The Masque of the Red Death: Spotlight Podcast 5:9

Vincent Price (right) and Jane Asher welcome uninvited guest John Westbrook to THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.
Vincent Price (right) and Jane Asher welcome uninvited guest John Westbrook to THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.

Nope, no big openings this weekend, and everybody is too busy talking Oscars right now (we’ll get to that later in the week). So while waiting for the awards ceremony to begin, the Cinefantastique Online team of the Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French and Dan Persons got together to celebrate another film having its fiftieth anniversary this year. It’s Larry’s call this time around, and he’s picked a good ‘un: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, Roger Corman’s adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story that casts Vincent Price as a Satan-worshiping noble who just wants to be loved — and corrupt anyone who comes within sneering distance — while an horrific pestilence spreads across the Italian countryside.
This time the team is in accord that this is not just, at the very least, one of Corman’s best Poe adaptations — possibly the bestbut also a bona fide horror classic, lushly mounted and photographed (by Nicolas Roeg!), intelligently adapted by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, and featuring an impressive cast headed up by Price in one of his finest performances. Come listen in as the guys delve in-depth into what makes this a must-see film for any dedicated fan of cinematic terror.

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Halloween Showcase 2013: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 4:41

Michael Myers has a goody for your bag in HALLOWEEN.
Michael Myers has a goody for your bag in HALLOWEEN.

You’d think the weekend before Halloween that the studios would be falling all over themselves to get something suitably bone-chilling into theaters. Nope, turns out the lackluster CARRIE — the film that is to horror what a pouch of baby carrots is to a trick-or-treat bag — represents the full extent of what Hollywood wants to offer up for the season. Not good enough. So it falls to Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons to offer up some more appropriately scary movies to get you in the mood. We discuss what makes a movie appropriate for a night of spooky fun, talk about the legacy of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, and take a glimpse into the team-up of Roger Corman and Vincent Price.
Also, Steve discusses his experiences at this year’s batch of Halloween haunts, and Dan gives his take on the experimental horror film, TOAD ROAD. Plus, what’s coming to theaters next week.

Tales of Terror (1962) trailer

Motion Pictures Greatest Terror Personalities: Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre – Together for the first time!

This trailer from TALES OF TERROR provides an interesting glimpse into how movies were sold to audiences back in 1962. Curiously, the omnibus film’s three episodes are presented in reverse order from their actual appearance in the film. Also noteworthy: the tongue-in-cheek middle episode is acknowledged as being “sardonically humorous” – a tactic that distributor American International Pictures would avoid when releasing the comical THE RAVEN a year later, presenting it as a straight horror thriller.
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Tales of Terror (1962): a 50th Anniversary Pictorial Retrospective

Foreign poster for TALES OF TERROR (1962)As part of Cinefantastique’s 50th anniversary tribute to TALES OF TERROR (1962), we recently posted a podcast discussing producer-director Roger Corman’s three-part omnibus of horror inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. As scintillating as the podcast conversation might be, it cannot capture the aesthetic achievements of the film, which features impressive production design (by Daniel Haller) and lovely cinematography (by Floyd Crosby). Therefore, we present this pictorial retrospective, showcasing horror stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbon, in the episodes MORELLA, THE BLACK CAT, and THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR.
Cast photo from TALES OF TERROR (1962) with Basic Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, on the set from the deleted limbo scene Posed publicity still of a scene not in the film. The putrifying M. Valdemar (Vincent Price) frightens wife, played by Debra Paget. Maggie Pierce as Vincent Price's late wife Lenora in MORELLA, the first episode from TALES OF TERROR (1962) Basic Rathbone hypnotizes Vincent Price in THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR, the third episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Vincent Price poses with a mock head of Peter Lorre, used in the BLACK CAT episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in THE BLACK CAT, the comical change-of-pace in TALES OF TERROR (1962) A news paper photograph from November 27, 1961, of the casting call for the title role in THE BLACK CAT, the second episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) M. Valdemar awakens from his hypnotic trance at the conclusion of the final episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962)A gorgeious matte painting depicts the archetypal ancestral mansion from MORELLA, the opening episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Basil Rathbone and David Frankham in THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR, the final episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) In a bit of action more reminiscent of THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO,  Peter Lorre walls up VIncent Price in THE BLACK CAT episode of TALES OF TERRROR (1962) Peter Lorre in the wine-taste sequence from THE BLACK CAT, the middle episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Vincent Price as the mesmerized Valdemar in THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR, the final episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Peter Lorre wrestles with THE BLACK CAT, in the second episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Tongue-in-cheek promo art of the hallcuinatory headless sequence from THE BLACK CAT, the comical episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Debra Paget and Vincent Price in THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR, episdoe three of TALES OF TERROR (1962) Locke (Vincent Price) is shocked to find that his daughter Morella has morphed into his late wife Lenora (Maggie Pierce) Peter Lorre challenges VIncent Price to a wine-tasting contest in THE BLACK CAT, the tongue-in-cheek episode of TALES OF TERROR (1962) "And there was an oozing liquid putrescence - all that remained of Mr. Valdemar" Basil Rathbone can barely be seen beneath the gooey dummy in this scene glimpsed only briefly at the conclusion of TALES OF TERROR (1962)
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Tales of Terror: A CFQ 50th Anniversary Spotlight Podcast – 3:10

TALES OF TERROR (1962) opening title card

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.

TALES OF TERROR 1962 horizontal posterSo 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?
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House of Usher: A Celebration of 1960 Review

House of Usher (1960)Although many younger television and movie fans may think that the 1970s represent an archaic time in entertainment, there were certain advantages to growing up during this period. One was that television was all about local markets, and this made it necessary for local stations to find programming that would keep the viewer’s attention. One reservoir often tapped during this period was horror films, not only as late night fare, but also as afternoon and weekend entertainment. This television broadcasting circumstance worked to my advantage as a young fan of the wondrous and horrific: it opened a world of horror cinema that is hard to find today, short of rare videos at specialty stores or online. One such film that holds a special place in my heart is HOUSE OF USHER, which I knew by its alternative title in the U.S. and U.K. (as well as on the DVD cover I hold in my hand as I write this article), THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER.
I first saw this film as a teenager, and it came with a sense of great anticipation. At an early age, I had gravitated toward all things fantastic and the horrific, and this included the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I developed a habit of searching each week’s TV Guide and circling the fantasy, science fiction, and horror film, so that I could watch as many as my parents would allow me to see. In past programming searches, I had learned of a series of horror films based upon Poe’s writings. I had already seen THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), and enjoyed those immensely. Now HOUSE OF USHER was soon to air, and I was sure it would deliver the same cinematic frights. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher
Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher

HOUSE OF USHER tells the story of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who has traveled to the house owned by the Usher family in search of his fiancé, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). He is anxious for her to leave with him in order to be married, but Madeline’s brooding brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), desperately desires that she stay in the home. He is convinced that she is tainted by the family curse, which Roderick feels he shares as well, as does the Usher house that is literally fracturing around them. After some conflict between these characters over Madeline’s fate, she apparently dies following an argument with her brother and is buried in the family crypt, located in the basement. Winthrop eventually discovers that Madeline was buried alive, with the full awareness of her brother, but has escaped her tomb to prowl the grounds as a mad woman intent on seeking vengeance for her death. Eventually, the last two remaining Ushers meet their tragic end, as does their house, fulfilling the alternative title of this film both metaphorically and literally.
Much critical analysis has been devoted to director Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, often to the neglect of his other films, but this is not without good reason. Corman had himself been inspired by Poe as a young person, and was able to adapt this source material for a popular audience of the period. Although the Poe films were produced on modest budgets, Corman was able to maximize the investment in order to produce atmospheric and frightening films without recourse to lavish special effects or gory makeup, which would become popular in the 1970s and which dominate contemporary trends in horror.
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title

HOUSE OF USHER, and the other series of Poe films directed by Corman, have the distinction of being part of the brief revival of American gothic horror that had been fueled by television broadcasts of the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the fresh interpretations of these classics by Britain’s Hammer Films. While this classification has some merit, HOUSE OF USHER may also be understood as a hybrid in keeping with another trend in horror from the period. HOUSE OF USHER is in a sense Gothic, in that it takes place against the backdrop of a mansion that appears at first glance to be a haunted house; however, it is not haunted in typical supernatural fashion by ghosts or poltergeists. Instead, the haunting of the Usher House takes place through the troubled psyches of the homeowners who wrestle with their family legacy. In this sense it is similar to another classic of 1960 cinema, PSYCHO, which signaled a shift from supernatural horror in the 1930s and 1940s, and the science-fiction-horror of the 1950s, to an internalization of horror (horror is not the supernatural other; it is us) that would later take a quantum leap forward with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
HOUSE OF USHER was well received by audiences in 1960. One of the “fun facts” included with the DVD release, as part of the MGM Presents Midnite Movies series, states that it “scored among the top 5 box office hits of 1960.” But how well does it hold up today? That depends upon what one is looking for in a horror film. If one is a fan of much of the drivel seen in contemporary horror cinema, then you are likely to find HOUSE OF USHER disappointing. Fortunately, if you have a broader appreciation for horror, you will likely find this film of continued value.
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)

Beyond the rich atmosphere emodied by the Usher House, and the great performance of Vincent Price (who would continue to build on his work as the horror actor successor of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), HOUSE OF USHER provides something for viewers who want to probe a little more deeply into horror. One of the film’s interesting facets is its treatment of the struggles of personal identity within the context of family legacy, particularly a dysfunctional one. Roderick Usher is convinced that he is doomed by the Usher curse, and that neither he nor his sister can escape. Rather than engaging in a flight of fancy and illusion by trying to flee, he has consigned not only himself but also his sister to what he sees as an inevitable outcome. Contemporary audiences are perhaps more aware of the dysfunctional nature of all families (to some degree) than were audiences of the 1960s, and this self-awareness – coupled with the realization that, despite a problematic family history, it may still be possible to transcend the “curse” of the lineage and the past – makes this film relevant for the present day, and an item for self-reflection.
If you are a horror fan who hails from my generation, then a new viewing of HOUSE OF USHER will provide a nice trip down memory lane. If you are a younger fan interested in considering a solid piece of horror filmmaking now celebrating its 50th  anniversary, then this film is worth adding to your library.
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Supernal Dreams: Orson Welles's unfilmed Edgar Allan Poe script for SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

Spirits of the Dead (1969)In June 1967, the professional film journals announced that Orson Welles would direct an episode of the omnibus film Histoires Extraordinaires or Spirits of the Dead as it came to be known in America. By September, it was made public that Welles’s episode would be replaced by one directed by Federico Fellini. The final film comprised episodes based on three lesser-known stories of Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Roger Vadim (Metzengerstein), Louis Malle (William Wilson) and Federico Fellini (Toby Dammit or Never Bet the Devil Your Head).
Early on, Ingmar Berman was also supposedly approached about directing an episode. In his book Encountering Directors (1972), Charles Thomas Samuels talked with Federico Fellini about the three original directors who were under consideration for the project. Fellini said: “I was still under contract to make The Voyage of Mastorna for (Dino) De Laurentiis and was in total confusion. Then along come these French producers who begged me to participate in a multi-episode film. They assured me that of the three stories, I would make one, Bergman another and Welles the last. So I said yes. Then it turned out that they had lied about Bergman. Welles, who didn’t trust them, refused to sign. I continued anyway, simply because this was a way of freeing myself from De Laurentiis. When they told me my partners were to be Malle and Vadim, I could have legally refused. With me, Welles, and Bergman—-three visionary artists whose images have a richness of meaning-—there would have been some common quality in this homage to Poe. That’s why I signed, not for monetary considerations.”

Roger Cormans adaptation of Poes story, which Welles hoped to adapt for SPIRITS OF THE DEAD
Roger Corman's adaptation of Poe's story, which Welles hoped to adapt for SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

Needless to say, the mind boggles at the though of the “richness of images” we might have received if an anthology of Poe stories had been directed by Fellini, Bergman and Welles! It certainly would have been far more memorable than what eventually emerged as Spirits of the Dead. The Bergman episode, in particular, would have been fascinating, since, at the time, the Swedish director was in the midst of his own “horror” phase, having just directed Persona and Hour of the Wolf, and soon would be filming the real-life horrors depicted so memorably in Shame and The Passion of Anna. Poe’s storyThe Masque of the Red Death” also more than likely inspired Bergman’s 1957 movie The Seventh Seal; and there’s no doubt The Seventh Seal influenced Roger Corman when he made his own movie from the Poe story in 1964 with Vincent Price playing Prince Prospero.
Even more intriguing is to discover that Bergman wrote a never published 11-page story in 1938, when he was only 20-years old, entitled “A Peculiar Tale,” which appears to have been influenced by Poe. In it we first come across the figure of a personified death in Bergman’s writings, which would appear later on in The Seventh Seal. Maaret Koskinen, an authority on Bergman’s work describes “A Peculiar Tale” as follows:
It is an emotionally charged story of an anonymous narrator who encounters a beautiful yet highly perfumed woman in a florist’s. She turns out to be a prostitute, a widowed mother and an intravenous drug user. Towards the end of the story the narrator finds her beaten to death by one of her clients. Her neighbor, a garrulous old woman, tells him about the assailant:
“And last night I met her on the stairs with a man. And the way he looked gave me a chill of fear. His appearance was completely white, and it didn’t look as if he had any eyes, and he had a big floppy hat, and a long black cape”
The tale ends with the narrator walking out onto the street, his collar turned up against the “rain and autumn storms”, having gone up to the dead woman and stroked her forehead: “Poor little thing, I thought. You wanted to be Death’s pretty little harlot, and he paid you in his fashion.”
For his episode, Welles had planned to mix Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death” with “The Cask of Amontillado.” An undated copy of the English version of the script, co-written by Welles and Oja Kodar, is in the collections of the Filmmuseum in Munich.
The title page indicates the principal roles, and notes the script would be combining two of Poe’s short stories into one episode:
The following script comprises two stories by Edgar Allan Poe, including a free adaptation of “The Cask of Amontillado.” The two are grouped together under the title:

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
By Orson Welles and Oja Kodar
THE PLAYERS:
The Narrator
The Prince
The Majordomo
Fortunata

In the first ten pages of the 57-page script, Prince Prospero shuts himself up with his friends in his medieval castle in order to escape the Red Death, the horrific plague that is ravaging the countryside, but at the last stroke of midnight the personified figure of the Red Death mysteriously appears in the midst of the great costume ball and his mere presence is enough to end the revels of all the revelers.
Welles writes in his screenplay:

As the last of the fires flicker out, the only light to remain comes from the windows. A great cloud of scarlet colored dust hangs motionless over the monstrous heap of dead revelers frozen in the last agonies of the Pest, sprawling grotesquely on the ballroom floor…

The story ends with Poe’s famous lines:

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Then, after a beat, we hear murmurs followed by applause, and we see a close-up of the Narrator who has just finished reading the above text from a book and acknowledges the applause. The Narrator proceeds to stand up and walk through the ballroom, while all the dancers who had just enacted the roles of guests at the Masque come to their feet. Then, as the Narrator approaches the Prince we see:
He who played the role of the Prince gets to his feet. We realize that the mask he is wearing is a precise mirror image of the face of the Narrator. As the Narrator approaches, he removes the mask and bows. The Narrator is, in fact, the true Prince and lord of the castle where this weird little performance has been given. The actor playing the Prince is, in fact, the real Prince’s Majordomo. That the Prince in the play has worn a mask that duplicates the real Prince is just the sort of complicated joke he most relishes.

Although casting was never finalized, it appears that Welles would have played the part of both the Narrator and the Prince, while the English Shakespearian actor Charles Gray (who appeared with Welles in The Merchant of Venice and several episodes of the Orson’s Bag TV show), might well have played the Majordomo. Oja Kodar would have played Fortunata. In the script Welles describes the Prince as a cross between Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde:

A great dandy, he is most elaborately primped and corseted; his hair is dyed and curled, his cheeks are rouged, and under it all he looks like one of the very late Roman Emperors gone badly to seed. And yet, in a way, he manages to give the impression that the ruin and decay is of something rather impressive. He is flourishing (like the Green Bay Tree) a few years after the death of Byron, and somewhat before the rise of Oscar Wilde, but there is something of both in him; a matter of style, however, not of genius. The truth? He has flair, personality; it doesn’t go much further than that. The evil is real enough, though. There are thick dossiers on His Highness’ escapades in every police department in civilized Europe.

At the end of the play, we also realize the real setting of the story is the Prince’s Italian castle in 1860. Welles’s then merges the script into a second Poe story, a free version of “The Cask of Amontillado” by having the Prince bring in another novelty to entertain his guests: A circus troupe from Trieste. Among the performers is a beautiful rope-dancer named Fortunata, who some time earlier had spurned the unwanted advances of the Prince. However, she has failed to realize that she will be performing for the Prince “like a strange and beautiful lizard.” It is only when she goes to claim her payment, and all the other circus performers have mysteriously disappeared, that Fortunata realizes that the paymaster is none other than the Prince himself. When the Prince makes a crude proposition to her, Fortunata replies, “I am a rope-dancer, not a whore.”
The Prince then assumes the Montresor role from Poe’s story and lures the lovely Fortunata to the catacombs beneath the castle, taking great relish in his attempts to frighten her with morbid tales of terror and torture, such as the true to life story of the famous child molester, Gilles de Rais:

THE PRINCE: …Children, babies, murdered slowly, all of them, by the most exquisite torture. …Ghouls exist not only in dreams and in nightmares… but in the real world… there are men and women who drink blood …I myself am (one of them.)

When they reach the dank depths of the catacombs, the Prince chains Fortunata to the wall and begins to entomb her while yet alive, telling her: “Dear child, indeed you are a burden. A burden of flame and fire. The flame must be quenched.”
The Prince’s motives are both obscure and complex, fueled by love, jealousy, impotence and sexual desire, as detailed in Welles’s script:

His requisite is darkness. Just as the girl is light itself, sunshine. He must put out that light, black it out, kill the sun. But in his heart, does he really want her to die? All he is sure of is that he wants her to fear death, to fear it in his own person. He feels that to the girl he has been, up to now, only a sort of harmless ghost, a ghost she neither fears nor even quite believes in. He has never been real to her, but now he will make himself real. Through terror, she will learn to believe in him. This is a last, despairing gesture of impotence. Assuredly, he is a sick man yearning to infect the object of his love with his own fatal disease, his own Red Death.

The Prince offers to release Fortunata from her tomb, if only she will cry out and admit her terror, but she valiantly resists him, unwilling to give in to his perverse desires:

Fortunata remains a shadowy figure motionless against the wall. Silence. No power on Earth will make her break that silence.

Unable to make Fortunata submit to his will, the Prince’s ego leaves him little choice but to abandon her in the catacombs. As the script explains:

The Prince requires from her (his victim) that seriousness without which the whole distorted fabric of his dreams will fall into dust. …It also depends (like most sexual kinkiness) on a certain solemnity.

Having met a will that is stronger than his own, and one he cannot begin to fathom, since Fortunata is willing to accept death rather than saving her life on the Prince’s perverse terms, the Prince returns to his own insular world, where Fortunata’s complete rejection of him, and everything he stands for, will (as with so many of Poe’s protagonists) drive the Prince hopelessly insane:

The Prince gives a “hoarse and terrible roar, like the roaring of some rabid beast. It is the Prince in hopeless pain, a voice out of hell… but we see that there is no real place for him to go. He will never escape.

See color shots from the French pressbook for Histoires Extraordinaires at my Facebook page HERE.
*********************

SPIRITS OF THE DEAD
By Edgar Allan Poe
Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness – for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.
The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.
The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

*********************
One final “mystery of mysteries” is whether Welles might have been in any way influenced by Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” episode of Spirits of the Dead. The ending of Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind bears some interesting similarities to “Toby Dammit,” in which Terence Stamp plays a handsome young film star who has come to Rome to appear in the first “Catholic Western,” because he has been promised a new Ferrari by the film’s producers. Toby attends a surreal awards ceremony where he is to receive an honorary “She-Wolf” and during a drunken speech Toby even recites lines from Macbeth. Likewise, in The Other Side of the Wind, director Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) is planning to give his leading actor, John Dale, a brand new red Porsche. In the end, both Jake and Toby drive off in their shiny new sports cars, only to meet death who come “driving down the highway” to claim them.

Nevermore: Artwork from Roger Corman's Poe Films – Video

Starting in 1960 with THE HOUSE OF USHER, producer-director Roger Corman crafted a series of stylish horror films inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the screenplays (usually by Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont) had to embellish the short stories in order to fill out the feature length running time, the production design and cinematography captured a wonderful, often highly artificial and stylized look that was perfect for rendering Poe on screen. The films also benefited from the commanding presence of Vincent Price, who starred in all but one of the series, which totalled eight in all, including TALES OF TERROR and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.
This video was taken at an exhibition of posters, stills, and lobby cards at the drkrm gallery in Los Angeles. Titled “Nevermore,” the gallery showing was an attempt to take the pop art of the movies and transform it into a form of fine art worthy of collecting. Our own David Del Valle acts as curator, taking you on a guided tour in chronological order of the films’ release. Fans of the Corman-Price-Poe films should get a kick out of the visuals and commentary, and non-fans will get a glimpse at what makes these films interesting.
The Nevermore exhibit took place back in October of 2006; unfortunately, I was busy covering the Screamfest festival in Hollywood at that time, so I was not able to get the video edited and posted while the exhibition was still running. Since then it’s sat on limbo, but there is now talk of a similar gallery showing in San Francisco, and David has a book coming out in the U.K. on the subject of the Poe films, so the timing seems right again to post this now.

The Raven (1935) – Retrospective Horror Film & DVD Review

The 1935 pairing of horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff is still enjoyably over-the-top entertainment.

The Raven (1935)With the advances in Video on Demand, including services like Amazon.com and Netflix that allow you to watch movies on your TV anytime you like without having to own them, my days of purchasing DVDs are rapidly dwindling. However, I still cannot resist a bargain, and I have a fondness for box sets that package together multiple titles for one low price. Purists complain that the bit-rate on these discs (which save money by squeezing in two films per side) results in reduced quality, but generally I have fond them to be worth the money. One of my favorites is “Bela Lugosi” DVD collection from 2005, which is a must-have for fans of classic horror. The package offers five films (each just a tad over 60 minutes) on two sides of a single disc, with some nice box cover art but almost no bonus features (just a trailer or two).
The highlight of the set is 1934’s THE BLACK CAT, but THE RAVEN (1935) remains a personal favorite, because it gives Lugosi an opportunity to outshine his co-star Boris Karloff (even though Karloff gets top billing). THE RAVEN is the second of three films that Universal Pictures made as a vehicle to co-star Karloff and Lugosi (the first was THE BLACK CAT; the third was THE INVISIBLE RAY). The two had more or less equal roles in BLACK CAT, but Lugosi is clearly the lead in THE RAVEN; Karloff’s character doesn’t even enter until fifteen minutes into the running time (approximately one-quarter of the short film).
THE RAVEN is not quite as good as I remembered, mostly because it is way, way over the top. Lugosi was a stage actor who never got out of the habit of projecting his performance as if he were trying to reach viewers in the back rows of the theatre; on screen, the result can seem quite hammy. Nevertheless, his out-of-control style ultimately works, especially in the latter scenes when the character is past all retrains and thoroughly enjoying the evil he is perpetrating.
The story is about a Dr. Richard Vollin, a great surgeon who has retired to do research and to work on his private obsession, which is collecting –and creating — Poe memorabilia. He brags to a museum representative early on that he has created many of the torture devices that Poe described in his stories (such as the knife-edged pendulum from “The Pit and the Pendulum”). Vollin is called out of retirement to save the life of a young woman, who has been in a car accident. He falls in love with his patient, and begins his descent into madness, calling himself “a god…with the taint of human emotion.”
As Vollin explains it, he renders a service to mankind, but in order to perform that service, his hand must be steady and his mind unclouded by emotions that torture him. When it becomes clear that his patient does not return his love, Vollin’s only solution is seek a truly bizarre form of catharsis: torturing everyone who stands in the way of his frustrated consummation.
He is abetted in this by Edward Bateman (Karloff), an escaped prisoner who once put a torch in the face of a guard during a bank heist. Bateman comes to Vollin looking for a new face so that he can hide from the police. Despite his criminal background, Bateman his a sympathetic figure. Unlike Vollin, who is upper-class, rich, and decadent, Bateman is a working class man obviously driven by circumstances, including not only his economic deprivation but his looks.
“May if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things,” he tells Vollin, who replies in rapt amazement, “You are saying something profound.”
Vollin performs surgery on Bateman, who wants to put his criminal past behind him, but only to make him even uglier (half his face is paralyzed, a blind eye staring at an awkward angle). “Your monstrous ugliness creates monstrous hate,” Vollin chuckles. “I can use your hate.”
The story comes to a climax when Vollin invites his unsuspecting guests to weekend party. After every one’s fallen asleep, he abducts his patient, her fiance, and her father and puts them into his various torture devices (which also include a room with walls that come together to crush those inside). Unfortunately for Vollin, the rebellious Bateman falls for the girl and rebels…
The film is a little bit of a B-movie, in the sense that the cast and settings are relatively small. A little bit of production value is added by reusing existing sets. (For example, Vollin’s patient is a dancer who performs a piece called “The Spirit of Poe,” which staged on the old opera set from Universal 1925 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.) Although the setting is contemporary, Vollins’ mansion has a basement that looks like a medieval torture chamber, complete with secret passageways. The supporting cast at the party suffers a bit from comic relief, but the lead players all do a very good job.
Like THE BLACK CAT, THE RAVEN is scored with existing bits of classical music (Lugosi at one point serenades his intended love with an excerpt from Back’s Toccata in D Minor). Lew Landers’ direction is somewhat perfunctory, but the studio production values help overcome the deficiencies, and in any case the real reason to see the film is watch the stars, who are aided and abetted by a script that plays to their strengths. Even if the story is not entirely sophisticated, the screenplay is filled with many memorable lines, and the characterizations, although broad, are a perfect fit for the actors, who admirably fill out the roles, their established personas and acting styles making up for the lack of (unnecessary, in this context) subtle psychological depth.
Lugosi is in his element in this one, playing a larger-than-life embodiment of evil insanity. He is nicely balanced by Karloff, who gives a much more low-key performance as a more believable character. The sparks fly quite effectively in thier uneasy partnership (Vollin blackmails Bateman into helping him by promising to restore his distorted features). Although the film is dated by today’s standards, I suspect it played quite well to its intended audience in the 1930s, the time of the great depression. It must have been fun for struggling Americans to see the wealthy Dr. Vollin portrayed as a raging maniac, while poor Bateman is reluctantly enlisted into aiding his evil plans, and there certainly was a grim satisfaction in seeing Bateman turn the tables at the end.
THE RAVEN clearly is not a faithful adaptation of its source material. But it is clearly inspired by by ideas lifted from Poe, particularly the concept of genius and madness co-existing in the same person, who insists on his sanity even while his murderous actions prove him to by quite insane. There is also the concept of a sensitive intellect being tortured by the lass of a great love — although in Poe’s eponymous poem, “the lost Lenore” is dead, not engaged to someone else.
In the end, the film version of THE RAVEN is a Hollywood concoction, pieced together to provide a vehicle for Lugosi and Karloff to duel it out on screen (an element enhanced for modern viewers by our awareness, courtesy of the film ED WOOD, of the competition between the two actors). On this level it thorougly succeeds, earning a sort of “limited” classic status. It is no masterpiece (unlike THE BLACK CAT), but it is an enduring entertainment, especially for Lugosi fans. Other viewers may find the film over-the-top, almost to the point of camp, but this is not the sort of film you need to take seriously in order to enjoy it. Just sit back and go along for the ride.
I mean, you’ve got to love a film wherein the villain chortles, “I tear torture out of myself by torturing you!” Or triumphantly proclaims at the climax, “Poe, you are avenged!”
THE RAVEN(1935). Directed by Lew Landers. Screenplay by David Boehm, inspired by the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds, Spencer Charters. Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe, Maidel Turner.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski. This version has been slightly updated.

Two Evil Eyes (1990) – Blu-ray Review

This is strange entry in the careers of George A Romero and Dario Argento, as fans expecting an anthology along the lines of Creepshow were instead given essentially 2 almost completely unrelated hour-long features based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe. Romero’s episode is about a wealthy patriarch who dies while under hypnosis; his gold-digging wife (Adrienne Barbeau giving one of her best performances) hides the body in the cellar until the estate can be settled. You needn’t have read Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” to guess what happens next. We actually think this is one of Romero’s better films from this period, without the amateurish acting that occasionally plagues his efforts.
Argento’s effort is based on Poe’s “The Black Cat” and stars Harvey Keitel as Rod Usher , a crime scene photographer who kills his girlfriend’s black cat, photographing it at the point of death. Once she discovers the nightmarish photos in Rod’s just-published book, she confronts him, they struggle, and he kills her – but this is still a Poe story, and walling up a dead body isn’t always the best method of disposal. Unfortunately, this film falls in line with Argento’s other weak efforts from the period, including the Pittsburgh-filmed Trauma from 1993. Even with Argento’s trademark visual flair, the film seems much more slowly paced than Romero’s segment when the opposite ought to be true; even with the limited running time the film drags as we are left too long in the company of Keitel’s Usher character, an utterly unlikeable bastard who illicit zero sympathy. The heavy-handed gore (courtesy of Tom Savini) also seems forced – more like a contractual obligation than artistic method.
Like Blue Underground’s previous HD efforts, this Blu-Ray disc is gorgeous, bringing out excellent color and detail (though still limited by the occasionally rough source material – this wasn’t a lushly budgeted film). The extras replicate BU’s previous edition, including the documentary “Two Masters’ Eyes,” featuring interviews with both filmmakers.
http://astore.amazon.com/cinefantastiqueonline-20/detail/B001NDH4K2