Written by: Leo Gordon, F. Amos Powell, and Robert E. Kent
Directed by: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Michael Pate and Joan Freeman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďI brought this curse upon this house when my womb concieved you... Better I should have died in my labor... and never unleashed your evil... upon this Earth."
When the likes of Hammer and AIP began to emerge in the 50s and 60s, one of their first orders of business was to update the titles that Univeral had made famous a few decades earlier. Hammer of course took Dracula and Frankenstein, giving both a Technicolor makeover, while AIP and Roger Corman did the same thing with the films inspired (very loosely) by Edgar Allan Poe. Buried in amongst all of this was a curious oddity--Cormanís Tower of London, which was an update of another Universal trend from the late 30s: the quasi-horror/historical dramas that carried a hint of Shakespeare. This one is specifically an update of the 1939 film of the same title, a Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone vehicle, though it wasn't courtesy of AIP, nor was it given a colorful update.
Like the 1939 original, itís the story of how Richard III (this time portrayed by Vincent Price) came to power through nefarious means. It begins with the incumbent king, Edward IV (Justice Watson) on his deathbed; heíll be succeeded by both his younger brother (Charles Macaulay) and his two young sons. This leaves a lot of obstacles on Richardís path to the throne, but itís nothing that canít be solved by his conniving, murderous wits.
This setup is quite similar to Universalís, but it diverges in execution, as it hews more closely to a supernatural tale when Richard becomes haunted by the spirits of his victims. Think Macbeth, only with more schlock; some plot beats are even lifted from The Bard, such as Richardís hallucinations of blood, and he gets his own prophecy of doom when heís told heíll eventually be killed by a dead man. Ultimately, the theme here is clear: ambition for power is destructive, so you know this whole thing is going to end on some smoky, foggy battlefield, and most of the intrigue is derived from guessing just how Richard will finally get his comeuppance.
Getting there is a fun ride, mostly thanks to Price. Make no mistake, this is his show; interestingly enough, he starred as one of the ill-fated Duke of Clarence in the previous version of this (he was the boozer who engaged in the drinking contest with Rathboneís Richard). Price was rarely better than he is here, where heís a total force; if youíve ever enjoyed his range, youíll see it put on display here. He puts on a sympathetic front early, but privately reveals himself to be a sniveling, devious weasel. However, it takes only takes one appearance from the ghost of his first victim (his own brother) to reduce him to a spooked coward. As he ascends the ranks, he completely dispenses with any pretense, and itís undeniably entertaining to see Price mouthing off to bishops and other dissenters, who have seen right through his uber-transparent plan.
Price has a nice ensemble surrounding him; he gets an assistant just as Rathbone did in the original, though his isnít a club-footed brute like Karloff was. They spend most of their time conspiring and torturing their enemies, which is another aspect thatís shared with the Universal film (my favorite involves a rat being used against one of Richardís traitors). Opposing Price is a gallant soldier and his slain brothersí wifeís family, plus the young Prince that has been left in Richardís charge; like the previous version of this story, Tower of London doesnít stop short, fully committing itself to some grisly scenes that even put children in peril. Itís a film that mostly relies on those sort of shocks, but thereís a pretty tense little scene that finds the dissenters attempting to flee Richardís tyrannical castle.
Stylistically, this is an interesting turn for Corman, as the black and white returns him to his cheapie roots. Tower of London is much more polished than those previous efforts though, which always carried some really roughshod production values. Corman had already completed a handful of his AIP classics at this point, and it looks very much like those, albeit drained of color. This leaves you with the elaborate sets and moody atmosphere that Corman always injected into those Poe adaptations, and the castle itself is particularly fog-drenched and foreboding. The photography here is quite impressive, as itís awash in deep shadows and contrasts to give the film a deeply classical look that makes it look more or less like a straight, widescreen update of the Universal one.
As both an update of that film and a marriage of the two predominant Corman styles, Tower of London works as a curiosity piece foremost. Itís also a fairly solid film thatís carried by a great, smarmy performance by Price, who spends most of the time being an asshole that kills people (heís even tricked into killing people he doesnít want to!). Obviously, it lacks the elegance of Shakespeare, but it is one of the classier pictures Corman ever helmed. You can find it alongside one of those Poe adaptations (The Haunted Palace) on MGMís Midnite Movies Double Feature DVD, where it comes with a solid anamorphic widescreen transfer and a serviceable mono track. MGM even tossed on an interview with producer Gene Corman (Rogerís elder brother) that discusses the filmís production. This particular tour of the tower is worth taking. Buy it!
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