Saturday, November 20, 2021

American Gothic Week: The notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost for ever, was to me, at all times, a consideration of intense interest


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Richard Matheson (based on the stories "Morella," "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" by Edgar Allan Poe)

Spoilers: moderate

Whether we reclaim it or not, the men responsible for Premature Burialits director Roger Corman, its owners at AIP, maybe even its star Ray Milland, if you asked himmust have recognized it as an anomaly.  Afterwards, Corman decided to step back towards the tried-and-true fundamentals of his Edgar Allan Poe "franchise."  But, crucially, not too far back: although AIP's fourth Poe film, Tales of Terror, would reunite Corman with his franchise's star, Vincent Price, its writer, Richard Matheson, and its composer, Les Baxter, it also struck into bold new territory.  There is every indication that some of this was boredom: "how can we take one of Poe's titles and use it to do House of Usher again?" was a question that, I suppose, could only have so many answers.  (3.3 repeating, not counting House of Usher itself.)  The vexing problem with adapting Poe for the screen was that Poe's stories are usually very short and barely narratives.  Yet in retrospect the solution seems obvious: a Poe anthology.

Hence the plural in that somewhat-generic-sounding title, though perhaps a Tales of Terror would have sounded less generic in 1962.  I'm surprised by it, and a little dubious, but it seems that Tales of Terror was the very first horror anthology to be made in America.  Germany had produced several during the silent era (the first, 1919's Uncanny Tales, included one of the Poe stories that Tales of Terror adapts); Britain had made Dead of Night in 1945; and One Step BeyondThe Twilight Zone, and Thriller were all on TV, and EC Comics had been on newsstands; but Tales of Terror awakened something in cinematic horror, allowing the genre to reassert arguably its most natural statethat is, short, punchy, not-infrequently jokey scary stories that eschewed feature-lengths in favor of simply sitting you down by the fire and, after capturing your attention, crying "boo!"

For elusive reasonsTales was, I believe, a House of Usher-sized successCorman did not pursue further Poe anthologies, even if several elements introduced here would become part of his and AIP's armory for the Gothic horrors to come.  But it must have had influence: there's Black Sabbath, and Twice-Told Tales, and soon, Amicus would make anthologies their very signature.  Barely a year has passed since that there hasn't been at least one horror anthology, and often more than one.  So you can blame that on Tales, though (obviously) I have great affection for the format.  Their weaknesses are many, of course: the potential for stylistic and tonal derangement; the prospect of bad apples spoiling the whole bunch; to that list you could add a certain inherent disposability, though that's what's charming about them.  Therefore it's astounding that Tales could be the first and one of the best, prey to not even one of these weaknesses.  It's no more disposable than any Corman Poe (indeed, less disposable than some); by virtue of a single set of authors in Corman, Matheson, and Poe, it never threatens to become incoherent, either (nor does it ever threaten saminess).  The closest it gets to living down to its format's reputation is that it concludes upon its "worst" segmentand I still can't imagine them being in any other order, for structurally the film feels correctbut even at its least effective, it's still really good.

Tales breaks down into three segments of unequal length, claiming to adapt three Poe stories.  Famously, it adapts four, smooshing two together to make the longest of the three segments in the middle of the film, while the two briefer episodes bookend it.  However, before anything else happens, our narrator arrives.  Price stars in all three segments, of course: perhaps the unconscious mission of Tales was to provide a stage for Price's versatility, with three characters who range across the entire spectrum of his talent, from overcooked melodrama to literally playing dead.  But first we hear his voice, the dulcet menace of it, coming from somewhere above the film.  Price seduces us with the promise that he'll give us a good scare.  A beating heart accompanies his words, a red lump of flesh springing rhythmically out of the darkness.  Price explains the unifying principle of his Tales.  It's not especially rigorous about it, but collectively they serve to examine deathhow you grieve it, how you die yourself, and how it's worse if you don't.

The first segment is "Morella," not the most but certainly not the least faithful of Corman's Poe.  It takes Poe's material of a widower, his daughter, and his dread of his dead wife, and delays Poe's ending, in order to revisit father and daughter twenty-one years down the line.  Here we make the acquaintance of Lenora Locke (Maggie Pierce), navigating yet another woodland haunted by yet another fog, as she returns to the place of her birth, yet another crumbling mansion, which is occupied now solely by her father (Price).  She was sent away before she ever learned to talk, and while she has no memories by which to compare her present impressions, she's still taken aback by the ghastly state of things here.  She has to tell her father who she is, and once he remembers, he doesn't conceal his contempt and hatred for her, the same contempt and hatred that had him exile herfor it was her birth that killed his beloved Morella (in due time, Leona Gage), and he has never forgiven her.  But Lenora reveals the reason she's returned now: she's dying too.  Shocked, the elder Locke is moved to pity and compassion, allowing her to stay.  But Morella has other designs.

"Morella" is great, and easily my favorite part, for reasons that I suspect might engender disfavor in someone else; the impulse seems to have been to see what would happen if you amped the melodramatic formula of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum and then condensed them into the tiniest possible spacenaturally, thermodynamically, it becomes a white-hot ball.  "Morella" moves almost assaultively from one emotional beat to the next, so if I still somewhat prefer Price's stylized grief in Pit in terms of quantity, I'm more awed by the dexterity of the shifting feelings here.  Somehow, "Morella" never quite feels abruptmaybe because Poe stories are like this alreadyor else the abruptness of it is simply successful, knocking you off balance and rendering you vulnerable to its approach.  Perhaps it helps that Price is presently joined by someone who tries to match him at his own gamePierce's chest-beating performance of self-loathing and self-pity even comes pretty close!yet there's a brittle subtlety in his Locke that's new.  I actually somewhat wish "Morella" were feature-length: I'm inordinately fascinated by these open discussions between father and daughter about mortality and madness, even how he strongly considered avenging Morella by tossing his baby out the window.  Campy or not, I'm moved by how Locke seems confused because, now, he no longer wishes to.

And it looks splendid: you don't usually get to see a cinematographer and art director work on the same basic idea four times in three years, and there are surprising riches to be found in the variations that Floyd Crosby and Daniel Haller, respectively, brought to their several Houses of Usher.  The Locke manor, however, is their most perfect projection of a mind gone blank of anything but the past, from the furniture mummified by cobwebs to the desiccated grays of its colors, both reflected in Price's own face.  And that's not to even speak of Morella, who, you've guessed, has been here all along.  I noted that Baxter had returned with Price and Matheson, and his score for "Morella" likewise takes new directions, incorporating human howling within the rushing orchestra as an instrument in its own right.  All told, I like this "Morella" more than Poe's "Morella."  I suspect the big changesin the story, Morella refers to mother and daughter alike; in the story, Locke grew to despise his wifehappened because, as the name "Lenor(a)" suggests, it's almost a more faithful adaptation of "The Raven" than "Morella."  (A more faithful adaptation of "The Raven" than The Raven, for that matter; likewise "Ligeia" and its adaptation.) But it's also scary.  That's never a guarantee in thesethe other thing animating this segment seems to be "what if, in Pit, there was a ghost?"  That ghost is a swell piece of horror-on-a-budget-in-1962, taking the form of a cheesy optical effect, but granted a legitimately-unnerving supernatural quality, simply by moving the camera with her and dissolve-cutting between rooms.  "Morella" concludes in a walloping finale (one that gets to take advantage of, and not for the last time, stock footage from Usher), and it's loaded with crushing overtones of incest, filicide, patricide, and suicide, and of grief fermented into insanity.  It's my very favorite thing in Corman's Poes, and the most Poesque.  (10/10)

Having given the Usher formula its grand retirement (only to give it another last hurrah in Tomb of Ligeia), Corman now moves on to something completely different: a horror... comedy?  Much rarer then than now, it was a mode the AIPs would toy with for a few years, thanks to the success of the partnership established here.  So: Price's narrator returns to announce the next sequence shall be an adaptation of "The Black Cat."  It is, but at the lowest possible fidelity.  Perhaps that's because "The Black Cat" is one of Poe's most unpalatable stories, about little more than animal and spousal abuse, seeming to exist mostly just for the sake of its own ugliness.  Nevertheless, and after its fashion, this "Black Cat" is a very solid adaptation of "Cask of Amontilldo," redeploying the Pit model of adding an extended prologue for the climactic setpiece that had, in Poe's original, formed the entirety of the tale.  This is not done with total grace.  Here, Fortunado is given the surname "Luchresi," when that was his hated rival.  Montresor is given the surname Herringbone, emphasizing the segment's biggest problem, which is that it's set in America and not Italy (and so therefore fails to conclude in the decaying atmosphere of a crypt strewn with bones and stained with nitre).  As for Poe's "Black Cat," from that our film takes the existence of a wife, and, also, a cat.  The pair of stories must have recommended themselves to Matheson for a mash-up due to the fact that they end similarly.  Alternatively, then, the biggest problem is that this "Black Cat" fails to end with a visual confirmation of Poe's suggestion that, to have survived, the cat must've eaten something...

This "Black Cat," anyway, concerns the drunk Montresor (Peter Lorre, adding a second star to Corman's Poe Repertory Players), who lives off his wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson), if you want to call what either do "living."  Thrown out of a bar one night, Montesor happens upon a wine sellers' convention.  Here he seizes upon the opportunity by challenging their most refined aesthete, Fortunado (Price again), to a wine-tasting competition.  Shocking his cultured adversary, Montresor matches Fortunado vintage by vintagedespite his "unorthodox" method of guzzling it by the glass.  Fortunado is obliged to carry the alcoholic home.  Here he meets Annabel, and they share a moment that becomes more.

This is a remarkably sound extrapolation for a Corman Poeessentially, it's merely naming the nameless insult that Montesor had suffered in "Amontillado."  Much more importantly, it provides a platform for Price and Lorre as a comedy team, and they're spectacular.  "Black Cat" begins fairly rickety, locking Lorre into drunkard comedy that was ancient when motion pictures were new.  There's something ghoulish about that, in the final years of Lorre's own addictions and illnesses, but also apt for these environs; I salute his ability to make it funny, anyway.  The interesting part is Lorre's rendition of the darker notes of Matheson's scriptwhen Annabel produces cash from her blouse, for example, Lorre spikes the quip, "thank you for looking into your heart," with cold hatred.  Happily, "The Black Cat" fairly roars to life once Lorre meets Price.

The wine-tasting competition is tremendously well-done, using the language of tensionit's shot and edited like an epic confrontation, Price and Lorre arrayed in low-angles like two warriors preparing for a duel, faces framed by rows of bottles towering like columnsbut all that tension is deflated into hilarity by the supremely stupid expressions Price makes while demonstrating "correct" wine-tasting procedure, and the mocking expressions Lorre makes in return.  (Jameson is good, too, with a certain airheaded frivolity.  It's no mistake that she'd return in a less-thankless role in another Price & Lorre horror-comedy.)   I've said that the AIP Gothics didn't do "dark comedy," or at least truly bleak comedy, but there are moments here that pop the bubble of Price's effete silliness and Jameson's doe-eyed blankness.  It's always comic, but there's an abiding monstrousness in Lorre that only gains ascendance.  Corman gives him the goofiest DTs (notably, when he attempts to navigate a staircase loaded with creepy-crawlies, their number includes a cooked lobster), but he privileges his quiet fury, too, sometimes in the same instant.  Montresor's line, which Lorre mumbles out as if it scarcely needed to be said, "I am genuinely dedicated to your destruction," is both Lorre's Looney Tunes impression of himself and a little frightening.  The denouement gives Corman a chance to get downright playful, and I'm not sure if it's funny, or scary, or simply weird when the ghosts of Montresor's victims play keepaway with his severed head or when Corman and Crosby stretch the image so hard that Lorre is flattened into a grotesque pancake man who can occupy an entire Panavision frame.  Maybe it's all three. (8/10)

This leaves us with the final segment, "The Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar."  It's the most faithful Tale, except for the part where the mesmerist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone, pumping the "old star" factor even further) engages in a blackmail plot, suggesting that, even in a short subject, Matheson didn't trust the sufficiency of Poe's scenarios.  Still, he trusts the quaint 19th centuriness of this oneor the quaint 60sness, as the film credits a technical advisor for the wine-tasting, which is fair enough, but also for the hypnotism, which is ridiculousand as old Valdemar (that's Price) dies of illness, his pain has been controlled by Carmichael's trances.  These are effected by a spinning multi-colored lantern, so that we begin with Price's slack face bathed in a series of unearthly hues, while Rathbone's voice makes shrill demands.  There's something about this that makes me truly anxiousperhaps it's in counterpoise to the interstitial that used the imagery of blood dripping metronymically, but the rhythm of the cuts here feels deliciously wrong.  In combination with the overpowering colors and Rathbone's intensity, it really sets the mind on edge.  Even so, perhaps it's not ideal when the first forty-five seconds of anything are its best.

Carmichael has extracted from Valdemar a promise to allow him to conduct a certain experimenthe wishes, in the name of science, to mesmerize him at the moment of death.  Valdemar's stalwart physician (David Franckham) and his wife Helene (Debra Paget) oppose this, but they bow to Valdemar's wishes.  Helene, of course, represents another change to the text, but her existence is a bit more profitablebesides putting Paget in some outfits that are more like the sexy Halloween costume version of 1840s fashions, Helene provides Price the opportunity to play a rarity in his filmography, a truly sweet and gentle man, who faces death with generosity, and, appreciating the loyalty that his much younger wife has given him, encourages her to marry for love after his passing.  However, when Carmichael undertakes the experiment, the results are monstrous, suspending Valdemar in a state of bodily death while his spirit persists within his cooling corpse.  Like, sure, it feels like Price should be the evil mesmerist, but the other thing this segment does is allow him to exist as an ethereal, distorted addition to the soundtrack (prefiguring Dr. Phibes), while the actor's famously-kinetic presence is rendered almost a prop.

It's agreeably spooky.  Conceptually, it's terrifying, especially as Carmichael keeps his client's soul imprisoned for months.  But the villain's blackmail plot (he wants to marry Helene) ultimately sends us to a place that simply doesn't make sense.  It does, however, give us some gruesomeness, reflecting Poe's description of "a nearly liquid mass of loathsomeof detestable putrescence."  It doesn't entirely come off, looking somewhat like they threw caramel on Price, which is basically what they did, this being the reason why Valdemar's liquefication is barely a second long, as it was piping hot.  The final money shot is neat, but it doesn't have "cast safety" as its justification for Corman not letting us get a good long leer at it.  I'll say one very nice thing for "Valdemar" anywayin not making sense, it betters Poe.  It allows for a reading that Poe's text preempts, and probably wasn't intended by Matheson, either.  You can suspect in Matheson's version, however, that all Carmichael really succeeded in doing was hypnotizing himself and those who witnessed him, and so Valdemar has been rotting on that bed all along.  (7/10)

Tales of Terror is about as good as horror anthologies can get: every sequence is good or great, and it unifies them with superb acting and great direction, everyone involved getting to stretch and experiment in the process.  It's even better than its average would dictate, for despite its variety it feels so much like an integral whole.  A big part of that is the interstital host bits with Price.  Before we leave, I want to say again how great they are, not just for Price but for the abstracted imagery (always red and black) that Corman deploys, and the way the wonderfully-hokey lead-ins to each segment (a painting that dissolves into a held frame) gets you in a receptive mood.  Altogether, it's a well-crafted little collection of short, punchy, not-infrequently jokey scary stories, and it's beautiful.

Score: 9/10

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