Jul 8, 2020
Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films (part 2 of 2)
Roger Corman kept his Edgar Allan Poe series going strong with four additional films in the series.
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The fifth entry in the series took on a more flamboyant, lighthearted tone.
The title bird pays a visit to a grieving widowed sorcerer named Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price). Craven helps whip up a potion that restores the raven to its original human form, a wizard named Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who explains that he was turned into a raven by another sorcerer named Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Craven agrees to help Bedlo confront Scarabus when Bedlo reveals he saw the spirit of Craven’s late wife Lenore (Hazel Court) at his castle. They’re joined by Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson).
Not long after they arrive, Scarabus kills Bedlo, although the latter reveals to Rexford that this was all a ruse and he’s simply hiding in his raven form. Craven, on the other hand, is anguished to realize that his wife faked her death to run off with Scarabus. He also is forced surrender his magical powers in order to stop Scarabus from torturing Estelle. This leads to Craven and Scarabus having a duel of magic. This results in the castle getting burned to the ground. Everyone manages to escape, although Scarabus loses his powers and Craven rejects Lenore’s attempts at making amends.
The film ends with a quote from the famous Poe poem of the same name, when Craven refuses to turn Bedlo back into a human, saying, “Quoth the raven… nevermore!”
The actors reportedly improvised many of their lines, although it took some time for Karloff to adapt to this method, as he was known for being well-prepared when he was on the job. The duel between Price and Karloff is certainly a highlight, although the latter’s health issues made the moments where he was supposed to be floating in the air difficult. It’s also fun to see Nicholson years before Easy Rider made him a star, although he and Lorre reportedly butted heads during filming.
A sidenote: The Raven finished filming a couple of days ahead of schedule, so Corman used that remaining time to whip up his infamous quickie The Terror, which starred Karloff and Nicholson. Unlike the Poe films, The Terror more accurately reflects the reputation for cheapness Corman received in some quarters, although it quickly became a drive-in and late-night TV staple.
While there is indeed a Poe poem entitled “The Haunted Palace,” this movie actually owes more of a debt to the H.P. Lovecraft book The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, although portions of Poe’s poem are quoted in the movie.
This film begins with Joseph Curwen (Price) being discovered as a warlock by the people of 1765 Arkham, Massachusetts and subsequently burned at the stake. His final words are a promise to get revenge on his executioners and their descendants.
Jump to 1875 when Curwen’s great-great-grandson, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in Arkham with his wife Anne (Debra Paget). They reveal to the hostile townspeople that they’ve inherited Curwen’s palace. Despite pleas from the town doctor Willet (Frank Maxwell), the couple go to the palace. Ward gets a feeling of deja vu as the palace seems familiar to him. He also notes the portrait of his ancestor along with the strong family resemblance. They also meet Simon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), the palace’s caretaker, who all but insists they make themselves at home.
As Anne begins to note changes in her husband’s personality, Willet informs the couple of Curwen’s death and a book he possessed called the Necronomicon. Curwen used the spells in the book to create a race of super-humans by mating mortal women with elder gods. The doctor also states that Curwen’s attempts to do so led to many of the populace being deformed. Not surprisingly, the townsfolk are convinced Ward is the reincarnated form of Curwen, and Willet implores the couple to leave town.
But Charles insists on staying, and possessed by his ancestor, he summons the spirits of two other warlocks, who have also possessed their descendants, one of which is Simon. They attempt to resurrect Curwen’s mistress Hester, although Curwen says Charles is fighting him. He also attempts to rape Anne, and when that fails, he tries to tell Willet she’s insane.
The film ends with the townspeople destroying the castle while Charles is seemingly free of his ancestor’s grasp once the portrait is destroyed, although the film’s ending suggests otherwise.
While it’s fun to see Price and Chaney Jr. share the screen (previously, there were both in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but had no scenes together) this entry is unique in that it was the first Corman film to use the then-revolutionary zoom lens. Although this created its own issues, as it required more lighting than usual.
This entry is often regarded as the best-looking in Corman’s Poe series.
Prince Prospero (Price) rules his village with an iron fist of fear. One night, he takes two villagers, Ludovico (Nigel Green) and Gino (David Weston) into custody with plans to execute them. But Ludovico’s daughter (and Gino’s lover) Francesca (Jane Asher) pleads with Prospero, prompting him to take her to his castle as well. At the same time, Prospero realizes that a woman from his village has a disease known as the Red Death and promptly orders the village burned to the ground to prevent it from spreading.
Prospero’s companion Juliana (Hazel Court) makes no secret of her jealousy of Francesca as the prince cleans her up and dresses her nicely to attend the party he’s throwing. Francesca soon discovers the satanic cult Prospero and Juliana are part of, while Gino and Ludovico refuse to fight each other for the amusement of Prospero and his guests.
Juliana soon gives Francesca a key to free Gino and Ludovico, although they’re quickly recaptured by Prospero. He brings them before his guests and again tries to make them kill each other for amusement. Their defiance leads to Prospero killing Ludovico and tossing Gino out of the castle. Gino goes through the woods and encounters the red-cloaked figure known for representing the Red Death. Juliana is later killed by a falcon after drinking from a chalice and announcing she’s the wife of Satan.
The remaining villagers beg Prospero for asylum, but he responds by having his soldiers kill them. A guest named Alfredo (Patrick Magee) fights with another guest while wearing an ape costume, and Gino attempts to rescue Francesca. But he’s assured by the red-cloaked figure that she’ll be fine, and tells him not to re-enter the castle. Prospero soon notices the figure in his castle, because he ordered no red be worn at his party. The prince later realizes that he’s infected when he removes the figure’s mask to see his own bloodied face beneath. He dies while Gino, Francesca, and some of the prince’s guests escape.
Corman initially wanted this film to be the second in his series, but it took some time for him to be satisfied with the script. This entry was also a co-production between American International Pictures and Anglo-Amalgamated in England. This was no doubt why the film had a slightly longer shoot than the others (five weeks rather than three). Corman later expressed his dissatisfaction with the climatic ballroom sequence because of the different working methods of the English crew as opposed to those from Hollywood.
Still, the ballroom itself is a nice set. Price and Court are good as always, with Asher and Magee matching them.
The final entry in Corman’s Poe series is also, according to some, the best. The script was written by Robert Towne, who would go onto fame as the writer of Chinatown.
Widower Verden Fell (Price) feels haunted by the spirit of his late wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), no doubt due to blasphemous statements she made during her life. He soon meets and marries a woman named Rowena (Shepherd). But their marriage is not exactly happy, as they both feel Ligeia’s presence, which seems to always coincide with the appearance of a mysterious black cat. Rowena has several nerve-wracking encounters with the feline.
The film ends when Fell faces his fears head-on by fighting the cat while his home crashes down around them in flames. As Rowena escapes with the help of her former flame Christopher Gough (John Westbrook), the cat reverts to its true form as Ligeia, and she and Fell die.
While the sunglasses Price wears in this movie aren’t exactly flattering (this is explained as being due to Fell’s intolerance of sunlight), the movie itself is a nice, atmospheric end to this series. Shepherd is cleverly cast as both Fell’s current and former spouses.
One could say the success of Corman’s Poe films made them the American answer to Hammer films, in the same way that the Monkees are viewed as the American answer to the Beatles. I think it’s safe to say that these remain the most famous of all the film adaptations of Poe’s works.
While The Tomb of Ligeia was the last Poe film directed by Corman, AIP wasn’t through with Poe by any means. As the 1960s continued, the studio would make and market other films based on Poe’s works, although they were usually in name only. One such film was the brilliant 1968 shocker Witchfinder General, which starred Price as real-life witch hunter Matthew Hopkins. It was later released in American cinemas under the title The Conqueror Worm, which was the name of a Poe poem. Price was even brought in to read the short poem in its entirety for the film’s ending. The good news is that while I’m happy the film was restored to its original form when it came to DVD in the US, those changes didn’t diminish the film’s power.
As for Corman, he’s kept on directing and producing in the decades following the Poe films (as I write this, my colleague Thomas Stockel is currently recapping the Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Stars). At the age of 94, his smart business sense allows his filmmaking career to keep going even with such game-changing techniques as home video and streaming. Corman would happily be acknowledged by Hollywood when he was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2009.