Corman’s Poe: The Price Is Right

Today is E.A. Poe’s birthday. He was born in Boston on the 19th January 1809, and died in Baltimore on the 7th October 1849. This article appeared in Fortean Times.

The short stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, filmed by schlockmeister Roger Corman, starring horror ham Vincent Price? Critics of the time laughed the idea off as misguided pretentiousness, but time has proven kinder to Corman’s Poe cycle.

Producer/director Corman indeed churned them out quick and dirty for financer/distributor AIP from the mid-‘50s onwards; juvenile delinquent and sci-fi films for a teen audience in small cinemas and drive-ins. There still was an audience there, while TV took over the living rooms and the big studios imploded. But that market too was quickly saturated by other outfits that also jumped on the bandwagon.

Corman had ambition too, so he went to AIP’s Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson and proposed to make Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher for them, with a slightly bigger budget, longer shooting schedule (but still only 15 days) and in colour. They okayed it; after all, Corman’s pictures had consistently made a profit, and UK’s Hammer Films had done good business with their recent Dracula and Frankenstein pictures.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

A team of capable and reliable people was assembled, many of whom would return for further Poe films, and shooting scheduled for January 1960. For the role of Roderick Usher only Vincent Price was ever considered. Price already had a distinguished career behind him as character actor and in B-quickies, but was ready for a new challenge: “I wanted to take a gamble on projects I believed in, and I believed that the works of Edgar Allan Poe hadn’t been done properly on the screen.”

While his name would be the byword for horror from that point onwards, for Price “these were Gothic tales and not horror stories. Horror stories are the ones that deal with reality.” From Usher’s first shot it is clear that we indeed are not in Kansas anymore. A lone young man steers his horse through a forest of dead trees and bracken, ending up at the gates of a huge, crumbling, fog enshrouded mansion. If nothing else, it resembles a tomb.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” – strange forebears

With this traveller, coming to rescue his beloved from the clutches of her insane brother, we find ourselves in a very particular and peculiar world, not quite knowing what to expect. This dark fairytale world draws us into a heightened, dreamlike state. And at its centre: Roderick Usher, long-limbed, blue eyes standing out against his blood red robes and the red, brown and gold interiors. He’s a hypersensitive, but flinches only when opposed, paints his demented portraits in violent colours, and plucks his lute dismally.

Usher’s white hair was Price’s idea, befitting a man who claims a dark heritage and has all vitality sucked out of him by his ancestral home – or so he believes. AIP felt that a teenage audience would feel cheated without a monster, so Corman gave Price some hastily written lines: “The house lives! The house breathes!”. But with the effects Corman’s budgets would stretch to, the Poe movies are well off without traditional monsters.

It can be argued, though, that the family’s curse is just in Usher’s head. After all, it’s by his actions that his sister loses her sanity and the house eventually falls. Writer Richard Matheson found it challenging to rework the short story into a full movie: “Poe’s story is very brooding and ruminating, and not too much plot, movement or dialogue, so I kind of faked the Poe touches.” Shades of Shakespeare flavour the dialogue and have Madeline, like Lady Macbeth, roaming the house with bloodied hands.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

The oppressive atmosphere of the script is enhanced by the cluttered sets of Daniel Heller; ornate fireplaces, curlicued furniture, oriental carpets and all the Victorian tat you could ever imagine. They are richly detailed and textured, in a luscious colour scheme, but delineated with light and shadow by Floyd Crosby on camera. Price, on Corman’s intentions: “What Roger tried to do was to express some of the psychology of Poe’s characters, and imbue our movie versions with the spirit of Poe.”

Corman made a still small budget stretch through attention to detail, and veteran crew and actors who he knew could deliver within a few takes. He discussed the key roles in depth before shooting, as there’d be no time for that once the cameras rolled. According to Price: “We worked hard, really hard – oh boy, he was a slavedriver! But it was wonderful fun, because he had it so carefully planned.”

AIP’s gamble and Corman’s hard work paid off, and House of Usher did gangbusters at the box office. Corman got the go-ahead for a whole series of Poe films, 8 in total, ending with Tomb of Ligeia in 1965, all but one of them (Buried Alive) with Price in pivotal roles. They’re not all strictly Poe, though: The Raven only uses Poe’s title, and The Haunted Palace is an H.P. Lovecraft story with the serial number filed off and a few lines of Poe grafted on.

“The Pit and the Pendulum”

The various films inherit many characteristics of Poe’s stories and poems, like sexual obsession, inherited insanity and isolated places. Additional recurring elements include cleansing fire (according to Price, Corman was a litter bug), the expressionist sets and the deranged artwork we find on the castle walls. Corman engaged much of Usher‘s core crew for further films, and props and sets too were recycled out of budget considerations.

The Pit and the Pendulum was the second feature to be made, requiring Matheson to fill in yet more backstory. Again it begins with an unwary traveller in weird and foreign climes, this time finding Vincent Price as the heartbroken Nicholas Medina rattling about in his Spanish mansion. Once more, a dark past catches up with the protagonists, in the shape of Medina’s unhinged, cuckolded father, also played by Price with much relish.

“A Cask of Amontillado” from “The Black Cat”

Tales of Terror includes a black comedy to prevent the trilogy of tales feeling too samey. It’s the sandwich formula of the Grand Guignol, and as Price rightfully pointed out, “Comedy and terror are very closely allied”. The Black Cat (including a full cask of Amontillado) gives him a plum role as the snobbish wine expert, but it’s veteran Peter Lorre who gives a layered portrayal as a mean drunk with some remnants of past charm and intelligence.

Lorre’s performance is unsettling: we laugh at his wit, then recoil as his mood flips and reveals the wife beater he is. Such subtlety is absent in The Raven, a geriatric Looney Tunes with Price, Lorre and Boris Karloff in a burlesque of the previous movies. Much to Karloff’s dismay, Lorre kept ad-libbing, and Corman decided to roll with it. The lack of discipline is noticeable according to Price:“Yes, it was very annoying, it really was. Because no actor is funnier than a good writer.”

With Tomb of Ligeia Corman was done with Poe, but the preceding Masque of the Red Death is arguably the best of them all, showing the full extent of his ambition. The film is unabashedly symbolic, beginning with an old lady in the now familiar forest, encountering a strange man in bright red monk’s robes – an homage to Death from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, but Corman’s Death has a far bigger role to play, both as destroyer and as liberator.

“Masque of the Red Death”

When plague hits the country and Prince Prospero gathers with his friends in the safety of his castle, he takes the peasant Francesca with him. Price’s Prospero is a monster and a sadist, but also a philosopher, trying to subject her with reason instead of force. Masque‘s script is highly literate and its philosophy appears sound. “If a god of love and life ever did exist, he is long dead,” Prospero argues, and you think: “He’s got a point there, girl!”

Masque is grander than the preceding films, enabling Nicholas Roeg’s camera is to roam seductively through the multi-coloured rooms. The film’s final set piece impresses: Corman staged an eerie dance of death, a crowd scene for which he engaged the Royal Ballet. Eventually only Prospero stands, with the spectre he mistakes for Satan’s herald. Price expertly conveys his terror and then disappointment. You can’t help but pity the potentate who earlier killed and tortured for sport.

Poster for “Masque of the Red Death”

Watching the whole run of Poe movies in sequence, it becomes clear how versatile Vincent Price is as an actor. He makes each of these Gothic anti-heroes real to us: slack-faced Verden Fell, neurotic Roderick Usher, Locke in Morella who appears unused to speaking aloud… with echoes of aesthetes like Byron, Oscar Wilde and Poe himself, they fit well within these larger than life movies.

And it’s this quality that makes them timeless, and as exciting now as they were half a century ago.