With no new horror, fantasy, or science fiction films opening this weekend, Cinefantastique stalwarts Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski keep their Sense of Wonder alive by turning the clock back five decades for a retrospective celebration of TALES OF TERROR (1962), producer-director Roger Corman’s fourth film inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe. With a witty screenplay by Richard Matheson (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN), and a cast including Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone, this three-part anthology serves up the expected chills and thrills, along with a perhaps unexpected dose of merriment, in MORELLA, THE BLACK CAT, and THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR. The result is a classic example of 1960s terror cinema, colorful and atmospheric, with impressive art direction by Daniel Haller, beautifully captured by cinematographer Floyd Crosby, with an ethereal score by Les Baxter.
So listen in as Steve and Larry open the vault to exhume the buried behind-the-scenes secrets and the arcane aesthetics of this popuri of Poe. The result is a scintillating CFQ Spotlight podcast, which answers the immortal question: What the hell happened to that missing limbo scene?
Image Entertainment’s new 14-DVD set of 67 episodes of THRILLER is quite a marvelous treat, and it fits in perfectly with Cinefantastique’s celebration of movies released in that seminal year for terror, 1960.
Among the impressive authors who wrote episodes for THRILLER were Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Donald S. Sandford and Barre Lyndon. The directors included such experienced hands as John Brahm, Laszlo Benedek, Ted Post, Douglas Heyes, Ray Milland, Herschel Daugherty and Ida Lupino.
Yet, what I find truly amazing about the series is the cornucopia of great Hollywood character actors who were featured on the show. Actors who were never “stars.” As Boris Karloff notes, “Isn’t it quite wonderful to use actors instead of ‘stars’ ” Indeed, it is and Thriller featured among many others, these fine actors, nearly all of whom had important roles in at least one classic horror movie:
John Carradine, Torin Thatcher, Beverly Garland, Vladimir Sokoloff and Martita Hunt
Jack Carson, Estelle Winwood, Everett Sloane, Edward Andrews and Mary Astor
Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, Judith Evelyn, John Williams and Hazel Court
Jane Greer, Henry Jones, Oscar Homolka, Warren Oates and Patrica Medina
Otto Kruger, Nancy Kelly, Eduardo Cianelli, Richard Carlson and Jo Van Fleet
Sidney Blackmer, William Windom, George Kennedy, Ann Todd and Henry Daniell
All of these people were truly wonderful character actors, but none of them were ever really “stars” so it was no surprise to find not one of them listed among the 20 actors featured on the back of the THRILLER box set. I guess the PR “experts” think Donna Douglas, Tom Poston and Natalie Schafer are more exciting to genre fans, than John Carradine, Mary Astor and Henry Daniell!
Of course, since Henry Daniell nearly stole the show from Boris Karloff when the two actors appeared together in Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, I’d like to make a special note of Daniell’s work on THRILLER here.
Mr. Daniell made five memorable appearances on Thriller, playing among others, Count Cagliostro, Vicar Weatherford and Squire Moloch. Sadly, Daniell and Karloff were not reunited in any episode of THRILLER, but since both Karloff and Daniell appeared in five episodes, it’s interesting to note that Daniell’s episodes are of better quality than Karloff’s! That certainly doesn’t mean the five episodes Karloff appeared in were bad, simply that most of them were less exciting than such classics at The Cheaters and The Well of Doom.
Actually, all of the five episodes Karloff appeared in were quite good. They included, The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Sommervilles, Dialogues with Death and The Incredible Doktor Markesan.Dr. Markesan was beautifully directed by Robert Florey, who ironically, had been scheduled to direct Frankenstein before he was replaced by James Whale. If Florey had directed Frankenstein, it’s quite possible he might easily have cast an actor other than Karloff as the monster!
To introduce Boris Karloff’s comments on THRILLER, here are some of Stephen King’s remarks from his book Danse Macabre. King calls Thriller the best horror series ever made for TV, but in reading his comments, anyone with knowledge of the genre may notice the staggering number of factual mistakes he makes, which tend to mar his otherwise intriguing observations: STEPHEN KING on THRILLER:
Probably the best horror series ever put on TV was Thriller. It ran on NBC from September of 1960 until the summer of 1962—really only two seasons plus reruns. It was a period before television began to face up to an increasing barrage of criticism about its depiction of violence, a barrage that really began with the JFK assassination, grew heavier following the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King and finally caused the medium to dissolve into a sticky syrup of situation comedies—history may record that dramatic television finally gave up the ghost and slid down the tubes with a hearty cry of “Na-noo, na-noo!”
The contemporaries of Thriller were also weekly bloodbaths; the time of The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as the unflappable Eliot Ness and featuring the gruesome deaths of hoodlums without number (1959-1963); Peter Gunn (1958-1961); and Cain’s Hundred (1961-1962), to name just a few. It was TV’s violent era. As a result, after a slow first thirteen weeks, Thriller was able to become something other than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be (early episodes dealt with cheating husbands trying to hypnotize their wives into walking over high cliffs, poisoning Aunt Martha to inherit her fortune so that the gambling debts could be paid off, and all that tiresome sort of thing) and took on a tenebrous life of its own. For the brief period of its run between January of 1961 and April of 1962—perhaps fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes—it really was one of a kind, and its like was never seen on TV again. Thriller was an anthology-format show (as all of the supernatural-terror TV programs which have enjoyed even a modicum of success have been) hosted by Boris Karloff. Karloff had appeared on TV before, after the Universal horror wave of the early to mid-thirties finally ran weakly out in that series of comedies in the late forties. This program, telecast on the fledgling ABC-TV network, had a brief run in the autumn of 1949. It was originally titled Starring Boris Karloff, fared no better following a title change to Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, and was canceled. In feeling and tone, however, it was startlingly similar to Thriller, which came along eleven years later.
…Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run, and not in the best of health; he suffered from a chronically bad back and had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932. He no longer starred in all the programs—many of the guest stars on the Thriller program were nonentities who went on to become full-fledged nobodies (one of those guest stars, Reggie Nalder, went on to play the vampire Barlow in the CBS-TV film version of ‘Salem’s Lot)—but fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (“The Strange Door,” for instance). The old magic was still there, still intact. Lugosi might have finished his career in misery and poverty but Karloff, despite a few embarrassments like Frankenstein 1970, went out as he came in: as a gentleman.
Produced by William Frye, Thriller was the first television program to discover the goldmine in those back issues of Weird Tales, the memory of which had been kept alive up until then mostly in the hearts of fans, a few quickie paperback anthologies, and, of course, in those limited-edition Arkham House anthologies. One of the most significant things about the Thriller series from the standpoint of the horror fan was that it began to depend more and more upon the work of writers who had published in those “shudder pulps” …the writers who, in the period of the twenties, thirties, and forties, had begun to guide horror out of the Victorian-Edwardian ghost-story channel it had been in for so long, and toward our modern perception of what the horror story is and what it should do. Robert Bloch was represented by “The Hungry Glass,” a story in which the mirrors of an old house harbor a grisly secret; Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell,” one of the finest horror stories of our century, was adapted, and remains the favorite of many who remember Thriller with fondness. Other episodes include “A Wig for Miss DeVore,” in which a red wig keeps an actress eternally young …until the final five minutes of the program, when she loses it—and everything else.
Miss DeVore’s lined, sunken face; the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”); the fellow who sees the faces of his fellow men and women turned into hideous monstrosities when he puts on a special pair of glasses (“The Cheaters,” from another Bloch story)—these may not have constituted fine art, but in Thriller’s run, we find those qualities coveted above all others by fans of the genre: a literate story coupled with the genuine desire to frighten viewers into spasms.
____________________________ BORIS KARLOFF on THRILLER: These comments were compiled from various interviews Boris Karloff has given over the years for a special tribute program I put together in 2006 for a retrospective program of Karloff films, for which Sara Karloff was the guest of honor. The Karloff retrospective was organized in San Francisco by Gary Meyer, currently the director of the Telluride Film Festival.
How do you determine what parts you’ll accept?
BORIS KARLOFF: I am quite shameless. If I am offered a part, I’ll have a go at it. I do not go seriously around trying to pick my own parts. That is dangerous. I could fancy myself playing all sorts of things. I could read a book and think, “I would be great in that,” but I don’t think you know what is best. I think it’s much better for somebody outside of yourself to choose the part. You can always say no, if it’s a bad part. You did a TV series in which you played quite another type or role, didn’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, yes, that was Colonel March of Scotland Yard. It was made in England during the winter of 1953 and ‘54. Were they made for American audiences?
BORIS KARLOFF: Yes, they were made for the American market.
Did you enjoying making the TV series Thriller?
BORIS KARLOFF: Very much, indeed. The man who produced it, Bill Frye, is a very good friend of my wife and I. I have great respect for him. I think he’s a wonderful producer and it’s a great loss to television, because he’s gone to Columbia to make films. How did you initially get involved in doing Thriller? BORIS KARLOFF: I just happened along, and they made this test film, which was called The Twisted Image. I do hope you won’t confuse me with the title. I wasn’t in it, I just did the emceeing. I appear as myself, which is a frightful thing to do to an audience. They do it quite simply. I sort of intrude into the first scene and explain for example, that this nice looking couple is really in for quite a terrifying day, as you shall soon see and then I quietly slip out again. The producers then suggested that I might like to appear in some of the episodes, to which I was most agreeable, because it has been set up quite sensibly I think, as there is no set number of shows which I must do, you see. And it is quite wonderful to use actors instead of “stars”—that abused word that has ceased to have any meaning. It is a sad thing—the awful waste of potential talent you find today.
You have actually done quite a range of things outside of the horror category, haven’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: That’s a dreadful word… it’s the wrong word… What term besides “horror” would you like to be applied to the films you work in?
BORIS KARLOFF: Well, I think the trapping was, in the early days when they first made these films, they were trying to get one word to express it, and they chose the word “horror.” But the word “horror” has a connotation of revulsion. That’s what the word really means. Well the aim certainly is not to repel you, or to revolt you. It is to attract you. It’s to excite you. It’s to alarm you, perhaps. It’s excitement. I think the word should be thriller, really, or shock, but certainly not horror. So I think “Thriller” is quite the best word for this sort of thing, as the word “horror” has come to mean something else altogether. I mean, if it’s to be a horror show, they put some guts in a bucket and show it to you. That sort of thing, but a thriller, you see, can go anywhere. It’s not tied down to pure mystery, or violence, or murder. That’s one thing you won’t find on Thriller—violence for the sake of violence, shock for the sake of shock. The two skillful men who are in charge of this operation are going to prove that you can have all the suspense, mystery, adventure and excitement you could want, without resorting to violence. I’m quite delighted with the whole thing. You don’t live in Hollywood now, do you?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I live in London.
In London, that’s right.
BORIS KARLOFF: And in airplanes! (Laughs).
Oh yes, commuting across the Atlantic.
BORIS KARLOFF: I flew a total of 12,000 miles (on a round-trip from London to Hollywood) to do one day’s work filming six of the lead-in’s to Thriller. I thought it would take at least three days, and I must say I was flabbergasted that it only took one. It was filmed at Universal, on the same lot where 30 years earlier I played Frankenstein’s monster. In a way, it was like coming home again. The first season I only appeared in one episode, but it was a little tiresome to fly 12,000 miles just to read the teleprompter, so during the second season I appeared in four shows.
In 1953 you made an Italian film on the island of Ischia, called The Island Monster.
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh God, yes.
Do you remember much about it?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I haven’t the least idea what it was like. Incredible! Dreadful! No one in the outfit spoke English, and I don’t speak Italian. Just hopeless. I had a very good time, but that’s beside the point. Most of your recent films have been done for American International Pictures. How do you like working for them?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, they (James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, the heads of AIP) have been extremely considerate to me. They are very successful and intelligent men. They know their market and they know their field very well. I’m most grateful to them. Their films are beautifully mounted and photographed. They shoot them in about three weeks. How can they do them in that short amount of time? The answer is in the immense amount of preparation, the homework that is done before you ever get on the set and start shooting. That’s when all the money starts to roll out, the moment you assemble the whole thing on the set. Then, if you’re not ready, you’re throwing money out the window. They rent space at a studio, they have assembled one of the finest crews that I’ve ever known, and the crews in the studios out there are really marvelous. They anticipate everything, they are ahead of you, they take a pride in what they are doing, and believe me it makes a difference. Everything is there and ready right down to the last button so that there is no pressure on me as an actor. If I’ve played a scene badly and want to do it again, they say, “sure,” not, “oh, Christ we haven’t got the time.”
______ Obviously, Stephen King is a masterful writer of horror fiction, but one wishes he had done a little more fact checking for his book, Danse Macabre, since it is filled with an incredible number of factual errors. Here are just a few from the short text I’ve quoted from, above:
KING: …fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes…
Mr. King obviously got the total number of Thriller episodes wrong, since it was 67 episodes, not 78.
KING: Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run
When Karloff began Thriller, he was 71 and in fairly good health. His major health problems came in 1963 after Thriller was off the air.
KING: Karloff had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932.
Frankenstein, as most everyone knows appeared in 1931. Karloff did not have to wear weights to stand upright, but needed leg braces to walk in his final years.
KING: Fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (appear on the show) “The Strange Door,” for instance.
Fans will remember The Strange Door, but not because it was an episode of Thriller. It was a Universal feature film starring Karloff and Charles Laughton.
KING: The young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”).
Mr. King’s memory is faulty, as the scene he describes does not appear in “Pigeons from Hell.” The young man is carrying a hatchet with which he attempts to kill his brother, it is not buried in his head.
This triptych of tales set in the titular city of Tokyo suggests an Eastern version of NEW YORK STORIES, but there is a significant difference: in this case, none of the three writer-directors (two French and one Korean) are natives; consequently, their short films emerge less as love letters to the city than as skewed points of view from outsiders looking in on what they consider to be a strange, exotic land, bordering on a freak show. With their surreal touches, fanciful symbolism, and at least one outright refernce to Japanese kaiju cinema, TOKYO! emerges as a boderline genre effort – not quite a fantasy film but definitely a curious piece of cinefantatique. Unfortunately, the weirdness is not always entertaining – in some cases it is merely boring – but there is enough going on to make this interesting for fans of art house cinema.
“Interior Design,” written and directed by Michel Gondry (who directed ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), is about a young couple who move to Tokyo and suffer the usual fate of small-towners trying to make it in the big city: can’t find parking, can’t find an apartment, can’t make enough money to survive. The young man is an aspiring filmmaker who tells weird stories about mutants and ghosts in order to avoid serious conversations with his significant other; his film is a hilarious pretentious piece of science fiction, which he screens in a porno theatre, augmenting the presentation with a smoke machine to break down the barriers between the movie and the audience.
His girlfriend (Akayko Fujitani, Steven Seagal’s daughter, previously seen in the three GAMERA movies from the ’90s) is a young woman who lacks ambition and starts to feel left out of his life. Feeling increasingly detached and useless, she mutates into a chair. The transformation – achieved with some impressive and often simple special effects techniques – is presumably meant to be taken more symbolically than literally (like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s famous tale). Initially, the metamorphosis is horrible but ultimately it turns funny, as she finds a place for herself in the city, serving as a seat for a musician and occasionally transforming back into her human form when nobody is looking. The episode is a bit of a trifle but an amusing one.
The film infringes further upon genre territory in its second episode, Leos Carax’s “Merde” (literally “shit” in French), which is about a mysterious man who rises from the sewer like a monster to spread panic in the streets of Tokyo. At first his rampage is restricted to stealing flowers and cigarettes ( he throws the used butt into a baby carriage), but eventually he finds some old grenades and lobs them at pedestrians, killing dozens. The first half of the episode offers a decent combination of silent-movie-style comedy and monster-movie-spoof: a television anchorwoman insists on referring to the vagrant as a “creature from the sewars, and in case you don’t get the point that he is the film’s equivalent of a movie monster, Carax underlines the point by using Akira Ifukube’s “Godzilla Theme” prominently on the soundtrack.
Carax is doing something roughly analogous to Godard’s ALPHAVILLE, in which a typical sci-fi scenario was presented with a private eye standing in for an astromaut. Unfortunately, as amusing as the conciet is, the second half of the episode descends into boredom as the stranger is captured and put on trial, where he is defended by a French lawyer who can speak his strange language. Carax spends way too much time on the absurd gibberish that passes for dialogue between the two; presumably, it is meant to be funny, but it grows tiresome after thirty seconds. At least the episode ends on an appropriately absurd note: the monster is defeated (well, executed) but revives, the closing title card promising the upcoming adventures of “Merde in New York.”
Third and best of the three is Bong Joon-ho’s “Shaking Tokyo,” about an agoraphobic man, called a hikikomori in Japanese. When we meet the nameless man, he has not set foot outside for ten years, surviving on money from his parents, which he uses to order pizza; he stacks the used boxes (along with toilet paper rolls and used books) with admriable geometric symmetry, making the best use of his limited space. His isolation is disrupted by a pretty pizza delivery girl – the earth literally moves when they meet, and she faints from the excitement, forcing him to make personal contact (which he dreads) in order to revive her.
After she quits her job, he is forced to go outside and track her down, but he is in for a surprise: in the ten years since he last left his home, it seems that the rest of Tokyo have become hikikomori as well, leaving the city streets empty except for him. Fortunately, another earthquake arrives, scaring everybody out of their homes, and he is able to convince the girl not to return to her isolation – by literally pushing her buttons (she wears tattoo of buttons for such emotions and conditions as “hysteria,” “coma,” and “love.” As their eyes meet, the rumbling earth suggests the emotional eruption inside their hearts. Like “Interior Design,” “Shaking Tokyo” is a bit of a trifle, but the simple situation and characters are sweat and endearing.
If there is a consistency among the three episodes, it is that they avoid presenting familiar images of Tokyo as a glistening metropolis (contradicting the promise of the animated opening titles). The endeavor to avoid the obvious is admirable, but as a consequence the city never emerges as a memorable character in its own right, and ultimately the stories do not seem particularly endemic to the location (except perhaps for “Merde,” with its references to Godzilla).
There also seems to have been an effort to craft stories that were poetic, not to mention enigmatic, but the results are only partially successful, more resembling after-dinner anecdotes that hold your attention until coffee is served. All of the episodes have points of interest, but none of them are particularly profound, and they don’t add up to a particularly interesting portrait of Tokyo as a city of dreams or disappointments or anything else in particular. Taken as individual episodes, TOKYO! offers three tales that are worth watching if you have a predilection for the subject matter, but the whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts. TOKYO! (2008). “Interior Design” directed by Michel Gondry; screenplay by Gondry and Gabrielle Bell, based on Bell’s graphic novel “Cecil and Jordan in New York.” Cast: Akayko Fujitani, Ayumi Ito, Ryo Kase, Nao Omori. “Merde” written and directed by Leos Carax. Cast: Jean_Francois Balmer, Denis Lavant. “Shaking Tokyo” written and directed by Bong Joon-ho. Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Yui Aoi, Naoto Takenaka.
This dismal direct-to-video anthology of nine short subjects is almost guaranteed to provoke howls of outrage from disappointed viewers demanding their money back. The low-budget production values show a certain technical competence, suggesting reasonably well-made student films, but the stories are so flimsy and the pay-offs so weak your reaction is less likely to be a scream of fear than a confused, “Is that all?” In short, this feels like a throwback to the early days of home video, before the major studios had entered the direct-to-video market, when even no-budget amateurs could get their titles released on VHS, as long as they had enough exploitable elements (e.g., nudity and violence). It is a little harder for the small guy to make a splash in the DTV world these days, but Video on Demand (which is how we viewed THE HORROR VAULT) has become this generation’s VHS: a cheap method for low-budget filmmakers to get their films see without prohbitive shipping and handling costs associated with theatrical release.
The opening credits, with a cheesy but fun synth score, suggest a fun ’80s-era horror anthology TV series, but the stories tend toward violent psycho-horror bordering on torture porn, peppered with female nudity to keep your eyelids from closing prematurely. The nadir is a sleazy docu-drama showcasing some of the crimes of Ted Bundy for no particular reason other than that it offers an excuse for portraying acts of sexual violence against women (you can practically here the filmmakers squealing their defense in mock outrage, “Hey, don’t blame us – this really happened!”) Fortunately, there are one or two supernatural tales tucked into the mix, not that their quality is much better, but it offers some variety.
On the plus side, the various episodes are ambitious enough to attempt conveying several different time periods (the 1920s, the 1950s, etc.) with reasonable success, and one or two have premises interesting enough to hold your attention. For example, the intriguing “Alone” focuses on a lone college girl, locked inside an empty sorority house, who must figure out which of two men claiming to help her is actually a serial killer; of course she makes the wrong choice – a weak ending that spoils what could have been a little gem. (The episode is vaguely similar to a sequence in Dario Argento’s OPERA, where the material was handled much better – and with a more thrilling pay-off.)
The stand-out episode is “Disconnected,” which features a man who finds himself confined in an old warehouse where he is brutally tortured. If you’re squeamish, you may find yourself reaching for the fast-forward button, but don’t push it. The hysterical punchline, involving the absurd reason the victim is being tortured, yields the one truly satisfying conclusion to any of the tales.
As for the rest, the episodes tend to be vague or inconsequential and, in at least one case, downright incomprehensible. There is also the problem that, with no time to develop plots, the stories rely only on setting up simple situations – and several of the situations are the same (two episodes involve hitchhikers, more than one features a character waking up in the middle of a horrible situation). Considering how repetitious these nine episodes are, it is amazing to realize that the filmmakers felt they had more to say: THE HORROR VAULT 2 is already available, and THE HORROR VAULT 3 is in the works. It seems unlikely that many viewers who suffered through the first batch will be reopening this vault.
THE HORROR VAULT(Cletus Productions, 2008). Directed by Kim Sonderholm, David Boone, Josh Card, Russ Diaper, Mark Marchillo, Kenny Selko, Thomas Steen Sorensen, J.P. Wenner. Written by Russ Diaper, Drew English, Nicolai Ketelsen, Mark Marchillo, Zach Rasmussen, Kenny Selko, Kim Sonderholm, Thomas Steen Sorensen, J.P. Werner. Cast: Claire Ross-Brown, Kim Sonderholm, Jonathan Trent, Heather Tom, Elisa Richardson, Chad Mehle, James Terry Salles Wells Cook.
This may be the ultimate piece of horror nerd nostalgia cinema, a movie loaded with trivial tidbits that serve as talking points for confirmed geeks while the vast majority of the viewers remain absolutely clueless. Produced and scripted by Dennis Bartok (who used to program the schedule for the American Cinematheque in Hollywood), TRAPPED ASHES grafts limbs, organs, and brain matter, taken from movies Bartok used to screen, into a virtual meta-monster, as if Frankenstein had stitched his creation together not from dead bodies but from bits and pieces of other mad scientists’ experiments. Underlining the point, some of those “mad scientists” – er, film directors – are on hand to take part in Bartok’s experiment. The result is a cult film that will appeal to trivia buffs, but hardly represents a comeback for the veteran filmmakers involved. Read More
THREE…EXTREMES is an anthology by three different directors: one Chinese, one Korean, one Japanese. All the episodes are interesting and disturbing – perhaps too much so, without any clear reason for the audience to endure the suffering. Despite the Asian pedigree, none of the episodes is in the mode of recent terrors from the Far East (e.g., RINGU and THE GRUDGE). For the most part they eschew eerie manifestations in favor of twisted tales about visceral and/or psychological horror. Read More
This is a colorful but ultimately weak attempt by United Artists to cash in on American International’s Poe series by adapting three Nathaniel Hawthorne stories into a TALES OF TERROR anthology format. As in Roger Corman’s 1963 film, TWICE TOLD TALES (released later the same year) features Price in three starring roles, one for each episode. Price plays Alex Medbourne in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Dr. Rappacicini in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and Gerald Pyncheon in “House of the Seven Gables.” (Previously, Price had played a supporting role in the 1939 full length film version, which starred George Saunders in the lead role). The first depicts two old friends whose relationship is ruined when a mysterious liquid restores not only their youth but also the life of a long-dead woman (who was engaged to one and having an affair with the other). “Rappaccini” is a tragic tale of a a young student (Brett Halsey) who fals in love with a beautiful woman (Joyce Taylro) whose very touch is poisonous, thanks to the experiments of her botanist father. “Seven Gables” involves the scion of a corrupt old family who returns to the family mansion to search for hidden treasure, only to be felled by the vengeful ghost of the man betrayed and killed by his ancestors. Read More
Producer-director Roger Corman’s fourth Poe film (the third starring Vincent Price) benefits greatly from the anthology format, which allows Edgar Allan’s Poe’s stories to reach the screen with relatively less embellishment; consequently, the strengths of the previous films (atmospheric camerawork and production design) are retained, while the weaknesses (limited settings and padded stories) are overshadowed. Price is given three distinct characterizations to show off his range, including one that showcases his comedic talents; the script by Richard Matheson (who previously dramatized HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) introduces a touch of comic relief, an element that would emerge more fully in the follow-up THE RAVEN. Also, the success of the previous Poe films led to a budget increase that allowed for a stronger supporting cast, which included horror veterans Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Overall, the film is a lavish-looking, stylish piece of work that can still hold an audience’s attention. The fear factor, however, is decidedly mild, mostly taking the form of a general sense of dread and decay; the two major shock sequences (Morella’s attack on Locke and Valdemar’s attack on the hypnotist) are not bad, but neither one is a match for the pendulum sequence in PIT AND THE PENDULUM.
Three half-hour episodes are linked together with brief snippets of narration from Price: “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Case of M. Valdemar.” The first segment plays out like a condensed version of the previous version of Matheson’s first two Poe scripts, with Price as Locke (his name in the credits, which is not heard on screen), yet another obsessive agoraphobic (a la Roderick Usher), locked in an old house visited by an unwelcome guest, in this case an adult daughter whose birth caused his wife’s death decades ago. Locke’s late wife returns to possess her daughter and take revenge on her husband—a variation on a plot element from Poe’s “Ligeia”—before the ancient manor inevitably burns down (using stock shots from HOUSE OF USHER).
The episode exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of Corman’s previous Poe adaptations: nifty tracking shots, good sets (by Daniel Haller), atmospheric photography (by Floyd Crosby), and Price’s performance; counterbalanced by the weakness of the supporting players. Maggie Pierce, who plays Locke’s daughter, is adequate, and Leona Gage is stunningly beautiful as Morella, but she is unable to register a convincing level of menace on screen (where, oh where, is Barbara Steele when you need her?).
“The Black Cat,” which incorporates elements from “The Cask of Amontiallado,” was an intentional effort by Matheson to inject humor as a change of pace in the middle of the three-part film. Peter Lorre (the title character in Fritz Lang’s M) plays an inebriate whose search for wine leads him into a tasting contest with Fortunato Lucresi (Price). Forced to bring the drunken Montresor Herringbone home, Fortunato begins an affair with his wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson). Realizing what has happened, Montressore kills Annabel and walls her up, along with Fortunato who is still alive. Unfortunately for him, he also walls up the titular feline, whose screeches reveal the hidden bodies to the police. Price and Lorre, along with co-star Joyce Jameson, do a good job of playing the script for laughs. The tasting contest, in particular is a highlight, thanks to Price’s outrageous facial contortions as he savors each mouthful of wine, which contrast with Lorre’s off-handed throwaway lines (e.g., “from the better slopes of the vineyards”).
Of working with Lorre, Roger Corman recalled, “It was great! I must say Peter Lorre was one of the funniest people you would ever meet. And highly intelligent and very well educated. So you’re talking with a man who could come up with great ideas for full-out farce, and at the same time justify it intellectually and thematically in terms of Poe. It was immensely stimulating. Peter Lorre’s background was different from Vincent’s. Vincent had gone to the Yale School of Drama; he was very much trained as a classical actor. Peter came out of Germany, had worked with Bertol Brecht, and was very much into the German version of the Stanislavsky method, which was very close to the American. Their styles were distinctly different, but they were both intelligent and very sensitive actors, and they were able to work together very well, particularly in the wine-tasting sequence. In that scene, I said, ‘Peter, it is totally improvisational; you’re off the wall. Vincent, you’re totally classical.’ When the film first came out, that scene got a great reaction from the audience. I said to the semi-expert [wine taster], whoever he may have been—I don’t even remember—‘Talk to Vincent; stay away from Peter.’”
Price, on the other hand, recalled his co-star as “a sad little man,” adding. “He wasn’t very happy: he’d put on too much weight; he was not well. He never really learned the script; he felt he could improvise and make it better, and in many cases he did. He had been an actor once, but by this point he had become a caricature: he’d do his own imitation by holding his nose. He’d become this character, ‘Peter Lorre,” and he figured that’s what the audience wanted to see, so that’s what he would give them.”
The final episode, “The Case of Mr. Valdemar,” features Basil Rathbone (famous as Sherlock Holmes in films and on radio) as a mesmerist who hypnotizes Price’s character on his deathbed, thus prolonging the actual moment of death. The script adds a twist, with the mesmerist using his influence over his patient to try to gain control of Valdemar’s wife (the beautiful and desirable Debra Paget). Fortunately, Valdemar comes out of his trance and manages to throttle the evil mesmerist before melting into a “liquid mass of loathsome…detastable putrescence.” Despite decades as a horror star, this appearance as a living corpse represents Price’s first supernatural monster character. The eerie sense of death delayed but not averted is effectively conveyed, and the resurrection scene is reasonably well done, with some blurry lap-dissolves preventing the camera from viewing the makeup too closely; the scene feels slightly truncated, however, and therefore anti-climactic (the camera cuts away before Valdemar actually gets his hands on the hypnotist). The script shows some evident Matheson touches (Valdemar thanks his wife for sharing “the sweat measure of her soul” with him—a line Matheson would paraphrase in his novel WHAT DREAMS MAY COME), and David Frankham and Paget provide solid support in the acting department, making this a reasonably powerful climax to the three-part film.
Price recalled that his co-star Rathbone had changed over the decades (Price and co-starred with Rathbone and Boris Karloff in 1939’s THE TOWER OF LONDON). Rathbone, like many aging actors from Hollywood’s Golden Era, found it difficult to keep working in an industry now looking to appeal to the drive-in youth market.
“I think he was very disillusioned, very bitter, because he really had been a great star. People forget that, because they think of him as Sherlock Holmes, or they think of him as a villain. But he had been a great Shakespearian actor, a great star in the theatre and in movies. And he suddenly found himself—as we all did when Jimmy Dean and Marlon Brando and those people came out, and there was a kind of speaking in the vernacular, and all of us spoke with trained accents and trained English—if you wanted to stay in the business, you bloody well went into costume pictures. And Basil rather resented that.”
Roger Corman had this to say about working with Rathbone: “Basil would be immensely well prepared, with a fully developed performance and would play the script to the letter, so that just a small amount of discussion [was needed]. A very meticulous and a very consistent actor—from take to take it did not vary.” Also shot, but never shown, was a brief sequence of Valdemar’s soul trapped in Limbo. “It didn’t work,” Corman has said. “I shot it, put it together, and for whatever reason I made the decision to take it out. It was a short sequence, and I was dissatisfied with it, and I don’t even remember why. It may have been for this reason: these pictures really were rather low-budget films. We tried to make them look more expensive than they were, but they really were quite low-budget. I think when I looked at the Hades sequence, for five minutes, it really didn’t look right.”
Corman added, “We used certain colored gels and filters. The work we did, we thought was good for the 1960s; it pales by comparison to what can be done with the press of a button with computer graphics today. There were two reasons for the Hades sequence: one was to illustrate what Valdemar was going through. Also—and this was a problem with all of the Poe pictures—they were very much interior; they were shot in one or two rooms, and I was always worried about a claustrophobic feeling, that you were almost having a stage play photographed. I would take any possible way I could to break out of the confines of those rooms. That is the reason for some of the [dream/hallucination] sequences and one of the reasons for the ‘Hades’ sequence.”
Although successful, the profits did not match those of previous films. “TALES OF TERROR did well, but not as well as the others, and we felt it was because we had gone to the trilogy format,” Corman recalled. “We did a little research and found that in general the multi-part films had not been a successful genre. In the age of television, the audience maybe—I don’t know—thought they were seeing three half-hour television shows.”
Price, Lorre, Rathbone, and Jameson would reteam, along with Boris Karloff, in the 1963 film COMEDY OF TERRORS, also written by Matheson.
The two-part Poe anthology TWO EVIL EYES, from Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA) and George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) is virtually a two-thirds remake of TALES OF TERROR, featuring episodes based on “The Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Black Cat” (although done in contemporary, not period, settings).
DVD & HOME VIDEO DETAILS
TALES OF TERROR has never been released on Blu-ray. Fortunately, the film is available as a stand-alone DVD and also as one of MGM’s Midnight Movie Double Bill DVDs, paired with TWICE TOLD TALES (an obvious imitation, with Price starring in three episodes based on stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne). The disc offers TALES OF TERROR in a good widescreen (2.35 aspect ratio) transfer. The soundtrack is monophonic with English dialogue, with options for Spanish, French, and German subtitles. The only bonus features are coming attractions trailers for both films. TALES OF TERROR is also available on Netflix Instant View. TALES OF TERROR (AIP, 1962). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Joyce Jameson, Debra Paget, David Frankham, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, Wally Campo. Allen DeWitt. NOTE: This article copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski. Some of the material herein is derived and adapted from the cover story on Vincent Price that Steve Biodrowski co-authored with David Del Valle and Lawrence French for the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique magazine.