After a few years, American International Pictures' movies based on Edgar Allen Poe's works, directed by Roger Corman and generally starring Vincent Price, were popular enough that other film companies were keen to try the same formula. In 1962, United Artists hired on both Corman and Price to bring the story of Richard the Third to lurid life in Tower of London. A year later, Corman departed but Price remained for Twice-Told Tales. You would be hard-pressed to notice the difference though. American International was sold to Filmways Pictures in 1979, which was then sold to Orion Pictures in 1982, which was then sold to MGM in 1997, who had already purchased United Artists in 1981. The net effect is that MGM was able to release The AIP Poe film Tales of Terror and the UA film Twice-Told Tales on the same DVD in 2005 and I didn't even realize Twice-Told Tales wasn't an AIP film until I sat down to write this review.
Opting to steer clear of Poe, UA went for another great American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Named for Hawthorne's book, only one of this anthology's three stories is adapted from it, that being "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." The other two are adapted from his other works "Rappaccini's Daughter" and The House of the Seven Gables. While "Rappaccini's Daughter" - about a mad botanist - is a bit of an odd choice, the other two segments are spot-on for capturing a Poe-like Gothic atmosphere. "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is also immeasurably enriched by placing the wonderful Sebastian Cabot (probably most famous as the voice of the narrator in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Bagheera in The Jungle Book, as well as a bit part in The Time Machine) opposite Vincent Price. As AIP would also learn, Price is good enough to carry a movie on his own - and regularly has to - but when he is paired up with equally strong and charismatic actors like Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Sebastian Cabot, it becomes cinematic gold.
In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," two old friends have gathered on a dark and stormy night to celebrate the 79th birthday of the one. Of all things Dr. Carl Heidegger (Cabot) laments most, it was the passing of his fiancée Sylvia 38 years ago, on the eve of their wedding. Together Heidegger and Alex (Price) go to pay their respects to her in the family crypt, to discover that a powerful mineral water seeping from the ceiling above has kept her body in a state of perfect preservation. Experiments reveal that this water has the power to restore youth and even life itself. First Heidegger and Alex ingest the precious liquid themselves, becoming young again. Then they inject it into Sylvia, bringing her back to life. But with renewed youth comes old secrets that were best left buried in the tomb.
"Rapaccinni's Daughter," as I said, is the story of a mad botanist who was betrayed by his wife and secluded himself and his daughter away in his estate. There he is able to indulge his genius for genetic engineering, including the creation of the most toxic plant known to man. Of course plants are not the only thing he experiments on, to the chagrin of the university student in the adjacent house who has become smitten with his daughter. Theirs is a tale of star-crossed lovers separated by mad science born of trauma and heartbreak. While decent enough, it lacks for Gothic atmosphere and for the time (and talent) required to actually make these characters believably fall in love. It doesn't necessarily come across the way it needs to in order for the film to work.
For Price, Twice-Told Tales marks his second stay at The House of the Seven Gables. His first was in 1940, opposite George Sanders (also most renowned today for his voicework in Disney films, namely Shere Kahn in The Jungle Book). In this round, he plays the last in the line of Pyncheon men who has returned to their ancestral home in New England to search for its hidden treasure. Back in the dark days of the witch hysteria, the first of the Pyncheon line cheated a man out of his property with an accusation of sorcery. He was hanged, and buried in the basement of the house that was erected on the property: the House of the Seven Gables. Ever since, rumour has held that he left behind a secret vault filled with money. However, the reality has been that every Pyncheon male has died at the hands of his spectral vengeance.
Twice Told Tales version of the story is a good, solid Vincent Price vehicle. It actually benefits from being a short film in an anthology, because while I'm sure there would be enough in the original story to fuel a whole feature length film, the short keeps everything moving along at a nice pace. Except for the weird part in the middle where the descendant of the cheated man and the reincarnation of his would-have-been wife (who happens to be married to Pyncheon) fall too-quickly back in love, we get who these characters all are from the start. No extraneous characterization is needed to understand that Vincent Price's character is a shiftless gambler who is only interested in the vault's fortune to replace what he lost in drink and cards, or that his sister is a mean old girl, or that his wife is emotionally sensitive to ghostly visitations. This is much improved on "Rappaccini's Daughter" that is so intensely a character piece that the short film form injures it.
Even with only two out of three being particularly good, Twice Told Tales is still one of my Halloween favourites. Price is in classic form, the addition of Sebastian Cabot is wonderful, the atmosphere of those two pieces is excellent, and the type of film inaugurated by Corman, Matheson, and Price is so much in its stride that it has taken on ghoulish life of its own.