The great Vincent Price had a long and colourful career, much of it in the horror genre, from 1953’s House of Wax, one of the first colour 3D motion pictures, to Roger Corman’s lurid interpretations of the work of Edgar Allen Poe from 1960’s House of Usher to 1964’s Tomb of Ligeia, from Egghead opposite Adam West’s Batman to Erasmus of The Monster Club and then as Tim Burton’s muse in Vincent and his Inventor in Edward Scissorhands, yet one of his most sinister roles is a monochrome historical set in the Tower of London.
Filmed after Price and Corman had completed work on the first four of their eight Poes, Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial and the Poe portmanteau Tales of Terror, Tower of London was developed by Gene Corman and in many ways is a sham Shakespeare, the script by Leo Gordon, F Amos Powell and Robert E Kent ostensibly telling the story of King Richard III but with significant contributions from elsewhere in the folio.
With director Roger Corman confirming the goal was to make “a Gothic story” but that it was a challenge to shoehorn Richard III into the horror mould, the most obvious influences are Hamlet and Macbeth as ghosts visible only to the murderous Richard walk the battlements and show up at banquets while his scheming wife Anne (Gunfight at the O K Corral‘s Joan Camden) endorses his actions and pushes him onward before meeting an untimely end, while Richard himself faces a prophecy of doom at the hands of a dead man upon the fields of Bosworth.
Opening on the deathbed of King Edward IV, the ambitious Richard, Duke of Gloucester, hopes to be named heir but instead Edward names their brother George, Duke of Clarence, as Protector of the Realm; Richard is displeased, luring his sibling to the cellar where he stabs him and throws the body in a vat of wine. “Don’t blame me, Clarence, blame Edward’s choice.”
Having eliminated his rival, he sets about discrediting any others who would oppose him, the dagger with which he killed George bearing the crest of the Woodville, the family of Edward’s wife, torturing the widowed queen’s lady-in-waiting to death when she will not denounce the heirs as illegitimate, conspiring even against his own mother before his attention turns to the princes themselves, last obstacle to the throne.
Richard is the perfect part for Price, a classically trained theatrical actor who found himself pigeonholed by the horror roles through which he rightly became famous, full of pomp, suspicious circumstance, plush costumes and bodies piling up, and he does pained, resentful disappointment like nobody else, and the film stands as an interesting companion piece to his later Shakespearean revenge pastiche Theatre of Blood.
Produced through United Artists rather than American International Pictures, many of Corman’s usual creative collaborators joined him including costume designer Marjorie Corso, fitting the gentlemen in particularly tight tights, and art director Daniel Haller whose expansive sets border on opulent, many of them reused having been preserved after filming on Pit and the Pendulum the previous year.
Despite the eleventh hour decision by UA that it was to be shot entirely in black and white to save the costs of duplicating colour prints for distribution to cinemas, Archie R Dalzell’s crisp black and white photography gives Tower of London a different atmosphere than the colorful Poe adaptations, their unfettered psychedelia too garish to be frightening though their melodramatic style and the liberties they take with the source material do serve as a prelude.
Shot in fifteen days for under $200,000, the enforced monochrome also serves a second purpose, allowing the footage of the Battle of Bosworth Field to be sourced from Rowland V Lee’s 1939 version of Tower of London which starred Basil Rathbone as the future King Richard III of England alongside Boris Karloff and none other than Vincent Price in the one of his first screen roles playing the ill-fated Duke of Clarence.
Here the cast includes Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter‘s Joan Freeman as Lady Margaret, To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Richard Hale splendid as the sorcerer Tyrus and Robert Brown as the heroic Sir Justin, best recognised for his last-minute replacement casting as Lazarus on the Star Trek episode The Alternative Factor, shot only five years later.
Often overlooked in favour of the more successful Poe adaptations, this overdue revisitation to the Tower of London is courtesy of Arrow Film’s new transfer from the original film elements, accompanied by interviews with producer Gene Corman who was inspired to tackle Shakespeare when Laurence Olivier won an Oscar for Hamlet thus proving it was a commercially viable prospect and director Roger Corman who recalls that Price loved the idea of playing Richard and contributed to the final draft of the script.
Also included is a commentary with film historian David Del Valle who displays an encyclopaedic enthusiasm of Vincent Price, both the man and the actor, and Tara Gordon, daughter of screenwriter Leo Gordon who was himself also an actor with extensive credits including The Haunted Palace and Tobruk, their engaging conversation encompassing far more than the matter immediately at hand, easily as enjoyable as the film itself.