Sunday, November 21, 2021

American Gothic Week: Determined to prove a villain


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Leo Gordon, F. Amos Powell, and Robert E. Kent

Spoilers: the Plantagenets don't make it

And so, already, we've gotten lost in our little look back at the Gothic horrors of American International Pictures: 1962's Tower of London is neither Gothic nor a product of AIP.  (Why, it's only slightly American, produced in Britain by Edward Small.)  If you wanted to get annoyingly picky, you could say it's not even horror, but a historical melodrama based on the life and crimes of Richard III of England.  However, this is my crappy weblog, and I can do what I want, and insofar as a long series of reviews about 60s horror films nobody cares about means that I'm already writing purely to hear myself typeeven by Kinemalogue standards!I doubt I'll get any complaints.

Even so, Tower of London recommends a look for a few good reasons: it saw AIP's Gothic horror director Roger Corman and AIP's Gothic horror star Vincent Price teaming up again, and that would likely be reason enough in itself, for those two guys weren't not going to do horror.  You don't even have to define "horror" broadly for it: the historical and pseudohistorical material of the last Plantagenet king, as filtered through Corman and Price's sensibilities, would prove a very snug fit with Price's other line of horror, the proto-slashers that began in the 1950s with House of Wax and The Mad Magician, and would become more frequent as the 60s became the 70s.  Throw in a period backdrop (specifically an old, candlelit castle, courtesy Corman's art director, Daniel Haller), and this story of Richard III starts to look pretty Gothic, merely moving the Gothic mode's concern with decaying aristocracy backwards in time.  Indeed, despite the necessity of dealing with medieval English politics, which the film finds difficult to care about (except as it allows for assassinations and bizarre tortures), it's very much a continuation of what Corman, Price, and Haller had been getting up to in their adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe; and, being a Poe film in biopic garb, Tower of London fixes upon that one scene in Shakespeare's Richard III near the end where Richard is confronted with the ghosts of his victims, as if to ask, "hey, what if the whole thing was like that, and we also made it a lot like Macbeth, so that Richard was a full-on crazy person, and we didn't offstage all the body-count deaths?"

Honestly?  It's an inspired take, and I find myself in danger of pretending that I don't like it as much as I do.  I mean, it seems "cool" (for some dubious value of "cool") to express the kind of fannish enthusiasm for Corman and Price that I've expressed over the past few days when it comes to their disreputable horror pictures (and the AIP Gothics, while somewhat dignified thanks to their connection to a writer we teach in schools even if all he ever seemed to write about was corpses, are at least no less disreputable than the Poe stories they're based on).  Tower of London, on the other hand, sees Corman and Price tackling history, tantamount to taking on the fuckin' Bard, and the uncoolness of that is patent: it almost seems uncool of them for trying to sneak out of their roles and into respectability when we love them in the first place because they were B-cinema kings (Price's stage prowess notwithstanding); meanwhile, there's something embarrassingly philistine about showing any passionate affection for the movie where Dr. Phibes murders Edward V.

If you fear it might be too respectable, don't worry: what we have is something that's terribly successful at being a slasher movie that takes for its villain the Duke of Gloucester.  You know how it goes, but for form's sake, the plot is such: in the early 1480sI must be cagey about the exact year it's supposed to be, and you'll see why no later than two clauses from nowEdward IV (Justice Watson) is on his deathbed, and he has called his brothers Richard (Price) and George, Duke of Clarence (Charles Macauly) to his side.  (The movie always calls George "Clarence" but never calls Richard "Gloucester.") In contemplation of his demise, Edward names Clarence England's Lord Protector, charging him with the guardianship of his two young sons, the crown prince Edward (Eugene Mazzola) and Richard (Donald Losby).  Outwardly, Richard (that is, Gloucester) grieves his one brother, while claiming he's happy to see his other brother conferred an honor.  Richard's mother (Sara Taft) sees through his "me, a usurper?" smirk, but this does nothing to stop or even much delay Richard's murder of Clarence, and barely an edit's gone by before Richard's literally stabbed his brother in the back and framed the queen's family for the deed, thus making him the king's sole remaining choice for the protector of his realm and heirs.  Thus are their, and his, fates sealed.

Obviously historical accuracy was nobody's concern here, starting with Clarence even still being alive enough for Richard to stab him.*  Then again, Shakespeare fudged those facts long before Corman's screenwriters, much as he did in turning Richard's mild scoliosis into character-revealing deformity.  The reason for the reckless compression here is downright Aristotlean in its purpose, however, with Tower of London endeavoring to unify the events of Richard's rise and fall into the briefest amount of time possibleit seems like it could barely be a month (it feels like barely a week)while virtually never even leaving the interior sets until, in the end, Bosworth Field happens, which itself appears to occur about twenty-four hours after Richard's coronation.  This has the effect of making this very short, just-80-minute-film intensely fast-pacedeven more than you'd imagine, considering that its first ten minutes are a wasteland of expository dialogue where characters repeatedly state, unbidden, their names and their relationships to one another, and spend paragraphs describing one another's personalities, and the fact is that Tower of London is slightly dire until it becomes a Vincent Price movie and Richard murders Clarence and dumps him in a tub of wine.  The mode of disposal is historical, incidentally, or at least based on a quasi-historical tradition, and if Richard only sent a pair of henchmen in the play, that's not what this version of the story's after.

That, obviously, was a horror-inflected film about a protagonist who murders someone roughly once every two scenes, and possibly even more frequently, given that the structure of the film goes more-or-less like so: Richard murders someone, then is subsequently confronted by a smug, mocking ghost, and in one of these scenes he strangles somebody while the smug ghost of the last person he killed is still mocking him.  The murders can get vastly more baroque than a stranglingBuckingham (Bruce Gordon) pops into existence in the last stretch of the film apparently just so a rat can chew his face offand when I suggested Tower of London occupies the "proto-slasher" stage of horror cinema's evolution, I meant it.  Price is customarily excellent in this register, making a big show of the business of Richard's spinal curvature with an enormously-exaggerated limping gait that allows the tall actor to menacingly coil down and lunge up across the frame, and he does well with the rapidly-shifting gears of Richard's character, too, moving from quippy self-satisfaction over his own violent evil to terror over losing his mind to guilt, till these two things essentially become one crazed, chaotic emotion.  In fine Price tradition, he manages to thread a touch of pathos into Richard, explicating his deadly ambition as born out of insecurity and isolation; though in equally fine Price tradition (as well as in the tradition of this particular character and, I suppose, also many slasher villains), he also finds ways to make us his co-conspirator, so that he's always by far the most compelling thing on the screen and we don't fail to root for him (whereas even the second most-compelling thing is Michael Pate, playing Richard's sidekick Ratcliffe with enjoyably chummy rapport).

Likewise, Corman does a good job with one more dark, dank castle.  The difference is that this time he was obliged to shoot it in black-and-whitewhich came as a very unpleasant surprise to him when he arrived on the set, and, ironically, the penny-pinching cheapness of a producer was one of the things that caused him to walk away from Small, despite a signed three-picture deal.  It's a handsome monochrome regardless, and as I've nursed a curiosity about what Corman's Poes would've looked like had they been black-and-white, Tower of London gives an idea.  Unfortunately, this film is only intermittently as moody as his color Poe adaptations were all the time; still, cinematographer Archie Dalzell manages more than a few stark, evocative shadows across dingy walls, and I might like the black-and-white version of the usual Corman psychedelic freakout better than anything in his color Poesthough whether this is because it feels more abstractly nightmarish in black-and-white, or because, in addition to camera tricks, they actually start shaking the set's carboard walls around our collapsing anti-hero, I can't say.  But the combination, anyway, is awfully effective.

Sadly, Haller's contribution as art director is otherwise second-tiernone of his Houses of Usher looked as cheap as this castle of a king, and while Corman gets mileage out of a very empty, sparse, proscenium-looking (but, in fairness, never proscenium-feeling) throne room with some wide-angle lensing that subtly conveys Richard's madness (in ways that the dream sequences and hauntings have walloped you over the head with it), the balance of the budget appears to have gone to hats.  I'm almost not kidding.  This movie is nearly as much about hats as it is about murder.  In its defense, they are some neat hats, from the cones and cylinders they put on the women to Richard's crown itself, which appears to have been fitted around a derby.  Man, don't ask me if these are period-accurate.

The weaknesses, and they're present, are mostly part-and-parcel to the invigoratingly off-kilter take on the subject.  There comes a time when it needs to get slightly adventure-y, with a daring escape from the castle, and Corman manages to fit this in more as a thriller sequence (with a rather fatalistic air to it, of course), but even with Corman putting in the work, the film is unavoidably at its least interesting whenever it has to care about any non-Richard characters.  Whereas the film's budget was such that the Battle of Bosworth Field probably shouldn't have been anything more than the one shot of ghosts encroaching out of the fog and the one shot of Richard meeting his prophesied doom, but Corman tries to do it justice anyway with a half-reel of stock footage.

The bigger problem might be that Corman was too self-conscious.  A strange thing to say, I know, but he may not have realized how absolutely classless this was, and how his (and Price's) instincts would put the most tawdry spin on material that was pre-rendered pretty tawdry for them alreadysee, for a prime example, the sexualized torture and upskirt camera angles of Jane Shore's (Sandra Knight's) death upon the rack, though this also has my single favorite acting beat of the film, when Richard's face falls in childlike disappointment when she dies too soon.  Corman and his star still find real art in their horror take on the materialthe ghosts of the princes in the Tower beckoning Richard to come play in the misty void off a balcony is genuinely great minimalistic filmmaking.  Even the psychosexual element is, if crass, also deliberate and intelligent in its application.  The problem, then, is when you visibly see Corman draw back, which he certainly doesn't do too much (the sequence with Shore's apparition is legitimately nervy), but on occasion it feels like self-censorship and hesitation, especially when Richard visits his wife's crypt in clear self-reference to the Poe pictures, but instead of pushing the horror of a mouldering corpse, let alone the necrophiliac angle he's very obviously implying, Corman resorts to one more optically-superimposed ghost instead.  It's an odd thing to ask for the movie to be trashier, when it's possibly the trashiest version of this story ever filmed, but it would've benefited, as it is, fundamentally, very trashy history.  (Even then, the discrepancies in reported runtime make me wonder if something got outright cut, after Corman filmed it.)  Either way, it's still trashy enough; and it's not like Gloucester, even viewed with greater charity than Thomas More or Shakespeare were obliged to give him, didn't earn himself a biopic this gnarly.

Score: 7/10

*It's the definition of "trivia," but I'd be remiss not to mention that Price himself had played Clarence twenty-three years earlier, in a Universal production also called Tower of London.  That Tower of London has little to do with this one, other than its settingbut it is a neat quirk of history that Price first appeared alongside Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in it.

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