and directors get their start in filmmaking, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, William Shatner, and Sylvester Stallone. These protégés would often thank him for his support, usually by giving him bit parts in movies such as The Godfather Part II and The Silence of the Lambs.
While some have called Corman penny-pinching in his methods, more often than not, the films that resulted became beloved cult hits, ranging from comedies like Rock ‘N Roll High School to horror films like Piranha and the Slumber Party Massacre series. However, if I had to pick Corman’s crowning achievement, it would be the films he made based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Corman instantly became a fan of Poe when he read his works as a child and wanted to make films of his works when the time was right.
That time came with the start of the 1960s. While there had been film adaptations of Poe’s work before that, Corman was determined to adapt them as never before. This is evident in his wise decision to spend a bit more money than usual in order to ensure that these films would do justice to Poe. This would include shooting the movies in color, which Corman convinced his distributor American International Pictures to go along with. The finishing touch was casting Vincent Price as the star, as Price had become a beloved horror icon the previous decade with such classics as House of Wax and House on Haunted Hill and would ensure that horror fans would give these films a look.
There were a total of eight films in the Poe-Corman series, and I’ll look at each one in order of release.
The film, also known as The Fall of the House of Usher, adapted by the great Richard Matheson, centers on a man named Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) who travels to the title residence to visit his fiancée Madeline (Myrna Fahey). But her hyper-sensitive brother Roderick (Price) insists that Madeline must remain in the Usher mansion because the family, according to him, is cursed and Madeline leaving would bring evil upon everyone. But Philip is persistent and he and Madeline soon reunite with plans to run away together.
But Madeline, after vehemently defying her brother, falls ill and apparently dies. But after her burial, Philip realizes Madeline is still alive thanks to a tip from Roderick’s butler. Philip searches the manor for Madeline after finding her coffin empty. He sees her, and having been driven to insanity, he attacks Roderick, eventually causing the manor to collapse, with Philip barely escaping. This film got Corman’s Poe series off to a nice start with Price, as usual, relishing his role. The unexpectedly downbeat ending would also do Poe proud.
The success of House of Usher prompted AIP to demand Corman rush out a second Poe flick, and Corman was all too happy to oblige. This second entry, which brought back Price and Matheson as well as art director Daniel Haller and composer Les Baxter, is probably the most famous entry in this series, with the moment where Price handles the titular pendulum quickly becoming memorable.
In the 16th Century, English patriot Francis Barnard (John Kerr) visits the castle of his brother-in-law Nicholas (Price) to look into the death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). Nicholas and his sister Catherine (Luana Anders) tell Francis that Elizabeth died of a blood disorder, although they don’t give much detail about it. But Francis’s determination to find out the truth eventually leads to him realizing that Nicholas has been driven insane, and he begins to act like and eventually become his murderous father Sebastian, who killed Nicholas and Catherine’s mother when Nicholas was a boy. There’s also a clever plot twist involving Elizabeth, which leads to the great climax with Nicholas bringing the pendulum down on Francis.
This is the only entry in the series to not star Vincent Price, though ironically, due to studio contract negotiations, Price ended up becoming available after filming began.
British aristocrat Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) has an obsessive fear of being buried alive. This begins to get on the nerves of his fiancée Emily (Hazel Court), but she remains devoted to him after Guy explains his fear is due to a traumatic childhood incident involving his father, though Guy’s sister Kate (Heather Angel) dismisses the story.
Guy eventually builds himself an elaborate tomb with safeguards in the event that he’s buried alive (that’s what I call planning ahead). Not surprisingly, Emily threatens to leave Guy if he doesn’t straighten up. Guy does, but in another ironic twist worthy of Poe, he suffers a heart attack and is presumed dead. This leads to the film’s nerve-wracking ending, although some may say it’s a bit derivative of the previous two movies. Still, this film is as enjoyable as the other two Poe pictures, and while I’m sure Price would’ve been great in the lead, Milland definitely does his best with the role.
Tales of Terror (1962)
One could say that Price more than made up for his absence in The Premature Burial with this installment, as it’s actually a three-part anthology with Price appearing in all three segments.
The first segment, titled “Morella”, concerns a woman named Lenora (Maggie Pierce) who visits her depressed, drunk father (Price). But he lashes out at Lenora, blaming her for the death of his wife Morella (Leona Gage) in childbirth. Lenora is further alarmed when she finds her mom’s corpse in one of the beds. But her dad becomes a bit kinder when Lenora tells him she’s ill. Alas, the spirt of Morella saves the illness the trouble when she appears one night to kill Lenora. This causes Morella’s body to be restored to its beautiful, living self. Her husband’s horrified reaction causes his resurrected wife to strangle him as the house goes down in flames.
The second segment, “The Black Cat”, combines elements of the Poe stories “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado”. A bitter man named Herringbone (Peter Lorre) can’t stand his wife Annabelle (Joyce Jameson) and cares even less about her black cat. He goes to a wine tasting one night and matches wits with a man named Luchresi (Price). Herringbone becomes drunk so Luchresi helps him home, where he meets Annabelle. The two soon begin an affair, prompting Herringbone to later seal them both up alive behind a brick wall in his basement. But Herringbone is caught when police arrive to question him and discover his crime thanks to the cat, who alerts them by scratching on the wall; it turns out Herringbone unknowingly sealed the cat inside, too.
The last segment, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, centers on the title character (Price), who asks a hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) to put him in trances to relieve the pain from his terminal illness. While in one of these trances, Valdemar asks the hypnotist to kill him to end his suffering, but the hypnotist refuses. Months later, with Valdemar bedridden, the hypnotist forcefully tries to wed Valdemar’s wife Helene (Debra Paget). He assaults her when she refuses, which is when Valdemar rises and kills the hypnotist, although Helene escapes thanks to her husband’s physician (David Frankham).
I must also point out that 1962, the same year the third and fourth Poe pictures came out, also saw the release of Corman’s most underrated film, The Intruder. That story centers on a racist (William Shatner) who attempts to stop integration in a southern town. But the film, due to its subject matter, had difficulty finding distribution and ended up losing money for Corman. Given the civil rights movement of the time, it’s not surprising that some people kept a project like this at arm’s length. Indeed, Corman, Shatner, and the rest of the crew reportedly received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan while the movie was being filmed in Missouri. But the final film was praised in some quarters, which in turn proved that Corman was willing to take on more thought-provoking material. Likewise, the devotion he simultaneously was giving the Poe pictures showed that he was capable of making pictures that couldn’t be pigeonholed as low budget schlock.
As his protégé Martin Scorsese said, “With the Poe pictures, suddenly there was a personality emerging from the Corman factory.” This personality would keep getting stronger with the subsequent entries in the Poe series, which I’ll look at in part two.