Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Twice-Told Tales (1963)

After a few years, American International Pictures' movies based on Edgar Allen Poe's works, directed by Roger Corman and generally starring Vincent Price, were popular enough that other film companies were keen to try the same formula. In 1962, United Artists hired on both Corman and Price to bring the story of Richard the Third to lurid life in Tower of London. A year later, Corman departed but Price remained for Twice-Told Tales. You would be hard-pressed to notice the difference though. American International was sold to Filmways Pictures in 1979, which was then sold to Orion Pictures in 1982, which was then sold to MGM in 1997, who had already purchased United Artists in 1981. The net effect is that MGM was able to release The AIP Poe film Tales of Terror and the UA film Twice-Told Tales on the same DVD in 2005 and I didn't even realize Twice-Told Tales wasn't an AIP film until I sat down to write this review.

Opting to steer clear of Poe, UA went for another great American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Named for Hawthorne's book, only one of this anthology's three stories is adapted from it, that being "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." The other two are adapted from his other works "Rappaccini's Daughter" and  The House of the Seven Gables. While "Rappaccini's Daughter" - about a mad botanist - is a bit of an odd choice, the other two segments are spot-on for capturing a Poe-like Gothic atmosphere. "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is also immeasurably enriched by placing the wonderful Sebastian Cabot (probably most famous as the voice of the narrator in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Bagheera in The Jungle Book, as well as a bit part in The Time Machine) opposite Vincent Price. As AIP would also learn, Price is good enough to carry a movie on his own - and regularly has to - but when he is paired up with equally strong and charismatic actors like Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Sebastian Cabot, it becomes cinematic gold.

In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," two old friends have gathered on a dark and stormy night to celebrate the 79th birthday of the one. Of all things Dr. Carl Heidegger (Cabot) laments most, it was the passing of his fiancée Sylvia 38 years ago, on the eve of their wedding. Together Heidegger and Alex (Price) go to pay their respects to her in the family crypt, to discover that a powerful mineral water seeping from the ceiling above has kept her body in a state of perfect preservation. Experiments reveal that this water has the power to restore youth and even life itself. First Heidegger and Alex ingest the precious liquid themselves, becoming young again. Then they inject it into Sylvia, bringing her back to life. But with renewed youth comes old secrets that were best left buried in the tomb.

"Rapaccinni's Daughter," as I said, is the story of a mad botanist who was betrayed by his wife and secluded himself and his daughter away in his estate. There he is able to indulge his genius for genetic engineering, including the creation of the most toxic plant known to man. Of course plants are not the only thing he experiments on, to the chagrin of the university student in the adjacent house who has become smitten with his daughter. Theirs is a tale of star-crossed lovers separated by mad science born of trauma and heartbreak. While decent enough, it lacks for Gothic atmosphere and for the time (and talent) required to actually make these characters believably fall in love. It doesn't necessarily come across the way it needs to in order for the film to work.

For Price, Twice-Told Tales marks his second stay at The House of the Seven Gables. His first was in 1940, opposite George Sanders (also most renowned today for his voicework in Disney films, namely Shere Kahn in The Jungle Book). In this round, he plays the last in the line of Pyncheon men who has returned to their ancestral home in New England to search for its hidden treasure. Back in the dark days of the witch hysteria, the first of the Pyncheon line cheated a man out of his property with an accusation of sorcery. He was hanged, and buried in the basement of the house that was erected on the property: the House of the Seven Gables. Ever since, rumour has held that he left behind a secret vault filled with money. However, the reality has been that every Pyncheon male has died at the hands of his spectral vengeance.

Twice Told Tales version of the story is a good, solid Vincent Price vehicle. It actually benefits from being a short film in an anthology, because while I'm sure there would be enough in the original story to fuel a whole feature length film, the short keeps everything moving along at a nice pace. Except for the weird part in the middle where the descendant of the cheated man and the reincarnation of his would-have-been wife (who happens to be married to Pyncheon) fall too-quickly back in love, we get who these characters all are from the start. No extraneous characterization is needed to understand that Vincent Price's character is a shiftless gambler who is only interested in the vault's fortune to replace what he lost in drink and cards, or that his sister is a mean old girl, or that his wife is emotionally sensitive to ghostly visitations. This is much improved on "Rappaccini's Daughter" that is so intensely a character piece that the short film form injures it.

Even with only two out of three being particularly good, Twice Told Tales is still one of my Halloween favourites. Price is in classic form, the addition of Sebastian Cabot is wonderful, the atmosphere of those two pieces is excellent, and the type of film inaugurated by Corman, Matheson, and Price is so much in its stride that it has taken on ghoulish life of its own.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

A Poem for Those Standing Up to #NotYourShield

Take up the White Man's burden, Send forth the best ye breed
  Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild--
  Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden, In patience to abide,
  To veil the threat of terror And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
  To seek another's profit, And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden, The savage wars of peace--
  Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
  Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
  But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
  Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man's burden And reap his old reward:
  The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
  "Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden, Ye dare not stoop to less--
  Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do,
  The silent, sullen peoples Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man's burden, Have done with childish days--
  The lightly proferred laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood, through all the thankless years
  Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers!

Rudyard Kipling, The White Man's Burden, 1899

Dedicated to all those brave white men and women who daily stand up against the thankless savages who don't appreciate everything you do for them. Some day they will understand the light of civilization that you bring them.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Tales of Terror (1962)

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.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Our First Ever Live Chat!

Getting current with modern telecommunications, I've decided to give a chance to this whole idea of live-streaming an interactive chat. On Tuesday, October 21st at 7:00pm Mountain Time (6:00pm Pacific, 9:00pm Eastern), join me at I'll be on audio, and you can interact via text chat window, ask me questions, call me names, and all sorts of things! This will be a shared event between Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age and my Disney-inspired blog Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy, so hopefully we'll get an interesting cross-section of people and discussion! See you then!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Premature Burial (1962)

The two Edgar Allen Poe films directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures – House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum – were smash successes, and Corman was gearing up for a third when a dispute with AIP led him to take up his ball and go to another company. He found a suitable producer in Europe’s Pathé, though it led to a number of alterations in the formula he had now established. For one, he could not employ the talents of Vincent Price, who was under contract to AIP. As filming on this new film, The Premature Burial, was getting underway, Price was off making Master of the World, AIP’s entry into the wave of films adapting the works of Jules Verne. That same film was written by Richard Matheson, who Corman was also deprived of by going to Pathé. Consequently, Corman brought on Charles Beaumont as a writer and Ray Milland as lead actor on an outing that otherwise had all the same, quintessentially Corman-Poeish stuff.

AIP wasn’t about to let a cash cow go without a fight. When he found out about this arrangement, AIP president Samuel Z. Arkoff flew to Europe and had a meeting with the president of Pathé. Among the topics of discussion was how AIP was one of Pathé Labs’ biggest customers and that if Pathé’s filmmaking arm was prepared to go into competition with them, they would have to find another lab. Suffice it to say that Pathé relented and sold the production to AIP just as principle photography began. Once more, Corman was under an AIP contract and adding another official entry into the series of Poe movies.

The film opens with a young lady (Hazel Court) tracking down her ex-fiancee (Millard), looking for answers as to why he broke off their engagement. It turns out that he is deathly afraid of being buried alive, so much so that this morbid obsession as wholly taken over his mind and he fears he cannot function as a proper husband. The only way he sees to overcome this malady is to build himself a tomb with failsafe after failsafe to ensure that he can escape in the event his worst fears come true. Complicating matters is his sister Kate, who does not look too kindly on the prospect of this marriage. Get married they do, but even that is not enough to cure his illness before a climax of death, betrayal, and murder.

It took getting rid of Price and Matheson that shows how the series has hit its stride and figured out what it does well. Milland excels in the Vincent Price role, bringing a dignity to it that Price himself would not have been able to bring. It is easy enough to imagine how he would have acted out the role, and it would have been great in its own right. Nevertheless, Milland is very well cast as the quiet aristocrat trying desperately to restrain his emotions. Sometimes he does it too well, and it is hard to pick up the sense of horror and revulsion that he must be feeling when we need to see him do it. Whether a positive or a negative, he does not manage to overshadow his costars, which Price regularly does. They all stand on more or less equal footing, and while no one is offering Oscar class performances, it works quite well.

The spooky stuff is all there and all in order. The movie begins with an exhumation in an eerie, fog-enshrouded cemetery, and there are ample crypts and cobwebbed corridors and a stunning nightmare sequence. Some of it pulls from better movies than it, such as a scene cribbed from Frankenstein towards the end and the "buried alive" scene in my favourite horror movie, Vampyr. This works to The Premature Burial's benefit. The lurid gloom and the thematic material would almost lead me to say that this could have been the perfect AIP Poe movie if it had Price in it (with Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre in supporting roles). It is emblematic of the series, even without him.

Given that Corman's Poe movies dwell morbidly on the theme of premature burial and the unquiet dead, of secrets and spirits that refuse to stay hidden, The Premature Burial is its purest distillation. Not only does it borrow from horror films from the Thirties, but even from The Pit and the Pendulum. It is also easy to see why the regular crew would try to branch out a bit after it. They never drift too far from the theme, but it's hard to do the same thing again after The Premature Burial. It is the definitive statement. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

American International Pictures' House of Usher was a surprise hit for the company. Director Roger Corman knew it would be a success, but not to the extent that it. Word came down from on high that another movie adapting Edgar Allen Poe was required, preferably starring Vincent Price and written by Richard Matheson. There was no concept of a series of Poe films yet, but The Pit and the Pendulum became the model for what would come.

Whereas House of Usher followed the original story relatively closely, The Pit and the Pendulum deviates wildly. According to Corman, our "method... was to use the Poe short story as the climax for a third act to the motion picture, because a two-page short story is not about to give you a ninety-minute motion picture." So here we have the titular torture device reserved for the dramatic climax, with a wholly original lead up drafted by Matheson. To concoct this script, Matheson and Corman collaborated on what they felt were some of the common underlying ideas and themes of Poe. Consequently, they created a standard template for their Poe films.

The main plot thread they touch on is the idea of premature burial. In fact, that would be the next story they did in 1962: The Premature Burial. Usually it involves a victim who was not dead, whether they were buried unwittingly or as a deliberate part of a nefarious scheme. If the victim is actually dead when they are buried, then at the very least they are the unquiet dead. Either way, be it a not-quiet dead wife or a dead-but-back-for-revenge wife or an ancient family ghost or whathaveyou, the dominate theme is things that are buried which refuse to stay buried.

This directly symbolizes the main conceptual theme Corman lit on, which was Poe as an excavation of dark subconscious forces. It is also reflected in the main living characters that come along with the unquiet dead, namely the person with something to hide that does not remain hidden. Perhaps they are mentally ill and fighting off some morbid fascination, or perhaps they are a lying conspirator out to get someone killed, and generally what they are trying to hide is the body in the cellar. Eventually, what is lying in their subconscious will become exposed.

In The Pit and the Pendulum, a young Englishman arrives at the castle of the Medinas in 16th century Spain, looking to learn the truth behind the death of his sister, who married the head of the household. Don Medina is the son of one the most sadistic of the Spanish Inquisitors, who once murdered his brother and tortured his adulterous wife nearly to death before bricking her up in the family crypt. Don Medina witnessed the whole thing as a boy, leading to an adulthood marked by morbid fear of having buried his own wife alive after she died of fright after finding the household torture chamber. The fact that he can hear her voice calling to him and the harpsichord playing mysteriously in the night isn't helping matters much.

So is it Don Medina that has something to hide, some dark secret to be uncovered? Or is something else going on in that malodorous manor? Just remember that in these sorts of movies, everyone tends to get more than they bargained for. Will the Englishman find out more than he wanted to? Is there even something deeper and more horrific in Don Medina's subconscious? Do the dead stay buried?

Vincent Price, as usual, acts circles around his stiffer costars as he swings from violently tormented to just plain violent. Once more Corman applies lurid colours and sets, though uniquely decides on using real outdoor exterior shots, which bizarrely undermine the surreal atmospheres he is trying to create inside the castle. The Pit and the Pendulum is an amiable enough effort, forgivable in its inadequacies (at least relative to other films in the series) for only being the second such film and a template for what follows. The formula is much perfected in later Poe-Corman-Price films.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

House of Usher (1960)

By the early 1950's, Universal Studios had largely given up on its tradition of Gothic horror films. Arguably the last of the line was 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the greatest of the horror-comedies but nevertheless a farce on the petrified iconography of their classic monsters. Universal's immediate future belonged to Atomic Age Sci-Fi, including the last great monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. The following year, Universal went to colour with This Island Earth, but by 1960 these sorts of "genre" offerings were naught but schlocky drive-in movie fare.

Yet at just that same time, hideous things were brewing in England. Hammer Films began production of their own line of horror films that were widely seen as inheriting Universal's mantle. Produced in colour and staring legendary actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), and The Brides of Dracula (1960) proved that there was still interest in well-made, well-acted, well-scripted Gothic horror films. At the time, American International Pictures was a low-grade B-movie house that was known for giving miniscule shooting schedules and shoestring budgets to films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Cave Man (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), and Reform School Girl (1957). However, when one of their most prolific and reliable directors, Roger Corman, approached them to make their own series of Hammer-style horror films, they gave him the green light. Not only that, but they upped his budget and gave him a whole 15 days to shoot his first, on the gamble that this was just the sort of thing that would raise AIP's standing, not to mention their profit margins.

As source material, Corman deviated from the tradition of European writers to go with an American original: Edgar Allen Poe. Richard Matheson, arguably one of the greatest horror writers that ever lived, supplied the script based on Poe's 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher. Then came the inspired choice to cast Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. To this point, Price was already an established actor with 20 years experience and over 80 roles in his filmography. He originally entered the craft as a dramatic character actor who took on a number of historical dramas, then transitioning into Noir thrillers for a while. In the Fifties he really began his career in horror, in such films as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959), The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). Over the course of his career, less than a third of Price's films were horror, but they were the ones that had the most enduring popularity and public notoriety. This was due in no small part to AIP's "Poe Cycle."

When it comes to Gothic horror, one could very easily make the argument that it needs to be in black-and-white or it's not worth doing. The lack of colour strengthens the sense of the Sublime, deepening shadow and invigorating light, and today adding an implicit patina of age. By the Sixties, however, black-and-white didn't give an elegant sense of vintage maturity as it was just old. If you wanted to show that you were tapped in to the day, you had to make a film in splashy Technicolor. To compensate, Corman decided to go overboard. If one were to pick a single word to describe the colours and sets in his Poe films, it would be "lurid"... The outside of a high Gothic manor on a hill may be dark and brooding, but it is under a lurid sky or, in the case of House of Usher surrounded by a lurid green mist. The house is filled with quintessential spooky stuff - cobwebs and stone corridors and the like - but otherwise overindulges colour by painting walls in vividly lurid tones. Corman's Poe films are all purples and reds and greens with smatterings of blues and orange.

Lurid is not only an appropriate adjective for the sets, but also for the script. House of Usher is a rarity in the Poe cycle for actually baring some strong resemblance to the story upon which it is based. Some, like The Raven (1963) and War-Gods of the Deep (1965), merely used a Poe poem as a jumping-off point for some fever dream. Some, like The Haunted Palace (1963), only attached the profitable Poe name to a movie adapting work by an entirely different author (in that case, H.P. Lovecraft). As the first of these films, House of Usher manages to hew closely to the outline of The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe's brand of melancholy, madness, and oppressive gloom didn't necessarily fit with the formula adhered to by AIP's studio head Samuel Z. Arkoff: Action, Revolution, Killing, Oratory, Fantasy, and Fornication (the, yes, ARKOFF formula). This House of Usher requires less careful studies of man's descent into madness and more yelling and punching and running and fighting and things exploding in fire and whatnot. The anonymous narrator isn't just a compassionate observer of his friend Roderick, but the red-blooded fiancée of Madeline running on adrenaline. Vincent Price is reserved in his role, and one almost feels his full sardonic wit and gleeful evil wanting to break lose. Or at least, one might want it to. His charisma leaps off the screen no matter what role he is in, and he still has that voice to die for. Soon, Corman will just let him off the leash.

Corman and Price's Poe films, starting at House of Usher, are lurid, gaudy, brash, drive-in movie fare. They aren't to the same level as the early Universal Monster films, but what is? They are nonetheless very enjoyable low-budget flicks good for giving your partner a protective squeeze. They also get better at doing that after House of Usher. It was a good, and relatively successful, first kick at the can, which pays off later in the levels of dark comedy and outright insanity of succeeding films in the series.