Tales of Terror: Roger Corman's Poe Cycle

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Bullock


The year is 1960 and Britain is overrun with monsters. Hammer’s Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy have recently made their way onto cinema screens and the Brides of Dracula are about to be unleashed.

In America though, things are quiet. The B-movie revolution of the 50s is all but over. The Incredible Shrinking Man has disappeared out of sight and the Creature has slunk back into the Black Lagoon. The Home of Hollywood is losing out to the Home of Horror and something needs to be done to redress the balance. Enter American International Pictures and Roger Corman.

Corman and AIP had a rich working relationship by this point. He had made a host of well-received pictures for the studio and they had always stayed loyal to a director who was churning out little movies for big profits. By 1960 though, Corman was becoming worn down by the grind of making several identikit genre films in a year. More importantly, Hammer‘s opulent set pieces and glorious colours had made even the best of Corman‘s films seem quaint. Corman strived for something a little more artistic, the studio for something to keep them in vogue (and profit), and they found both in the unlikely shape of Edgar Allan Poe.

Literature students looking for an easy introduction to the Master of the Macabre should visit Corman’s adaptations only as a last resort though. Absolute fidelity was the last thing on the director’s mind when he went about translating Poe’s work for the screen and at least one of the eight films (1963's HP Lovecraft-inspired The Haunted Palace) is Poe in title alone. Instead, Corman adapted the mood and tone of Poe's writing. Heavily indebted to that other famous author of the mind, Sigmund Freud, Corman’s Poe Cycle is steeped in psychological terror and subtle suggestion. It does away with Poe’s haunting prose and replaces it with a dark romanticism, brooding sense of paranoia and dreamy subjectivism that allowed Corman and his crew to go wild with the filming.

The two most celebrated components of that crew are Vincent Price (who took the lead in all but one adaptation) and Richard Matheson (who wrote four of them). Matheson was responsible for turning Poe's shorts into fully-formed features, while Price took command of the frenzied lead, giving Corman a suitably over-the-top brush with which to paint his portraits of Poeian madness. Beyond these two though, two equally significant, if less famous, players make the Poe Cycle the genre-defining series it is: cinematographer Floyd Crosby and set designer Daniel Haller. These men had worked with Corman before, but as with the director, the Poe Cycle would bring out their best. Between them, Corman, Matheson, Price, Crosby, Haller (and Poe) made enduring classics out of B-movie quickies.

Budget certainly had a role to play in this. If AIP were going to compete with Hammer, they needed more money so Corman suggested a new approach to producers James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff. Instead of making two black-and-white features on a ten-day shoot, as had always been the way at AIP, why not make one, full-colour picture on a fifteen day shoot? There'd only be one film to sell, sure, but it would be the biggest, most lavish film the studio had ever released. Both producers agreed, and Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher - the story of a hyper-sensitive paranoiac - seemed an obvious choice. Not everyone was convinced though. "Where's the monster," asked Arkoff. "The house is the monster," replied Corman. When Arkoff still wasn't taken, the director worked into the script the line "the house lives, the house breathes" and shooting got underway.

With a $270,000 budget, Corman and his crew could splash out as never before. Haller particularly benefited. He was given $20,000 to build the sets and went about creating grandiose surroundings that still take your breath away today. With its creaking exterior and spiraling staircases, the house of Usher itself is one of 60s cinema’s greatest stages, so impressive in fact that Haller re-used elements of it, both in future films and in this one. If you look hard enough you can probably spot the repetition, but it hardly matters. The familiarity, along with the slight falseness (even $270,000 isn't enough to conceal Corman's trademark artifice) only adds to the terror. The Usher mansion is a character. It really does live and breathe, and it dominates the film's protagonists, haunting and consuming them.

Corman and Crosby’s ability to capture those sets in full colour adds to their depth and opened the duo up to an unexpected artistry when shooting. Untypically for a gothic horror film, House of Usher is drenched in colour, and not just the blood reds and pitch blacks you‘d expect. Rich purples, blooming greens and bottomless blues dominate the film. They set the mood, dictate the atmosphere and seemingly control the characters, luring them to their dreadful fate. What Poe did with words, Corman and Crosby do visually, but the results are the same. House of Usher is an intoxicating masterpiece that, quite appropriately for a film about a man suffering a hyper-sensitive disorder, makes a terrifying ordeal out of every minor detail.

Corman and AIP had only intended to make one Poe film and move on, but when Usher was a hit, a follow-up was prepared. Initially, The Masque of the Red Death was to have continued the Cycle, but with Corman engaged in other projects, the simpler The Pit and the Pendulum was put into production. The only problem was the story, or to be more precise, the lack of a story. The Pit and the Pendulum isn‘t really a story at all; it's a scene, the film’s final scene, in which a man imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition is subjected to the titular torture device. Told from the man's point of view, the short lacks a real narrative too, so Matheson essentially created the film from scratch, building the story around Price’s character, Nicholas Medina, an Usher-esque waif haunted by his Inquisitor father's murderous past and convinced that he too will fall foul of the same killer desires.

While Usher is about the slow, subtle slip into madness, Pit is about insanity's swift and brutal descent, and the returning Haller is again key to conveying that. Though he would go on to make more artistic sets, and his work on Usher is arguably more effective in creating atmosphere, the one-off pit and pendulum stage he created here is an astonishing piece of work. The sheer scale of it, looming like a Goliath over everything else on screen, is impressive enough, but the spirit he and Corman infuse it with makes it a character in its own right, luring Medina into a trap and then feeding his final reel frenzy. Price would go on to call it the best set he ever worked on, and you can see why. It’s a beautiful sight.

As the human manifestation of Medina's torment, Corman hired something that no Haller set or Crosby cinematography could ever hope to emulate: Barbara Steele. The English actress effortlessly gives the film‘s finest performance, her piercing eyes and glacial features burning through the celluloid and casting over the audience the same spell she puts Medina under. Her appearances are few and fleeting, but unshakably memorable. She closes the film out in one of cinema's most iconic final images and appears in the Cycle's most lyrical dream sequences, Crosby once again splashing the screen with colour, Corman stretching and contorting the frame to hallucinatory effect. More than any other Poe Cycle film, The Pit and the Pendulum visually evokes the subconscious lyricism Poe dealt in leaving you drunk on its power.

If Usher was Corman's finest hour as a film-maker and Pit his finest moment as a director, The Masque of the Red Death is the helmer in full-on artist mode. Having failed to film the story in 1961, Corman returned to Poe's most enduring tale three years later in what would become the Cycle‘s penultimate entry. Of the series’ three undoubted classics, Masque is the only one not to be written by Matheson, with Charles Beaumont taking over writing duties instead. With production now based in Britain, the film also lost the talents of Crosby, but in his place came up-and-coming cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, who years before The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don't Look Now made a name for himself here. Arguably the least traditional of the Poe films, Masque strips away the Cycle’s traditional gothic stylings and replaces them with a regal grandeur wholly befitting this tale of decadent Prince Prospero (Price) and his hedonistic court.

Against this backdrop, Corman spins a rewarding and complex tale, certainly the most complex of the Cycle and arguably the most complex of his career, in which he explores the nature (and perhaps futility) of good and evil - Prospero representing the latter, Jane Asher's kidnapped peasant girl Francesca the former. This juxtaposition is suggested with colours throughout and Corman, Roeg and Haller mix seamlessly to create a torrent of perfectly-orchestrated visual chaos that only lets up in the film's gloomy coda. Here, the Red Death and his fellow reapers, who have also been busy on this night, meet up to discuss the film's events. Only six of the bustling village and court remain from the Red Death's massacre, we are told. Death, the film suggests, is merciless and relentless. Nobody is safe.

Masque, Pit and Usher constitute the holy trinity of the Poe Cycle, three films which expertly update Poe's horror while still remaining reverent to the source. But not all adaptations succeed with such aplomb. Following Pit, Corman wanted a change of pace and made a race drama called The Intruder, but when the film flopped he returned to Poe - initially without AIP. The director and studio had fallen out in a dispute over money, and Corman approached Pathe Laboratories, who were AIP's go-to printers and looking to move into production themselves, to make the third Poe entry. The result was a lower budget and a weaker film. Price, under exclusive contract at AIP, was replaced by Ray Milland, and Beaumont took over from Matheson for the first time. Crosby and Haller remained, but the substance didn’t.

Aside from the obvious (Beaumont lacks Matheson’s elegance and Milland doesn’t possess the tragic frailty of Price) the problem is the source material - there‘s just not enough of it. This had been true of Pit, of course, but The Premature Burial lacks even that short story’s punch; first published in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, it‘s a standard tale of a man‘s fear of early entombment - there's really nothing new here. Consequently, the film lacks the mystery, atmosphere and artistry of the earlier films. Corman wouldn't even get the pleasure of having the last laugh either. At the start of production, Nicholson and Arkoff made a rare appearance on set to inform the director that they were once again partners. AIP had threatened to withdraw their print work and bought the film's rights from Pathe. Corman was back to square one.

Still eager to break from the gothic horror mould Corman followed The Premature Burial with two Poe comedies, a virtual oxymoron that gives an indication of the films' qualities. Tales of Terror was the first in 1962, and it's marginally the more successful of the duo - largely because it isn't all played for laughs. A three-story portmanteau, it adapts Poe's Morella, The Black Cat (with a little of The Cask of Amontillado thrown in for good measure) and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, with the middle story the comic one. Matheson returned for writing duty, submitting a delightfully wicked script, and his lines are delivered with ribald humour by Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone, who joined the returning Price on the marquee. The film should work, but it simply doesn't.

Why not? Because Poe isn't funny, not in the way Corman plays it anyway. He's witty, he's ironic, he possesses a dark humour that courses through most of his stories’ veins. But out-and-out funny? Not really. Not only does the reversion to humour undermine the author's themes, it also plays against the key strengths of Corman's films. The atmosphere is undercut by the jokes, the tone never really develops, and the pacing, so crucial to Usher and Pit, is strangled by the episodic nature of the portmanteau. For all its promise, Tales of Terror feels like what it is: a picture made for financial profit. Nothing more, nothing less.

But profitable it was, and after making $1.5million in rentals, Corman was inspired to translate Poe's most famous tale: The Raven. The broadest and silliest of the Cycle, The Raven bears nothing more than a throwaway gag in common with the story it is based on. It is an adaptation in the loosest possible sense. Instead, Corman allows Price, Lorre and a frail-looking Boris Karloff free reign to bounce off each other as three feuding sorcerers. They do this wonderfully, of course, aided by another incisive Matheson script (the last Poe film he'd work on), but the movie is an uncomfortable fit, Poe's creepy gothic story messily retooled into a knockabout contemporary comedy. Watching it, it's difficult not to feel regret that Corman didn't get round to filming it when he was still passionate about the series. If he could turn Pit into a masterpiece...

It wouldn't be the only time Corman would play fast and loose with Poe though. He followed The Raven with The Haunted Palace, a Poe title supplanted onto a Lovecraft story. Ironically, it's among the best of the Poe Cycle films, even if technically it doesn't really belong with its siblings. Tonally, it’s also a markedly different film. Poe’s stories are dark, but they’re dominated by melancholy and paranoia, not despair. The Haunted Palace though is entirely desperate and comfortably the bleakest of the Poe Cycle. The lurid colour that dominated previous films is gone, replaced by empty blacks, muddy greens and lifeless grays. The story demands as much. Much more external than the inwards Poe tales, Palace extends the battle of the mind across the village of Arkham, with our protagonist Charles Ward (Price) struggling to keep control of his soul in a tussle with the spirit of Joseph Curwen (also Price), a warlock who has vowed revenge upon the townspeople for executing years previous. Should Ward lose, the entire village will fall and the sense of decay as the film progresses is impressively palpable. Arkham, almost literally, falls apart.

By the end of 1964, Corman’s relationship with the Poe Cycle was starting to feel equally broken. He was keen to move on, and The Tomb of Ligeia would be the Cycle’s swansong. Fittingly, it's classic Poe, with Price playing Verden Fell, a man convinced his late wife's soul lives on in the body of a cat. Price was the only one of the Corman crew to return though. Hammer veteran Arthur Grant took over from Crosby as DP and designer Colin Coulett was in for Haller, who was directing his own film for AIP, the Lovecraft adaptation Die, Monster Die!. Most significantly, with neither Matheson or Beaumont returning for this last entry, Corman turned to one Robert Towne to write the script, and the Chinatown writer created the Cycle's most complicated (and at times convoluted) entry. However, beneath the confusion lies the very heart of Poe's storytelling: the living, the dead and the relationship between the two.

Ligeia is notable for its use of real locations and it would mark the beginning of a move away from the fantastical in Corman's filmmaking. During production, the director was approached by Columbia Pictures and, sensing a chance to advance his career, he signed on the dotted line. His first film was 1966's Hell’s Angels picture The Wild Angels, and this was followed by Al Capone movie The St Valentine's Day Massacre. It would be another two decades before he would make another horror film (1990's Frankenstein Unbound). In the meantime, he turned producer, nurturing talent such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Joe Dante as part of his work with production house New World Pictures. The company also became one of America's leading foreign film distributors, helping the likes of Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa gain exposure (and Oscars) across the pond.

Corman hasn't directed since Frankenstein Unbound, but he remains one of Hollywood's most fascinating figures. He is still producing pictures now and, appropriately, his life has been turned into a film itself, in the documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. It's a fitting description of the man. Corman is the classic Hollywood iconoclast, an inside man working both with and against the system. He's the mechanic of the Hollywood machine really, greasing the wheels and bringing through the next generation with precious few actually acknowledging his work or appreciating his talents. As the Poe Cycle proves though, every now and then, he could grease those wheels with an artist’s paintbrush and poet's lyricism. By its end, he’d made some of the greatest gothic horrors in American film history.


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