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.
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.
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?
Summer’s gone and so is the Cinefantastique Podcast’s Summer Wrap-up Episode. In its wake, Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski debates the merits of classifying James Bond as a member in good standing of the science fiction and/or fantasy genre, while omitting Machete. Also, good news for cult horror fans: numerous titles from Hammer Films and American International Pictures recently became available on Netflix Instant Viewing, some of them not available on DVD. All this and more discursive discussion on this week’s Post-Mortem Podcast…
This week, Netflix added a bloody barrel-full of horror movies from the 1960s and ’70s to their list of titles available for Instant Viewing. Many of these are classics made by Hammer Films in England or by American International Pictures in the U.S. In some cases, the titles are not available on DVD, so this is a much-needed opportunity for fans to have access to them.
Here is a brief rundown:
THE COMEDY OF TERRORS: a 1963 AIP production, with horror stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone sending themselves up.
THE CRIMSON CULT: a weak 1968 British effort, distinguished only by the presence of horror stars Barbara Steele, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee (not on DVD).
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN: Vincent Price is back as the abominable Doctor, this time outracing a rival (Robert Quarry) for the secret of eternal life.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER: a 1917 Hammer horror in which the spirit of Jack the Ripper may live on in his daughter (not on DVD).
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH: Vincent Price stars as Prince Prospero in this, the best of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations.
THE RAVEN: an amusing 1963 horror-comedy from Roger Corman, with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Hazel Court.
TALES OF TERROR: a triptych of Poe tales from Corman, with Price, Rathbone, and Lorre.
THEATRE OF BLOOD: Vincent Price plays a Shakespearian actor out to kill the critics who denied him an award. Ghoulish, bloody, and funny.
TOMB OF LIGEIA: Corman’s 1965 swan song to the Poe cycle is another fine effort, this time with an emphasis on doomed romance, with Vincent Price and Elizabeth Shepherd.
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS: a 1970 Hammer production based on J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, starring Ingrid Pitt as the eroticaly charged vampire countess.
VAMPIRE CIRCUS: a 1972 tale of a travelling circus that arrives at a town quarantined by a plague, this is one of the best Hammer films from this era; it pushed the envelope, moving from sexual innuendo to actual sex (not on DVD).
The key titles here are HANDS OF THE RIPPER and VAMPIRE CIRCUS, due to their lack of DVD availability; these are truly worth checking out. THE CRIMSON CULT is also not available on DVD, but it is of lesser interest.
So far, I have sampled only a portion of DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN. The picture quality (with a high-speed internet connection through a Roku box to a high-def television) is quite good but clearly not up to the level of a Blu-ray disc – closer to DVD. UPDATE: I finished watching the DR. PHIBES sequel and I am pleased to say that the version shown on Netflix includes the correct music at the end: Vincent Price singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN is one of many AIP films that suffered soundtrack problems when originally released to video, with original cues replaced by alternate tracks. In this case, the effectiveness of the ending was totally ruined by the use of inappropriate music, so it is nice to report that the this problem has not been repeated here.
This 1974 effort is Vincent Price’s last starring role in a horror film and the last film he made for American International Pictures, the company responsible for the vast majority of his later big screen appearances. Appropriately enough, MADHOUSE feels a bit like a requiem, with Price playing aging horror star Paul Toombs, who attempts to revive his famous Dr. Death character on television, decades after an unsolved murder destroyed his film career and his sanity. Unfortunately, people begin dying hideous deaths inspired by scenes from the Dr. Death movies, and the police naturally suspect Toombs. The actor himself is unable to speak in his own defense, afraid that he may be committing the murders in a black-out and not remembering them. Eventually consumed with guilt over the deaths his character is committing, he locks himself into the studio, turns on the cameras, and sets fire to the set, dying a spectacular death in a fire. Or does he?
A weak genre effort, MADHOUSE makes little if any effort to transcend the horror label, instead offering up familiar elements for the benefit of undemanding viewers. Nevertheless, it is amusing for Price fans, who get to see him playing, in a sense, a fictionalized version of himself, a point underlined by using numerous clips from Price’s old AIP horror films to represent Toombs’s career. One is almost tempted to label MADHOUSE Price’s version of SUNSET BOULEVARD, though the film scarcely merits comparison to Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece.
Director Jim Clark (a former editor) stages the action competently, but he does not have the sophisticated sensibility to create a post-modern meta-movie – that is, not just a standard horror film but a self-reflexive film about horror films. Instead, we get a by-the-numbers approach, enlivened mostly by the presence of Price and his two co-stars, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry, whose verbal sparring provides an opportunity to add a little panache to an otherwise prosaic effort. Though the dialogue is seldom more than adequate, the acting trio makes the most out of it, particularly in two show business party scenes, wherein they exchange amusingly snide witticisms.
The result falls far short of being a masterpiece, but it is more than enough to enough to please cult enthusiasts eager to see the horror stars on screen together.
BEHIND THE SCENES
A co-production between AIP and the English company Amicus (responsible for numerous horror films such as 1967’s TORTURE GARDEN), MADHOUSE was based on a bad novel by Angus Hall called Devilday. The book wallowed in sleazy sex and scandal: we first meet Toombs shacked up with a sixteen-year-old, acne-scarred groupie (do aging horror stars really have groupies?), and his big scene consists of appearing naked at a Black Mass, so that the congregation can (literally) kiss his ass. Little happens, making the short novel feel longer than it is, and what does happen is deliberately left unexplained. The reader assumes that Toombs is up to something, but his guilt is never clearly established. At the climax, he is impaled by a falling rock, and a swarm of fans rifles his body for souveniers, but years later the novel’s narrator catches a glimpse of Toombs in a car, leading him to suspect that murder and mayhem will resume. Overall, despite the (then) modern English setting, the story seems inspired less by the Gothic Horror tradition than by scandalous legends from the early days of Hollywood. (Toombs’ career meltdown – after being suspected of shoving an icicle up a woman’s vagina – vaguely parallels that of silent film comic Fatty Arbuckle, who fell out of favor after being tried for literally raping a woman to death – even though the jury emphatically aquitted him of any and all wrong-doing.)
Fortunately, little of the novel remains in the screenplay, except the basic premise of a former film actor making a comeback on television, years after a bloody scandal. The script turns Toombs into a more sympathetic character, with whom the audience identifies even while uncertain of his guilt. Also added were the murders inspired by the Dr. Death movies – which lead us to suspect Toombes, even though we guess that someone may be setting him up. Unfortunately, the film feels a bit like a last gasp attempt to capitalize on the “Creative Deaths” formula used in Price’s previous efforts THE ABOMIMABLE DR. PHIBES, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, and THEATRE OF BLOOD, lacking the wit and imagination of those films.
Price had been working for American International Pictures since THE HOUSE OF USHER in 1960, but he had grown unhappy churning out low-budget, unimaginative horror films. “My contract had finished and I hoped it would be my last,” he told Cinefantastique for the career retrospective that ran in the January 1989 issues (Volume 19, No 2).
Actor Robert Quarry, who had co-starred with Price on the far superior DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, was being groomed to replace the horror star after this film – a strategy that never came to fruition. He recalled that MADHOUSE was ill-fated from the start, thanks to Price’s shaky status at American International Pictures after year’s of contract disputes.
“What could we do?” Quarry asks rhetorically. “It ws Vincent’s last movie with AIP. His contract was up. We never got a script until Sunday morning, and we were to start shooting the next day. That gave us no time to bitch and scream. They knew if they’d sent it to us two weeks before, we’d have called them up and said, ‘Hey, work this over – it’s terrible!’ So they were very smart there.
“Jim Clark may have been a good film editor, but he was ill-prepared to direct a movie – he was just gonna shoot what was there,” Quarry continues. “So I would change the dialogue around so it was speakable and then leave the last line, the cue line, in. They never knew what hit them: when I finished talking and gave the cue line, the other actor spoke. About the second day, I told Vincent I had made some changes, so I wouldn’t have to speak this shit. He said, ‘God, help me with my stuff – could you rewrite some of this?’ I was flattered that Vincent trusted me enought to let me rewrite some of the scenes. I couldn’t change the scenes, but at least we put a little edge on some of them. That was probably the only serious work we did together, trying to find ways to do this dreadful movie.”
At the time of filming, Prices was in the process of breaking up with his second wife, who remained in the States with their daughter, while he was on the set in England (where all of Price’s later horror films were shot, for budgetary reasons). Quarry recalls that Price played fast and loose with his expense account.
“Vincent told me, in case anybody asked if Victoria and Mary were there, I was to say yes, because he wrote it in on his expenses. All that expense money for two weeks: first class air fare, food. I said, ‘Oh, I love it, I love it. Can’t you get anybody else on there?’ After all, he made a great deal of money for AIP. He was their only superstar. And they should have been damn grateful to him, and they should have paid him more money. Frankly, anything he could steal out of that studio – I said, ‘Baby, steal!‘”
When completed, MADHOUSE was barely released and never found much of an audience. Tentative plans for another Price vehicle at AIP, THE NAKED EYE, were dropped. It was the end of an era. Although Price would continue to remain busy as an actor, never again would he dominate the screen as the King of Horror. Partly this was due to the blockbuster success of THE EXORCIST: the lavish, major-studio production ushered in a new brand of horror, which helped contribute to the downfall of genre-friendly companies like Hammer Films, Amicus, and AIP, whose modestly budgeted efforts seemed low-key and quaint by comparison.
Viewed today, MADHOUSE is fun for fans, despite its flaws, and it does hold a place of some historical importance as Price’s last starring role in a horror film designed specifically as a vehicle for his talents. The film is available on DVD as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies Double Features, packaged with the far more enjoyable THEATRE OF BLOOD. The bare-bones presentation offers good transfers of both films but no bonus features except for trailers.
The credits for MADHOUSE somewhat misleadingly include the names of horror stars Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, both of whom died long before MADHOUSE was filmed. They appear only in clips from films in which one or both of them co-starred with Price, THE RAVEN (1963) and TALES OF TERROR (1962). MADHOUSE (American International Pictures and Amicus Films, 1974). Directed by Jim Clark. Screenplay by Ken Levison, Greg Morrison, based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Linda Hayden, Natasha Pyne.
Friday Cat Blogging is an Internet tradition not much associated with cinefantastique, but we are doing our best to change that. Not so long ago, we did an installment dedicated to Stuart Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” This week, we’re taking a look at producer-director Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR, a 1962 anthology film that includes an episode inspired by the very same story.
In Corman’s triptych of tales inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat” shows up in the middle episode (which includes elements of “The Cask of Amontillado”). Rotund Peter Lorre plays Montresor Herringbone, a jovial alcoholic who introduces his wife to a handsome wine-taster (Vincent Price). When he discovers they are having an affair, he kills them and walls the ir bodies in the cellar but inadvertently entombs the cat as well, its mournful wail alerting the police to the corpses.
To provide a change of pace from the first and third episodes in this anthology film, screenwriter Richard Matheson turned “The Black Cat” into a black comedy and left out the more gruesome elements (in the story, the demented narrator plucks out the cat’s eye and later hangs it to death, only to be horrified when an exact duplicate – down to the rope mark on its neck – arrives to haunt him). The actors do a fine job of playing the horror for laughs, and Lorre is particularly adept at being both funny and menacing, but the title character (first scene atop a sign as Herringbone walks home) is not one of the most memorable screen felines – more innocuous than ominous, it is an object of Herringbone’s hatred more than a symbol of his guilty conscience. Fortunately, the nameless pet (known as Pluto in Poe’s story) does provide a memorable final close-up when discovered on the head of its dead mistress, wailing with rage.
Despite the comedic liberties, the adaptation is closer to Poe than either of the two films that Universal Pictures named after the story (in 1934 and 1941 respectively). One might gripe that Lorre’s Herringbone is a drunken lout from the moment we meet him, so we never see his descent from normalcy, but Corman does capture the essential element: driven by drink, a man brings about his own self-destruction, aided by a cat that – deliberately or accidentally – exacts vengeance for being mistreated. Also noteworthy: scenes of Lorre carousing in bars – and being tossed out for not paying – seem to have inspired similar footage in Stuart Gordon’s more faithful 2006 version.
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.