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Tales of Terror
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Tales of Terror

Who would have thought that the short stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, written in the early 1800s, would inspire a movie franchise more than a hundred years later and become popular with young moviegoers? After the financial and critical success of House of Usher in 1960, American International Pictures wasted no time in producing a steady stream of Poe adaptations, all of them directed by Roger Corman. Tales of Terror (1962) was the fourth entry in the series but a departure in form from the previous three AIP Poe movies.

"I was getting a bit tired of the Poe films by this time," admits Corman (in The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget by Ed Naha),"but AIP felt that I should continue. I was exhausted. With Tales of Terror, we tried to do something a little different. The screenplay was actually a series of very frightening, dramatic sequences inspired by several of the Poe stories. To break things up, we tried introducing humor into one of them..."

The three-part film consisted of "Morella," the story of a woman's vengeful spirit which returns from the grave to possess her daughter; "The Black Cat," a tale of a wine connoisseur who walls up his wife and her lover alive only to be betrayed to the police by the wailing cat he sealed up with them (a plot device from Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"); and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," in which a terminally ill man is kept alive in a hypnotic state by a devious doctor.

"With Tales of Terror I went back with [screenwriter] Richard Matheson and Vincent [Price]...I directed three short films...each in one week...The middle one was actually based on "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado" and while all were quite well-acted, "Cat" was the most interesting...It also matched Vincent with Peter Lorre. Vincent and Lorre proved to be two truly classy and versatile actors, especially in their delightfully humorous wine-tasting contest."

Recalling that particular scene, Price said, "Before we did it they brought in this very famous wine taster to show us how it was done. We enjoyed that enormously; we got very drunk in the afternoons. Roger really allowed us to comedy it up on that scene. I did it exactly the way the wine taster showed us, but added a little bit more, and Peter was doing it the way they didn't do it, which made for a very funny scene." Price added that, "Peter loved to make jokes and ad-lib during the filming. He didn't always know all the lines, but he had a basic idea what they were. He loved to invent; improvisation was part of his training in Germany" (from Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography by Victoria Price).

Price was the only actor in the cast to appear in all three stories with Lorre joining him in "The Black Cat" and Basil Rathbone playing opposite him in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Regarding the final tale, Price said, "I play an old man who is killed physically but kept alive in his mind. The question was, What would a man look like in this state? We settled for an old-fashioned mud pack - it dries and draws the skin up and then cracks open. It worked beautifully. But the hardest job was the part where the dead man actually comes back to life. They decided on a mixture of glue, glycerin, cornstarch, and make-up paint, which was boiled and poured all over my head. Hot, mind you. I could stand it for only one shot, then I'd have to run. It came out beautifully. It gave the impression of the old man's face melting away"(from Vincent Price Unmasked by James Robert Parish & Steven Whitney).

Richard Matheson had mixed feelings about the final execution of Tales of Terror but was happy with his screenplay: "I must sound like I'm an egomaniac, but once again I thought that was a very good script. But on that first segment [Morella] the casting really bugged me - I always refer to that first segment as Shirley Temple in the Haunted House. In my script it was a really great character relationship between the two of them: Price was up to it, and I was visualizing someone like Nina Foch playing the dying daughter. But this girl that they got [Maggie Pierce] was terrible. And they also cut a lot out of it, so it just didn't work. The middle one [The Black Cat] had Lorre and Price and Joyce Jameson, who was marvelous. I enjoyed that middle one, I thought Price was wonderful and that the wine-tasting sequence was just delightful. And the last one [The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar] - except for the lousy special effect at the end - I thought was very good, one of my favorites. They did a really nice job on that, very intelligent" (from Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver).

Famous for his thrifty approach to filmmaking, Corman recycled several elements from his previous Poe films for Tales of Terror. He redressed some of the same sets and used footage from the fiery climax of House of Usher for the conclusion to "Morella." He also mimicked the abstract, experimental film approach of Pit and the Pendulum (1961) title credits for the prologue to Tales of Terror. In the case of "Morella," Corman even "tried to vary the mood by post-production processing, bleaching out the colours of the episode to leave black, white and green predominant" (from Vincent Price: The Art of Fear by Denis Meikle).

Tales of Terror proved to be a financial success for AIP, making more than the previous Poe adaptation Premature Burial (1962). Corman remarked that the $1.5 million gross "encouraged Matheson and me to transform Poe's classic poem The Raven into a lighter comedy-horror project and use those two again [Price & Lorre]. It was the biggest looking Poe film to date because we were using sets from previous films."

At the time of its release, critical response to Tales of Terror was decidedly mixed.The New York Times panned it, calling it "a dull, absurd and trashy adaptation...broadly draped around the shoulders of such people as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone (who at least bothers to act). Skip it, if possible..." Other reviewers, however, approached the film with a sense of humor. Variety noted that "Corman...plays his latest entry for all it's worth and has assembled some tastily ghoulish acting talent. Vincent Price leers, is mad, is tender, and even laughs straight. Peter Lorre has a madcap time of it and Basil Rathbone is a heavy's heavy." And The New York Herald-Tribune reported, "Aficionados of the weird, the strange, or what Poe called the 'grotesque' and 'arabesque' can troop, I think with good heart, to see Tales of Terror."

John Curtis in Films and Filming provided what is probably the most articulate summation of the film's appeal: "All three tales are told with Corman's customary skill (and most of his customary trappings, as well - including all the silverware, carpetings and furniture one has come to know so well from The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, and The Fall of the House of Usher...Price remains, as ever, the elegant barnstormer he is, and how good it is to see that suave swine Basil Rathbone back in business again."

ADDITIONAL TRIVIA:
Patricia Medina was originally cast as Helene in the episode "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" but was replaced by Debra Paget
The British censor deleted the gruesome final shot from the "M. Valdemar" segment and substituted it with a fade to black.
"The Black Cat" has been adapted to film numerous times with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original story. The most famous version is Edgar G. Ulmer's 1934 version with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Others include Harold Hoffman's low-budget 1966 remake filmed in Texas, Lucio Fulci's Gatto Nero in 1981 with Mimsy Farmer and Patrick Magee, Luigi Cozzi's Il Gatto Nero in 1989, Dario Argento's "Due occhi diabolici" episode in his collaboration with George Romero in 1990, Two Evil Eyes, and the recent 2007 adaptation by Stuart Gordon for the Starz cable series, "Masters of Horrors".

Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Roger Corman, James H. Nicholson
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Edgar Allan Poe (story)
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Film Editing: Anthony Carras
Art Direction: Bartlett A. Carre, Daniel Haller
Music: Les Baxter
Cast: Vincent Price (Fortunato/Valdemar/Locke), Maggie Pierce (Lenora Locke), Leona Gage (Morella Locke), Edmund Cobb (Driver), Peter Lorre (Montresor Herringbone), Joyce Jameson (Annabel Herringbone).
C-89m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography by Victoria Price
Vincent Price: The Art of Fear by Denis Meikle
Vincent Price Unmasked by James Robert Parish & Steven Whitney
How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome
The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget by Ed Naha
Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver

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