The Edgar Allen Poe Films of Vincent Price & Roger Corman
Three of the biggest icons in the history of terror are author/poet Edgar Allan Poe, cult favorite filmmaker Roger Corman, and the Merchant of Menace himself Vincent Price. This is why horror fans hold a special place in their dark hearts for a series of films Corman made during the 1960’s with American International Pictures to loosely adapt some of Poe’s greatest tales to the big screen. Collaborating with Price and utilizing AIP’s limited budgets in the way only he could. Corman produced 8 films which many have dubbed his “Poe Cycle” and today we will be looking at the seven pictures of this era he made with the iconic Vincent Price (so we are exempting the Premature Burial).
House of Usher: Not only was the House of Usher the first film in this series, it was the first big budget film in color for American International Pictures. Until this point the company was producing cheap black and white horror flicks for double features, but it was becoming clear they had to do something bigger to stay relevant. Vincent Price plays the haunted Roderick Usher who tells the man who wishes to marry his sister that the House of Usher is cursed. In only a matter of years, members of their clan become insane as part of a curse on their bloodline. During this would-be fiancée’s visit, Roderick’s sister tragically passes away and is entombed in the family crypt. But the question lingers if she is really dead. Visually gorgeous and filled with tension, the House of Usher is the perfect way to kick off this chapter in horror film history.
The Pit and the Pendulum: A fan favorite story of Edgar Allan Poe turned into a fan favorite film which plays up the camp and fun of it all. Vincent Price stars as Nicholas Medina and Barbara Steele co-stars as his sister Elizabeth, who has seemingly died of a rare blood disease. When her husband Francis comes to investigate, he learns from the family doctor she did not die of a disease, but rather died from fright in the old torture chamber. Elizabeth, it turns out, was not interred in the family tomb, but rather sealed up behind a brick wall……alive. Of course the climax of the picture takes place in the torture chamber with Francis staring down a swinging blade inching towards him. Once again Roger Corman ensures that this film looks beautiful and famed giallo directors like Dario Argento have taken clear influence from it. The Pit and the Pendulum also benefits from a screenplay courtesy of genre legend Richard Matheson who knew how to take the best elements of Poe’s tale and translate them to film.
Tales of Terror: If having one icon of horror in these films was great imagine having THREE. Three of Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest tales are adapted by Richard Matheson; Morella, the Black Cat, and the Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Joining Vincent Price in this anthology are Basil Rathbone (Son of Frankenstein) and Peter Lorre (Mad Love). Once again these are not particularly faithful to the source material, the Black Cat segment even takes a good bit from the Cask of Amontillado, but it is still a blast of a flick. Being shorter features, many complain we do not get the full effect of Roger Corman’s grand melodramatic vision he used in earlier films of this franchise. While this may be a downside having Price in three different stories (plus serving as narrator) is always a good thing.
The Raven: When it came time to bring the Raven into this series, Corman decided to take a more comedic approach to Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem in order to take advantage of Price’s knack for dark humor. Joining Vincent Price once again was Peter Lorre as well as a young Jack Nicholson and one of the greats of horror, Boris Karloff. Price plays the sorcerer Dr. Erasmus Craven who has long been in mourning for his lost wife Lenore when a raven enters his life. It turns out this raven is actually a fellow sorcerer who was transformed into a bird by yet another sorcerer named, Dr. Scarabus. Even more shocking, Craven learns that Lenore is still alive and faked her death to run off with Scarabus. What we get is a fun magical duel between Craven and Scarabus with Lenore caught in the middle Corman knew making a full feature out of a poem was a silly idea, so naturally it was the sillier aspects in the Raven which he played up.
The Haunted Palace: In one of the more interesting installments in this franchise, Roger Corman took the name of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, but took the plot of the Haunted Palace from the Case of Charles Dexter Ward by HP Lovecraft. In this flick Vincent Price plays two roles; in the beginning of this film he is Joseph Curwen, the man who runs the local asylum known as Arkham. When the townspeople take up arms against him for his abuse of a girl in his care he places a curse on the place. He then switches to playing Charles Dexter Ward, Curwen’s descendant who visits Arkham. Ward begins to obsess over his resemblance to his ancestor and dabbles in the same black magic Curwen once did. This proves to be a bad idea, as the spirit of his ancestor possesses him and seeks revenge on those who now live in the town as uses the deformed patients in Arkham to do so.
Masque of the Red Death: One of my personal favorite Edgar Allan Poe stories which seems perfect for a film adaptation due to the wealth of visuals the author already conjures up. Masque of the Red Death is a particularly memorable addition to the Poe Cycle, because Corman cranks up the strangeness in this flick. Vincent Price plays the Satanic Prince Prospero who forces a reluctant young woman to join him in the castle to feast and party with him and his subjects, while the Red Death ravages the kingdom. As with the original tale, Prospero has decorated the rooms in his palace in different colors to represent the passing of life. The party scenes within the palace are masterfully filmed, despite the fact that Roger Corman was never happy with the film’s climax when a hooded figure visits his wrath upon the prince. He claimed that the British crew could not work with the same speed as his usual American crews, which meant the pacing was way off from where he wanted.
The Tomb of Ligeia: With his final film in the Poe Cycle, Roger Corman attempted to cast a new leading man, feeling Vincent Price was too old for the lead. But the powers at AIP refused to fund the picture unless Price was in it. It is a good thing this happened as Price delivers a fun performance as Verden Fell, a man haunted by the loss of his wife, Ligeia whom he believes is haunting him in the form of a cat. This was the least successful out of the Edgar Allan Poe series of films but it still had solid box office results. Corman chalked this up to the fact that after eight films things had run out of steam. The Tomb of Ligeia had elements of both the humor and horror which made this series so successful even if it is not the best installment.