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Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Debra Paget, Leona Gage, Joyce Jameson
By 1962, Roger Corman had already cranked out three entries in his series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but before the year was out, the prolific filmmaker would add yet another to the list.
The fourth entry would be a little bit different than what had came before though, taking three of the author’s tales as the inspiration for an anthology, with one of them even being pitched as a comedy.
After his absence being keenly felt in The Premature Burial, star Vincent Price was back in action, with Corman getting the most out of his first-choice actor by casting him in roles across all three segments, while iconic faces like Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre added weight to the proceedings.
With Price also bringing his distinctive vocal talents to the project as an unseen narrator linking each piece and the return of Richard Matheson on script duties, all the pieces were in place for another strong entry in the Corman’s Poe Cycle at AIP, but the end product would prove to be less than the sum of its parts…
After an ominous Price introduction over a lurid beating (telltale) heart, we are given the first tale, a reworking of Morella.
When Lenora Locke (Pierce) travels from Boston to meet with her long-estranged father (Price), she finds him in a decrepit, cobweb-strewn mansion, drunk, depressed and still blaming her for the death of his beloved wife and her mother, Morella. After he discovers that his daughter is also terminally ill though, he mellows towards her and the pair begin to get to know each other. Morella, despite being very much dead, is not quite so forgiving though…
For the fourth film in a row, Corman kicks off Tales of Terror with another unwelcome guest arriving at a foreboding mansion. Morella is a strange little tale, with the horror coming somewhat out of left field. Morella returns from beyond the grave in her daughter’s body to murder her husband happens very abruptly and it’s not entirely clear why she’s doing it.
Completely unfair as it is, her blaming her poor daughter for her death (as her husband did) makes a certain amount of narrative sense, but her rage is focused on him, suggesting his softening of his hatred of Lenora is seen as a betrayal by the vengeful spirit of Morella? Maybe?
Regardless, it’s delivered in a perfunctory manner, with footage from House of Usher’s fiery climax getting a thrifty, if clunky, reusing. The Locke mansion, with its sparking cobwebs and tarantulas (presumably the famous New England Tarantulas) is suitably atmospheric and Price gives good melodrama as the broken Locke, but Morella isn’t the strongest of openings.
The Black Cat sees Peter Lorre as Montresor Herringbone, an abusive drunk who when he is not bullying his unfortunate wife Annabelle (Jameson) for alcohol money is either drinking in local taverns or being thrown out of them.
One night he stumbles across a wine event, where he drunkenly challenges the world’s foremost wine taster, Fortunato Luchresi (Price) to a contest. Despite his superior knowledge, Herringbone passes out and needs to be taken home by his opponent. Luchresi doesn’t just appreciate wine though and soon begins an affair with Annabelle, leading the spurned husband to plot a horrible revenge…
While you can see the thinking behind Corman and Matheson’s idea to spice things up with a more comedic-focused tale, the execution leaves somewhat to be desired. Lorre is perfectly cast as the weaselly little Herringbone, as is Price as the pompous wine connoisseur, but the result is we don’t really have anyone to root for, other than poor Annabelle, who is very much in the background.
The wine-tasting scene is amusing, but Lorre’s character is just too repellent to root for, even in the face of an elitist snob like Luchresi, leaving just Price’s over the top facial gymnastics to get the laughs.
Matheson combines two Poe tales here, The Black Cat and The Cask Of Amontillado, which works well, but what should be a truly horrific finale is hamstrung by the attempts at comedy that preceded it. You gave to question the logic of making just one segment of a horror anthology humorous, but when you still don’t even land the one you have…it’s not ideal, put it that way.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar brings things to a close and is very much all about the horror though.
M. Valdemar (Price) is terminally ill and employing a Mr Carmichael to ease his pain. The man is a hypnotist and has been putting Valdemar into trances to alleviate his suffering, but when he begs to be allowed to die, Carmichael refuses and leaves him in limbo, conscious and aware, but trapped in a putrefying corpse.
Carmichael also has designs on Valdemar’s wife, announcing his plans to force himself on her and make her his bride, despite her protests. His control over Valdemar’s body might not be as absolute as he thinks it is though…
This is much more like it. Having two heavyweights like Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price going at each other is a real joy, with the former clearly relishing playing such a malevolent character. He’s a properly black villain, so his eventual come-uppance is as well-deserved as it is well-realised.
Any film that ends with Vincent Price covered in “oozing liquid putrescence” strangling someone to death is doing something right, while Debra Paget is a striking presence as the woman at the heart of a particularly complex and twisted love triangle/square.
The big question for Tales of Terror is whether there is half an hour of fun in each segment and the answer is “no, not really.”
Anthologies work best when they’re short and snappy, but with about 30 minutes each to pad out, with each one based on a short story themselves, there’s just not enough in Matheson’s script to really hold the interest.
Worse, there’s just not enough horror to go round either. Maybe if there was more dread, more scares or even just more creepy atmosphere to it, Corman would have gotten away with the languid pacing, but it wasn’t to be. Add in that Ill-advised comedy and you have a film that doesn’t really know what it wants to be and ends up being not enough about anything.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy