Tales of Terror marked the fourth film in American International Pictures’ Edgar Allen Poe cycle, directed by Roger Corman, written by Richard Matheson, and starring Vincent Price. As the fourth, it plays a bit with the format, opting to anthologize three Poe stories. It also introduces a new element that would later produce one of the best films of the series: comedy.
Originally, Tales of Terror was set to be as ominous, lurid, and gloomy as the three preceding films: House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Premature Burial. Matheson, however, felt that they needed to inject a bit of levity to raise the spirits, so to speak, and do something a little different. Thus we get the terrifying “Morella” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” between which is sandwiched the darkly comic “The Black Cat” (which also takes liberally from The Cask of Amontillado). We also see AIP’s rich cast of actors start to gel together. Vincent Price has returned after an absence on The Premature Burial to star in all three segments, and he shares the screen with Basil Rathbone in “M. Valdemar” and Peter Lorre in “The Black Cat.” All three would return, joined by Boris Karloff, in A Comedy of Terrors the following year. Price, Lorre, and Karloff, as well as a young Jack Nicholson, would also star in a comedic adaptation of The Raven in 1963 as well.
The effect works quite well, as evidenced by the comedies that “The Black Cat” would spawn. Vincent Price is a charismatic actor whose presence leaps off the screen, a true icon of horror. He is at his absolute best, however, when he is the sardonic and witty deliveryman of black humour. He is an excellent murdering maniac, but he is even better when he is poisoning someone behind a smirk and a joke. That said, he’s not actually the one doing the murdering in “The Black Cat.” That honour falls to Peter Lorre, who also exhibits wonderful comedic timing. Price and Lorre have wonderful chemistry that certainly echoes the tall man/fat man dialectic of famous comedy teams even if it doesn’t quite reach the same level. They are still a great pairing and it is easy to see why AIP would chose to sustain it for three films.
The first short in the anthology, "Morella," is very true to form. Following the same outline established by the previous Poe films, it has all the quintessential spooky stuff: a decayed mansion, cobwebs and tarantulas, Vincent Price and the unquiet dead. A young lady returns to the home she was forced out of 26 years ago by her grieving father. After giving birth, his wife Morella blamed their new baby for stealing the life force from her. "It's the baby's fault" were the last words on her lips as she collapsed. The father, played by Price, sent his daughter away to boarding schools and left his wife to decay on the bed in which she died. Now the daughter has returned home for reconciliation, but others have a design on revenge.
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" nearly flies off in the other direction of examining science gone awry. The incomparable Basil Rathbone plays a mesmerist who convinces Vincent Price's M. Valdemar to allow himself to be mesmerized at the point of death, as an experiment into the margins of life. This is done, naturally, over the objections of Valdemar's doctor and comely young wife, who share a great deal of affection for one another. Valedemar, to the mesmerist's chagrin, has given his blessing to his soon-to-be widow and the doctor's marital union. The doctor, I should note here, is played with the usual insufferable naïve nobility that David Frankham brings to his roles. He is playing virtually the same character he did in Master of the World, where he played opposite Price as an obnoxious gentleman's gentleman.
This episode hews closer to a period piece, lacking for the spooky Gothic stuff as much as possible for a film set in the early 1800's and starring both Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone. It still elicits squeals in the closing moments when trapping a living soul inside a dead body and then trying to rape it's wife goes about as well as one might expect. In this respect, however, the film comes about as close as AIP's Poe films ever do to the original spirit of the Universal Studios monster franchise. Whereas these Poe films tended to revolve around the theme of things (and people) refusing to stay quietly buried, Universal's films fixated on the theme of transgressing cosmic moral boundaries. Dr. Frankenstein transgresses the boundary between life and death, as did Imhotep the Mummy, while Larry Talbot did not heed the ageless wisdom of ancient tribes and the Harkers bring peril on themselves by not believing the aged professor's knowledge of vampires. In "M. Valedmar," Rathbone's mesmerist is the diabolical figure who refuses to quit when it's really in his own best interests to.
AIP's Poe films hit such a stride by this point that Richard Matheson was keen to shake things up a bit. He admitted to tiring of always burying people alive, so when he did it again he added comedy, or at least broke it up across three short films. The series would return to purer form after this, with some comedies but also some of the best Poe films ever made. In the mean time, this format would give itself over to an excellent and a very AIP-like film that wasn't even made by AIP: United Artists' Tales of Terror.