Wednesday 31 October 2018

Vincent Price, Roger Corman, and Edgar Allan Poe

By the early 1950's, Universal Studios had largely given up on its tradition of Gothic horror films. Arguably the last of the line was 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the greatest of the horror-comedies but nevertheless a farce on the petrified iconography of their classic monsters. Universal's immediate future belonged to Atomic Age Sci-Fi, including the last great monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. The following year, Universal went to colour with This Island Earth, but by 1960 these sorts of "genre" offerings were naught but schlocky drive-in movie fare.

Yet at just that same time, hideous things were brewing in England. Hammer Films began production of their own line of horror films that were widely seen as inheriting Universal's mantle. Produced in colour and staring legendary actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), and The Brides of Dracula (1960) proved that there was still interest in well-made, well-acted, well-scripted Gothic horror films. At the time, American International Pictures was a low-grade B-movie house that was known for giving minuscule shooting schedules and shoestring budgets to films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Cave Man (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), and Reform School Girl (1957). However, when one of their most prolific and reliable directors, Roger Corman, approached them to make their own series of Hammer-style horror films, they gave him the green light. Not only that, but they upped his budget and gave him a whole 15 days to shoot his first, on the gamble that this was just the sort of thing that would raise AIP's standing, not to mention their profit margins.

As source material, Corman deviated from the tradition of European writers to go with an American original: Edgar Allan Poe. Richard Matheson, one of the greatest horror writers that ever lived, supplied the script based on Poe's 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher. Then came the inspired choice to cast Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. To this point, Price was already an established actor with 20 years experience and over 80 roles in his filmography. He originally entered the craft as a dramatic character actor who took on a number of historical dramas, then transitioning into Noir thrillers for a while. In the Fifties he really began his career in horror, in such films as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959), The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). Over the course of his career, less than a third of Price's films were horror, but they were the ones with the most enduring popularity. By the 1980's, he was guest-starring on The Muppet Show and doing voice-overs for Michael Jackson's Thriller as an all-time horror icon. This was due in no small part to AIP's "Poe Cycle." Together, they created House of Usher (1960) and charted a new course in American horror film.

When it comes to Gothic horror, one could very easily make the argument that it needs to be in black-and-white or it's not worth doing. The lack of colour strengthens the sense of the Sublime, deepening shadow and vivifying light, and today adding an implicit patina of age. In the Sixties, however, black-and-white didn't give an elegant sense of vintage maturity. It was merely old and cheap. If you wanted to show that you were tapped in to the day, you had to make a film in splashy Technicolor. To compensate, Corman decided to go overboard. If one were to pick a single word to describe the colours and sets in his Poe films, it would be "lurid"... The outside of a high Gothic manor on a hill may be dark and brooding, but it is under a lurid sky or, in the case of House of Usher surrounded by a lurid green mist. The house is filled with quintessential spooky stuff - cobwebs and stone corridors and the like - but otherwise overindulges colour by painting walls in vividly lurid tones. Corman's Poe films are all purples and reds and greens with smatterings of blues and orange.

Lurid is not only an appropriate adjective for the sets, but also for the script. House of Usher is a rarity in the Poe cycle for actually bearing some strong resemblance to the story upon which it is based. Some later films merely used a Poe poem as a jumping-off point for some fever dream. A few only attached the profitable Poe name to a movie adapting work by an entirely different author. As the first of these films, House of Usher manages to hew closely to the outline of The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe's brand of melancholy, madness, and oppressive gloom didn't necessarily fit with the formula adhered to by AIP's studio head Samuel Z. Arkoff: Action, Revolution, Killing, Oratory, Fantasy, and Fornication (the, yes, ARKOFF formula). This House of Usher was less of a careful study of man's descent into madness and more yelling and punching and running and fighting and things exploding in fire and whatnot. The anonymous narrator isn't just a compassionate observer of his friend Roderick, but the red-blooded fiancée of Madeline running on adrenaline. Vincent Price is reserved in his role, and one almost feels his full sardonic wit and gleeful evil wanting to break lose.

Trailer for House of Usher.

American International Pictures' House of Usher was a surprise hit for the company. Corman knew it would be a success but not to the extent that it was, as the perfect lurid, gaudy, brash, drive-in movie fare. Word came down from on high that another movie adapting Edgar Allen Poe was required, preferably starring Vincent Price and written by Richard Matheson. There was no concept of a series of Poe films yet, but The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) became the model for what would come.

Whereas House of Usher followed the original story relatively closely, The Pit and the Pendulum deviates wildly. According to Corman, our "method... was to use the Poe short story as the climax for a third act to the motion picture, because a two-page short story is not about to give you a ninety-minute motion picture." So here we have the titular torture device reserved for the dramatic climax, with a wholly original lead up drafted by Matheson. To concoct this script, Matheson and Corman collaborated on what they felt were some of the common underlying ideas and themes of Poe. Consequently, they created a standard template for their Poe films.

The main plot thread they unearthed is the idea of premature burial. Usually it involves a victim who was not dead, whether they were buried unwittingly or as a deliberate part of a nefarious scheme. If the victim is actually dead when they are buried, then at the very least they are the unquiet dead. Either way, be it a not-quite dead wife or a dead-but-back-for-revenge wife or an ancient family ghost or what have you, the dominant theme is things that are buried which refuse to stay buried.

This directly symbolizes Poe's psychological themes as an excavation of dark subconscious forces. It is reflected in the character with something to hide that does not remain hidden, as well as the dead that refuse to stay that way. Perhaps they are mentally ill and fighting off some morbid fascination, or perhaps they are a lying conspirator out to get someone killed, and generally what they are trying to hide is the body in the cellar. Eventually, what is lying in their subconscious will become exposed.

In The Pit and the Pendulum, a young Englishman arrives at the castle of the Medinas in 16th century Spain, looking to learn the truth behind the death of his sister, who married the head of the household. Don Medina is the son of one the most sadistic of the Spanish Inquisitors, who once murdered his brother and tortured his adulterous wife nearly to death before bricking her up in the family crypt. Don Medina witnessed the whole thing as a boy, leading to an adulthood marked by morbid fear of having buried his own wife alive after she died of fright. The fact that he can hear her voice calling to him and the harpsichord playing mysteriously in the night isn't helping matters much. So is it Don Medina that has some dark secret to be uncovered? Or is something else going on in that malodorous manor? Will the Englishman find out more than he wanted to? Is there even something deeper and more horrific in Don Medina's subconscious? Do the dead stay buried?

The Pit and the Pendulum was another smash success, and Corman was gearing up for a third when a dispute with AIP led him to take up his ball and go to another company. He found a suitable producer in Europe’s Pathé, though it led to a number of alterations in the formula he had now established. For one, he could not employ the talents of Vincent Price, who was under contract to AIP. As filming on this new film, The Premature Burial (1962), was getting underway, Price was off making Master of the World (1961), AIP’s entry into the Atomic Age wave of films adapting the works of Jules Verne. That same film was written by Richard Matheson, who Corman was also deprived of by going to Pathé. Consequently, Corman brought on Charles Beaumont as a writer and Ray Milland as lead actor on an outing that otherwise had all the same, quintessentially Corman-Poeish stuff.

AIP wasn’t about to let a cash cow go without a fight. When he found out about this arrangement, AIP president Samuel Z. Arkoff flew to Europe and had a meeting with the president of Pathé. Among the topics of discussion was how AIP was one of Pathé Labs’ biggest customers and that if Pathé’s filmmaking arm was prepared to go into competition with them, they would have to find another lab. Suffice it to say that Pathé relented and sold the production to AIP just as principle photography began. Once more, Corman was under an AIP contract and adding another official entry into the series of Poe movies.

Trailer for The Premature Burial.

It took getting rid of Price and Matheson to show how the series hit its stride and figured out what it does well. Milland excels in the Vincent Price role, bringing a dignity to it that Price himself would not have been able to bring. It is easy enough to imagine how he would have acted out the role, and it would have been great in its own right. Nevertheless, Milland is very well cast as the quiet aristocrat trying desperately to restrain his mortifying terror of being buried alive. The spooky stuff is all there and all in order. The movie begins with an exhumation in an eerie, fog-enshrouded cemetery, and there are ample crypts and cobwebbed corridors and a stunning nightmare sequence. Given that Corman's Poe movies dwell morbidly on the theme of premature burial and the unquiet dead, of secrets and spirits that refuse to stay hidden, The Premature Burial is its purest distillation. It was so emblematic of the series that when Corman reunited with Price and Matheson, they had nothing left to do and attempted to branch out.

Tales of Terror (1962) marked the fourth film in the cycle, and played a bit with the format, opting to anthologize three Poe stories. It also introduced a new element that would later produce one of the best films of the series: comedy. Originally, Tales of Terror was set to be as ominous, lurid, and gloomy as the three preceding films. Matheson, however, felt that they needed to inject a bit of levity to raise the spirits, so to speak, and do something a little different. Thus the terrifying "Morella" and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," sandwich the darkly comic "The Black Cat" (which also takes liberally from The Cask of Amontillado). After an absence on The Premature Burial, Vincent Price starred in all three segments. Whereas he typically acted circles (and chewed scenery) around his lesser supporting actors, Basil Rathbone in "M. Valdemar" and Peter Lorre in "The Black Cat" easily held their own. Price is a charismatic actor whose presence leaps off the screen, but he is at his absolute best when he is the sardonic and witty deliveryman of black humour. When paired with Peter Lorre in particular, as a hapless foil, the effect is pure magic which AIP would sustain for a further three films.

Trailer for Tales of Terror.

After a few years, AIP's Poe movies 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 UA but Price remained for Twice-Told Tales (1963).

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) opposite Vincent Price. Remaining along with Price is the theme of the unquiet dead.

Trailer for Twice-Told Tales.

Back under the AIP stable, the regular team joined with Peter Lorre, a very young Jack Nicholson, and horror legend Boris Karloff to produce the company's first full horror-comedy, The Raven, in 1963. The genesis for The Raven as a comedy came from the nature of the assignment itself. "After I heard they wanted to make a movie out of a poem," Richard Matheson said, "I felt that was an utter joke, so comedy was really the only way to go with it." Most of the humour is derived from the petty-mindedness of the characters in what is supposed to be a brooding horror film, and a lot of zippy little bits of dialogue.

Trailer for The Raven.

The Raven was a success and set off another quasi-series before Corman would settle back down into more straightforward horror films. In fact, the next three films in the series technically had nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe at all. Later in 1963, he would adapt the H.P. Lovecraft story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward under the Poe title The Haunted Castle. Written in 1927 but published posthumously, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is in Lovecraft's trademark flashback form. After the apparent disappearance of Charles Dexter Ward from the asylum to which he was committed after expressing sudden insanity and slight but inexplicable physical changes, an investigator examines the case. As he combs the documents he discovers that Ward had become obsessed with an ancestor named Joseph Curwin, who was an alchemist, necromancer, and murderer. The two also shared a physical resemblance, which would not work to Ward's favour when he uses his ancestor's old spells on his earthly remains. As typical for a Lovecraft story, the active agents only just manage to hold the line of human existence against a malevolently indifferent cosmos, with the knowledge that such a victory is ultimately as small and futile as humanity itself. Corman's Poe-titled adaptation (it was felt that Poe was more marketable than Lovecraft) keeps the setting of Arkham, Massachusetts and seems to borrow liberally from The Shadow Over Innsmouth, another Lovecraft tale in which an amphibious race regularly mates with humans along the shore, spawning deformed offspring.

The changes brought about by Corman and Beaumont find a middle ground between Lovecraft and the themes of Corman's Poe series. The quintessential Lovecraftian things are there - Arkham, the Necronomicon, human deformities, insanity-inducing creatures, and mentions of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth - but so are the Poe series' running meditation on the unquiet dead. H.P. Lovecraft has been notoriously difficult to adapt, as one would expect when the author's dominant theme is that the universe is so terrifying that it would drive humanity into nihilism and insanity to see it. The Haunted Palace does as good a job as can be expected under the circumstances of getting the low-budget Roger Corman treatment.

Leftover sets from The Raven were used in an original, but not very good, story called The Terror, starring Karloff and Nicholson, also released in 1963. Finally, right at the start of 1964, director Jacques Tourneur would reassemble Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone to make one of the best films of the entire series and the climax of horror-comedies, the black Comedy of Terrors.

Trailer for Comedy of Terrors.

For Matheson, the sameness of the subject matter was still getting under his skin. "I was getting tired of writing about people being buried alive, so I decided to make a joke about it." His self-administered remedy was Comedy of Terrors (1964). Vincent Price is in peak form as Waldo Trumbull, a drunk, sardonic scoundrel who married the daughter of old Mr. Hinchley (Boris Karloff) to take over his mortuary business. Peter Lorre plays Felix Gillie, a failed bank robber and lock picker who acts as Trumbull's accomplice and holds out a torch for Mrs. Amaryllis Trumbull (Joyce Jameson). Unfortunately the mortuary business is not as lucrative as Trumbull hoped, forcing him and Gillie to drum up business in the most direct way. After one failed attempt ("Is there no morality left in this world?" asks a spotlit Vincent Price after the sudden widow runs off with all the money), they concoct a plan to kill two birds with one pillow by offing their landlord, Mr. John F. Black, Esq. (Basil Rathbone) who has the temerity not to stay dead.

The cast works perfectly together with great comedic timing and snappy dialogue, as evidence by the following:

When Gillie is threatening to expose Trumbull...
Felix Gillie: And what if I tell them the truth and say it was all your idea in the first place?
Waldo Trumbull: Mr. Gillie... Felix... friend... I put it to you, who in your discerning estimation are the police most likely to believe, hm? Mr. W. Trumble, respected local citizen and entrepreneur of death, or Mr. Felix Gillie... wanted fugitive and confessed bank robber?
Felix Gillie: I never confessed!
When Amaryllis is considering running off with Gillie...
Waldo Trumbull: Get away from me!
Amaryllis Trumbull: Am I so repulsive?
Waldo Trumbull: That's the word, yes.
Amaryllis Trumbull: Couldn't you find it in your heart to love me, Waldo?
Waldo Trumbull: Get up, you're sitting on my money!
Amaryllis Trumbull: So you reject me?
Waldo Trumbull: As long as there's liquor in the house!
As Trumbull and Gillie try to keep Mr. Black locked in a coffin (by sitting on it)...
John F. Black, Esq.: Let me out of here!
Waldo Trumbull: We most certainly will NOT let you out of here, sir!
John F. Black, Esq.: Confound you, sir!
Waldo Trumbull: Confound you too, sir! Will you KINDLY have the goodness to die?
John F. Black, Esq.: NEVER!
Felix Gillie: For a man in his condition, he has a lot of energy!
Waldo Trumbull: The stubborn old crackpot! I could have sworn that he was dead!
John F. Black, Esq. stops struggling.
Felix Gillie: It's about time!
Waldo Trumbull: I've never had such an uncooperative customer in my life!
Unfortunately, The Comedy of Terrors is virtually unknown today and didn't fare very well when it was first released. Audiences didn't catch on to the title (a play on Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors) and stayed well away from the drive-in when it was playing. Richard Matheson speculated that AIP would have liked to give it a Poe title but couldn't find anything to latch onto it.

As a consequence of its poor box office showing, AIP went back to straight adaptations of Poe. As straight as AIP could do them, of course. Next to be released was The Masque of Red Death (1964), directed by Corman from a script originally developed by Charles Baumont as early as 1961. Reportedly, similarities between that script and The Seventh Seal (1957) led Corman to keep putting it off until he finally decided to just go for it. R. Wright Campbell polished up the old script, adding a subplot from another Poe story, Hop-Frog (1849).

Trailer for Masque of Red Death.

The Masque of Red Death is played very straight. Perhaps too straight... The film was no more a success than Comedy of Terrors, which Arkoff attributed to it's being "too arty farty." Rather than another scintillating horror film in the style of so many before, Corman produced a psychological drama about faith, temptation, and debauchery worthy of The Decameron. Price plays Prince Prospero, a Satanic disciple who is holding an orgy of food and frivolity within his castle while the plague of Red Death sweeps the country without. Into his castle he has taken the comely and pious Francesca (Jane Asher), her father (Nigel Green), and her beau (David Weston), with the goal of pitting the two men against each other in mortal combat for the amusement of his guests and to tempt her to the dark side.

On the one hand, The Masque of Red Death is another welcome change after the perfection of the "unquiet dead" theme in earlier films. On the other hand, it wanted for the quintessential spooky stuff one would want and expect. The horror is more metaphysical than visceral, bound in the moral dilemmas faced by the characters rather than cobwebs and crypts and ghouls rising from the grave. Thus, the next film after The Masque of Red Death was The Tomb of Ligeia (1964).

Trailer for Tomb of Ligeia.

Roger Corman's final film in the series was a return to form in more ways than one. It was a return to the theme of the unquiet dead, centred on Verden Fell (Vincent Price) whose deceased first wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) has pledged to will herself back to the living world, which does no favours for his second (also Elizabeth Shepherd). It was also a return to the more subdued film-making of House of Usher, the very first Poe film by Corman. This was largely helped by location shooting in the English countryside, at Castle Acre Priory and Stonehenge. When filming on location in the Sixties, you have to accept what the real world gives you, and it is not the heightened reality of lurid green fog and purple skies. It's just plain reality. The interior sets at Shepperton Studios were also subdued, mostly gray and smattered with Egyptian reproduction artifacts, seemingly designed to make the odd red jacket, carpet, or smear of blood pop out.

The Tomb of Ligeia was one of the best of the series by Corman's own reckoning, no doubt because it was played more like a real film than the lurid drive-in schlock he had been making between House of Usher and it. Mileage varies on that account, as that lurid drive-in schlock is really entertaining in its own right. If one genuinely enjoys it, then The Tomb of Liegia may seem lacking in many respects. Nevertheless, on Matheson's heels, Corman was done with it by 1964. Vincent Price, for his part, was still well-employed by AIP. In 1965 he also starred in the title role of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and would star in the final film in the Poe series to speak of... Its red-head stepchild in a sense, a bizarre fusion of the Poe cycle with the Jules Verne-style Scientific Romances that had been popular since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Starring Vincent Price but directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward, War-Gods of the Deep (1965) ostensibly finds its inspiration in the Poe poem The City in the Sea. The connection is even more laboured than The Raven's and owes most of its structure to the common tropes that had built up around the Jules Verne-type film.

The story begins on a murky English coast on a stormy night in 1903, where the ringing of an otherworldly bell announces a body that has mysteriously washed up at the base of the crags beneath a foreboding old inn. The recovered corpse turns out to be the lawyer of the American woman staying at the inn (Susan Hart), and so she, an American geologist (Tab Hunter), and a British artist with a pet hen named "Herbert" (Mary Poppins' David Tomlinson, whose chicken is a direct descendant of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea's Esmeralda the Seal and Journey to the Center of the Earth's Gertrude the Duck) are embroiled in the plot. Scouring the inn by candlelight, the girl is suddenly abducted through the secret passages behind the bookcase. The only clue to her kidnappers are small piles of seaweed which lead the stalwart and eccentric men, respectively, to the caverns beneath the inn and a whirlpool that drags them into lost Lyonesse, the City in the Sea... An ancient, labyrinthine edifice built eons ago by a mysterious race of gill-men from the shallow end of the Creature from the Black Lagoon's gene pool, fed air and power through the advanced technology of thermal vents connected to a nearby volcano. Since then, these gill-men have devolved into pure brutes at the command of Vincent Price and his crew of smugglers who have been trapped in the city for a century. Price himself has designs on the girl, and the gill-men demand blood sacrifices in the stone halls of their Babylonian gods.

Trailer for War-Gods of the Deep.

The set, miniature and matte work is sublime, and save for a few unfortunate conceptualizations of an underwater volcano, is extremely well done and capable at evoking the feeling of an ancient, submerged city. The gill-man costumes are wretched and the Vernian diving suits are interesting but a little awkward. Vincent Price himself is, as always, magisterial and giving his all to a performance for which legend says he didn't even have the script until days before shooting. Therein lies the film's problems. What Price was given was a little slight, and while War-Gods of the Deep has its own charms, it is mostly regurgitating a body of work built up over the previous five years of Poe films and decade of Scientific Romances. Jules Verne admired Poe though, so he might have been mildly entertained by a Gothic Scientific Romance inspired by them both.

After the fever pitch of previous Poe films, War-Gods of the Deep is a shambling finale. The production barely pulled together and was a clear sign that without Corman and after so many years of the dead refusing to stay buried, the life had gone out of them. Though not fine cinema by any stretch of the imagination, American International's Poe series is chilly, lurid, drive-in fun and one of history's most consistent efforts in adapting the great American author (more or less).

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