22 October 2011

FROM THE THROATS OF THE DAMNED IN THEIR AGONY AND OF THE DEMONS THAT EXULT IN THE DAMNATION

As I mentioned, the third of the AIP/Roger Corman Poe movies, Premature Burial, was something of a failure - not a flop, for it's hard for a movie produced as cheaply as even the costliest AIP picture to "flop" - and for the fourth movie in the cycle, the second released in 1962, a course-correction was in order.

Quite a course-correction it was, too: Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson, happily returned to the fold, didn't just tweak the formula in any single direction, but fairly exploded with new possibilities in Tales of Terror, which as its title indicates isn't an adaptation of an individual Edgar Allan Poe story, but an anthology film adapted from three (really four) of them: and each of the film's three segments made a completely different approach to the task of turning the author's notoriously uncinematic and often borderline non-narrative stories into top-notch B-pictures. Each of these is introduced in voiceover by an audibly-grinning Vincent Price - also happily returned to the fold, even moreso than Matheson - and at least nominally concerns the human response to death; the moment of death, before death, and after death, though this is not a theme that anybody seems tremendously interested in pursuing, and given how much American International was in the business of giving its audience a good time & not subjecting them to philosophical discourses, it is almost certainly for the best. The part where Price speaks over the sound - and very abstracted image - of a beating heart is, at any rate, a pip.

The first, shortest, and least innovative of the three segments is "Morella", perhaps the most obscure of all Poe's stories filmed by AIP (The Oblong Box, not directed by Corman, is the likeliest competitor for that title). And, as such things go, it's relatively faithful - which is to say, it concerns itself with the last fifth of a not-terrifically-long story and plays as much like a sequel to the events related in that story as a dramatisation of them, but by the standards of these pictures, that's actually pretty close (just wait till we get to The Raven!).Herein, we find 26-year-old Lenora Locke (Maggie Pierce) traveling to the decayed castle of her forefathers, making the fourth time in four features that the filmmakers have relied on this basic set-up; but in this case, things are a bit different. Lenora is headed back to the home where she grew up in the hopes of reconnecting with her father (Price, of course), who has barely spoken to her during all her life; blaming her, as he does, for the death of his beloved, beautiful wife Morella (Leona Gage).

The Locke mansion is gripped by a temporal paralysis: Mr. Locke, being of tremendously romantic and fragile disposition, has not permitted anything to be changed, or cleaned, since his wife's death; and as will happen in such cases, he's even preserved Morella's body. Okay, "kept" her body. It is surely not "preserved". This is all as creepy as hell, but Lenora wishes to tough it out; for she has a terminal illness and wishes only to spend time with a family that she has never had in her whole life. This new situation shocks Locke into a much gentler, and more fatherly state of mind, and he and Lenora agree to make a good go of it. But the tenderness of this father and daughter reunion is a bit spoiled by that mouldering corpse, which has some ideas of its own: in hardly any time, Morella is busy stealing Lenora's soul and making mischief.

Brevity above all makes "Morella" work: it's in and out in just about 20 minutes - putting it at less than a quarter of the whole - and that gives us very little time to dwell on things. Boom!- Lenora shows up. Boom!- creepy house. Boom!- possession and terror. That abruptness if, of course, very un-Poevian (his stories are all about the creeping build of atmosphere), but it lets Corman ramp up the horror compared to just about everything else in the Poe cycle to this point, and the undiluted forward momentum of the sequence is, in a drive-in movie kind of way, totally rewarding.

Still, it's a lot like the other movies, particularly since it so obviously takes place on the set leftover from House of Usher, and uses burning house footage from that movie's finale - the first time this very fertile bit of stock footage was recycled, if I am not mistaken. Other than the tremendously gratifying presence of Price, looking so mildewy it's a shock he doesn't die every time he talks, it corrects none of the blandness of Premature Burial - though the facial expressions on our three principals' faces at the final moments is far creepier than anything to be found in that movie. Put it this way: "Morella" is a good B-horror lark, but it's definitely not any more than that.

Luckily, then, that it is followed by the wonderful "The Black Cat", by far the longest sequence of the three, and a mash-up of two of Poe's very best-known stories: the titular tale of a wife-abusing drunkard who despises the black cat that lives with them, and "The Cask of Amontillado", in which a vengeful nobleman takes his revenge on a rival by walling him up in a cellar. Both are of the tradition of Poe stories that are primarily about the build-up to the final scene; Corman and Matheson, however, are a lot more interested in the ride.

Our drunkard is Montresor Herringbone, played with portly aplomb by Peter Lorre (who was among the many great stars stuck watching his career wind down in B-movies, though at least American International wasn't as desperately tacky as some Poverty Row studios); his wife, Annabel, is played by the largely-forgotten ditsy blonde specialist Joyce James, whose take (maybe on purpose, maybe not), is an exasperated '50s sitcom wife performance that is deliciously out of place with the period trappings of the sequence.

Oh, right: "The Black Cat" is a straight-up comedy, and it's fucking brilliant. Lorre's roly-poly drunk routine is typical, though the presence of a great actor serves to freshen it somewhat; things pick up immensely when Price shows up as preening wine connoisseur Fortunato Luchresi. If Price was already a florid, hammy actor in horror films, watching him play an actual comic character is like nothing else in the world: his exaggeratedly foppish behavior, the grand cartoon expressions he wears while tasting wine, his delighted trilling of every line of dialogue - I can't say it's to every comic taste. But Christ knows it's to mine. The drinking contest between Montresor and Fortunato is a masterpiece of witty dialogue (who knew Matheson had it in him?) and perfectly-pitched beats that Price and Lorre toss at each other.

In short, absolute horror for the Poe purist, but top-notch cinema, although it certainly falls with a bang on the comedy side of the horror-comedy line, even after Montresor has done his deed and is haunted by the booze-soaked hallucinations of snakes and lizards and his victims' voices. There's something, though, even funnier about all of this because of how, aesthetically, it's still just another AIP Poe movie (Daniel Haller sets, Floyd Crosby cinematography, Les Baxter score... check, check, and check). So while it might rankle those who persist in seeing funny horror as an inherently wasteful exercise - a harder position to hold now than in 1962, undoubtedly - I loved every inch of it, though some inches are far more taut than others.

Then, unfortunately, Tales of Terror commits the common anthology film sin, of ending with its weakest episode: "The Case of M. Valdemar", which is probably the most faithful of the three sequences, and yet the one that feels, somehow, the least Poe-ish: "Morella" has the atmosphere and clammy protagonist, "The Black Cat" taps into Poe's under-appreciated penchant for absurd black humor, but "M. Valdemar" tries to extend the virtually conflict-free "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" with a melodrama the likes of which cannot be readily found anywhere in the author's work.

From the original, we have Valdemar (Price, but mostly for form's sake; it is a character that permits virtually no movement, let alone acting), who is about to die, and in the name of Science! offers to let a hypnotist, Carmichael (Basil Rathbone) put him under just before he passes. This has the entirely uncanny effect of keeping Valdemar in a state of... not "consciousness", but of a certain awareness, and ability to communicate, that is much at odds with the fact that he is, now, dead. For Poe, that was really quite enough, and though the story is one of his most 19th Century in outlook, it's undeniably creepy. For Corman and Matheson and AIP, something a bit more grandiose was needed, and so they bring in Valdemar's wife, Helene (Debra Paget), to serve as the victim of Carmichael's blackmail plot: if she doesn't marry the hypnotist, her husband will be forever trapped in a hellish limbo.

Chacun son cinema, but "The Case of M. Valdemar" leaves me awfully cold on the way out, despite offering a superb chance to see Price and Rathbone (in the first of only two pairings that "count") work off each other, and even with the added value of Paget, who found B-Movie immortality in Fritz Lang's Tiger of Eschnapur and its sequel (her erotic temple dance is the stuff of legend). The story has never been one of my favorites, and the drama here is frankly silly, and not helped out by Price's necessarily restrained work. Even the atmosphere that is always the hallmark of the Poe films is relatively quiet, in favor of the blackmail melodrama.

Still, Corman does right by the famous last line of Poe's tale: "Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome - of detestable putresence." Shockingly so, you might even say, given that this was 1962; but the dirty secret is that once upon a time, the situation was different than it is today, and independent and minor productions could get away with more than big studio films could. At any rate, the image of Price covered in alarmingly convincing putrescence makeup is enough to pay for the whole bit.

And there we are: the movie that shook up the AIP Poe cycle but good, and guaranteed that the studio could keep milking that cash-cow for years to come without lapsing into self-copying. Not that Tales of Terror is a simple piece of mercenary filmmaking; on the contrary, it seems to have significantly rejuvenated Corman after the tepid Premature Burial, and the sheer variety of tones and stories it offers makes it an irreproachable one-stop shop for somebody looking to have a undemanding night with a CinemaScope Gothic shocker. It's not up to the artistic heights of the best Poe movies, but damn me if it's not a lot of fun more often than not.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

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