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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.

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

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