Review for Six Gothic Tales
Vincent Price in Six Gothic Tales (Roger Corman)
In the 1960's, American International Pictures made an effort to offer American audiences a home grown counterpart to the Hammer Films output emerging from the UK, thanks to the success of Roger Corman's The Fall of the House of Usher. Adapting Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name, Corman took the tale and fabricated a lavish-looking period horror that was met with enthusiasm by the general public, spurning AIP onwards with future Poe adaptions.
A crucial element of the series however, was the casting of horror icon, Vincent Price who lent the films a degree of heavyweight horror credibility, but also a vital sense of consistent identity. Universal had Lugosi and Karloff, Hammer Lee and Cushing, but AIP had Price. Joining the triumvirate of creative forces were a litany of notable figures, which helped bring colour and depth to the series, including Karloff himself, Peter Lorre, Barbara Steele, Screenwriters Richard Matheson & Robert Towne,
Arrow's new Blu Ray box set collects six of the eight features (Rights issues prevent the inclusion of Masque of the Red Death- a great shame. Meanwhile, The Premature Burial does not star Vincent Price). Previously, the company released Blu Rays of The Pit and The Pendulum, and The Fall of the House of Usher (in beautiful steelbooks in addition to the regular editions) but in this colossal set, collects these six features for the first time.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
The first of the Poe/Corman/Price cycle, The Fall of the House of Usher (also known simply as House of Usher), is one of the most highly regarded moments in Roger Corman's lengthy career.
In Usher, Vincent Price plays Roderick Usher, the head of a possibly barmy family, afflicted by a curse that drives members into wild descents of madness. Roderick opposes his sisters' courtship with Phillip Winthrop (a little ineffectually played by Mark Damon). Believing a marriage between the two will curse further generations, he's rather frosty towards Phillip when he travels to their rickety mansion. Sensing something is deeply wrong, Phillip attempts to remove his beautiful girlfriend from the family home , but can he do so prior to her following int he footsteps of other family members?
Personally speaking, I find Usher a little uneven, with occasionally lapses in momentum. But even if the story veers into the bland at times, it is kept buoyant by an incredible Vincent Price performance. Sporting an uncharacteristic blonde mop, Price commandeers the screen, coming across much more sympathetically than his dull counterpart, Mark Damon. That being said- Damon also boasts incredible hair, completely of the time period the film was made, rather than set!
Aside from the brilliant Vincent Price, the strongest card Usher has to offer is undoubtedly it's lush appearance. Lovely cinematography adds great detail to admire, and infuses the picture with a hint of warmth. There's an abundance of colour, and a crazy element of psychedelia here in much of the scenary and artwork on show, which also happens to compliment the family angle at play. This is a really good looking picture, especially for such a low-budget film. Although some today may find the film to be a little creaky, there's much to admire here, and it is a fine starting point for the series of films contained within this box-set.
-Roger Corman Audio Commentary
-Vincent Price Interview
A 1986 interview shot as part of a French TV show. As usual with Price-specific material, this is fantastic stuff. When this interview was conducted, it was both timely and reasonably expansive, unearthing new ground on the old, and remaining current.
-Legend to Legend
Nearly half an hour of Joe Dante dissecting his early career beginning with Corman. This is a really great inclusion, from a genuinely likable filmmaker. Dante then goes on to specifically talk about the Poe cycle, but really, it's the discussion of Corman's exploitation savvy that entertains and delights the most.
-House is the Monster
Jonathan Rigby provides the content for a thirty minute feature that takes us through some older Poe adaptions, and right through to Usher. It s very informative, and contains enough humour and personality to distinguish it even when retreading similar ground to the other features.
-Fragments of the House of Usher
A ten minute video essay from David Cairns (filmmaker/critic) provides a dry wit of an analysis that doesn't feel essential, but is still interesting.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The second film in the cycle is one of the most fondly remembered Gothic melodramas of the period.
John Kerr stars as Francis Barnard, an unlikely coiffured gent who learns that his sister (Barbara Steele) has passed away mysteriously. Stumped by the sudden death, he seeks out her widower, Nicholas Medina (played by Vincent Price) for answers. Medina however, is vague and elusive, drawing Barnard into a web of gothic deceit, the secrets of which lie within the castle's walls. Anyone remotely familiar with the story, or even the artwork that accompanies both this, and every other cinematic adaption, will know exactly what to expect as Kerr uncovers the truth.
The second picture in the series is enlivened by a much better lead "hero" than in Usher, with John Kerr. There's been much made about his grumpy demeanor, at times bordering on not quite wanting to be there, but it lends his portrayal a heavy dose of urgency. Kerr really comes across as fed up and keen to get to the bottom of his mystery.
The film is also shot magnificently, with some lovely compositions and fantastic art direction. Additionally, there's some really good use made of the locations, including some wonderful, melancholy shots of the cliffs and views of the sea. The exterior shots all carry a forboding sense of dread, while the flashback's look really nice too, and are distinct from the rest of the material.
Crucially though, the script is very well laid out as well, building brilliantly to the shocks that occur later on, and maximizing the short story without appearing to be an overinflated treatment. It also removes itself from some of the more stagy aspects that bog down Usher and builds towards a genuinely terrific climax.
In short, there's stacks.
-Two audio commentaries; one from Tim Lucas, the other from Corman himself, and the original Theatrical Trailer. The Lucas commentary is notably informative, with some great tidbits on technical details.
-The Story Behind the Swinging Blade
An excellent new Arrow 43minute documentary shot for the solo Blu Ray release of Pit. Contributors include Corman, who is a wonderful storyteller- as usual. Underrated director Brian Yuzna also pops up, as does Barbara Steele. Meanwhile, Vincent Price's daughter, Victoria, is an invaluable contributor. The documentary hits loads of different points, including Steele's Italian work, and the question of a Hammmer influence on Corman.
-An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe
A wonderful Television production from 1970, with Vincent Price narrating four Poe tales before a live audience. Enthusiasts of his luxurious vocal abilities will revel in this, and it's invaluable material. One can only imagine the baffled response to seeing like this today on prime-time...
-Additional 1968 Television version footage
Shot to meet television length standards, this is certainly filler material, but a worthwhile inclusion here.
Tales of Terror (1962)
Three Poe tales for the erm, price of one in the shape of "Morella", "The Black Cat" (loosely merged with and "The Facts in the Case of Valdemar".
The first segment is a vicious little tale set in a typically AIP ghastly old mansion. Vincent Price is still playing house with his dead wife, when estranged daughter, Lenora comes to stay. Price is superb as a disheveled, lonely old alcoholic. Although the story feels overly familiar and the special FX no longer hold up, it's well paced and put together, with a brilliantly macabre pay off.
Peter Lorre is superb in the middle segment, "The Black Cat", a short tale padded out by being amalgamated with another Poe work, "The Cask of Amontillado". He's also ably supported by Price in a brilliant turn as Fortunato Luchresi, a renowned wine tasting expert. Words cannot do justice to his wonderfully camp array of facial expressions, as he pretentiously guzzles his favourite beverage in a contest with the drunken Lorre. The story takes a turn for the absurd in how the ending is played out, but it's an efficient tale.
The final segment has Corman adapt "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. In this portion of the movie, Price plays the eponymous, disease ridden lead. Valdemar hires Basil Rathbone's Mr. Carmichael, a hypnotist to rather bizarrely help him through the pain. Instead, Carmichael inflicts a horrendous state of limbo upon his subject, which offers the audience the ludicrous spectacle of a dreamlike Price voice replying to Rathbone during the stasis. It's very obvious immediately that Rathbone's character has much to gain from his nemesis remaining silent, leading to another great climax. Again, this is a neat, snappy little tale told very well indeed, with great performances.
Despite the intros by Vincent Price, these pieces don't really hang together as a cohesive film, but they're all enjoyable in their own right. Additionally, the terrific performances throughout keep all of the stories zipping along nicely indeed. As Corman's first foray into splicing Poe with comedy, this is overall, a pretty successful effort, and it's difficult to imagine horror fans not still having a good chuckle at this one.
This is crammed with extras, including the fun original trailer, and an isolated Music and Effects track.
-The Directors: Roger Corman is an episode of the 1999 TV series, running an hour. This is full of the usual facts "He's made over 550 features" but contributors such as James Cameron, Ron Howard, Bruce Dern, and Martin Scorcese give this documentary a real heavyweight feel. It doesn't just delve into Corman's back catalogue as a director though, it also hones in on Corman's approach as a producer, and the pivotal role he played in developing many future Hollywood greats. This is hugely entertaining stuff, and a great extra, regardless of it being a pre-existing one.
-Kim Newman on Edgar Allan Poe is a fascinating explanation of Poe's place in cinema history. As usual, the lively critic is informative but in spirited form. He goes beyond the Price/Corman cycle, and into Poe's wider influence, which throws up some surprising names.
-Cats in Horror
Critic & novelist Anne Billsson, who has a particular affection for cats, details the mythological history and superstitions surrounding cats. She then applies her knowledge to the sometimes cliched and occasionally risible use of the cat in horror cinema. It's particularly relevant here due to the overwhelming number of adaptations or variations on Poe's The Black Cat. Amusingly, as the piece flutters between Anne's eccentric narrative, and the featured clips, she gains different feline companions periodically. "Nobody would ever dream of throwing a dog." Indeed!
-The Black Cat (1993, Rob Green)
This Short film is actually a pretty chilling monologue with a striking central performance, and several really impressive shots, all filmed in a grimy dungeon.
The Raven (1963)
There's little authentic Poe here at all in Corman's The Raven, but it's a cracking film nonetheless. The Raven follows the fortunes of Vincent Price's Craven, a magician mourning the loss of his beloved. He's interrupted one night by a raven tapping on his window, which is actually Bedlo (Peter Lorre)- a rival magician who has been transformed into the winged creature by the maniacal Scarabus (Boris Karloff). The two head off (along with Bedlo's son- played in rubber faced fashion by a young Jack Nicholson), to confront Scarabus in a magical game of sorcery and oneupmanship.
Arguably the best of the Poe-Corman-Price cycle for many fans, and it's easy to see why. Not only is it wonderful entrainment, but it benefits from a high pedigree of collaborators that maybe exceeds much of Corman's prior work. Scripted by I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson, it's a genuinely barmy concept, liberally taking Poe's poem, and transforming into one of horror's finest comedic efforts.
The small touches are superb- Lorre tossing aside a tablecloth, moments after taking the time to precisely fold it with Price- is uproarious. It's one of many such moments. But the real meat is clearly in seeing the three stars lock horns, and they all deliver with aplomb. Karloff and Price particularly, interact to astonishing effect. The final duel is really worth sticking around for too and worth the cost of admission. It's like a high-camp variation on the Merlin/ sequence in The Sword and The Stone, genuinely delighting and riffing on traditional horror scares.
The Raven is a marvelous film, in spite of a few hideously dated special effects. Still, the sets and photography remain sumptuous, the story is a delicately balanced marriage of macabre laughs, and most importantly, the star turns are glorious.
-Corman's comedy of Poe.
An interview with Roger Corman on the making of The Raven. This feature throws up plenty of talking points in its scant 8 minute running time. These include anecdotes about the process that led to The Raven becoming a comedy that stood apart from previous entries in the Poe Cycle, and a few nice insights into the different actors and how they related to one another.
-Richard Matheson Storyteller
A 2003 interview with the author is intriguing, but too short and would been better serves as a segment in a longer piece.
-The Two Faces Peter Lorre
A rather unusual German documentary, made in 1984 by Harun Farocki that covers Lorre's entire, illustrious carer. Although this piece is quite dry, it's still fascinating at times, generally compelling stuff, but it does take some perseverance to get past the monotone narration.
-The Trick (1997, Rob Green)
A short film based on the rival magicians theme, by Green. Running 12 minutes, there are a few amusing moments here, and it's well performed. A great bonus feature if only for curiosity's sake.
-Also included are a gallery, Isolated Effects/Music track, a Theatrical Trailer and a quirky Promotional record.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
A wonderfully atmospheric adaption right from the Bava-esque opening sequence. This is a real curiosity, given that the title is taken from a Poe poem, but the actual story is HP Lovecrafts's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". It's a vital film in that regard, but tonally manages to fit within the Poe cycle even if it's something of a bluff from AIP.
In this effort, Price has two roles, that of Joseph Curwen, a Warlock burned to death in the Eighteenth century, and Charles Ward, his great-great-grandson. In the ton of Arkham, Ward and his wife Anne, inherit Curwen's mansion. Once they move into the old building, a series of odd occurrences transpire, while Ward's behaviour begins to change while the local townsfolk want rid of him. Ward learns of the Necronomicon, the famous Lovecraftian Grimoire, supposedly held by Curwen who was attempting to summon various dark entities. You can see where this is going or Ward pretty quickly...
For my money, The Haunted Palace is one of Corman's most successful films. It's a super looking piece of work, with striking use of forced perspective, and photography that makes brilliant use of the sets. This really does look to be a movie with much higher production values than it actually enjoyed. Corman also boasts a tantalizing screenplay, supplied by Charles Beaumont, who also did The Masque of the Red Death, the year following. There's more going here than in House of Usher, and it's convincingly delivered, serving up enough horror and action without overwhelming the slowly building, creepy atmosphere. Of particular note are excellent sequences involving deformed villagers surrounding the mansion, and a seriously tense scene during which Mrs. Ward dares tread the corridors at night.
While the drama hinges on Price's performance, he's also well supported by the beautiful Debra Page, in her final feature. The rest of the cast are really solid too, including Television stalwart, Frank Maxwell, and Lon Chaney Jr. The Haunted Palace may not enjoy the fame of several titles in this box set, but it's easily a match
-Kim Newman on HP Lovecraft
Another great feature with the informed critic. This diverges into reasoning behind AIP and Corman's mindset at the time The Haunted Palace came bout. It's also nice to see him diverge into the topic of Lovecraft, and he does so with his trademark charm and humour.
-A Change of Poe
2003 interview with Roger Corman running 11 minutes that covers a fair amount in that short time. Of particular note are references to the film's excellent art direction and sets. Corman also talks about "breaking the cycle", which is particularly intriguing as he no intention of naming the film after a Poe work.
-This is rounded out by an isolated Music/Effects track, an Audio Commentary, and the Original Trailer.
Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Corman's 1964 flick is the last in his cycle of Poe adaptions, and has long been regarded as among the best. Price is a man in mourning once more as Verden Fell. This time, it's his first wife. Ligeia's death that plagues him despite having gone on to remarry. As with many of Price's portrayals, this is another case of a man avoiding his issues and the real world. Unfortunately, he's also haunted by a series of apparitions and occurrences while appearances from a cat with sinister behavioral patterns lead us towards an inevitable, supernatural showdown.
Price's favourite of his own Poe adaptions, Tomb of Ligeia boasts slightly improved production values over its predecessors and is a pretty classy piece of work.
The locations carry significant menace, and the trademark
Photography wise, this film looks lush and richly textured, with wonderfully vivid colours.
It's an uneven film in tone and the script by Robert Towne sometimes wavers, but even when it dabbles with the camp that defines some of Price's other collaborations with Corman, the film manages to convey enough tension and malice to avoid an identity crisis. Additionally, there a couple of shock sequences in the film that certainly count among the very best of Corman's output. A more than worthy completion of the cycle.
-Two Audio Commentaries. (Roger Corman & Elizabeth Shepherd)
-Interview with Paul Mayersberg
The writer discusses Corman in a reasonably entertaining piece that runs 25 minutes.
-Interview with Bob Jordan
Although only 7 minutes, this is a really interesting look at the technical side of proceedings, with the "clapper-loader", Jordan. Arrow do these sort of pieces with unlikely contributors really well, and this is no exception.
-Interview with Kenneth Jones
Jones was the Ligeia composer, and in this 6(closer to half of that in actuality) minute feature discusses the feline of the film's own score. The sequence is also included in its entirety.
-Interview with David Tringham
Assistant Director, Tringham is the latest name to dissect Corman's working practices and seems to maybe have more affection for the efficiency of technically putting together the movie, than the actual contest itself. Nonetheless, this is pretty good.
A stunning collection. There's a mountain of material to devour your way through here, and while much of it is pre-existing, most will have been exposed to very little of it. It's difficult to imagine someone not being satisfied with this collection. Obviously, the material is very much a mixed bag, but those bonus inclusions that feature Kim Newman, Joe Dante, and various other colourful characters, are all entertaining yet informative, and pretty much everything is worth a look.It would require much more space than available here to chart the content of the audio commentaries, but rest assured, they're all worthwhile inclusions
In addition to the six discs, fans are also rewarded in the shape of a beautiful 200 page hardcover book that comes packaged within the box set. This is stuffed to the gills with super writings on the films, and interviews. It also houses comics strips version of Poe stories, of which The Raven is particularly a hoot.
The presentation of all six films is also very impressive indeed. Yes the image quality is hardly reference material, but each film looks to be restored to a very high level indeed.
Tales of Terror looks especially crisp, with robust colours. Meanwhile, Ligeia is simply stunning. There's even plenty of detail and depth in the sometimes gloomy sights of The Haunted Palace. Visually, this is a very dark picture filled with shadows, and could approach unwatchable if handled poorly. Thankfully, that is not the case here.
Usher, Ligeia, and The Pit arguably form the core of the cycle, being the most consistent in overall tone in comparison to one another, and they're essential viewing. All three are extremely good films, though The Pit and the Pendulum is easily the stand-out for me. Meanwhile, both The Raven and Tales of Terror may provide more laughs than frights, but they certainly compliment Vincent Price's delicate treading of the line between charismatic and camp mugging, to excellent effect. The Raven, as a stand-alone film, is simply a fantastic piece of entertainment. The Haunted Palace is an anomaly in the sense that if is more Lovecraft than Poe- but it's a terrific piece of cinema.
Collectively, these films represent an actor at the height of his powers, and for that reason alone, would be an essential viewing for every horror fan. Given the package that they come with here however, they're now must-own discs. Just in time for Christmas, I can't imagine a better gift for horror aficionados.