“Corman proved to be a surprisingly sympathetic collaborator with Poe, not only because of a shared fascination with abnormal psychology and the repression of the self, but because Corman too often emphasized ambience at the expense of action.”
The Poe series represents Roger Corman’s greatest single achievement. “Single” is not in this case inappropriate in describing the six films discussed here,1 since they contain enough formal and thematic similarities to be considered six variations on the same story. The endlessly recurring images and icons from the first film, The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), to the last, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), far from merely repeating each other, combine to give substance to one of the most meticulously detailed, self-consciously symbolic yet immersing worlds in the history of genre cinema.
House of Usher evolved out of Corman’s frustration at being asked by AIP to shoot two black and white exploitation films. He instead proposed to his bosses at AIP, Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson, to make one color film, offering the Poe project as a possibility. Corman’s was not the first Poe film, but previous attempts – with a few exceptions such as Jean Epstein’s experimental silent La chute de la maison Usher (1928) – were unremarkable, from the 1908 silent Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery (based on “Murders in the Rue Morgue”) to the 1954 remake, the 3-D Phantom of the Rue Morgue. It’s not surprising that Poe’s whodunits like Morgue have been perennial favorites of filmmakers, since the formulaic, game-like nature of this genre translates easily to film.
Two aspects of Poe’s work have defeated most filmmakers: the brevity of most of the stories and their lack of realistic characters or action. When he added the subtitle “A Parable” to his story “Shadow,” Poe was accurately describing much of his fiction, wherein mood is the chief element and even landscapes and houses exist primarily as analogues for the unbalanced human mind. Turning atmosphere into cinema had to be a major challenge, but Corman had an enduring interest in horror and fantasy, and both he and the equally thrift-minded AIP executives would appreciate the fact that Poe’s originals were in the public domain and thus free to adapt.
The gulf between such typical AIP films as Gene Fowler’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Corman’s own Machine Gun Kelly and a project like House of Usher appears extreme. Certainly, the Poe project initiated a new period for both the director and the studio, with color replacing black and white, ambitious projects preempting the earlier straightforward genre efforts, shooting schedules doubled and tripled, and budgets increased. AIP’s stock company, actors like Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller, fell into occasional, minor roles in films fronted by more respectable and better-known stars including Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. This was true even in the non-Corman post-1960 AIP films, including the topical-satirical beach films.
Corman proved to be a surprisingly sympathetic collaborator with Poe, not only because of a shared fascination with abnormal psychology and the repression of the self, but because Corman too often emphasized ambience at the expense of action. In Corman’s films, “atmosphere” rather than recognizable reality defines the world as it exists for many of his characters (The Undead, A Bucket of Blood). Action is often beyond the capability of, particularly, the men, who appear obsessed with meaning and whose attempts to discover some sense of meaning or identity usually ends in literal or symbolic death, either at the hands of a murderous female (Machine Gun Kelly, House of Usher) or by self-destruction (X – Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Masque of the Red Death).
The Poe films are, like the original stories, dominated by the double fear of sexuality and death. Sexuality is usually represented by a woman with a strong, sensual personality whose needs remain unsatisfied by her more metaphysically inclined husband. The consciousness that pervades the films is a divided one – the cerebral/philosophical (male) and the sensual (female) separate, incomplete, at odds, but longing for reuniting. The Pit and the Pendulum shows in a montage the history of the relations between Nicholas Medina and his wife Elizabeth. An ethereal, blue-dominated flashback showcases Nicholas’s rosy memories of their “delightful conversation,” “musical interludes,” and other artistic/intellectual encounters that seem to preclude passion entirely. The closest thing to a marital relationship in House of Usher is a transgressive one, between Roderick Usher and his sister Madeleine. Madeleine’s attempts to disengage herself and enter into a conventional relationship with Philip Winthrop are thwarted by Usher to the extent that he buries her alive to avoid losing her. Human passion is perverse (House of Usher) or suppressed (The Pit and the Pendulum). The desire of the male to merge with the female becomes an obsession, but is repressed by the forces of fear, guilt, and over-civilization also at work in the male character. The male imagines the inevitable result of his desire as death, and the two motifs are intermingled throughout the films.
The entire series, from House of Usher to Tomb of Ligeia, teems with evidence of the repression of sexuality, with the gloomy mansions the characters inhabit clearly divided into two realms: the upper floors, where daily life and its “normal” activities and traditions find expression (an analogue for the superego); and the lower dungeons where the family dead reside (the attractive-repulsive realm of the id). Trips to this area become increasingly more frequent as the tensions in the male character increase. Entrance to the crypt, nearly always, significantly, in the house rather than outside it – a “structural” symbol of death’s preeminence – is usually seen in terms of a need by the tormented male to discover the “secret” of his own past, of the influence of evil ancestors on present conditions. This constant returning to the family crypt acts as a sort of rehearsal for sexuality, a safer version of sexual entry, since no real sexual contact occurs to threaten the powerfully isolated male.
Paradoxically, the films present death as both the alternative to the merging of the divided consciousness (release) and the result of it. For the tormented protagonist, merging represents a potential triumph over death, since the united consciousness will be self-actualized, hence able to defy the “natural law” of death. At the same time, this merging resonates with overwhelming fear, and the protagonist must symbolically destroy his other half in order both to ultimately avoid the merger and to transfer death to the “other” represented by his female counterpart.
The films, like the Poe sources, envision death as an agonized, semi-living state offering not so much release as the denial, ever, from humankind’s fears. Death and life are often indistinguishable states, and the protagonists of the films tend to talk obsessively but death, and lead a kind of death-in-life existence of their own. In the “M. Valdemar” episode of Tales of Terror, for example, the mind continues to live in an inchoate state even while the body is decaying. In The Pit and the Pendulum, Elizabeth Medina appears to die twice – once when she is supposedly buried alive in the family crypt, again when she is locked in an Iron Maiden. In both cases she is actually alive. In Premature Burial, death has a far greater force and reality for Guy Carrell than life, as evidenced by his outré paintings that portray the world as a Boschian charnel house.
The personality of these “heroes” – a word drenched in irony when applied to tormented souls men like Nicholas Medina and Roderick Usher – dominates the films but often, seemingly, from a position of weakness. Medina, Usher, and Prince Prospero (Masque of the Red Death) represent different stages of personality disintegration, a theme found throughout both Poe’s and Corman’s work. Their world is a fragile one, filled with the dark rooms of their ancestral homes, a heritage they find both terrifying and seductive. House of Usher contains the clearest embodiment of the house as an expression of the personality of its owner – complete, in this case, with an enormous crack along the side that creates frequent shakings and a constant threat of collapse. That Usher mocks Philip’s suggestion to repair the crack shows how willingly the Poe/Corman protagonist awaits the self-destruction it foretells.
The fear of sexuality and longing for death that exist in Corman’s male characters are balanced by the desire for life in his female counterparts. This desire can be portrayed positively, as a maternal interest in the continuance of life (Doña Medina, Kate Carrell), or negatively as an impulse to destroy the male that derives from an unsatisfied sexuality (Elizabeth Medina, Madeleine Usher, Ligeia). The demise of the male at the hands of the female is a recurring theme that not only illustrates Poe/Corman’s obsession with male paranoia (the strong woman becomes rapaciously, lethally powerful), but also embodies the melding of death and sexuality that lies at the heart of the films.
The Poe films are among Corman’s most successful collaborations, and perhaps the most important collaborator, despite the often radical changes from original story (or poem) to finished film, is Poe himself. Poe’s enduring blend of existential anxiety, transgressive sexuality, and a kind of death-in-life in a spiritually unmoored world also found a sympathetic interpreter in Corman, who mined these themes in nearly every genre he touched, from science fiction to crime films. Common Corman motifs such as eyes as regulators of consciousness find analogues in Poe stories like “Ligeia.” The character types in his films also dovetail with those of Poe. Emasculated males and dominant, destructive females appear throughout the work of both. The Poe films’ powerful women – Madeleine Usher, Elizabeth Medina, Ligeia – are clear descendants of earlier characters like Sabra Tanner (Sorority Girl), Flo Becker (Machine Gun Kelly), and Janice Starlin (The Wasp Woman); while the films’ masochistic males – Nicholas Medina, Guy Carrell – can be traced back to Machine Gun Kelly, Walter Paisley (Bucket of Blood), and Christy Christakos (Carnival Rock).
Just as screenwriter Charles Griffith and cinematographer Floyd Crosby made important contributions to Corman’s 1950s films, so Corman found equally willing and talented collaborators during the following decade. Important genre authors Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell, and Ray Russell, as well as future Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne, wrote the screenplays for the Poe films, and it’s a tribute to the power of the Poe/Corman collaboration that the screenplays generally echo the same themes, motifs, and characters regardless of the individual author.
The mise-en-scène of the Poe films owes much to Daniel Haller’s densely detailed sets. At an average cost of $200,000-$300,000 (two to four times Corman’s typical 1950s budgets), the Poe series has a surprisingly plush look. Haller deserves credit for the expansive quality of inexpensive sets constructed to allow the camera the utmost freedom of movement. According to Haller, “We wanted a set having many levels and ample space – four or five rooms were erected on the stage so they were interconnecting, and we used wide archways and stairways without balustrades. Thus the camera could move freely through the entire series of rooms for substantial takes – massiveness keynoted the design and construction of all sets so that the players would be dwarfed against the vast walls, and in the massive archways.”2 These comments refer specifically to The Pit and the Pendulum, but apply equally to other films in the series with the exception of Masque of the Red Death, which utilized leftover expensive sets from the big-budget British film Becket.
Cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who shot Murnau’s Tabu in 1931, continued his collaboration with Corman that dated back to 1954 and Monster from the Ocean Floor. Corman’s simple statement that “I like the idea of a moving camera” was translated by Crosby into a myriad of slow tracks and dollies, by turns elegant and unstable, particularly during those sequences detailing a character’s descent into the lower realms of the house. Sometimes the films utilized an uncommon visual device, the zip-pan, to emphasize a jarring revelation, as, for example, in the final shot of Elizabeth Medina trapped in the Iron Maiden, or the first shot of Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia.
The use of laboratory opticals was also perfected in these films. The Pit and the Pendulum shows perhaps the most ambitious use of this device in the tinted montage sequences, the stretching of the image to indicate trauma during the flashback, and particularly during the film’s major set-piece, in which the shots of the pendulum were double-printed to give an already disturbing image an overpowering density and weight.
One of the most obvious – certainly the most visible – of Corman’s collaborators was actor Vincent Price. Sometimes criticized for overacting, Price expresses to perfection the dissolute romantic hero of the films. Unafraid to portray extreme emotions or to deploy the kind of stylized gestures required in the interiorized world of the Poe films, Price pushed his characterizations to the limit. Yet we can clearly distinguish between individual members of this gallery, and it would be difficult, for example, to mistake Pit and the Pendulum’s shivering masochist Nicholas Medina for Tomb of Ligeia’s commanding Verden Fell, in spite of their shared origins.
Jean-Loup Bourget has suggested approaching the films of Douglas Sirk with the idea of a “Sirk ensemble,” composed not only of Sirk and his human collaborators, but also of the “storehouse of traditions” that comprised Universal Pictures,3 the studio for whom Sirk directed most of his American pictures. This idea can be equally useful in understanding Corman. Certainly few directors were as consistent in utilizing a stock company both as actors and technicians, but Corman’s ideas, even in the more high-minded Poe films, can be traced in part to the traditions of AIP and low-budget filmmaking in general. The traditions of AIP prior to 1960 included both genre (many horror and fantasy films by Corman and other directors) and production style (limited budgets and sensational marketing). Most of AIP’s talent (Haller and Crosby, for example) expanded their abilities in the Poe films, and the same economical approach that distinguished the earlier efforts can be seen again in House of Usher, though the look was so much richer that Corman was taken more seriously as a director after that film.
The Fall of the House of Usher
“‘Madman!’ – here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul – ‘Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!'”
The Fall of the House of Usher, also known as House of Usher, was the first Poe/Corman collaboration. Shot with a primary cast of four, House of Usher established the conventions for the films that followed. It marked a turning point for the director in many ways: it was the first of his films to elicit widespread (and mostly positive) critical reaction; it marked his shift from the subterranean depths of low-budget filmmaking to more respectable budgets and more literary, mainstream source material; and it gave full expression to Corman’s feeling for color and mise-en-scène, a talent he perfected during the decade House of Usher began.
Corman’s occasional color films during the 1950s (chiefly westerns) could not have prepared audiences for the sensitivity to color evident in the first Poe film, nor for his skill with the psychology of color, allowing it to express the emotions of his characters in visual and sensual form. Corman’s early reputation seemed almost to depend on his use of black and white in films like It Conquered the World, Not of This Earth, and Attack of the Crab Monsters. Much of the richness of House of Usher and the films that followed derive from the visual aspect they present – not only in the use of color but in the framing of shots and the use of moving camera, montage sequences, and laboratory opticals.
House of Usher, like the films that follow, diverges significantly from the Poe source. Purists complained particularly about Poe’s narrator, a concerned friend of Roderick Usher, becoming Philip Winthrop, a fellow student and would-be lover of Madeleine Usher. But what appears to be simply a commercial compromise takes on added dimensions as the film sets up a lethal triangle between the two men and the woman they both want to possess.
The first convention House of Usher establishes is the introduction of a “normal” character into an extraordinary environment, a vital person into a realm marked by images of death and decay. Here the character is Philip (Mark Damon), but the same type appears in The Pit and the Pendulum (Francis Barnard), Masque of the Red Death (Francesca), and Tomb of Ligeia (Rowena). The passage of this character from into a decadent world is usually rendered by means of lateral and overhead tracking shots that predict more than a mere social call. His arrival sets up a classic conflict between good and evil, a conflict that must end in the destruction of the evil, corrupt world inhabited by Usher or Medina or Prospero.
The second important character the film establishes for the series is Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), the supersensitive aesthete who stands precariously at the center of his world. Like the introduction of the depraved Satanist Preisig (Boris Karloff) in Edgar G. Ulmer’s own Poe adaptation, The Black Cat (1933), the entry of Usher into the film is rendered by a radical, unsettling technique. Whereas Ulmer cut between tracking shots to show us the perverse nature of the character, Corman uses the zip-pan to indicate the almost supernatural intensity of Usher, who appears and disappears without warning. The zip-pan symbolizes the loss of control as the camera moves too fast toward an object, creating a hysterical effect appropriate to Usher. His visage is significantly sterile; with his white hair and crimson garments he resembles a living corpse.
The Freudian tone of House of Usher is set early, with the striking occurrence of a mock-castration as the servant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) asks that Philip not only remove his coat but also his boots, a request Philip finds unusual, to say the least. The abnormality of the environment, foreshadowed by Philip’s passage through the rotting verdure surrounding the mansion, is signaled by Bristol’s insistence on this act, and we see as the film progresses that Bristol, along with Madeleine (Myrna Fahey) and even the house itself, seems to carry out Usher’s spoken or unspoken orders. The de-booting of Philip is the first of Usher’s many attempts to preserve the integrity of his world.
The appearance of Madeleine from her sickbed, to interrupt a conversation between Philip and Roderick, completes the triangle. If Philip represents robust good health and natural sexuality, and Roderick represents the repression of these elements, Madeleine is the contested figure between the two. Strong-willed and at least formerly healthy, Madeleine, we are told, suffers from a very Poe-esque malady that keeps her confined to her bed. Details of this illness gradually unfold as Roderick’s vague hints culminate in Philip finding Madeleine lying entranced in a coffin below the main floors of the house.
Since we know from Philip’s conversation that Madeleine was healthy in Boston (and we have less reason to doubt Philip, who appears open, than Roderick, who talks in hints and innuendo), we are immediately suspicious about the reality of her problem. As the film makes clear, the presence of Madeleine is a sine qua non of Roderick’s world, the female counterpart that, along with Roderick himself, must be there to comprise the total.
But what is the nature of this world that Roderick feels so compelled to preserve? The house itself has several singular characteristics: it contains its own dead in the crypt below the main floors; it continues to house members of the Usher line who “made it what it is” in the form of the gruesome family portraits that surround Roderick in his study and in Roderick himself. His is a world in reverse – the inanimate is treated as, believed to be, a living thing (the house, the history of the family), while the actual living – Roderick and Madeleine – act out a sort of death-in-life charade that, as in Poe’s story, masks Roderick’s unsatisfied sexual interest in his sister.
As Roderick rejects the more positive world (figuratively and literally, by cloistering himself from the world at large and carrying on a quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister), he creates his own alternate version. He is an artist, a creator; he paints gruesome (and significantly, modern, ahistorical) portraits, emphasizing simultaneously a quality of despair and one of raging, blood-spattered sexuality. He plays stylized songs. Most importantly, he exerts a singular control over Madeleine. His descriptions of her personality, however, do not seem so much inherent qualities in Madeleine as, again, Roderick’s vision of her.
For example, he claims that the same disease that afflicts him – a nervous condition rendering all sensation, but particularly hearing, unbearable – also plagues his sister. The film contradicts this as Philip says that in Boston, far from being sick, she was “exuberant” and “full of the joy of living.” Her “sickness” seems to have begun when she returned home. The image she actually presents is one of vitality and power, and a vivid sexuality in her scenes with Philip. However, under her brother’s influence, she grows more pliable, more willing to accept his descriptions of her. He veils his fear of her being taken away from him with the explanation that all the Usher blood is tainted and that the most humane thing would be to let the line die out – hence his attempts to block her exit with Philip.
True to the spirit of Poe, the film portrays the Ushers’ relationship as a transgressive one. Like lovers, they share secrets at the dinner table, when Madeleine gives discreet signs to her brother not to reveal their family history or evidence of her illness. Philip represents two things in relation to the pair: an avenue of escape for Madeleine from her brother and his neurosis; and the destruction of Roderick’s fragile, insular world in the face of Philip’s utter normalcy. Confronted with Roderick’s bizarre behavior and the sordid family history, Philip charitably insists they were merely evidencing “peculiarities of temperament.” Ridiculed by Roderick for wanting to repair the enormous crack up the side of the house, Philip explains his reasoning simply: “for Madeleine’s safety.”
Roderick’s need to possess his sister, to retain her as the ultimate icon in his world – the beautiful but untouchable female, vibrant yet “cataleptic,” sexual yet unapproachable – increases as Philip refuses to leave, and the struggle between the two men for possession of Madeleine accelerates. When it becomes clear that she plans to disobey her brother and depart with Philip, Roderick finds a unique way out of his problem: he can keep her in the house at once alive and dead. When Philip hears her scream after an argument between Madeleine and Roderick, he enters her room to find Roderick standing back from the bed, saying, “She’s dead.” Philip learns later, from Bristol, that she suffered from catalepsy. During the funeral service, the film shows what Roderick knows: that Madeleine is really alive but in a cataleptic trance. When Roderick sees her fingers move within her coffin, an action shown in the foreground, he hurriedly closes the coffin and transports it to the family crypt below. This and the scene that follows comprise the obligatory sequence, recurring in most of the series, showing the faux-destruction of the female by the male that gives the ostensible motive for the female’s ultimate revenge. In The Pit and the Pendulum, this scene exists as a flashback in which Sebastian Medina chains his wife inside a wall, alive. In House of Usher, an optical track reveals Madeleine’s name on her coffin, with the surrounding area of the frame darkened, followed by her long scream as she realizes she has been buried alive.
At this point the narrative accelerates as Roderick has finally acted to preserve the sanctity of his world by “killing” his sister. The advantages of this act to Roderick are several: it theoretically removes the threat of Philip, since with Madeleine gone he has no clear reason to be there; it preserves his world by maintaining the presence of Madeleine, even though nominally dead, in the house; it removes the tension of sexuality from Roderick; and it confirms Roderick’s godlike power, his superiority, in imposing death and life, indeed, in blurring these states since Madeleine can be construed as both. However, Philip refuses to leave, and Madeleine refuses to stay dead. The feared-desired coming together of Madeleine and Roderick can now occur, in the film’s climactic set-piece of Madeleine’s bloody resurrection.
Roderick has warned Philip that most of his family became insane and “in their madness it took the power of many to subdue them.” This is precisely what happens to Madeleine. Driven crazy by having been locked in the coffin (a symbol not only of death but of blocked sexuality), Madeleine rends open her tomb and, dripping blood throughout the house, makes her way toward Roderick. A temporary encounter with Philip leaves him dazed on the floor. Roderick, aware of what is happening, takes out a gun but drops it as Madeleine enters the room. A fallen lamp ignites a curtain, and the fire spreads throughout the house. In the midst of flaming walls and collapsing rafters, Madeleine and Roderick appear in a tight embrace, but with Madeleine’s hands locked securely around his throat. Philip escapes with the aid of Bristol, but the brother and sister die in each other’s arms in the house.
Most of the films that followed House of Usher contain this kind of climax, in which the sexual tensions in the important male character find ultimate release. The films express the Freudian idea (the child’s fear) that sexuality ends in death. And death means not only the death of the individual but the death of the world itself, since the world, in the work of both Corman and Poe, is created by the individual consciousness.
The Pit and the Pendulum
“I was sick, sick unto death with that long agony . . .”
Corman chose as his second Poe project The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Like its predecessor, the original story is a powerful mood study, this time concerning the entrapment and despair of an Inquisition prisoner. The transition from story to screen required an elaborate new plot and characters that could expand the one-person drama of Poe’s original into a substantive narrative. The result is one of Corman’s most powerful films, a near-perfect marriage of formal devices and themes.
The Pit and the Pendulum begins as did House of Usher with the arrival of a conventional character into a troubled environment. The character is Francis Barnard (John Kerr), who comes to the mansion of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to investigate the mysterious death of his sister, Nicholas’s wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). Unlike House of Usher, which begins with a studio shot, Pit and the Pendulum opens with a true exterior shot of the ocean as Francis passes from the real world into one of apparent corruption and death. Again, this mythically resonant arrival is shot with an overhead crane. As in House of Usher, there is an initial resistance on the part of a servant to allow the visitor access to the mansion or its inhabitants. As always, these servants are mere ciphers acting out the wishes of their masters, not so much in waiting on them as in protecting them from the intrusions of the outside world. Because these intruders are not merely visitors but agents of destruction, they cannot be kept back by servants.
At the center of this world again stands a faltering figure, the guilt-ridden, sexually tormented aesthete, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price). As in House of Usher, some blame for Nicholas’s agitation is laid at the door of the past, with “depraved blood” responsible for his supposed crime of having buried his wife alive. The first thing we learn about Elizabeth, after hearing she is dead, is that she has “no grave,” that she is “interred below,” by family custom – that is, she is in the house, residing in its consciousness, believed dead. Nicholas’s abrupt introduction confirms the obsession with death that runs throughout this film. He tells Francis he has been busy tinkering on an unseen but noisy machine that “must be kept in constant repair” – an alarming statement considering, as we soon learn, that the machine is an elaborate device used by torturers of the Inquisition, which ended years ago.
Francis’s sneering disbelief creates a more immediately hostile atmosphere here than in the earlier film. Whereas Philip and Roderick seemed almost evenly matched, Francis is clearly far more powerful than the deteriorating Nicholas. As the story unfolds, we learn that Nicholas and Elizabeth were once happy, but that “something” came between them. This turns out to be Elizabeth’s obsession with the castle, in whose depths mass tortures were carried out by Nicholas’s infamous father, Sebastian. Francis’s constant harping on “what really happened,” his insistence that Nicholas has “an air of definite guilt,” trigger further revelations. Nicholas as a child saw his mother tortured to death, a fact later amended by the family physician, Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone), to her being tortured, then buried alive. These are the guiding influences on Nicholas’s life, on his inability, as his protective sister Catherine Doña Medina (Luana Anders) puts it, “to live as other men.”
Corman contrasts this grim past with the present by enclosing it in lurid montage sequences shot with color filters and various laboratory opticals. According to Herb Lightman,
The finished [montage] sequences were printed on blue-tinted stock which were then toned red during development, producing the effect of a two-tone image [in which] the highlights went blue, while the shadows (represented by areas where more emulsion was present) held the dye and were rendered as red, producing a realistic bloody quality. To further enhance the atmosphere of horror, the image was then run through an optical printer where the edges were vignetted and a twisted linear distortion was introduced.4
The first montage is a key one, showing the “happy” relations between Nicholas and Elizabeth. Little passionate behavior seems to have occurred, and the couple’s time was mostly spent with Nicholas waiting on Elizabeth, bringing her breakfast in bed each morning, attempting “in vain” to capture her beauty on canvas, and otherwise canonizing her. Life was, as Nicholas says in a voiceover, “simple, quiet, richly pleasurable.” In his introduction to the montage, he calls their life “good, rich with the shared pleasures of our love,” but we see little evidence of passion or eroticism, a key factor that offers some clue to why Elizabeth and Dr. Leon concoct the elaborate scheme not only of running away together but of driving Nicholas insane as well. Nicholas’s own views of his relations with Elizabeth seem to reflect a desire for family relations rather than a marital one, providing the close communion of a family without the burden of sexuality associated with marital relations. As the montage continues, Elizabeth appears to descend into madness – “the castle and its awful history had obsessed her.” This is an elaborate montage, the first of three, in which the blue monochrome tint is disrupted only at the end when Elizabeth falls “dead” out of an Iron Maiden with the name “Sebastian” on her lips. In the unreal world of the Poes, and the doubly unreal world of this montage within the film, Elizabeth’s gestural acting, her unnatural movements as she falls backward into Nicholas’s arms or lurches forward onto a torture object with which she has become entranced, suggest a puppet moving inscrutably at the behest of an unseen force, a visual analogue for the mysterious manipulations of mankind by an unseen, unknown God.
The Pit and the Pendulum supports the idea of an indifferent, inscrutable creator more fully than does House of Usher. Both films contain religious imagery, but The Pit and the Pendulum, like Masque of the Red Death two years later, seems to be partly about the estrangement of mankind from God. Two aspects of the film support this. The first is a poetic montage comprised of tracks and dissolves, in which the camera surveys various aspects of the castle, concentrating mostly on torture objects like the Iron Maiden and the rack, and on religious icons placed throughout. The film couples Inquisition torturer Sebastian Medina’s destruction devices with seemingly innocent, hopeful images of Christ on the Cross and an elaborate altarpiece. There is no pressing narrative reason for this scene, but it resonates thematically in its tableaux of a world in which symbols replace spirituality. The other significant religious reference occurs during the climactic set-piece, the near-destruction of Francis Barnard at the hands of the possessed Nicholas. Believing he is his father Sebastian, Nicholas delivers the formal speech that defines his world and the viewpoint of the film. This speech, present in all the Poe films, will be discussed below in the context of the film’s climax.
The second key montage occurs while Catherine is talking to Francis, trying to convince him to believe Nicholas’s story that Elizabeth died of “fright” and that he is innocent of her death. As a revelation of Nicholas’s character, the earlier montage goes further in suggesting that Elizabeth’s revenge derives from Nicholas’s inability to satisfy her sexually (indeed, with separate bedrooms there is no evidence that they ever slept together). This sequence defines the domination of Nicholas by the past, and shows from the child’s viewpoint the destruction of the mother at the hands of the father.
As in the first montage, this one is washed in a blue monochrome tint, and the first shot, occupying only a small part of the otherwise black screen, shows a ball bouncing along a stone stairway. Catherine’s voiceover explains that Nicholas has accidentally dropped his ball into his father’s torture chamber, a place the boy has been expressly forbidden enter. As the ball rolls along, the screen expands to show young Nicholas pursuing it, within a blue field of a shape approximating the field of human vision. Eventually the screen expands, and Nicholas wanders about touching the various torture instruments. This is significant because it is also the way Nicholas would later portray Elizabeth’s descent into madness to Francis – an indication of Nicholas’s self-created world in which he “plays all parts.” Young Nicholas’s investigation is interrupted by the entry of his father with his mother Isabella and his uncle Bartolome. It seems Sebastian is giving the pair a “ghastly tour” of the torture chamber, and Nicholas hurries to hide. He becomes nervous, we are told, with a “mounting sense of premonition” that something terrible will occur, and as he watches, Sebastian slashes Bartolome with a red-hot poker. A shock cut shows Isabella screaming. The color shifts with equal abruptness from blue to a crimson red, and Corman further compounds the traumatic image by optically stretching it. Isabella’s screams are disembodied, not matching the movements of her mouth, and counterpointed further by Catherine’s voiceover in the background, almost forgotten in the midst of what is happening visually. Sebastian has murdered Bartolome and is walling up his wife alive in revenge for their adulterous affair. Red and blue filters are employed throughout the last shots of these events, and the horror is expanded by stretching the images of the screaming woman, the hooded Sebastian, and the terrified Nicholas. As the montage ends and we return to the present, Catherine says, “And there before my brother’s eyes, our mother was tortured to death.”
The traumatized Nicholas, his sister explains, is “obsessed with guilt” at what occurred, the powerless feeling of the child who, in Freudian terms, fails to “save” his mother from the sexual, seemingly murderous assault of the father. Indeed, the first scene of Nicholas confirms his masochism, when he tells the hostile Francis that “you have every right to be suspicious.” Nicholas is weak, his personality on the verge of collapse, ready to be taken over by whatever stronger force – Sebastian’s “ghost,” his “tainted blood,” Elizabeth – happens to come along. It’s suggested that Nicholas’s apparent inability to satisfy Elizabeth stems from the violent separation of himself from his mother, the destruction of his mother at the hands of his father, and his symbolic castration by the same man.
As in most of the Poe films, past events appear more vivid and real to the protagonist than the dreary present. Not only does the past influence the present, it actually preempts it as Nicholas, in a paroxysm of masochism, re-creates in detail the key traumatic events of his past. Already a weak, hysterical personality, the news that he may have buried his wife alive, as Sebastian did his mother, threatens to push him over the edge. The film plays with our perception of Nicholas – is he crazy? – by offering clues that Elizabeth is alive: the playing of her harpsichord, one of her rings discovered on the instrument, a servant overhearing Elizabeth’s voice saying “Leave this room!” Finally, Nicholas, Francis, Catherine, and Dr. Leon decide to disinter Elizabeth, to see if she was indeed buried alive.
House of Usher established the convention of the descent into the bowels of the house, where the family dead are buried according to custom. This event is more than a mere plot device to discover whether or not a character was dead when buried; it becomes a rite of passage for the tormented protagonist, whose fate seems to depend on what this journey will reveal . Only after the descent occurs can the conflicts within the character be resolved. Hence Nicholas attacks the wall behind which his wife is interred, breaking it down stone by stone, opening the casket to discover a gruesome, desiccated body with hands upraised in a clawing motion. This revelation that Elizabeth was buried alive represents the point at which Nicholas’s personality begins to disappear entirely, allowing for the formation of a new one, based on his memories of Sebastian.
For the first time Elizabeth Medina appears alive, luring Nicholas into the “pit,” a place with obvious Freudian resonance. She plays upon Nicholas’s castration anxiety, understanding her husband’s masochism and acting on it. Even after Nicholas has collapsed into catatonia, and Elizabeth’s lover Dr. Leon is urging her to leave the castle with him, she cannot resist torturing him. Here we see to perfection the Poe/Corman rapacious female, a slightly different type in this film than in House of Usher, where there was a logical as well as a psychological basis for Madeleine’s murder of her brother. Elizabeth is like Ligeia in Tomb of Ligeia, an archetypal image of the destructive rather than nurturing feminine principle.
The film moves to its climax when Elizabeth reminds Nicholas of the “amusing” parallels between the events of the past and those of the present: “Is it not ironic – your wife an adulteress, your mother an adulteress, your uncle an adulterer, your closest friend an adulterer? Do you not find that amusing?” Elizabeth, whom we have seen only as a shadow-figure, emerges as a very living, blood-drenched woman who spends no little time tormenting her husband, relishing his cuckolding. There is again no logical reason why she should torment him. After all, she and Dr. Leon have merely planned to rob Nicholas and run away together. But when her more pragmatic lover warns, “There is no time for this,” she contradicts him with a strange line, “I’ve waited an eternity for this moment. There has to be time!” Thus we see Elizabeth is not merely interested in cuckolding her husband, or robbing him; she wants to punish him, but why?
A key to this lies in the film’s presentation of the world of The Pit and the Pendulum as, above all, the world of Nicholas Medina. His consciousness pervades the house. He keeps the torture objects below “in constant repair.” He chose each object in Elizabeth’s room, furnishing her world for her. The activities of those around him must be analyzed in light of Nicholas’s fears and desires. The major event in his life was helplessly witnessing his mother’s violent death. Elizabeth’s insistence on torturing him can be read as Nicholas’s fantasy of the revenge of the mother against the child who stood by passively watching her being tortured and killed. After all, both Elizabeth and Isabella were adulteresses, and both appear to have been prematurely interred. The image of the “dead” Elizabeth, frozen in a posture of agony, is matched by Nicholas’s memory of his mother, in bloody rags, chained screaming to the wall. Elizabeth, too, is associated with blood. The first glimpse Nicholas has of the real Elizabeth is her bloody hand reaching out of the coffin. Thus this is Nicholas’s world, with his wife helping him act out his impulse toward self-destruction. When Elizabeth says to Nicholas, “I have you exactly where I want you – helpless,” she is putting Nicholas in his mother’s place.
Elizabeth’s torture of Nicholas does not have the effect she desires, as her mentioning of resonant names from the past – “your mother, your father” – triggers a takeover of Nicholas’s personality by his father’s. Nicholas’s obsession with the castle is far more real than Elizabeth’s, and has paved the way for our acceptance of this turnaround. A reborn Nicholas kills Dr. Leon, then locks his faithless wife in a nearby Iron Maiden. Significantly, the only sign of overt sexuality we see in Nicholas occurs at this point, when his personality has dissolved. Being taken over by Sebastian allows Nicholas to at last passionately embrace and kiss his bloody wife, while describing the fate he has in store for her: “You’ll beg me to kill you to relieve you of the agony of hell into which your husband is about to plunge you.”
When Nicholas “becomes” Sebastian, escaping his own confused impulses, he recites a speech that brings together the sexual and philosophical elements of the film. The scene is the torture chamber; Nicholas has mistaken Francis for his adulterous brother in one of the film’s several identity transfers, and has chained him beneath a vast, razor-sharp pendulum that will slowly cut him in half while he is alive. Francis is tied to an “island” that shoots up out of the pit, in the lowest realm of the house. The walls of this area display vaguely human hooded images that could be Nicholas’s tainted ancestors or monk-like representatives of a malign God. Nicholas-Sebastian has confused Francis with his dead uncle Bartolome, and is ready to reenact the early torture of that long-dead character. Here is his speech:
Now we are ready to begin . . . Do you know where you are, Bartolome? I will tell you where you are. You are about to enter hell, Bartolome. Hell! The netherworld . . . the infernal regions . . . the abode of the damned, the place of torment . . . Pandemonium . . . Gehenna . . . Naraka . . . the pit! And the pendulum . . . the razor edge of death. Thus the condition of man, bound on an island from which he can never hope to escape, surrounded by the waiting pit of hell.
This evocative speech precedes Nicholas’s use of his “ultimate device of torture,” the pendulum. For Nicholas “the pit,” the terror of sexuality, does represent the ultimate horror. Like Roderick Usher, for Nicholas sexual desire becomes an impossibility, at least until he can confront it in the guise of Sebastian. The pendulum itself acts as a double symbol in the scheme of the film. Most obviously it counterpoints the pit as a phallic symbol, but it’s specifically linked to Sebastian, who, through the person of Nicholas, controls it; thus the violent, castrating father. On another level it represents time’s rapaciousness, since the object exists normally in a clock, marking the passage of time and the methodical movement toward death.
According to Daniel Haller, the pendulum set “occupied a whole sound stage and stretched from the floor to the rafters.” It was further augmented on the screen by matte additions, to give the look of an extremely massive environment. Haller continues, “The camera was mounted on a parallel at the opposite end of the stage and a 40mm Panavision wide-angle lens used,” enabling “Crosby to frame the scene in his camera with extra space allowed at the bottom and at either side. These areas were then filled in later by printing-in process extensions of the set, effectively doubling its size.”5
Corman reserved some of his most telling visual strategies for the final sequence. Once Nicholas starts the pendulum, nearly all of the shots are timed to the swinging of this monstrous object, an unusual approach for a director generally more noted for moving camera than montage. The effect of all the cutting between the pendulum, the chained Francis, the ghastly walls of the pit, and the crazed Nicholas creates a mood of mounting horror. Corman carries this further with his use of wide-angle distortions, kiltered angles, and laboratory opticals in this sequence.
Earlier in the film Corman introduced sporadically an image from outside the castle, an outdoor shot of ocean waves breaking against the shore below. In an archetypal drama detailing the struggle of good and evil, this image, reminding us of a life outside that of Nicholas and his obsessions, represents the continuity of a greater world in two senses. The triumph of that world occurs when Catherine and one of the servants manage to break into the pit, to free Francis just at the point of his mutilation by the pendulum, and to push the insane Nicholas into the pit (his eyes, bloodstained, are open). In a neat parallel plot device, the script has only the principals of the drama – Nicholas, Elizabeth, Dr. Leon – knowing what really happened, and Dr. Leon is dead, Nicholas either dead or near death in the pit, but Elizabeth definitely alive – gagged – in the Iron Maiden. When Catherine shuts the door to the pit and says, “No one will ever enter this room again,” Corman zip-pans to the image of Elizabeth, her eyes visible and wide open but unable to scream. In the film’s final irony, no attempt is made to free her because no one except Nicholas and Dr. Leon knew she was alive.
The Premature Burial
“While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in falling, her shroud became entangled in some ironwork which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.”
The Premature Burial (1961), the third film in the series, received more than a little negative criticism, even from devotees of the director. David Pirie refers to the film as “a self-evident disaster,”6 blaming the replacement of Vincent Price with Ray Milland for part of the film’s failure. However, the use of a realistic actor like Milland arguably gives the film much of its power, and in some ways pushes the film further than its two predecessors in creating a horrific atmosphere. Unlike Price, who usually seems less in conflict with than a part of the decadent world he inhabits, Milland appears more as a normal person caught in circumstances beyond his control – the “real” person trapped in an artificial environment. Whereas Roderick Usher and Nicholas Medina can be said to have created the world they inhabit and derive obvious satisfactions from it, even as it frustrates them, Guy Carrell in The Premature Burial is more clearly the victim of this world. As usual, just as Poe interiorizes his fictional worlds, so Corman encloses the world of the film, and the exteriors show a land as dead as the well-appointed crypt or the suffocating red-brown bedroom Guy inhabits. Guy stumbles through this world, paralyzed with a fear of being buried alive.
The plot centers on the return of a rejected suitor, this time a woman, Emily Gault (Hazel Court), to Guy’s life. We learn that Guy has tried to send her away because he is “sick.” afflicted (like Madeleine Usher) with catalepsy, a disease that re-creates the symptoms of death in a living person. Guy is obsessed with the idea that his father was buried alive, though his protective sister Kate (Heather Angel), the voice of reason throughout the film, disputes this. The film plays a game with the audience in delaying the revelation of who is behind the campaign to drive Guy to insanity or death by playing on his fears. It implies that Guy himself may be responsible, since he is simultaneously attracted and repelled by death; or it may be the mysterious Kate, who appears at key points as if from nowhere, contradicting Guy’s statements or administering laudanum to him (like Roderick Usher, Guy must take drugs to sleep); or it may be Emily, though the film takes pains to show the solicitousness of her character. Indeed, the final revelation that it is Emily who has engineered Guy’s demise comes as no small surprise.
The signs of Emily’s true nature are implied visually throughout, however, as we look back through the film. As with Madeleine Usher and Elizabeth Medina, Emily is a highly sexual character, a woman who appears to have maternal instincts in both a positive (sheltering Guy) and negative (smothering him) sense. The smothering motif is seen in the way Guy is positioned in the frame. He frequently retreats after a “spell” to his oppressively funereal room, stretching out passively on the bed. When Emily follows him there for the first time, she hovers over him. He remains still, and her figure dominates, eventually covering his image entirely with her own. Subtle reactions to a discussion with family friend Dr. Miles Archer (Richard Ney) about Guy’s mental state also provide a clue to Emily’s true nature. She seems to drink in, without revealing too much, Dr. Archer’s statement that she must be careful not to be “suggestive” with Guy, to avoid references to death, his father, and other spurs to trauma. The film also uses color to undercut Emily’s innocence. Both Kate and Emily wear black dresses, but Emily also wears a black hat with excessive red frills that flutter as if they were alive. Another clue comes when Emily and Miles rescue a kitten “prematurely buried” in one of the walls of the mansion. Guy is the first to hear its pitiful cry, and he watches in horror as the living creature is rescued. Emily puts the cat around her neck, provocatively “wearing” it as she might a – dead – fox fur.
But why should Emily want to destroy Guy? As with Elizabeth Medina, the reasons are complex, with a surface motivation easily giving way to a more complex one. To discover this, let us look at the world that Guy Carrell inhabits.
The obligatory speech by the tormented protagonist that verbally defines this world appears early in the film: “Can you possibly imagine it? The unendurable oppression of the lungs . . . the stifling fumes of the earth . . . the rigid embrace of the coffin . . . the blackness of absolute night . . . and the silence like an overwhelming sea. And then, invisible, but all too real to the senses, the presence of the conqueror worm.” This speech comes almost verbatim from Poe, one of the few things in the virtually plotless story that screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell used.
Typically, Guy Carrell is an artist, an overly sensitive being who, as he says himself, “knows the truth.” In The Premature Burial, Guy spends some of his time painting, but initially we only see the briefest snippets of his work, which recalls Bosch and Brueghel in its apocalyptic flavor and Francis Bacon in its depiction of the body as a shell of flesh and blood. When Emily insists on seeing his latest work, she also helps to satisfy the audience’s desire to see what kind of universe Guy portrays. He hesitates, then uncovers the painting, “Some Consummations Devoutly to Be Wish’d,” a gruesome landscape of demons, spirits, and cannibals, with a huge Satanic image dominating. The camera lingers on this image, recalling the grim portraits of the mad ancestors in House of Usher.
The strongest images of Guy’s world, however, come directly from his environment. Obsessed with death, he furnishes his house in oppressive browns and reds that seem to have the double connotation of a Freudian womb-fantasy and the earth he feels waits to envelop him. His room is a claustrophobic retreat, and he assumes a posture of rigid passivity on his bed. The grounds surrounding the house are no more comforting. As in House of Usher, Guy and Emily’s mansion is surrounded by dead trees constantly drenched in a swirling fog. The couple’s romantic walks through the grounds take on an ironic note due to its utter deadness. Exteriors and interiors are equally claustrophobic, since even the exteriors are obviously stylized sets.
The agent of destruction seen in the earlier films appears here in the person of Emily Gault. We eventually learn that she always “wanted to be a great lady,” an initial clue to why she is pursuing the wealthy Guy. But another, less obvious reason emerges. As in House of Usher or The Pit and the Pendulum, the world of The Premature Burial is furnished with the obsessions and fantasies of the main character. Unlike the previous films, however, Guy Carrell is not in control of this world, even though he has in some sense created it. The depth of his suffering is stated emphatically during one of his attacks, when Corman shows him racing up a staircase, pausing and lowering his head, with the image of the first prematurely buried man superimposed on him. Guy’s weakness implies impotence, a suggestion furthered by his frequent positions of subordination to Emily in the frame. If Emily recalls Elizabeth Medina in her double motive of gaining wealth and destroying an impotent lover, Guy recalls Nicholas Medina in becoming his father by also being buried alive.
Guy vacillates throughout the film between his desire to “rest in peace” (the last words of the film) and his desire to act, to escape his own paralyzing fears. For him, the problem of death is that it may not be real, that it offers a false hope of release. As a therapeutic act – and here the screenplay borrows from Poe’s ingenious original concept – he creates an elaborate crypt with a variety of clever escape routes, from a coffin containing escape devices to dynamite to a ladder that falls from the ceiling. Guy sardonically offers Emily and Miles a tour of the crypt, lovingly displaying each of its novel features. The final touch, the “piece de resistance, or should I say the coup de grace?” he offers as “the cure for all suffering . . . the key to heaven, or to hell, or to nothingness . . . poison.” This morbid creation ironically represents a positive attempt by Guy to deal with his fears, but Emily insists it be destroyed. Shortly thereafter he again suffers an attack and is buried alive.
Critic Jerry Kutner has suggested that Corman’s films often contain a unifying formal device that reflects his themes.7 He cites, for example, the use of elaborate tracking shots in The Haunted Palace to emphasize that film’s obsession with time. In The Premature Burial, the organizing device is the shock cut. The pattern here is to move from a relatively peaceful shot – for example, an embrace or a static alignment of characters – to a traumatic movement of some kind. For example, when Miles and Emily are discussing the possibility that Guy’s father was in fact buried alive, the camera pans over to Kate, who disputes this. She says, “My father rests in peace,” and the film cuts immediately to a wrenching shot of Guy in bed, lunging feverishly toward the camera. Another combination of mobile and static images in a shock cut is the scene mentioned earlier when Guy runs up a staircase during an attack, pauses, and moves his head slowly down in a posture of despair. Here Corman cuts to the freeze frame of the prematurely buried man, then dissolves back to Guy.
At the same time, The Premature Burial does not neglect formal montage or moving camera. In a memorable dream sequence, Guy collapses on the moors, then falls into unconsciousness .The dream, shot in lush blue and green filters, in set in Guy’s well-furnished crypt, but this time the interior of the crypt and all its furnishings have rotted. Spiders and rats crawl about, and Guy himself is frozen in the coffin. During his earlier demonstration of the crypt for Emily and Miles, he told them how just a slight movement of his finger could cause the coffin to spring open. In the dream it fails to open until his violent movements cause it to fall and break. Desperate, he tests each escape method but finds them all rotted or useless. Even his “piece de resistance,” the goblet of poison, contains only white worms. This scene provides a strong metaphor for death as its own prison, offering not release or oblivion but a living state of entrapment and solitude. Corman compounds this image by initially showing Guy not only trapped in the coffin but mute, his inability to speak punctuated ironically by horn sounds that accompany his vain attempts to scream.
Another formal device the film uses to great effect is the freeze frame, seen at the end of the pre-credit sequence as the prematurely buried man is revealed. Often freeze frames are used to capture moments of exuberance, vitality, or poignancy. Since freezing a frame implies the end (death) of the event shown as well as its being fixed in memory, such approaches must fail as often as they succeed. Freezing a frame drains the image of a certain vitality even as it tries to capture a moment of pleasure or power. The film’s freezing of an already dead image shows a striking use of this device. Further, the distortion of the image across the screen deepens its impact as it subjectifies its meaning for Guy, who sees himself in the coffin.
Like Nicholas Medina, a traumatic event – his burial and resurrection – give Guy a powerful, violent new personality, one determined to punish his enemies. This group consists of four people: the two gravediggers who attempt to disinter him for use as a medical specimen for Emily’s father, Dr. Gault (Alan Napier); the cynical Dr. Gault himself; and Emily. His emergence from the grave is shown in a shock cut, and instead of his face or body, we see the sudden terrified look of Sweeney, the grave robber, and Guy’s hands thrust vice-like around his throat. Guy’s murder of Dr. Gault, less obliquely shot, has a similar intensity. Like the dead frog they experimented with earlier, Dr. Gault is bound with wires and electrocuted. Only his shadow is shown as, tied to a chair and his hands twitching like a begging dog, he is electrocuted by Guy. Finally, Guy appears in Emily’s bedroom. When she faints, he takes her to the moors and buries her alive. Corman shoots their encounter – Guy at last above the prone Emily – with the two characters alone. Emily’s hair, so carefully put up throughout the film, trails into the edge of the open grave into which Guy pushes her. Screaming, she lands tightly in the coffin, and Guy shovels dirt across her face and open mouth. When Miles arrives to try to save her, she is already dead, and Guy’s self-defensive attack on Miles is stopped by Kate, who, always watching from the sidelines, shoots her brother to death.
While Poe provided the key speech as well as the escapable crypt motif to this underrated film, screenwriters Beaumont and Russell deserve credit for constructing a complex narrative for it. “The story was not a story at all,” according to Russell,” [but] more like a formal essay on the disadvantages and general undesirability of being buried alive.”8 Floyd Crosby’s camerawork shows his typical intelligence in its fluid movements and claustrophobic close-ups. Further credit must go to Ronald Stein’s score. Stein was a long-time collaborator of Corman’s, present from the beginning (Apache Woman, The Day the World Ended), whose haunting scores, particularly for The Last Woman on Earth and The Premature Burial, add distinction to these works. Daniel Haller’s sets express to perfection the decadent romanticism of the Poe/Corman world. Ray Milland, often unfavorably compared to Vincent Price, contributes strongly to what are probably Corman’s two grimmest films: X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and The Premature Burial.
“Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
The Raven (1963) came about because, as Corman said, “both Richard Matheson, our writer, and I were getting tired of the stock Poe pictures.” Having experimented on more than a few occasions with a fusion of humor and horror in both the early thrillers (Bucket of Blood) and, briefly, the Poe series as well (“The Black Cat” episode of Tales of Terror), it was only natural for Corman to expand the series with a full-length comedy that is the most optimistic, life-affirming of the series. In this case, Poe provided the title, the phrase “nevermore,” and the character of an idealized, missing beloved, Lenore.
The opening image, the marbleized fluids of the credit sequence, give little clue to the comedy to come. As Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) recites the title poem, a series of now familiar images appears: ocean waves crashing against the rocks (a more natural version of the earlier fluids); an enormous fog-enshrouded mansion surrounded by dead vegetation; and a coffin. But this sober picture is immediately undercut by the first appearance of Erasmus: he is “drawing” a large raven in midair with his finger. This creature appears as a cartoon, which at once gives Erasmus an aura of childishness. Just how far we have come from the crazed neurasthenics of House of Usher and The Premature Burial is clear from the next shot, when Erasmus rises to close a banging shutter and bumps his head on a telescope. He says, “Ow!” an unthinkable phrase from Roderick Usher or Guy Carrell. However, he does resemble his predecessors in some ways. Like Locke in Verden Fell (The Tomb of Ligeia), he keeps his beloved, supposedly dead wife nearby, in a coffin. Like Nicholas Medina, he lives in a state of abject misery because of her “death.” We even see him react with a hysterical scream worthy of Usher at the unexpected touch of his daughter behind him. The same kind of supersensitive masochism that Corman treated seriously in the earlier films is played for laughs in The Raven. Like his fellows in this morbid gallery, Erasmus is an artist, but his “creations” – for example, the cartoon raven – are harmless, even juvenile, compared to the hypnotic bleakness of Guy Carrell’s paintings or Roderick Usher’s dark renderings of his evil ancestors. The broad nature of his character is brilliantly affirmed during the battle between himself and Scarabus (Boris Karloff) that climaxes the film.
The Raven differs significantly from the one film it superficially resembles: “The Black Cat” episode of Tales of Terror. Whereas the images in “The Black Cat” are equally disturbing and comic, and the ending anything but optimistic (all the principals are dead or doomed), The Raven continuously takes the negative icons of the previous films and, in art critic Bevis Hillier’s phrase, forces them through a “process of amicization . . . ”9 The term refers to making a threatening image friendly by changing its appearance and the context in which we perceive it. Hillier used the concept to account for the postwar appeal of, for example, Japanese furniture and knick-knacks, and of underwater images such as mermaids and submarines. The Raven plays with our expectations of horror throughout, but always opts for a humorous or pleasurable response. The crucial descent into the depths of the house – normally a movement from the precarious safety of the upstairs into an encounter with, experiencing of, death – is treated as a pleasant event characterized by Erasmus’s bumbling silliness and Dr. Bedloe’s (Peter Lorre) comic improvisations. Even where the dreaded/hoped for encounter with the dead does occur – as Erasmus is forced to snip off some of his father’s hair to brew a potion to change Dr. Bedloe from raven to man – the initially frightening image gives way to a solicitous one. When the dead father – a typically gruesome image – suddenly awakens and grabs his son by the throat, Erasmus (and the audience) expects the worst. The father simply says, “Beware” – a warning to his son of possibly dire developments. In the previous films the dead are not really dead, but simply waiting to exact revenge on the weak-willed hero. In The Raven, a dead magician tries to deflect danger from his son.
Indeed, the film represents a fundamental reversal of the trend established by the previous entries in the series by having the hero move from a state of continuous disintegration toward the rarest of conditions in the Poe/Corman universe: self-actualization. In the previous films, the rotting, overripe environment reflected the character’s mental state; in The Raven, the plush, elaborate detail of the two mansions – Craven’s and Scarabus’s – emphasizes the possible and the hopeful. As in the earlier films the collapsing world of the protagonist was threatened by the introduction of a destructive agent from the outside world, so this also occurs in The Raven, except that Erasmus represents both the agent of destruction and the character whose world – a limited, fragile world characterized by his inability to act, to use his magic powers – is destroyed. The “evil” of Scarabus and his comic decline seem secondary to Erasmus’s coming to terms with his own power.
Lest this put too heavy a burden of psychological realism on The Raven, let us emphasize that the atmosphere of the film is far more expansive, more fantastic, more indulgently comic than its predecessors. Corman encouraged his actors to improvise many of their lines in the only Poe film that shows the possibility of happiness in the world. The sense of relaxed control is everywhere evident, from Dr. Bedloe’s relentless sarcasm to what Corman called “the biggest look” of any film in the series.
The Raven consistently presents potentially threatening images, only to shoot them down to size. Before the trip to Scarabus’s mansion, the Craven family servant becomes bewitched. The frightening image of a huge bald ax-wielding “maniac,” as Dr. Bedloe calls him, is undercut by Bedloe’s impromptu assumption of a toreador posture. A similar bewitching of Bedloe’s son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson), also proves only temporary, characteristic of a film that sees even the pure evil of Scarabus undermined by his final position as just another henpecked magician.
The film constantly plays tricks with the audience, particularly with respect to Dr. Bedloe. His mobile allegiances create much of the film’s humor. While Bedloe, Rexford, Erasmus, and his daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) are tied up in the basement of Scarabus’s mansion, Bedloe offers to sacrifice them all: “I don’t care what you do to them, just let me go!” When Scarabus says; “Don’t you care about your friends?” Bedloe looks genuinely bewildered and says, “No, why should I?” The theme of the impotent hero, and the phallic assaults against him, seen in the earlier films is played for laughs here. During Bedloe’s attempts to best Scarabus at magic, he “attacks” Scarabus with a wand. Scarabus makes the wand go limp, and Bedloe, disgusted, says, “You . . . you dirty old man!”
The film’s most famous scene is the duel by magic between Scarabus and Erasmus, the latter fighting not only for himself and his daughter and friends (and perhaps his cuckolding wife, Lenore) but for the triumph of good over evil. Their duel is a dazzling recapitulation of images and themes from the earlier films, a mixture of fantasy, humor, and horror not found elsewhere in Corman’s work.
The scene opens with a typical high-angle shot of the contestants that cuts to low-angle close-ups of each participant. The music during the scene picks up the visuals – Craven’s chair ride through the room is marked by a merry-go-round motif; Scarabus’s transformation of a bat into a fan is punctuated by tinny Oriental sounds. There is a distinct pattern behind the weapons of illusion each man employs, with Scarabus using far more phallic attacks than Erasmus, in the form of snakes, cannonballs, and lances. Indeed, the most intense assault on Erasmus occurs when Scarabus “becomes” his enemy’s father, which suddenly weakens Erasmus, breaks his concentration, and allows Scarabus to “kill” him by impaling him on a spear. The Pit and the Pendulum‘s convoluted destruction of son by father (Francis-Nicholas by Nicholas-Sebastian) is echoed in the image of Erasmus’s destruction through a violent attack by his “father” in the form of the elderly Scarabus. The film’s upbeat nature precludes Erasmus’s real death, however, and he soon reappears above Scarabus, laughingly dropping eggs on the old man’s head. The battle reprises the film’s theme of amicization by having Erasmus transform his competitor’s attacks into comic, lighter-than-air images. Thus, when Scarabus creates a snake around Erasmus’s neck, the latter turns it into a protective neck scarf. Scarabus’s cannonball is returned to him but pops open like a piñata, dropping confetti all over an irritated Scarabus. Scarabus, too, is not without humor during this duel. When Erasmus sends him a bat, the old man turns it into a Japanese fan which he coyly flutters across his face. Erasmus, however, deploys far more positive, life-affirming tricks than Scarabus, from a group of puppies that were once Scarabus’s stone gargoyles to the living white birds released from under his waistcoat.
The character of Lenore (Hazel Court) also recalls earlier characters from Elizabeth Medina to Emily Gault. In most of the films there is a cuckolded husband, and The Raven is no exception. When Lenore destroys Erasmus’s romantic illusions by telling him he is “still such a bore,” there is the usual hint of the woman’s departure from an impotent male because of an unsatisfied sexuality. But Lenore’s departure seems more explainable as a lust for power through being associated with Scarabus, the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians. However, in The Raven (and only here), the hero moves from weakness to strength. To his defeat of Scarabus can be added his rejection of Lenore to form the series’ only picture of the self-actualization of the dissolute Poe/Corman hero.
The Masque of the Red Death
“His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.”
The Masque of the Red Death (1964) differs from its predecessors in being the first of the Poe sequence shot in England, and the first that did not utilize Corman’s standard production unit (Daniel Haller as Art Director was the major exception). Corman’s successful use of an English cast and crew and, most notably, Nicolas Roeg in place of Floyd Crosby shows both how formalized the conventions of the series had become – so that others besides the originators of the “Poe look” could work on the films to much the same end – and by extension how thoroughly the Poe films were a product of Corman’s and his screenwriters’ ideas. Roeg’s dazzlingly mobile camerawork, for example, has clear antecedents in Crosby’s elaborate tracks and dollies in The Pit and the Pendulum, while the use of complex color schemes, shock cuts, and post-production laboratory opticals in Masque has precursors in House of Usher and The Premature Burial.
The Masque of the Red Death merges two Poe tales, the title story, and “Hop-Frog.” The first is a typical Poe mood piece, representing existential anxiety as a bloody plague; the second an equally typical revenge tale. Even sympathetic students of Corman (for example, David Pirie) have complained that the grafting is unsuccessful,10 but The Masque of the Red Death is in some ways one of the most satisfying films in the series. Here the director moves away from the completely interiorized worlds of House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum toward a more expansive approach. Masque contrasts two opposing societies – the suffering villagers and the wealthy revelers in the castle – rather than the usual focus entirely on a single small group of people in an insular environment. Unlike its predecessors, Masque details a “real” world outside the enclosed world of the castle. The opposition of two worlds – the larger, outside world and a smaller, insular one created by and presided over by an unbalanced male – forms the basis of most of the films in the series; but Masque and especially the following film, Tomb of Ligeia, show both worlds, rather than make the outside world a fantasy or a memory – visualized by unmistakable matte shots or set off from the story proper by montage – that only triumphs at the end. Masque in particular reenacts the basic struggle between the worlds of good and evil, within a framework of religious/existential questioning. Both forces exist precariously in perhaps the most fully realized character in the series, the ironically named Prince Prospero (Vincent Price).
Inspired by Poe, the film features an elaborate mise-en-scène to match the story of the “evil” Prospero and his attempts to outwit the Red Death (and death in general) rampaging through medieval Europe. Some of the motifs are lifted verbatim from Poe: for example, the celebrated monochrome chambers, one blue, one yellow, etc., that end in Prospero’s black and red devil-worshipping room. Others are original visualizations of thematic concerns – for example, the “monks,” death’s messengers, who wander through the countryside, each also dressed in a different color. This is unquestionably Corman’s most intensely designed film, with, if anything, even more richness in the color palette than the earlier films. The use of red is particularly noteworthy, since it appears only rarely, in association with the important forces in Prospero’s life: the two red-haired women – Juliana (Hazel Court), who weds Satan to secure her position in the castle, and Francesca (Jane Asher), the naïf whom Prospero works diligently to corrupt, but with whom he also falls in love; and the Red Death, the embodiment of human – Prospero’s in particular – mortality that he tries desperately to repel.
The story begins in a fog-enshrouded forest in medieval Italy. An old woman gathering firewood encounters a mysterious, hooded figure in red, apparently a monk, who gives her a “sign.” He says, “The day of your deliverance is at hand.” The ironic symbol of deliverance is a white rose that turns a bloody red as his hand passes over it. The film’s motif of violation, of desecration by touching, is presaged here. The woman’s shabby dress and peasant bearing imply it is poverty, and perhaps enslavement, from which she and her fellows will be delivered. Her return to the village is followed by the arrival of Prince Prospero, a character hidden in an ornate coach traveling through the countryside. Significantly, we are aware of his existence (“Make way for Prince Prospero!”) before we actually see him, just as the protagonists of The Pit and the Pendulum and House of Usher are whispered about before they are seen. Prospero’s first appearance is typically jarring as a hand yanks open the coach’s curtain to reveal the him.
This early encounter between Prospero and “his” villagers reinforces the film’s surface view of his character as an evil, heartless exploiter unconcerned about the serfs who occupy and farm his land, a barren tract threatened by a mysterious plague, the Red Death. This scene features the first of many animal motifs, the sheer number of which form an entire subtext of the subjugation of mankind by a cruel, malevolent Creator. Prospero’s first words to the villagers are “According to my custom, I’ve come here to thank you for the year’s harvest, and to invite you to a feast.” A young man named Gino (David Weston) replies, “Where you’ll throw us the scraps from your table as if we were dogs.” “Exactly!” Prospero, snaps. “But these dogs have a loud bark and show their teeth. Why?” The possibility of deliverance from Prospero’s tyranny has given the villagers the strength to confront him, a challenge Prospero does not take lightly. When he orders death to Gino and another objector, Ludovico (Nigel Green), Francesca – Ludovico’s daughter and Gino’s beloved – begs him for mercy. Prospero again employs animal imagery in his reply to her: “That is not possible. They have defied me. If my hound bites my hand after I have fed and caressed him, should I allow him to go undisciplined?”
Further events in the village demonstrate both the godlike power Prospero assumes and the powerful threat against him in the form of a plague, the Red Death, which rages through the land. Annoyed by a screaming woman, he decides to see for himself what is wrong. The trauma of what Prospero sees is emphasized with a laboratory optical, an intense, grainy, mobile close-up of the bloody face of the old woman who had received the deliverance sign, now writhing in the throes of the Red Death. Prospero quickly masks his horror, orders the coachmen to take Francesca and the two men to his castle, and leaves a final terse order: “Burn the village to the ground.”
The subtleties of Prospero’s nature emerge early. His obsession with enlightenment and the negative nature of salvation is hinted at when Gino questions why he wants to destroy the village. “This is the day of your deliverance, remember?” Prospero replies. Here and throughout the film Prospero assumes the demeanor of a God he explicitly views as “a deity long dead.” He works hard to achieve the kind of inscrutability and capricious justice associated with a Creator (“God works in mysterious ways,” “It’s the will of God”). Though he kills many people throughout the film, he tells Francesca this is “a kindness” because he has spared them the agonies of the Red Death. While he has his archers shoot a group of villagers outside his battlements, he demands they spare a child.
In many of its conventions, Masque resembles the other Poe films. The same kind of decadent world overseen by a corrupt aesthete is present here. Likewise an innocent’s entry into this world both brings about its destruction and educates the innocent into the corruption that exists in the world. In Masque it is Francesca who fills the place established earlier by Philip Winthrop (House of Usher) and Erasmus Craven (The Raven). The lure of corruption – which has overtaken Prospero – is dangerously present for Francesca, but the film allows her to fall in love with something positive she sees in the Prince, and finally to depart intact from the castle and Prospero and the evil they represent.
Masque is unusual in the series in featuring a character who changes during the course of the narrative. Brought against her will to Prospero’s castle, Francesca fights bitterly against the servants who wish to wash her in a luxurious bath. Yet, when Prospero tells his mistress, Juliana, to dress her “in one of your finest gowns,” Juliana’s balking at this is met surprisingly by Francesca: “You will do as he told you.” Francesca’s power to adapt to her environment carries her through her bizarre adventures.
What is the nature of the world Prospero has created in his castle? A world of revelry, devil worship, ritual devotion to evil. Like the Christian God he frequently invokes, Prospero demands obedience as the price of salvation, in this case shelter from the Red Death. One of Prospero’s interests is Satanism, and he has a particular chamber set up for this purpose which only “the precious few” are allowed to enter. But Prospero is no ordinary devil worshipper, embracing evil for the sake of evil. It becomes increasingly clear that he has embraced Satan as a more realistic alternative to a Christian God by turns evil or missing entirely. Prospero emerges as a kind of theoretician of evil, obsessed with the dark side of human nature as a path to enlightenment, having despaired of the concept of a humane Creator. In the black chamber, he delivers a speech to Francesca that resonates with existential angst: “Somewhere in the human mind, dear Francesca, is the key to our existence . . . Believe? If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are . . . gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a God who rules it? Famine, pestilence, war, disease, death – they rule this world.” Prospero’s Satanic orientation masks his bitterness at the betrayal of mankind by an evil God, and by the ultimate punishment that Prospero seeks to avoid: death.
The film’s obsession with death is indicated early, during one of the initial revelry scenes in the castle. When Prospero’s companion Alfredo mentions “terror,” the word stimulates a speech by Prospero that corresponds to those speeches in the earlier Poe films that defined the central character’s world view: “What is terror? Come. Silence. Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passage of time? Or is it the failing beat of your own heart? Or is it the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room?” Prospero delivers a similar speech that precedes the violent death of Juliana: “Hush. Listen. The passage of time. The beating of a heart. The footstep of an assassin – destiny!” In both cases, Prospero the teacher is offering lessons to his “flock,” both the desperate (his fellow noblemen and women) and the devoted (Juliana, Francesca). In both cases, the primary enemy is time and the event in which it culminates: death.
Prospero’s ideas about mankind center on their weak, animal-like nature. As one of his “jests,” he orders his guests to behaving like animals. One guest he orders to become a pig, another a worm. These diversions serve various purposes for Prospero: they reinforce his position above the rabble, his godlike status, since he is proving how unevolved people are by making them act like animals; and they provide a lesson for Francesca in the sordidness of life, allowing Prospero to remake her in his own image.
Another lesson for Francesca occurs soon after, when Prospero shows her a falcon killing another bird. Again he gives a speech that reveals his world view, and the double nature of his personality – both tyrannical cruelty and a bitterness at life: “Do you know how a falcon is trained, my dear? Her eyes are sewn shut. Blinded, temporarily, she suffers the whims of her god, patiently, until her will is submerged and she learns to serve, as your God has taught and blinded you with crosses.” Prospero’s use of the phrase “my dear” is no formality: he is falling in love with Francesca. This scene, notably, is shot entirely outdoors, with an initial sense of openness and freedom quickly undercut by the destruction of a bird in flight by the trained falcon. This metaphorical substructure of the film – humankind as inchoate, “blind” animals – is relentlessly hammered at.
Francesca’s education continues throughout, but her change in personality is not entirely clear until her last scene with Prospero. Other characters move more quickly toward their destiny. Ludovico is killed by Prospero, and Gino is released by the prince to die with the Red Death. Juliana undergoes “the most terrible rites and incantations” in order to marry the Devil, to gain favor in Prospero’s eyes. In a striking montage, Corman visualizes this ceremony in wildly archetypal/Freudian terms, with Juliana prone in a dreamy, foggy landscape, menaced by a variety of oddly dressed characters all of whom carry a cutting weapon that they use on her. Her screams and agonized expressions result from a symbolic castration performed by these characters, who incarnate the film’s themes of time and death (one resembles Father Time, with a scythe). Shortly after this montage, Juliana is brutally murdered, dispatched by Prospero for attempting to get Francesca out of the castle and away from the Prince.
Francesca’s fascination with the castle and its luxury – particularly evident in her enchantment with Prospero’s monochrome rooms – soon gives way to a fascination with Prospero himself. His loving attitude toward her is counterpointed by brutal acts against her father, lover, and all those around them, but Prospero does appear to win her over. During their final parting after the arrival of the Red Death (dressed as a monk), Francesca says, “My life is done. The rest I give to you.” Instructed by the holy man to wait by the battlements for Gino, she kisses Prospero good-bye, and looks at him with lingering sadness, unquestionably in love with him. Prospero, too, appears to feel this emotion, as we see a wounded expression not noted previously in him.
Masque of the Red Death culminates in a lurid “dance of death” that has been singled out as both the weakest scene in the film and uncomfortably similar to Bergman’s dance-of-death tableau in The Seventh Seal. Corman gets a certain amount of mileage out of the motif of touching here, with the bloody hands of the diseased, dying peasants grabbing at a terrified, formerly untouchable Prospero. But the sequence reeks of self-consciousness, and looks both too cheap and too melodramatic to be taken seriously. Bergman’s doomed peasants, visualized in stately black-and-white, bear as much resemblance to Corman’s gaudily arrayed, blood-drenched troupe as a medieval woodcut to a spin-art painting. The Masque scene also lacks the economy of its Bergman equivalent, dragging out interminably as the writhing victims seem to take forever to die.
A more serious objection to the film is its dubious integration of the Hop-Frog story into what is basically an existential drama. Certainly there are superficial links between the scene of the dwarf’s revenge against Alfredo, his dressing of this character in an ape suit for the Masque, then setting him on fire. David Pirie has commented on how, “in relation to Poe’s psychological constellation, it can be seen as the revolt of the son against father.”11 The Hop-Frog scenes relate also to the web of animal motifs in the film, with Alfredo’s reversion to type (the cruel, stupid ape) the necessary precedent for his destruction. But there is little doubt that, in spite of the effectiveness of the episode in itself, it bears no relation to the story as a whole and indeed seems to detract from the tale of one man’s vain attempt to replace the modern, missing God with himself.
The Tomb of Ligeia
“Could it, indeed, be the living Rowena who confronted me? Could it indeed be Rowena at all – the fair-haired, the blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine?”
The pre-credit sequence of Corman’s last Poe film hints at a continuation of the theme of Masque of the Red Death– the portrayal of a doomed challenger to God and natural law. Again we see a spiritually disenchanted male, Verden Fell (Vincent Price), burying his supposedly dead wife. Attendants to this burial argue with Fell that his wife, Ligeia, has no right being “buried in consecrated ground.” Why? “She was not a Christian!” Fell reminds them, “This is my ground,” to which one of them replies, “It is the Lord’s ground.” Fell has a final blasphemy: “Then let the Lord refuse her.”
This initial view of the film as a typical Poe/Corman rendering of the hubris-ridden questioner attempting to destroy or avert natural law (death) is undercut even as it unravels. First, this opening sequence is shot in the true outdoors – the English countryside – and not in what Corman has called the “claustrophobic, insular world of the older films.” This opening of the world of the film lends credence to Corman’s stated view of it as, uncharacteristically, a “love story,” an opinion shared by its writer, Robert Towne. Indeed, Towne’s participation in the project coincided with Corman’s desire to experiment to make The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) the least conventional entry in the series, a film that diverges significantly from the tone and technique of the earlier works.
Corman has expressed two contradictory opinions about the film: on the one hand calling it perhaps his favorite of the series, on the other criticizing it for its most distinctive quality, its openness: “[I filmed] a fair amount of the picture in the English countryside . . . I shot a great deal in natural sunlight. As a result, the picture has a bigger look, but I still think my original theory and practice were the most effective.” This openness is largely due to Towne’s script, which incorporates much of the Poe/Corman iconography – false deaths, personality transference, and disintegration, re-renderings of the human form as art (paintings or waxen images) – in the context of a surprisingly hopeful, by turns violent and tender love story. Masque of the Red Death‘s linking of religious challenge with a denial of death (since God represents the ultimate given in the universe) becomes secondary in this story of the attempts by living Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) to break dead Ligeia’s posthumous hold on Verden, the man she loves.
Towne’s earlier collaboration with Corman, The Last Woman on Earth (1960), began with a cockfight in Puerto Rico, and The Tomb of Ligeia contains a similar scene that establishes the kind of universe in which the film operates. A fox hunt is in progress, an event Corman shoots in the real outdoors, with hand-held camera, a technique that would have been unthinkable in House of Usher or The Premature Burial. This “sporting” activity, a diversion for the members of the gentry who indulge in it, is seen as brutally unfair, introducing a view of mankind as – like the fox – victimized by higher forces. This generalized metaphor becomes more specific as Rowena, bored by the hunt, departs from the group, an irritating “willful” act noted by her father and her friend and suitor Christopher (John Westbrook). Rowena’s departure from the group shows her rejection of its cruelty, and, indeed, she emerges quickly as a complex character, alternately intrigued and repelled by “evil.”
Rowena rides through a ruined abbey of spectacular beauty, stopping at the grave we saw in the opening sequence. This passage from her peers into the abbey and what it represents links Rowena with earlier life-affirming characters in the series (Philip Winthrop in House of Usher, Francis Barnard in The Pit and the Pendulum) who enter a static, dead world in order to destroy it. Corman’s showy visual treatment of this passage – slow pans and tracks – gives the movement the mythic resonance that marks it as the first step in a primal battle between past and present, evil and good. Most of the shots here start as static compositions, but immediately begin panning to left or right, Corman thereby imbuing the dead environment of the abbey with a kind of life that, it becomes clear, depends for its existence entirely on Verden Fell’s tormented consciousness.
Perhaps to compensate for the fact that much of Tomb of Ligeia occurs outdoors, Corman stylizes the story with elegant camerawork. The first encounter between Rowena and Verden provides a case in point. A graceful track follows Rowena as she rides into the ruin; this track ends with the camera behind her, an over-the-shoulder point-of-view shot that rises slightly as she sees Ligeia’s grave – on top of which sits a black cat. As Rowena articulates the name on the grave – “Ligeia” – the cat leaps on her, causing her to fall onto the flower-covered grave. Corman shoots this fall for maximum shock effect in a series jarring quick cuts. Rowena, however, is not a weak person, and, despite being dazed, she raises herself and smiles at the cat. This scene hints at the struggle for dominance between the two women – one alive, one dead – by framing the encounter in high/low angle cuts, the cat looking down, Rowena looking up. Rowena is thus literally brought down by Ligeia embodied in the cat, the first of many savage coded encounters between the two.
The Tomb of Ligeia follows earlier films in using a disruptive visual to introduce Verden Fell. As Rowena stands on the grave and reaches, with a friendly gesture, for the cat, an abrupt cut shows Verden entering the frame from the left, the camera positioned at a low angle, followed immediately with a radical zoom into his face and Rowena’s scream.
Verden wears powerful sunglasses due to “a morbid reaction to sunlight.” This withdrawal from reality is the first indication of his creation of, and retreat into, a world of his own devising. We learn he is an artist, gifted at sculpting extremely lifelike wax effigies. A troubled figure, he haunts his own abbey, preferring to move among past, dead, decomposing things than to adjust to Ligeia’s death and live. Rowena’s arrival on the scene is both desired and feared by Verden, who can either continue to sink into his own inert world or move beyond it.
Rowena emerges as a strong, even reckless woman – like Ligeia she is criticized by her father for being “willful” (a word that appears frequently in the film). Like Verden, she is in some ways an extreme character, intensely curious about Verden’s odd image and attitude, even willing to embrace his morbidness fully as she puts one of his “flowers of death” into her lapel and smiles. Yet even as she embraces, she challenges. As he is carrying her toward his house (she has twisted her ankle), she suddenly pulls off his glasses, inducing a traumatic reaction in the overcivilized Verden. But he too is becoming less predictable. In spite of this act, he does not reject her but picks her up again.
As so often in Corman’s films, The Tomb of Ligeia explores the problem of vision, of “seeing.” The first post-credits view of Verden shows the most direct link to his mind – the “window to the soul,” the eyes – hidden behind thick sunglasses. During a conversation with Rowena, Verden chides her on her “limited” vision:
ROWENA: Do you ever laugh, Mr. Fell?
VEEDEN: Only at myself.
ROWENA: I see.
VERDEN: Do you? You keep saying, “I see,” but I think your vision is even more limited than mine.
Verden views Rowena as a kind of innocent, unable to “see” the world’s horrors. Unlike him, however, she lives in the world he scorns. Her attempts to bring him into the world, to remove forever his sunglasses and the repressions they signify, and his complex strategies in fighting her, form the basis of the film.
The violence of their relationship, hinted at during their first meeting, increases when Rowena arrives unannounced to deliver a note from Christopher. This innocent act triggers Verden’s rage, visualized with a combination of static framing and point of view forward/backward dollies. Rowena’s passage from the bright countryside into Verden’s gloomy mansion is made mythic by showing her first in long shot, standing like a statue at one end of the main room, her face and figure almost completely covered by shadows. Verden, disturbed from his reverie, rises and walks menacingly toward her, and the camera here alternates between point-of-view shots of Verden observing and moving excitedly toward her, and forward dollies of Verden, the last shot rising slightly above Rowena as Verden descends to strangle her. Rowena’s understanding of the parameters of the relationship becomes apparent as she saves herself by again removing his glasses, an act that immediately confuses Verden, throwing him out of his inner world into the real one. This violent encounter, typically, precedes a loving caress.
Rowena’s attraction to Verden contrasts with her lack of enthusiasm for the more ostensibly suitable mate, Christopher. His world, she says, is “law and logic . . . to be so limited!” (Significantly, she uses Verden’s word describing her, in reference to Christopher.) Rowena’s attraction to Verden indicates her daring nature and the lure of Verden’s more imaginative world. At the same time, the Poe/Corman model shows that the decadent world of Verden cannot successfully incorporate the sheer normalcy of Rowena, and must end with the triumph of one or the other.
The film traces Rowena’s attempts to reach and rescue Verden in one of two major set-pieces, the luring of Rowena into the bell-tower by the cat. The parallels between this scene and Hitchcock’s Vertigo are striking and must be commented on. Both films feature two women, played by the same actress, and in both cases the question of true mortality is raised. Both are linked by a traumatized, withdrawn yet controlling male. Both also feature a pivotal scene in a bell tower, exploited in each case for its symbolic value – the bell-tower is part of a church or abbey, with the salvation or destruction of the personality the two possibilities for the character who finds him/herself there.
This is a subtly structured scene, with several levels of consciousness operating at once. Rowena is inside the house, while Verden and Christopher are walking through the abbey to look at Ligeia’s grave. As they walk, Verden talks in voiceover, while Rowena attempts to retrieve a pair of glasses from the cat, which has somehow worked them onto its head and is luring her away from the house and into the bell-tower. As Verden’s describes Ligeia’s physical deterioration, the cat is shown taking the glasses and Rowena following it. Verden says, “She seemed to turn to the very stones of the abbey for renewed strength!” and Rowena is seen touching the same stones, wending her way up. (This is a significant reversal, since in the previous Poe films, it was the passage down, into the family crypts, that led to the confrontation of personality and death, a convention Towne’s more hopeful film turns around.) Ligeia’s fervent wish “only for life!” contrasts with Rowena’s movement toward her own death, the deathlike ambience of Verden’s beloved bell-tower. Verden says, “Ligeia became the abbey . . . she never entered or left a room, never went down the dark passageway without somehow illuminating it like a single moving candle.” Rowena, too, moves through the passageway, but controlled, almost unwilling, led along by the cat/Ligeia/Verden. These movements are shown in a series of rapid cuts, with stark low-angle framing. Rowena moves far up into the bell-tower, eventually becoming trapped as the cat leaps deftly onto the bell, then onto the other side. Corman cuts to Verden talking about his fear of being “insane,” carving off the date of Ligeia’s death and not realizing it until that moment, when he sees marble dust on his hands. His anguish is interrupted by the “alarming” sounds of the tolling bell, at which point he and Christopher run to the tower to save Rowena, who is screaming hysterically and holding her ears.
Corman’s framing of this scene within Verden’s voiceover indicates Verden’s control, even creation of what is occurring. Though various characters talk frequently of the “willfulness” of both Ligeia and Rowena, it is Verden’s will and power that have seduced Rowena out of the natural, normal world and into his disintegrating one. Rowena’s subjugation by the cat/Ligeia is also Verden’s attempt to break her, to absorb her personality into his just as he tried to strangle her earlier in the film. Like Corman, Verden stands outside the scene, a godlike narrator talking of death and destruction yet creating it, breathing life into it as he talks.
The film next moves from Rowena’s trauma in the bell-tower to her marriage to Verden, both events accompanied aurally by the tolling of bells. In a voiceover, both Verden and Rowena talk about their childhood, a simple conversation visualized in extreme long shots of the two walking along the beach and through a field of flowers, suggesting their attunement to nature, their relaxation with natural forces. Significantly, Verden has stopped wearing his glasses. They visit Stonehenge and compare it with the abbey, giving a sense of timelessness to their love: both, says Verden, have “a sense of purpose.” This open, pleasurable encounter is self-consciously framed inside a sort of oblong iris, with the screen space around the iris black, indicating the fleeting, artificial nature of the moment. This is reinforced when they return to the abbey and Rowena sees Verden putting on his glasses.
The framing of shots from inside fireplaces seen in earlier Poe films reaches its apex in Tomb of Ligeia. Fire itself is a common enough symbol, with ritual purgation of, for example, the dying world of Roderick Usher characterized by flaming destruction. But a fireplace represents something different – the tentative, temporary control of nature. Corman uses it more specifically to undercut verbal messages of complex or deceitful characters. At the beginning of the mesmerism sequence in Ligeia, Rowena chides Verden about “disappearing” the previous night. Verden replies, “You had best come to me, my dear. I never left my room,” and Corman frames this shot from inside the fireplace, with the flames flickering along the bottom of the frame, implying Verden may be lying. The following close-up of Rowena, with the flames now much larger than before, almost obliterates her face as Verden attempts to mesmerize her: “No harm, no harm will come to you . . . give over your will to mine.” The absorption of Rowena’s personality into Verden’s (also into Ligeia’s, with whose voice she will speak) is rendered in these fireplace shots, with the flames larger than her face. As she falls into a hypnotic trance, the camera tracks slightly forward into a tighter close-up, then cuts to a medium shot of the room, incorporating the now-hypnotized Rowena, her manipulator Verden, and the flames flickering along the bottom of the frame. Thus the environment is reborn. Rowena’s world is re-created as Verden’s.
Verden’s demonstration is not intended to show the unbelievers (their dinner guests) that mesmerism exists but to open the way for the supplanting of Rowena’s strong but vulnerable personality with Ligeia’s. He recasts her into the most vulnerable personality, that of a child, has her chase an imaginary butterfly, entreats her not to cry when it flies away. But Rowena suddenly assumes a third identity during a childhood song. As she sings, she stops on the words, “I will . . .” The camera tracks into close-up, and her expression changes to a hard, seemingly conscious stare and she articulates Ligeia’s last words, paraphrased from Joseph Glanvill via Poe’s story: “Will? . . . will! . . . Who knoweth the mysteries of the will? The will herein lies that dieth not. Man need not kneel before the angels nor lie in death forever, but for the weakness of his feeble will. I will always be your wife!” At this point, Rowena faints.
This is an important speech, perhaps the closest Corman comes in Ligeia to a formal articulation of the world inhabited by the Poe/Corman “hero.” Yet the speech comes not from Verden but from his dead wife through his living one, another apparent difference between this film and the previous ones. If we see Verden, however, as the controlling force behind Ligeia, this speech must also express his personality. The film offers continuous evidence that Verden’s is the consciousness that pervades the film, not Ligeia’s, that it is Verden rather than Ligeia who is behind the mysterious attacks on Rowena in the form of the black cat and Ligeia’s black hairs in Rowena’s hairbrush. In playing with audience expectations this way, Ligeia resembles The Pit and the Pendulum, with Nicholas Medina’s as another simultaneously weak and controlling personality. Like Medina, the masochistic Verden blames himself for what is happening – for example, the chipping away of the date of Ligeia’s death – while at the same time portraying himself as a victim. This self-blame not only validates the collapse of the personality but moves the entire film away from “spiritual hocus-pocus” into the realm of psychological drama.
The long-awaited resurrection of the possibly dead usually occurs toward the end of the Poe films as a climactic event that triggers the disintegration of the hero. Not surprisingly, the body in Ligeia’s tomb is a wax effigy, lovingly created by Verden; the real Ligeia is preserved in Verden’s work chamber, lying on a canopied bed with arms outstretched in death. It is typical of these overcivilized Poe characters to populate their worlds with dead likenesses of people (Verden’s Egyptian sarcophagus heads) as well as with actual dead people. This represents a denial of death and the artist’s desire to reshape the world to his own specifications.
The chamber in which Verden works is not only the location of the real, dead Ligeia, it is also Verden’s ultimate psychic zone, which the persistent Rowena finally breaks into. Corman emphasizes the otherness of this environment not only with surveying shots of the statuary and anthropomorphic shapes created by Verden, but also with many tilted and fireplace shots. This lengthy climax is the film’s crucial scene, the final encounter between the life-affirming Rowena, the death-obsessed Verden, and the dead-but-alive Ligeia. Rowena’s force is pitted against a double force, the merging of Ligeia and Verden already having occurred. The attack on Rowena is made explicit as she discovers the dead form of Ligeia and falls “accidentally” into her arms, a deadly embrace recalling earlier couplings of living and dead, as in House of Usher. Rowena’s entrapment is expanded as a black moiré netting falls onto the two women and Rowena, screaming, struggles to free herself.
Verden’s servant, Kenrick, reveals his master’s secret: Ligeia hypnotized Verden on her deathbed , she held him with her eyes,” and forced him to “care for her” even after death, to resurrect her body and replace it with a wax alternative, so that “I will always be your wife. ” Rowena’s subsequent assumption of Ligeia’s identity for a “good” purpose – to free Verden from the bondage of posthypnotic, posthumous control – is another aspect of the film without parallel in the series, and further evidence of screenwriter Towne’s selective use of the genre conventions established by Corman. This strategy, however, seems to backfire as Rowena pretends to be Ligeia and says, I am dying” – a moment that ends with Rowena’s apparent death. As in The Pit and the Pendulum, the game of assuming another’s identity becomes too real as the original personality is destroyed by the assumed one – an indicator of the Poe/Corman view of the essential weakness and mutability of the human mind.
This final sequence is among Corman’s most complex set-pieces, with the Rowena-Ligeia identities shifting wildly in the fiery chaos of the chamber. Rowena’s sacrifice to free Verden by “becoming” the dead Ligeia allows Verden to throw his dead wife’s body into the fire. Yet Ligeia reappears as the black cat, crouching on the “dead” Rowena’s prone body. Verden knocks the creature off, and while it lies insensate, Rowena appears to stir back to life. When the cat awakes, Rowena again appears dead. After Verden leaves her bed in confusion and despair, he looks back across the chamber to see a gauze-enshrouded figure walking toward him. This resurrection is visualized in reverse matching shots of Verden, then the woman, the first tilted left, the second tilted right. Verden’s hopeful anticipation of Rowena is broken as she lifts the veil and reveals herself as a laughing Ligeia. He leaps on her and strangles her as she laughs at him. This scene is shot in agitated close-ups, often through the flames of the open fires Verden has burning throughout the chamber. The film reiterates the idea of Verden as the ultimate creator of all that is happening by contrasting the visual message – that the woman is Ligeia – with what we learn shortly after – that it was Rowena. The scene is shot primarily from Verden’s viewpoint: because he thinks he is strangling Ligeia, the woman we see is Ligeia. Verden’s confusion increases when he realizes he has murdered – “again!” – Rowena. Rowena’s “double death” recalls the two deaths – like Rowena’s, both false – of Elizabeth Medina in The Pit and the Pendulum.
The destruction of Verden and his environment begins in earnest after Christopher removes Rowena’s body from the chamber. This leaves Verden alone with the cat, which leaps onto his face and scratches out his eyes. Verden’s blind staggering, his eyes bleeding, cause him to accidentally set the chamber on fire, and in the midst of the destruction, Verden finally murders the cat/Ligeia, then dies himself The true deaths of Verden and Ligeia – the latter now in human form – trigger Rowena’s rebirth, in the optimistic last shot of the film.
From the original Poe story (called simply “Ligeia”), Corman and Towne drew the characters of Ligeia, who challenges and overcomes death through sheer will; her successor Rowena, who is possessed in death by Ligeia; and the unnamed, unstable narrator/husband of both, who becomes the troubled Verden Fell in the film. Some of Poe’s settings (the abbey), themes (the mutability of identity), and motifs (the eyes as regulators of consciousness) appear in Tomb of Ligeia. But the film is ultimately both a thoughtful tribute to the Poe universe and a distinctive reimagining of it. As such, it is a fitting end to the series.
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Note: This essay appeared in different forms in the author’s 1985 book Roger Corman (Boston: Twayne/Macmillan) and again in the Poe tribute book The Man That Was Used Up (Centipede Press, 2009). All unattributed quotes by Corman are taken from interviews with the author in 1974 and 1982.
- Two films usually considered part of Corman’s Poe cycle are not discussed here. Space limitations did not permit an analysis of Tales of Terror. The other film, The Haunted Palace, was based on an H. P. Lovecraft novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and has tenuous connections with the Poe universe. [↩]
- Herb A. Lightman, “A Study of Horror Film Photography,” American Cinematographer, October 1961, p. 612. [↩]
- Jean-Loup Bourget, “Sirk and the Critics,” Bright Lights, no. 6 (Winter 1975-76), p. 10. [↩]
- Lightman, “A Study,” p. 613. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- David Pirie, “Roger Corman’s Descent into the Maelstrom,” in Roger Corman: The Millennic Vision (Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh Press, 1973), p. 52. [↩]
- Personal communication to the author. [↩]
- Quoted in J. Philip DiFranco, The Movie World of Roger Corman (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1979). [↩]
- Bevis Hillier, Austerity/Binge: The Decorative Arts of the Forties and Fifties (London: Studio Vista, 1975), p. 80. [↩]
- Willeman, Roger Corman, p. 61. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]