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There are few horror blankets warmer to me than the Roger Corman Poe adaptations the director made with star Vincent Price in the 1960s. More than the familiarity of Hammer horror, more than the delicious junk food that is the slasher genre, the Corman/Poe cycle feels like October. Not even my beloved Universal Monsters offer the same amount of comfort, the same sense of seasonal mood. These are movies that I turn to every year to set the tone for October.
Because his name has become so synonymous with penny-pinching schlock—cheap movies shot on the quick, minimum investment for maximum return—it’s often overlooked that Roger Corman was a great director. For evidence of this, look no further than his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, a series of eight films Corman made between 1960–1965, beginning with House of Usher and culminating with The Tomb of Ligeia. Though the films vary a little in quality, they’re all gorgeously Gothic and atmospheric, teasing out the spirit of Poe while affording star Vincent Price some of the best roles of his long career in the genre. (Only 1962’s The Premature Burial doesn’t cast Price in a Poe adaptation, instead swapping him out for star Ray Milland.) Because most of the movies take place in a single location—in most cases a castle—Corman was able to control the budgets, but the films themselves never feel cheap. The production design, the sets, costumes, photography—all are made by craftsman working at the peak of their abilities, even if they were working somewhat on the cheap.
Corman directed eight Poe adaptations in total, and while most were straightforward gothic horror, he did vary it up at times. The 1962 anthology Tales of Terror features adaptations of “The Haunting of Morella” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” but it was the middle comedic segment mashing up “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado” that inspired a new direction for Corman’s Poe adaptations. The segment, the longest in the film, features Peter Lorre and Vincent Price both hamming it up as dueling wine connoisseurs (Price a snob, Lorre a drunk) in competition for the heart and fidelity of Lorre’s wife. It’s my favorite segment in one of my favorite anthologies, with Lorre's and Price’s differing acting styles sparring for comic gold, particularly during a wine tasting sequence that’s the movie’s high point.
The response to this middle segment was so positive, Corman has said, that it led to the production of the feature-length The Raven one year later. It’s a silly lark of a film and the only outright comedy of the Roger Corman/Poe cycle. Richard Matheson wrote a script that barely has anything to do with Poe's poem, and even that got thrown largely out the window once Lorre was on set improvising most of his role. The real appeal of the film—aside from the gothic production design and sense of atmosphere — is watching Price, Lorre, Boris Karloff, and even Jack Nicholson in an early role clown around for 90 minutes. (Fun trivia fact: Corman, Karloff, and Nicholson shot 1963’s The Terror on the sets they had leftover from The Raven. Some of the exteriors for The Terror came from another Corman/Poe movie, The Haunted Palace.) The film is draggier than it ought to be, particularly for a comedy, but that seems true of a number of Corman's Poe adaptations. They often have to stretch themselves to reach feature length. Luckily, a lot of the best stuff—namely the magic duel between Price and Karloff—is saved for the end, making the wait worth it. I would have a hard time defending The Raven as an objectively "good" movie, but I love it.
The best of all the Corman/Poe films is the second to last of them, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, in which Price plays Prospero, the evil prince who rules over a plague-ridden village. It’s the darkest, nastiest character the actor has played this side of his turn in Witchfinder General, and Price clearly relishes the opportunity to play a total son of a bitch. Nicolas Roeg does some of his earliest work as cinematographer and it’s stunning, bringing out the boldness of the reds the same way he would years later in his own film Don’t Look Now. Though all of Corman’s Poe films are fairly serious and mature in nature (minus The Raven and part of Tales of Terror, of course), Masque of the Red Death is by far the most adult. It suggests a dark world run by dark people, and even the traditional Poe comeuppance doesn’t dissipate the film’s cynicism. I love many of the Corman Poe movies, but this one is my favorite and the only of the eight films in the cycle that I’m comfortable assigning the label of masterpiece. This might be the best movie Roger Corman ever directed.
1965’s The Tomb of Ligeia, the last of Corman's Poe adaptations, is another of my favorites and wraps up the cycle on a high note. Working from a screenplay by the great Robert Towne, Ligeia casts Price as yet another man mourning the loss of his first wife, this time possibly succumbing to madness as a result of a condition that’s claiming his eyesight and the belief that his late wife’s spirit has entered the body of his cat. A number of the Poe movies feel very similar to one another, especially when watched in succession: Vincent Price is tortured and distressed, usually over a lost love, leading to tragic results. (This is because many of the Poe stories on which the movies are based keep coming back to the same themes and plot devices.) Even with the sameness, it never feels like Price nor Corman is phoning it in—there's passion and integrity in all of the Poe cycle (least of all The Raven, but that trades it in for fun). Tomb of Ligeia boasts a great Price performance and the usual helping of gothic atmosphere. There's a dream sequence in the middle that, despite Corman's increasing reliance on the trope as the Poe cycle progressed, is effectively nightmarish, and the movie earns its tragic denouement more than most.
If you’ve never seen the Corman/Poe movies, I can’t recommend them enough whether or not it’s October (but seriously, they’re better in October). Most are available on Blu-ray through Scream Factory’s Vincent Price Collection I and II, though the first box is now out of print and can be pretty hard to come by. They check off a lot of “favorite” boxes for me: favorite Corman productions, favorite gothic horror, favorite Vincent Price performances. They may never be as well known or beloved as the various Universal monster franchises, but they’re something special all the same.
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