Bright Lights Film Journal

FridayLight NetfixStreamFest: The Corman-Price Poe Cycle

Sure they’re cheap, made on a shoestring for the drive-in circuit, but the AIP golden boy was Roger Corman, and for a few years he was knocking out homer after homer by spending twice as much as his usual pittance budget to make widescreen color adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories.

With the help of slightly larger budgets Corman was able to hire Vincent Price and sometimes Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, as well as a young Jack Nicholson and copious hotties in busty necklines.  Boris and Lorre are great but kind of too old to be scary while Price is juuust right and carries the films like a champ. He’s to Corman as Dietrich was to Von Sternberg or De Niro to Scorsese. With a florid hamminess that fills in the sparse patches of Corman’s sometimes spare mise en scene. Add Les Baxter’s crazy scores, some good freaky psychedelic California painters to make the portraits of dead and evil uncles and incestuous sisters and flowing red paint credits, and sharp scripts by Richard Matheson and pre-CHINATOWN Robert Towne, and viola!

They’re not all always available either on DVD or online but you can have a whole little Poe-fest on a rainy or cold Friday or Saturday night with the ones currently on Netflix.. so I’ve created this delightful marathon for you, dear Bright Lights Reader!

1. TALES OF TERROR (1962) – Part One – “Morella”

If you want to dip your toes into the Poes, start with this trilogy’s opening tale, “Morella” – it’s got everything: a drunk, haunted mustache-less Price; a creepy house exterior matte, one of the hottest girls of all the series (Maggie Pierce), a great crazy look, and a slam bang gran nag of typical Poe/Corman film traits.

With this series you’ll always see a literally fiery finish and Price will always be obsessed with a dead wife, or being buried alive, or Satanism. Here it’s the dead wife, but Poe was no kibbitzer of dead wives like Leo DiCaprio has been lately. Poe actually had a dead wife, and a dead mom when he was barely a year old, and an adopted mom after her, and they all died of consumption. So he understood the suffering and madness that only absinthe and opium could alleviate even as it twisted the soul into something dark and monstrous. At any rate, it’s short, Morella is,  so feel free to stop there and get back to the other two stories later.

2 : PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) –

I  generally steer away from all the crazy period Spanish Inquisition buxom torture films out there is sleazeville–too many sweaty Spaniards leering sadistically behind the religious hypocrisy and terrible regional theater tattered costumes, etc., but because this is so creepy and fun the frilly white paper lantern collars and slick black jackets are actually a selling point – plus  I like Luana Anders as Price’s demure but mature sister. That said,  after awhile Price’s raving gets a little much and there’s not nearly enough Barbara Steele.

From my 1999 Muze canon entry:

There are twisted twists and gristly surprises aplenty in this, the second in a series of color Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by Roger Corman in the 1960s. Benefits include a mournfully eerie, atonal score by Les Baxter, the presence of European horror star Steele, and Price at his most floridly hammy. Nice costumes, atmospheric cinematography, and good dialogue from screenwriter Richard Matheson make this one of the best of the series, as well as one of the most disturbing. Luana Anders costars as Nicholas’s concerned sister.

2. MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) –

Now you’re in the zone! You’re ready for the shining jewel in the crown.  From my analysis for Muze:
“Jane Asher costars as Francesca, a beautiful peasant girl whom Prospero saves from the dreaded Red Death so that he can seduce her into becoming a bride of Satan. Meanwhile, his already-converted wife (Hazel Court) is making her final, fatal pact with Lucifer, and Prospero himself has a date with destiny when a mysterious, uninvited figure appears at the masque… Benefiting from great cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, lavish sets, and some delirious dancing, this engaging, macabre little tale lands in a nice spot between high art and high camp and is considered by many fans and critics to be the pinnacle of Corman’s prolific career.

TOMB OF LIGEIA (1965)
Cl0se out with this, which finds the modern age overtaking things, to add closure with Morella, Price is once again ‘stacheless and haunted by a long dead REBECCA of a wife… until the game and gorgeous Shepherd comes fox hunting through his ruined abbey…
From Muze:

Oscar-winning scribe Robert Towne (CHINATOWN) wrote the screenplay–based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Ligeia”–for this moody, macabre romance starring Vincent Price. A fox-hunting accident introduces vivacious Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) to brooding neighbor Verden Fell (Price). They fall in love despite his penchant for sitting around his gloomy, cobwebbed abbey, obsessing over Ligeia, his dead wife. After they return from the honeymoon, Rowena finds life at the abbey pretty distressing, as the spirit of Ligeia keeps appearing in, among other guises, the form of a malicious black cat… It all leads to a kinky, ghoulish climax, with plenty of shocks, mesmerism, implied drug addiction, and necrophilia along the way… Films veteran Arthur Grant gives it a more realistic look than most of Corman’s pictures, and Shepherd is a great heroine, delivering a mature and sexy performance.

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if you still need more after that, the other two Tales of Terror can now be safely endured, as can The Raven and The Terror. Til next time, keep watching the shadows wrought by dying embers on the floor!