‘For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.’
Opening line from The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe, 1845.
Occasionally in their filmic ventures, directors treat their audiences to several tales in one volume. This anthology tradition is deeply rooted in the medium of theatre, allowing viewers a bill of offerings rather than one narrative thread for the entire program, and has been celebrated over the many decades time and again – recently by Tarantino and Rodriguez with Four Rooms and then their Grindhouse double bill. Prolific director and exploitation flick impresario Roger Corman adopted this approach for the fourth in his Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Taking some of the stronger short stories from his beloved gothic writer – Morella, The Black Cat and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdema – he allowed his muse Vincent Price to essay three unique roles for the ticket admission price of one. The classically trained lead actor relishes the opportunity, occupying most of the screen time and giving us three distinctly varied turns, but all complete with that familiar Poe-inspired disturbed mind.
The whole morbid enterprise kicks off with Morelle, in which we a find a distraught Price holed up in a dilapidated gothic castle, drinking himself to death in mourning as his wife’s corpse is, of course, rotting away in his living quarters. His daughter Lenora (60’s starlet Maggie Peirce) arrives, only to be rejected by her father for apparently causing her mother’s death at childbirth. He determines that only Lenora’s death will bring back his beloved and, when he sets such dastardly plans in motion, it seems that his resurrected wife (the titular Morella, portrayed by Mary Leona Gage) has other plans for him. It’s all thoroughly unpleasant plotting but the enjoyment stems from Corman’s willingness to delve into such dark territory and turn it into popular entertainment.
In The Black Cat, the middle segment of this macabre triple-decker, we get a shift of villain when the maestro of slippery characters Peter Lorre turns up as a put-upon guy whose wife (Joyce Jameson) has an affair with his new acquaintance (Price). The story ticks along at a fair pace and Lorre is as eye-catching and twitchy as ever, but the denouement is fairly unremarkable after a lot of build-up. However, it’s fun to see Price tackle the role of the lothario this time around and find himself for once on the receiving end of someone else’s murderous deeds rather than orchestrating them.
The third and final act of the compendium finds us, fittingly, back with Price as the one with homicidal intent, albeit with more sympathetic motives. In The Facts in the Case of M. Valdema he is willingly placed under a trance by a hypnotist (the great Basil Rathbone – they don’t have names like this in the business any more), which, far from easing the suffering of a dying man, cruelly keeps him in a permanent state between life and death so he can attempt to steal his wife away. This again has a fairly unsatisfying resolution but is worth watching, if only for Price’s fantastic white quiff – used here to age his character and distinguish him from his earlier appearances, yet giving him a brilliantly wild look that he would wear more naturally many years later as inventor in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990).
The blu-ray features add great context to the production of the film, most enjoyably in a brilliantly overboard and theatrical multiple-role, one-man, hour-long TV special with Price quoting gargantuan amounts of Poe prose – surely the inspiration for his famous reading in the middle of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982).
Tales of Terror is out now from Arrow Films and Video in the ‘Vincent Price in Six Gothic Tales” box set. It will be released separately on a collectors edition Blu-ray on 9th March.
Words> Roy Swansborough