By a strange coincidence, I have just re-joined the staff of CFQonline, only a few days after receiving the first copies of the new book I edited, Visions of Death, which contains two of Richard Matheson’s original shooting scripts for House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.
For years I’ve wanted to publish Mr. Matheson’s Poe scripts, and I’m happy to say I think the long wait has been well worth it, as over the years I’ve been able to extensively interview not only Richard Matheson, but Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Sam Arkoff and Danny Haller. The results of these interviews are contained in two “Making of” essays that preface the Matheson scripts. So without further ado, here is an exclusive look at my “editor’s introduction” from the book for CFQ readers, as well a link to the Gauntlet Press website where you can get more information about the book.
INTRODUCTION TO RICHARD MATHESON’S VISIONS OF DEATH
By Lawrence French
The publication of Richard Matheson’s screenplays for The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum marks a long overdue tribute to the man who is, without a doubt, one of the all time great screenwriters of terror films. But back in 1959 when Matheson was just beginning his career in Hollywood, film critics were in general, very dismissive of fantasy, horror and science-fiction movies. Luckily, filmgoers were not. As a result, both The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum became solid box-office smashes for American–International Pictures, and Matheson’s career as successful screenwriter was launched.
Throughout the rest of the sixties, Matheson’s uncanny knack for suspense and terror screenwriting brought us—besides his four Poe films with Roger Corman—such memorable pictures as Master of the World, Burn, Witch, Burn, The Comedy of Terrors, Die! Die! My Darling and what is widely regarded as the best terror film Hammer ever made, The Devil Rides Out. Not to mention the 16 superb episodes of The Twilight Zone he wrote for Rod Serling.
However, in the early sixties, the art of the film screenwriter was only just starting to be taken seriously, due mostly to the publication of scripts from films by such noted foreign directors as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, Alain Resnais and Francois Truffaut. Films such as La Dolce Vita, Wild Strawberries, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and The 400 Blows all had versions of their scripts published during (or shortly after) their initial release in America—and all were nominated for a best screenplay Oscar.
Of course, Hollywood films in that era hardly ever saw their screenplays published, even for a very successful production, unless they were written by a well-known playwright, such as William Inge (Splendor in the Grass) or a famed novelist, like Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita). But a quick perusal of some of the 1960 and 1961 films nominated for either the best screenplay Oscar, or best picture—including The Angry Silence, The Facts of Life, Lover Come Back and Fanny—is revealing for just how forgotten those films now seem to be, despite their once celebrated artistic achievement.
On the other hand, many film genres that were totally ignored or dismissed at the time are now being lionized and endlessly discussed. The genres of horror, science fiction and film noir seem to be prime examples of this trend. As Vincent Price pointed out, at the time of their initial release, the Poe pictures usually didn’t get very good critical notices. “I think I was mentioned as giving the best baroque performance by The New York Herald-Tribune,” Price told me in 1979. “So there were certain critics who dug it, who understood what Roger was trying to do, and others who hated it. Now they’re all sort of classics and they review them entirely differently. But worldwide they have received enormous praise. The reviews in some of the French and English magazines are amazing. They consider them very artistic, and they are still shown all over the world. When I went to Brazil they had a festival of all of the Poe movies!”
Indeed, the Poe films seem to go on and on, for like the Disney animated classics, they are constantly being discovered by a new generation of viewers. Perhaps the prime reason both the Disney and Poe films hold up so well, is due to the timeless nature of their stories. That, along with their period settings, makes them tend not to date. So although the Poe films may have lost some of their scariness for more jaded modern audiences, the memorable dialogue Matheson has given his characters, combined with the beautiful wide-screen color cinematography of Floyd Crosby, make the films seem nearly as fresh and vibrant today, as when they first appeared.
Which is why The Gauntlet Press is very pleased to present film scholars, students, aspiring screenwriters, casual readers and all other interested parties with the opportunity to savor two of Richard Matheson’s best Poe screenplays, only now seeing print for the first time, some 45 years after they were written. As time goes by, some films age well and become classics. That is certainly the case with these two scripts, and I haven’t the slightest doubt that you will be thrilled and delighted by what you read on the following pages.
Visions of Death contains two screenplays by the world-renowned terror screenwriter Matheson, based on two of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” These two classic fright films, directed by Hollywood legend Roger Corman and starring the screen’s master of the macabre, Vincent Price are now universally regarded as highpoints in the history of the horror film. In 2005, House of Usher was named one of only 425 films thus far, to be included in the prestigious National Film Registry, as chosen by the director of The Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C.
This deluxe Gauntlet Press volume includes not only Mr. Matheson’s complete shooting scripts, but also an informative introduction by Roger Corman, who recalls his fruitful collaboration with Mr. Matheson on both The House of Usher and The Pit and The Pendulum. Mr. Corman concludes by stating, “Richard Matheson is among the very best screenwriters I’ve been privileged to work with.” Director Joe Dante adds a wry afterword, noting that his own love of Mr. Matheson’s work began with his childhood viewing of The Incredible Shrinking Man, in New Jersey, and continued throughout the ensuing years, as Mr. Matheson turned out one thrilling horror film after another, culminating in Dante’s working with Matheson on the “It’s A Good Life” episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Visions of Death is lavishly illustrated with over 50 stills from both House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum, including many rare behind the scenes photographs of Roger Corman, Vincent Price and various other cast and crew members taken during the shooting of the movies. In addition, editor Lawrence French provides detailed production stories about the making of each movie, along with an exhaustive interview with Richard Matheson about his work writing the two films. Rounding out the volume are the original American International press notes for each film, which often hilariously overstate or wildly contradict the truth about how the movies were actually made.