The Roger Corman Poe Cycle

The Roger Corman Poe CycleOne of the greatest things in all of psychotronic film is the Roger Corman Poe Cycle. It started in 1960 with House of Usher and ended in 1965 with The Tomb of Ligeia. There were a total of eight films almost always starring Vincent Price, half of them written by Richard Matheson. Most of the rest were written or co-written by Charles Beaumont. And, of course, they were all directed by Roger Corman.

Strangely, they were not all based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The Haunted Palace took its title from Poe, but was actually based on a story by H P Lovecraft. It’s an interesting group of films, all worth owning. Sadly, no one seems ever to have thought it worth while to bundle them all together. This may be due to licensing issues. These were all released by American International Pictures. Given API’s many ups and downs, it’s hard to say who owns what of it’s catalog.

The Corman Poe Cycle

Here they are with brief summaries. I know that we will be writing about them individually over time.

House of Usher (1960)
My first introduction to this film was listening to Roger Corman’s director commentary on The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). It seemed that 90 percent of the commentary was Corman pointing out this or that bit of set had been used in House of Usher. I asked a friend of mine who had gone to film school, and he pointed out that House of Usher was a huge success. It started a series, after all. But I learned something listening to that commentary: people who make films are mostly focused on the nuts and bolts of it. And having sets that you can reuse is a big deal.
The story is pretty well know. Vincent Price and Myrna Fahey play the Usher children. Before Fahey can run away with her fiance Mark Damon, she dies. Or so we think. It turns out that she suffers from catalepsy and her brother entombed her knowing she was alive. When Damon opens her coffin, he finds it empty. Meanwhile, Fahey is bent on revenging herself against her brother. The House of Usher goes up in flames as Damon watches on.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
This film has almost nothing to do with Poe’s rather more gripping short story. Still, it’s quite a good film. Vincent Price gets to play both a good guy and a bad guy. The brother (John Kerr) of Price’s recently deceased wife (Barbara Steele) shows up wanting answers. It turns out she too was inadvertently entombed alive. But actually, that’s not true. She is, in fact, still alive. She’s been having an affair with Price’s doctor friend and it is their intent to drive him crazy. They succeed. The film is lots of fun, although Price is more gloomy through most of it than usual.
The Premature Burial (1962)
You are no doubt starting to see a theme here. But premature burial really was something that people worried about in Poe’s day. And it isn’t without cause, although just how much a real threat it ever was is unclear. This time, Ray Milland plays Guy, a man obsessed with being buried alive. And really: he’s great. And so is Hazel Court, as his wife, Emily. No one was better turning sweetness and light to treacherous murderer that she. We’ll see her again, just as wonderfully, in The Raven.
Without us knowing it, Emily spends the whole film driving Guy mad. He ends up being buried alive, but is rescued by some grave-robbers, who he rewards by murdering. Then he kidnaps Emily and buries her alive. A lot more happens in the film. The screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell is exceptional.
Tales of Terror (1962)
This is a group of short films put together: “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar.” The first features Vincent Price as a drunkard who has never gotten over the death of his wife, Morella, giving birth to their daughter, Lenora. Eventually, Morella’s ghost kills Lenora and is returned to her original body. Price drops a candle, and Morella strangles him as the house goes up in flames.
“The Black Cat” stars Peter Lorre with his hated wife, played by Joyce Jameson. (The two of them would appear together the following year in an altogether happier relationship in The Comedy of Terrors.) The filmed version is very unlike the story. It involves infidelity (with Vincent Price), but the ending is the same. The truth is that much of Poe’s work doesn’t really translate to the screen. That’s especially true of “The Black Cat.” Here there is no eye gouging and no hanging.
“The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar” involves hypnotist Basil Rathbone torturing poor Vincent Price so he can steal Price’s wife. But Price, in some form of decomposition, manages to attack and kill his tormentors. It ends with a pretty cool (gooey) practical effect.
The Raven (1963)
Given that it isn’t terribly clear what the poem “The Raven” is all about, it isn’t surprising that Richard Matheson took the screenplay in his own direction. A flat-out comedy, it stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Hazel Court with supporting parts by Olive Sturgess and Jack Nicholson. Not a whole lot makes sense in this film, yet I watch it again and again. It’s the most entertaining of this series.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
This is the Lovecraft novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It tells the story of an unfortunate couple (Vincent Price and Debra Paget) who happen to inherit the house of a warlock killed by the townspeople a century before. The warlock takes over Price’s body and works with other warlocks to get revenge on the townspeople. But the townspeople fight back with more torches than in a Frankenstein film. Price regains control of his body, only to end up dying anyway.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
This is by far the strangest of the set. Vincent Price plays Prince Prospero — a very bad guy who has the simple folk in a revolutionary mood. So all the local beau monde come to his castle to party and be protected. Eventually, Prospero kills them all, but then is killed himself by the Red Death who tells him, “Why should you be afraid of death? Your soul has been dead a long time.” But what’s most remarkable about it is that the story seems allegorical and the costumes designed to heighten this sense. It wouldn’t be hard to extract real meaning from the film. Then again, maybe it’s just a rip-off of The Seventh Seal.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1965)
Vincent Price plays Verden, a widower. Pursued by the lovely young Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd), he marries again. At first happy, he spends more and more time alone. We eventually learn that he never buried his first wife, whose corpse he tends to while in a trance. At the end, he almost kills Rowena thinking her Ligeria, but eventually both Verden and Ligeria are killed. Price has a surprisingly Heathcliff romantic hero look to him in these last scenes. It’s too bad we didn’t get to see him in that kind of role more often.

Why Did Ray Milland Star in One of These Pictures?

, and with one exception, Vincent Price was the star. The exception is The Premature Burial, which stars Ray Milland. I’ll let Corman explain why what was:

I had had a slight accounting problem with AIP. They were the distributors and financiers, and I owned a portion of the pictures. These things happen. As a matter of fact, I will say this: in comparison to the other companies, AIP was a very honest company. But still, we had some disputes as to some of their charges. So I decided to do The Premature Burial on my own. Pathé Lab, which was the lab we had been working with, wanted to start a distribution company. So they agreed to put up part of the money, and I put up part of the money.

Vincent Price was under contract with AIP, so I chose Ray Milland who I thought and still believe is a wonderful, wonderful actor.

He’s known primarily as a romantic leading man. He was so handsome. But in addition to the good looks, he really is a fine, fine actor.

I was shooting this picture with Ray for Pathé’s new distribution company and on the morning of the first day of shooting, Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, the heads of AIP, showed up and with big smiles came up and shook my hand and wish me well on the picture. And I thought that’s really nice of Jim and Sam. Here I am making a picture that they wanted to make. I’m in competition with them and here they are showing me their good wishes.

And then Sam, with an even broader smile, said “I’m happy we’re still in partnership.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We just bought out Pathé. The picture is an AIP picture and we’re all working together again.

And indeed we worked together successfully from then on.

It’s too bad it happened so late. I think Milland is wonderful in The Premature Burial. But it just seems wrong that Price isn’t in the role. There’s no doubt it was written with him in mind.

The Writers of the Corman Poe Cycle

If you are like me, writers and, to a lesser degree, directors and production companies are important in determining if I’m going to like a given film. In the case of all these films, the director was Roger Corman. And the production company was always American International Pictures (AIP). So here you can see who wrote what. These are all good writers, so it isn’t surprising that the films are all good.

Year Film Writer
1960 House of Usher Richard Matheson
1961 The Pit and the Pendulum Richard Matheson
1962 The Premature Burial Charles Beaumont
Ray Russell
1962 Tales of Terror Richard Matheson
1963 The Raven Richard Matheson
1963 The Haunted Palace Charles Beaumont
1964 The Masque of the Red Death Charles Beaumont
R Wright Campbell
1965 The Tomb of Ligeia Robert Towne
Paul Mayersberg

Summary

You really can’t go wrong with any of these films. And they are all usually available online somewhere. But they are worth having on DVD, just for the sake of quality. I’ve linked to each film on Amazon above. But you can find lots of these films bundled in various forms.

–Frank Moraes

Two Problems With The Pit and the Pendulum

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of my favorites of the Poe Cycle. It is one of the reasons I spent so much time discussing Elvira’s Haunted Hills. But there are two problems with it. One is with the film itself and the other is with the terrible television prologue. I will discuss them each in turn.

The Plot Against Nicholas Medina

The whole story is about Nicholas’ wife, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), and his doctor, Leon (Antony Carbone) trying to turn Nicholas (Vincent Price) insane or dead so that they could live together with his fortune. This makes no sense. Nicholas’ fortune would not go to his doctor. And it surely would not go to his dead wife. Indeed, if it were discovered that she were alive, Elizabeth and Leon’s plot would have been discovered.

Interestingly, in House on Haunted Hill (1959), this very issue is discussed. The (living) wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) and the doctor, David Trent (Alan Marshal), conclude the supposed death of the wife would be seen as just a Halloween prank and certainly not a plot to drive Nora (Carolyn Craig) to kill Frederick (Vincent Price). But this would never work in The Pit and the Pendulum with all the obvious plotting over months that goes on.

The only possible reason that the two have for their plot is to get Elizabeth out of her marriage with Nicholas. Even in 16th century Spain, divorce was not that difficult. In fact, my research of Cervantes indicates that sexual mores were far more liberal than most people think — and more liberal than those practiced by many social conservatives today. So the only point of the plot is money, and a dead wife would certainly not inherit over a living sister.

This whole problem is fixed in Elvira’s Haunted Hills because the first wife really is dead (murdered by her husband) and it is the living second wife that stands to inherit. It is not clear how writer Richard Matheson could have fixed this problem. I think most people don’t think much about it. It certainly didn’t occur to be the first five or six times I saw it. So it is hardly a fatal flaw. But it bugs me today.

The Television Prolog

The Pit and the Pendulum is 85 minutes long. Even today, when an hour of television contains about 15 minutes of commercials, a two-hour production would need to be 90 minutes. And the amount of commercial time on television has only grown over time. In the 1950s, it was about 13 percent; now it is 25 percent and more. So if The Pit and the Pendulum was going to be presented over two hours, it needed more content. I’m not sure what other additions were made, but the most important one was at the very beginning.

It shows Nicholas’ younger sister Catherine (Luana Anders) in an insane asylum where she tries to convince the people there that she is not insane and that the story she has told is real. Thus, the entire movie is turned into a frame story, where the original story is just what Elizabeth tells us. I have no problem with that in theory. But it creates a number of problems.

The biggest problem is that this prologue was directed by producer Tamara Asseyev. It is actually really good. It’s too bad that Asseyev didn’t do more directing. She had a lot of potential. But the style does not fit the film at all — either stylistically or narratively. It is the narrative problem that most harms the film.

Why would Catherine find herself in an insane asylum? For one thing, the most bizarre aspect of the story (the faked death) is never revealed to her or anyone else in the story. It is just the story of Nicholas going insane and killing Leon. And think about Lizzie Borden. If people wouldn’t convict that obviously guilty woman in the 19th century, how would they convict a clearly un-guilty woman in the 16th century?

Finally, it removes the happy ending. We are supposed to leave the film thinking that just maybe Elizabeth’s brother, Francis (John Kerr), will vacation in Barcelona and the two will form a bond that will lead to marriage. Sure, call me an old softy, but that’s what I want to believe.

Conclusion

It’s best not to over-think any Roger Corman film. So the first issue of the plot against Nicholas can be easily forgiven. But we really should forget about that television prologue. I’m really glad that it was added to the DVD. I really don’t think that a DVD can have too many extras. But let’s always remember that they don’t change the piece of art. The piece of art is what the producer, or in some cases (eg, Blade Runner) directors, release. The other stuff provides us insight into the work and how it was created. But nothing on The Pit and the Pendulum DVD changes the fact that Francis and Catherine go on to be married and live happily ever after.

–Frank Moraes (22 October 2017)

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