Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tales of Terror

Edgar Allan Poe remains to this day one of the most important and influential figures in the horror genre. The Internet Movie Database lists 268 adaptations of his work for film and television dating back to 1908 with eight adaptations listed in 2012 (and that doesn't include The Raven which featured Poe as a character played by John Cusack).

Adapting Poe's work for screen is probably more challenging than adapting other authors. It might be difficult to condense a 500-page Stephen King novel to two hours, but Poe's are mostly short stories that build to a single shock effect, and that's really hard to fill for feature length without resorting to padding or substantially alteration.

B-Movie King Roger Coman, along with his star Vincent Price and sometimes writer Richard Matheson, was frequently the most successful at translating Poe on screen. From 1959 to 1962, Corman directed eight films based on tales by Poe, including House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Masque of the Red Death. Tales of Terror (1962) falls in the middle of the cycle. Directed Corman, written by Matheson, and starring Price, this film is an anthology, containing three (well, technically four) Poe adaptations. Among the Corman-Price work, this is probably one of the weaker efforts but remains entertaining throughout.

In the first tales, "Morella" a reclusive (Price) mourning his late wife is visited by the daughter (Maggie Pierce) he blames for her death. The second tale is "The Black Cat," but it also incorporates elements of "The Cask of Amontillado;" a cuckolded drunk (Peter Lorre) exacts a sadistic revenge against his wife (Joyce Jameson) and her lover (Price again) while being irritated by the presence of his wife's cat. The final tale, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," concerns a dying man (Price once more) who is hypnotized at the moment of death by a shady doctor (Basil Rathbone) who's got eyes on his lovely, young wife (Debra Paget).

"Morella" is ok, but it doesn't really cover any ground that Corman, Price, and Matheson hadn't already covered "House of Usher." You've got the spooky, crumbling mansion, a family in decline, Price as the tortured nobleman, and a vengeful female coming back from the dead. This is the shortest of the three tales and feels over just as soon as it gets going. There is a nice, spooky sequence in which the ghost of Morella passes through the halls and goes after her daughter.

More overtly comical than the other tales, "The Black Cat" neglects the tale it draws its title from to be more in line with "The Cask of Amontillado." Price and Lorre respectively play Fortunato and Montressor, and unlike in the story, we're provided with motivation for the revenge, but by combining the two stories, the film confuses the two obsessions. Instead of being a deranged obsessive, Lorre comes off as an oaf; we're told he hasn't worked in 17 years, and yet he finds the motivation to wall up two people behind bricks. The cat, instead of representing all his neuroses and rages, is limited to a few scenes where it annoys Lorre until the very end when it proves his downfall. Still, this tale is good for some laughs.

"Valdemar" is easily the best piece of the three. The makeup effects on the decaying Price are pretty gruesome for their time, and Rathbone makes an enjoyably despicable villain, even if final actions don't hold up to much scrutiny other than he's evil. Price has to carry much of his role on his voice alone, and he pulls it off magnificently.

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