Roger Corman’s fourth film in his series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations is an anthology of stories each starring Vincent Price. Unsurprisingly, there are hits and misses along the way.
Tales of Terror was producer-director Roger Corman’s fourth feature film in his series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Developed as a portmanteau, the film tells three stories based on various Poe tales including Morella, The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Each story takes place as a separate part of the narrative unrelated to each other, with Vincent Price acting as narrator, joining the trio together. He also features in each story as a different character.
With any anthology, there’s the potential for some stories to be more appealing than others. The three presented here tie together quite nicely thanks to the film’s director (Corman) and writer (Richard Matheson) gaining confidence in adapting Poe’s material following their previous successes including 1961’s brilliant The Pit and the Pendulum. Price, whose recognisable tones join everything together through a icily detached narration, as well as his appearance in each film, also invigorates these stories beyond what they would be without him.
But Corman always produced his movies quickly, often taking mere days to shoot entire feature-length films. Here, his impatience is perhaps telling. The episodic nature of Tales of Terror feels like a rushed production whereas his others, such as The Fall of the House of Usher which was shot in fifteen days, was a rushed production that felt like it had been given time and effort. It perhaps isn’t Corman’s fault with much of the film’s problems lying in Matheson’s screenplay. Perhaps it is the shortened screen time or the need to creatively adapt four stories into one film as opposed to concentrating on a single concept, but there’s a disjointedness about proceedings that has nothing to do with its inherent episodic nature.
Certainly, the film builds towards its best story, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Price plays the eponymous Valdemar, a terminally ill man whose dying wish is to be hypnotised in order for his subconscious to live a little longer and for his hypnotist Mr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone) to test his theories about the afterlife. But, after successfully taking control of Valdemar’s subconscious, Carmichael becomes obsessed with his newfound control of this man’s mind. Against the wishes of his doctor and his late wife, Carmichael refuses to let the dead man rest, keeping his soul stuck between the living world and the dead world.
That this is the best of the bunch shows just how good Corman is here as Price doesn’t have to do a lot as the bedridden dead man. The stench of death, with its impenetrable endlessness, oozes from the screen like the putrefying skin of Valdemar’s face. Price’s distant, disembodied pleas for freedom are an ominous cry from beyond the grave, his imprisonment far more disconcerting given that it’s his own rotting corpse that detains him. But unlike the disappointing end to Tales of Terror’s opening story Morella, this one concludes with a fittingly shocking, and importantly satisfying, denouement.
Give the film a chance if the first part fails to engage as Morella does feel like the off-cuts from House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. In fact, Corman used footage from his previous film to cut down on costs. It’s another decrepit mansion and another traveller from Boston but unlike the previous full-length films, this short fails to work. It’s messy and convoluted, and fails to do justice to the source.
The Black Cat fares a little better thanks to one of Price’s most charismatic turns as the undeniably camp Fortunato Luchresi, the world’s foremost wine taster. The twisted story of a jealous, alcoholic husband (Peter Lorre as Montresor Herringbone) burying his wife and her lover behind a wall in his basement has a couple of nice twists, not least the baffling realisation that Luchresi is heterosexual. Price’s ostentatious facial expressions are hilarious, allowing Corman to instil some humour into this macabre tale. Even if The Black Cat feels undercooked by the time its twist ending arrives, it’s memorable for Price’s energetic turn and good support from Peter Lorre as the bumbling drunk.
Tales of Terror has the unfortunate distinction of being a typically quick Corman production that feels hurried and, for the most part, unloved. The producer-director made a name for himself making low budget independent films with only a handful of shooting days. His best films show little evidence of their rushed production schedule. But here he fails to bring the qualities of Poe’s work to the screen as satisfyingly as his previous attempts. Thankfully, however, his mixture of comedy and horror in the film’s second part (The Black Cat) in combination with the delightful work of Vincent Price in a number of roles makes the film worthy of seeing. Indeed, Tales of Terror is worth checking out for its concluding segment alone. It’s just a shame the film would likely fall into total obscurity had the facts of Mr. Valdemar’s case not been revealed.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Richard Matheson
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone
Country: USA / IMDB
This film was reviewed as part of Arrow Video’s brand new six-film Blu-ray Collection featuring The Fall from the House of Usher plus Tales of Terror, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, The Haunted Palace and The Tomb of Ligeia.