Written by: Edgar Allan Poe (stories), Richard Matheson (screenplay)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"And it is with death and dying that we concern ourselves. What happens at the point of death? What happens afterwards? What happens after death to someone who does not choose to stay dead?"
Before film became a viable storytelling medium, the horror genre had already established far reaching roots in societies all across the world. While its origins no doubt lie in the oral tradition and folk tales of ancient cultures, the genre truly took hold when these tales were written down, ensuring their perpetuity. As such, horror thrived as a literary genre for centuries--the Greeks told and wrote tales of ancient beasts and demons, A Thousand and One Nights captures some Arabic horror stories, and several Oriental tales have been recorded over the years. In the Western world, horror's first notable movement came during the Medieval and Renaissance period, as morality tales with demonic, hellish slants such as Marlowe's The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus terrified audiences. Even the Bard himself spun ghostly yarns and even wrote a rape/revenge splatterfest in Titus Andronicus that would satisfy the most ardent exploitation fan.
Horror's most prolific literary movement occurred with the rise of the Gothic writers of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Written as a reaction against the rigid, rational, and logic-based Age of Reason, British writers such as Coleridge, Brontė, Walpole, Byron, and the Shelleys wrote supernaturally charged tales of ominous moors, haunted castles, the accursed undead, and even vampires. However, the most famous author of this period was half a world away in America. In the 200 years since his birth, his name has become synonymous with all things gothic and macabre: Edgar Allan Poe. Writing a wide range tales filled with paranoid and often murderous protagonists, Poe set the standard and has been an influence on the genre long after his death. It's arguable that no other horror writer has been able to match Poe's ability to capture the most morbid corners of mankind's imagination and its propensity towards death and destruction.
Likewise, cinematic horror has worn many faces throughout the years--Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney, Naschy, Lee, Englund--the list goes on. However, it's arguable that one man represented the genre and became the face of horror during his long career. Born over a 100 years after Poe, Vincent Price starred in hundreds of horror films over the span of a staggering seven decades. In the 1960s, the film and literary mediums converged and their respective horror legends came together in a series of Poe adaptations by Roger Corman for American International Pictures and starring Price. Of all these productions, one of the most unique and memorable was the fourth entry, Tales of Terror, a horror anthology featuring a trio of Poe tales centered around the theme of death.
The film's first segment, an adaptation of Poe's "Morella" is the story of Lenora, a girl who has returned to the home of her estranged father who disowned her when his wife (the title character), died giving birth to Lenora. The home is decrepit and contains one huge skeleton that rests not in the closet, but in Morella's deathbed. The second segment is blends elements of "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado" and is concerned with Montressor Herringbone, a drunkard who is caught in a loveless marriage with his wife Annabelle. One night, he challenges a reknowned wine-taster, who begins to fancy Annabelle, an act that drives Montressor mad. The final segment, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" finds the title character on the edge of death. He employs a hypnotist, Mr. Carmichael, who agrees to alleviate Valdemar's suffering by hypnotizing him. This leaves Valdemar's consciousness lingering between the world of the living and the dead as his body dies.
Tales of Terror is a wonderful Poe adaptation precisely because it captures the range that the writer often exhibited in his own literature. The various tales reveal Poe's trademark paranoid characters, his vivid imagination, and even his morbid sense of humor. Poe's reputation as a dreary, even deranged individual often precedes him and overshadows the wry, even witty humor he could display when necessary. The exchange between Montressor and Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado" deftly exhibits Poe's penchant for verbal and situational irony, and the middle segment here captures it perfectly. Though the segments to alter the original plots of the stories themselves, they still manage to capture Poe's trademark fatalist tone.
Likewise, Tales of Terror works well as a film because it allows its star, Price, to exhibit a wide range of skill. The three protagonists he portrays are remarkably different: a paranoid and crestfallen widower, a confident, even arrogant wine-taster, and a feeble old man on the edge of death. Price fully inhabits each role and brings a sympathetic dimension that's important to each character. My favorite of the three is Fortunato, the ill-fated wine taster of the second segment; it's certainly the most light-hearted of the three roles, and, like Poe himself, Price could be funny when appropriate, despite his reputation as a horror icon. This segment also features the best actor that Price has to work with in the whole film, as Peter Lorre is excellent in the role of Montressor. Lorre especially captures the character's ability to be both deranged and comical in the span of minutes, and eventually becomes one of the best examples of Poe's trademark paranoid protagonists.
Tales of Terror is ultimately an effective piece of horror precisely because it has no pretensions; it truly is simply a set of spooky tales, which is precisely what Poe excelled in. Unlike many horror anthologies, there's no true frame story here. Instead, each tale is introduced by a short monologue from Price that's centered around Poe's favorite theme: death. Each segment represents a different phase of death: what happens after, before, and at the moment of death, respectively. It's an interesting way to tie together the film just enough so that isn't just a completely random set of tales. Furthermore, the film is paced well for an anthology, as the longest segment is wisely placed in the middle so that the film never drags. This middle segment again is my favorite, as I enjoy the blending of two of Poe's most famous tales. Having seen countless adaptations of "The Black Cat" and having read and taught "The Cask of Amontillado" several times in school, it's refreshing to see the two come together in such a natural and fitting way. Interestingly enough, the film has another literary dimension, as the screenwriter here is legendary sci-fi author Richard Matheson, who would also contribute many scripts to The Twilight Zone.
The film is delivered in a package that's quite stylish for its time; it of course features the trademark lush color palette of the age, but it also features some interesting camerawork, particularly when the film portrays the disoriented state of Montressor's mind in "The Black Cat." The film is often atmospheric and makes use of some elaborate scene-setting, particularly the decrepit mansion in "Morella," and the film's score is appropriately spooky. Tales of Terror isn't the most conventional of Poe adaptations (then again, how many have been?), but it's a great example of popcorn fun and represents an excellent bridging of two horror legends and time periods. The film has been released by MGM once and has been repackaged twice. The anamorphic transfer is crisp and clean and the print shows little age; likewise, the mono soundtrack is clear. The single disc release is now out of print, but the film was released as double feature as part of the Midnite Movies line along with Twice Told Tales. This same disc was then again repackaged as part of MGM's Vincent Price Collection, a release that is no doubt essential for any horror fan. At any rate, Tales of Terror is a definite highlight of the AIP/Poe/Price cycle. "The winds of the firmament breathed but one sound within my ears and the ripples upon the sea murmured evermore..." Buy it!
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