America did pop proud in the 1960s, but pop didn’t always imply a bulging budget or grandiose popular success. The lingering vestiges of that most ’50s of all genres, the atomic underground horror, still clung to the beginning of the decade like a wandering specter. Admittedly, the low-brow, even-lower-budget works suffered a little about how to re-invent themselves; Hammer Horror in the UK certainly hit a few home runs, but flooding the markets ran them red with bloody boredom sooner than not. In the US, where “underground fare” similarly served as a safe, parental euphemism for horror, things were likewise stuck in a liminal space between the pre-Bay of Pigs interest in fooling around with atomic supermen and nuclear fall-out monsters, and the genuine “exploitation” of exploitation cinema came to fruition in the very late 1960s. In between, in the early 1960s, what was underground horror to do?
Well, for a little while, maintain the tried-and-true practice of returning old horror cinema icons from their prematurely-forced retirement graves and matching those actors to, in this case, a collection of Edgar Allen Poe short stories. Poe, for his worth, has to this day never really been exploited for his full worth in the cinematic world (the best Poe adaptation remains the animated UPA “The Tell-Tale Heart” short from 1953). Still, if anyone in the early 1960s was going to give it that old huckster-try, it was Roger Corman. Carting out with relative expediency the likes of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff and draping them up in some of the finest sets and make-up low-budget entertainment could buy, Corman got to making a quick buck with his staple of early ’60s Poe adaptations. Or, not quite “adaptations” so much as “using a Poe title to sell a mostly unrelated film”, but then that was the Corman spirit, and Poe’s stories, all hanging-on atmosphere and a dearth of story or character, never much opened themselves up to cinematic adaptation anyway.
All of these Corman-Poe films were minor masterpieces of economic and taut mood-building and setting, but they soon opened themselves up to more playful renditions that had little to do with Poe’s original ideas. The heights of the pop-horror weirdness would come in 1963 with the cycle’s adaptation of the most famous Poe piece and perhaps the most famous poem ever written, “The Raven”. As many well know, that particular poem is a good example of the Poe form, marrying sanity slowly slithering away and enclosed casket-like spaces to stop it from ever slithering too far away that it might no longer haunt you. Plot does not really enter into its wheelhouse, and thus a cinematic adaptation was not the likeliest of candidates (unless the filmmakers wanted to get really radical with the non-narrative art-house dread and utilize the closed-space-of-the-mind as a tool for artistic expression, but that too was not the Corman spirit). Of course, what they ended up doing was fairly radical in its own right, re-casting the story in a comic mold as three sorcerers battling for cheeky supremacy and petty superiority. But that is neither here nor there, although it serves as a test-case for how light and non-Poe like many of these films really were.
And none were more non-Poe like than “Tales of Terror”, which coasts on another prime early-’60s trend, the anthology horror (alive as early as 1945’s wonderful Dead of Night, but never really common until the 1960s). Even then, it is only arguably “anthology horror”. More like “anthology dark comedy that occasionally remembers it is nominally a horror film”. For the longest, and best, of the three tales is almost out-and-out dry (and quintessentially British) comedy. That story, “The Black Cat”, is a mash-up of the titular tale and “The Cask of Amontillado”, although it is as tonally away from both of them as humanly possible. This version begins with a conflict, a drinking contest, to be precise, between the ingeniously named and ingeniously drunk Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre) and the snidely, supercilious wine connoisseur Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price). Eventually, Herringbone emerges our anti-hero and develops a plan to murder Luchresi by walling him into his basement. Naturally, Herringbone decides Luchresi will need some company. Seeing as Herringbone doesn’t much care for his own wife Annabel Herringbone, he puts two and two together and throws them both in the crypt (Annabel, by the way, is named for just about every female Poe character ever, a reminder of his very-much Antebellum South roots, and here played by Joyce James in a sprightly, whispy, and I suspect deliberately silly demeanor)
A little bit too much plot for such a slight, delicious, chocolate-covered short film, but it draws ungodly amounts of joie de vivre from the talents of its leads hamming it up like their lives depended on it. Both Lorre and Price had by this point cultivated singular screen-presences, and the Poe films were, more than anything, avenues for these actors to explore the flightier regions of their identities with almost full control over their characters. The drinking contest between the two is simply superb cinema, Price swirling around his lines with more amusement than any actor then or ever, and Lorre evoking unrestrained pity as the roundest and most disheveled human who ever lived (Lorre had absolutely no ego. Of course, a delectable verbal sparring for two actors, one weighted down by the world’s largest ego and one beset by having lost his ego entirely to a Hollywood with no interest in him, is all this short entails. But as an experimental excursion into the darker regions of Poe’s latent humor, it is an absurdist treat and evidence of a low-budget studio doing their damnedest to come up with new ways to categorize the long-dead author and to utilize every last ounce of his carcass for cinematic pleasures small and large. Add to this an almost whimsical inversion of Hammer Films’ unctuous misty dread and you have a genuine winner on all fronts.
Which is all well and good, because the preceding and succeeding segments are no great shakes, at least up to the standards of Corman’s usually well-manicured Poe films. The opener is a solid B-movie but little more, although it benefits from Price at his most putrid. The short “Morella”, finds young Lenora Locke (Maggie Price, wielding another distinctly Poe-esque character name) returning to her father’s castle (the dad played by who else but the man everyone wants to see, Price, and the only one who could really sell the roiling, indulgent early Americana lines of Poe, creaking as they did of self-imposed greatness and gentility). Lenora hopes to make amends with her father, but is beset by the corpse of her mother Morella – you see, the father is stricken and traumatic with the long ago death of his wife, for which he blames Lenora, and he has kept the castle exactly as it was when she died.
Which is great for us – papa’s ungainly commitment to the past allows the film to externalize his mental imprisonment in the cobweb-encrusted physical space of his castle (the external manifestation of internal hopelessness being the essence of just about all of Poe’s tops material). Other than the atmosphere, there isn’t a lot to say about this story; it is very much the quintessential Corman Poe-adaptation using many of the same sets as the previous films in the series and for the same reason: they sell the dread with such ease, hanging over the film and lasting in the mind when the fair weather plots have long dissipated. This story both benefits and waits around leaving us wanting due to its short length; it moves with a characteristically Corman-esque expediency, but it is too quick to revel in the crawling Gothic malaise of the best Poe works.
Would that the film had settled for the 70 minute roadsters of yore. Yet the final story of the film, dragging it just up to a still mercifully brief 90 minutes, is too clammy and detached to really capture the genre joys of the first two offerings, although it is not without its twisted pleasures. Unfortunately, these are almost wholly found in concept and not execution; the idea, about a hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) putting a dying man (Price, always playing dying men despite his trenchant grasp of life as an actor) into a trance near his death. Of course, Rathbone’s character is tricking the Price character. The trance is essentially a living hell with no capacity for action or interaction, and the hypnotist goes on to beg for the dying man’s wife’s hand in marriage, lest Price’s character remain trapped in this everlasting hell of semi-death forever with no way of escape. The idea, at the least, of someone having to marry an evil-doer so that someone else may mercifully die (rather than the usual “to mercifully live”) is delectably evil one, and it is patently Poe.
But the execution is not; it is too plot-based, and Poe was never at his strongest when he was subsuming himself to plot. Rather than festering unease, we are treated to leftover drama, re-heated in the microwave until it becomes too dry and rubbery to bite. There’s just no texture, no filmmaking flavor to the material, and there is precious little room for direction or atmosphere, reducing Corman to a functional storyteller rather than the maestro of elusive fantastique he always proved to be at his best. Still, two out of three ain’t bad, and the best story is also thankfully the longest and most lived-in. That middle chapter, the drinking contest given so much time to pursue its own weird fascinations and expand without over-staying its welcome, is a real corker of a Hitchcock-styled comedy of terrors, and it is altogether one of the great comedies of the 1960s, and a marker of more experimental things to come in the Poe cycle.
It is also, thankfully, a high water-mark in one of the weirder, sometimes forgotten pop-cycles in film history, in the hey-day of the early ’60s when just about anything could pass muster as a story, and when sometimes, this peculiar blend of who-cares idea-work and passionate, even accidental, skill behind the camera could create a deliciously abnormal treat the likes of which could not have been made at any other time in film history. That is one of the great things about the ’60s pop; not only did it pop, but it was naughty and weird when it did so, often giving way to moments of closeted-absurdism. It was almost always at its best, as in the middle segment of the Tales of Terror, when it treated this absurdism with a deft, lithe touch, like it was business-as-usual.