Having released several films from the archives of Roger Corman over the last year, it is pleasing that Arrow Films have chosen one of the last from their current slew to include in the supporting features an edition of the television documentary show The Directors focusing on the prolific writer, producer and director, though dating from the year 2000 and with only an hour’s running time, it can serve as little more than the briefest overview of a career as remarkable for its astonishing productivity as for Corman’s ceaseless modesty.
This is also perhaps the most appropriate of the Corman releases to include this piece, as while Arrow’s other releases from what is sometimes referred to as “the Corman/Poe cycle,” House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) have all on the whole been exemplary releases, all are single narratives of a relatively consistent style, The Raven being the sole departure in that it was played more for comedy than horror, while Tales of Terror is an anthology where each piece is markedly different and unique, reflecting the variety of Corman’s eclectic career.
Unlike the elaborate title sequences of the other films of the sequence, Tales of Terror is simple, though each sequence is bookended by illustrations of the opening and closing frames, a segue echoed two decades later in George A Romero’s Creepshow.
“It is with death and dying we concern ourselves. What happens at the point of death? What happens after?” Vincent Price questions over the credits which lead directly into Morella, inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe short story first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in April 1835, a tale of death and resurrection across generations.
Through the fog, young Lenora Locke (sixties television regular Maggie Pierce) arrives at the dusty mansion of her father, the cobwebs of the drawing room something out of Miss Havisham’s Satis House in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Twenty six years after he exiled her to Boston following the death of her mother Lenora has returned to confront her father before she succumbs to illness herself, but she finds him drunk and unwelcoming. “Are you alone here?” she asks; “I was until you came” is the curt response.
This is the brooding Vincent Price as celebrated by Tim Burton in his animated short Vincent, and it is one of his best performances, a man who has grieved two and a half decades and converses with the portrait of his dead wife (“Morella, my beloved wife, your murderess is returned!”), but finally forced to confront the woman whom he has resented almost since she was born, he confesses that he blamed her for the death of her mother, admitting that in his madness he wanted to kill her which is why she was sent away, that he has fought suicidal thoughts in the lonely years since.
Barely twenty minutes long, the piece is thick with atmosphere and as abstract as a Poe story can be, culminating in unexplained vengeance from beyond the grave; unlike the source’s cryptic ending, as had become standard for Corman this piece ends in flames before handing over to The Black Cat.
Carrying the name of a story originally printed by the United States Saturday Post in August 1843, the uncredited source of the narrative is The Cask of Amontillado, a November 1846 inclusion of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a well-distributed periodical though perhaps not the most obvious home for tales of murderous revenge.
A conspicuous change of tone, The Black Cat is immediately played as a farce and nor does it focus on Price so much as Peter Lorre as the drunken Montresor Herringbone, caught in a loveless marriage with the beautiful but neglected Annabel (Joyce Jameson). “We need that money for food,” she protests as he begs her for coins; “That’s what I want it for, I drink my food.” Leaving her and stumbling into the night and finds a wine tasting contest where he foolishly challenges the great Fortunato Luchresi.
A noted bon viveur himself, the role is not a stretch for Price though it is unlike anything else he played for Corman, hamming up with abandon as first he triumphs over Montresor then seduces the eager Annabel. With scene transitions stylised almost as a sitcom, it is a shock when the segment switches to a surreal and surprisingly graphic dream sequence before returning to black comedy and the narrative of The Black Cat for the dénouement.
Both Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson were particularly pleased with this experiment in breaking the formula which laid the groundwork for the extended comedy of The Raven the following year, nor is that the only project to have arisen directly from this piece, with Price, Lorre and Jameson resuming their dysfunctional routines in Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors, released eighteen months later and also written by Matheson, the title a conscious reflection of this film.
A more physical horror follows in the final segment, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, one of Poe’s more unusual stories, published simultaneously in The American Review and Broadway Journal in December 1845 under the pretence that it was actually a factual account of an incident the author had been witness to, an act of mesmerism performed on a terminally ill patient, the trance extending beyond the moment of death, effectively suspending the soul.
In his third role in the anthology, Price is Monsieur Ernest Valdemar, a more subdued role than in the other segments, while it is former Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone, approaching seventy years old at the time of filming, who is the unscrupulous hypnotist Mr Carmichael and whose powerful performance carries the piece.
Also present are the stunning Deborah Paget, bringing genuine movie star grace to her role as Valdemar’s widow-in-waiting Helene, and David Frankham (designer of the Enterprise’s main computer in Star Trek’s Is There In Truth No Beauty?) as Elliot James, the attending physician who objects to Carmichael’s plans for his friend: when the process is described as “a momentous experiment,” he counters that “Monstrous is more the word.”
It is this third segment which is the strongest in the unusual subject of the narrative, the performances and the presentation; while Corman’s ever reliable regular production designer Daniel Haller excelled in crafting three sets of environments for the film, each entirely different (wherever possible culled from leftovers from previous productions) it is for Monsieur Valdemar his best work is displayed, a sense of time and realism granted by first rain and later snow outside the windows, the hypnotism process facilitated by an almost psychedelic lighting arrangement.
Later going on to direct himself, Haller is only one of many talents Corman has nurtured over the years. In the accompanying documentary, Silent Running star Bruce Dern who worked for Corman on 1969’s The Wild Angels states he was “a cradle for my generation of actors, writers, directors and cinematographers,” while his co-star from that film, Nancy Sinatra, recalls his work ethic: “The same lesson I learned from my father. Do it. Get it done.”
Graduating from Stanford University with a degree in engineering, so determined was Corman to break into the movie industry that he accepted a job as a messenger on set and agreed to work an unpaid sixth day a week just in order to be on set and learn from those more experienced than him. Moving to the script department as an analyst, when he sold his own first script, produced under the name Highway Dragnet, he asked for an “associate producer” credit, again unpaid, but allowing him add that achievement to his resume for the opportunities it would later grant him.
This manner of career progression is echoed in those who were discovered by Corman; Jonathan Demme, who directed Caged Heat for Corman in 1974, long before he received an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs, admits “I never aspired to be a filmmaker, it was Roger picked me out.”
Similarly, James Cameron “rose very rapidly, totally on ability,” starting with special effects on Battle Beyond the Stars then becoming production designer on Galaxy of Terror before finally making the leap to directing himself, a trail which would eventually lead to two of the highest grossing films of all time, Titanic and Avatar.
Also included in the package are an discussion by the ever-entertaining and well informed Kim Newman on the cinematic representation of Poe; though perhaps more rambling than the similar piece on H P Lovecraft on Arrow’s disc of The Haunted Palace, that is perhaps because Poe has a more complicated and thus messier history, with certain stories adapted many times in different guises, often as direct translations while others are only thematic or take as little as the title.
Parallels are drawn between the story A Descent into the Maelström and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, though while Newman mentions the great influence of The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether on Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), La Mansión de la Locura (The Mansion of Madness), Don’t Look in the Basement and others, his statement that it has never been adapted directly has been superceded by 2014’s Stonehearst Asylum, released in Britain as Eliza Graves.
In her brief piece on cats in horror films, writer Anne Billson chooses to portray herself as charmingly eccentric as she discusses the various roles felines play on film, from the obvious Alien, Cat’s Eye and Sleepwalkers to the “catrifices” of Beware! The Blob and Drag Me to Hell, though with disappointingly cursory mention of Cat People, surely one of the most significant feline features though crucially a panther rather than a domestic cat.
Concluding the disc is a short film based on The Black Cat, a more faithful adaptation from director Rob Green, which with leading man Clive Perrott groomed to appear as Poe supports Newman’s theory that with the writer having lived and died as interesting a life as many of his stories, the semi-autobiographical approach is one taken by many seeking to translate his works.