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When Roger Corman Met Edgar Allan Poe

When Roger Corman Met Edgar Allan Poe

This Halloween season (WEEN!), I’ve been watching all sorts of old 1960s Gothic horror movies, because I love Hammer Films from Britain and I love Mario Bava from Italy. But what I didn’t realize is that a very American filmmaker was making his own Gothic horror films at the same time, just as sumptuous as Hammer and just as weird and unsettling as Bava. When he finished his cycle, he didn’t direct another horror movie for 25 years. That man is Roger Corman, the absurdly prolific producer and director who was working for James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff’s company, American International Pictures, which distributed and later produced a bevy of low-budget drive-in fair. In 1959, Corman began a series of eight adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, known as “The Poe Cycle.”

I’d of course heard about the Poe Cycle, all but one of which star Vincent Price, but the idea of watching eight of them seemed a bit cumbersome. Little did I realize Corman would find the cycle cumbersome as well, and tried to change it up as often as he could, employing very different techniques the further he went along. The initial idea was never to make eight films; Corman simply wanted to adapt Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and convinced Arkoff and Nicholson to, instead of making two black-and-white films in ten days each for $150,000 each, to combine the budgets and make one color film in 15 days. This would change AIP’s whole model and would prove incredibly successful.

House of Usher (1960)

Vincent Price was cast as Roderick Usher, the oldest male descendant of a “doomed” lineage of East Coast aristocrats. His sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) is affianced to the young and handsome Philip (Mark Damon) who arrives to the swampy House of Usher to get Roderick’s approval. This proves much more difficult than he anticipated as Roderick believes all members of the family will die horribly, just as everyone else has. Madeline has a heart condition that, after an attack, makes it seem like she’s dead; Roderick knows she isn’t but Philip doesn’t, and so he hides his sister in the family crypt and prepares to bury her alive.

The film assembled what would become a stock company of creative people — Corman producing and directing, Richard Matheson writing the screenplay, Floyd Crosby as cinematographer, composer Les Baxter, and Vincent Price as the lead actor. Only Corman would work on all eight of the films, but this company would be around most. Later, Charles Beaumont would write screenplays as well. Each of the films would also contain a creepy, disturbing, surrealistic dream sequence, which would be the hallmark of the cycle.

House of Usher established the look of these films as colorful, sumptuous, widescreen affairs with gorgeous costumes and sets that Corman could use to accentuate mood or shoot in different ways to make things appear even larger. His idea was to have these movies seem as otherworldly and strange as possible, and so he had everything shot in the studio, even the exteriors. He accentuated the artifice of movie-making, but it works incredibly well in these films. Corman would start changing the formula almost immediately, save these physical choices.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Because House of Usher proved to be such a massive hit, Corman was made to make another Poe adaptation, this time from a very short story. In truth, Matheson’s screenplay would have to embellish on what amounts to only a few pages of original text. In 16th Century Spain, an English nobleman (John Kerr) visits the castle of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina (Price), to learn why his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) had died. Nicholas and his own sister (Luana Anders) are very evasive, but the man eventually learns from a doctor than his sister “died of fright.” It’s clear that Nicholas is racked with guilt, and the sister tells the nobleman all about their childhood when their father (also played by Price) would torture them using Spanish Inquisition methods. Soon, the castle is “haunted” by Elizabeth’s ghost, or maybe it’s just Elizabeth herself, not dead after all. Slowly, Nicholas begins to lose his mind and retreats to the dungeon, where the titular massive torture device is held.

This movie is a lot more out-and-out horror than Usher was; less Gothic romance and more pure Gothic. It feels the most like a Mario Bava film of any of Corman’s Poe work, not least because Barbara Steele also starred as the vampire witch in Bava’s seminal masterwork, Black Sunday, in 1960. The sets are, again, gorgeous, and Price does a masterful job at playing the tortured soul-turned-villain. His work in these films is almost always of a man torn apart by some form of guilt or haunted by his past, which eventually leads him to horrible acts. Price is the perfect Poe character.

The Premature Burial (1962)

After two very successful Poe adaptations, not to mention a slew of other work for AIP, Corman wanted to branch out on his own and make his next Poe picture, an adaptation of The Premature Burial. He got financing from Pathe Lab in Paris and began production. Since Price was an AIP contract player, Corman couldn’t cast him, and so chose Academy Award winner Ray Milland.

However, the story goes that when Corman went to the set to begin production, he was surprised to find Arkoff and Nicholson there with wide grins shaking his hand. Corman initially thought they were just being good sports about the whole thing, but he was soon told that AIP had bought the film rights from Pathe and Corman was again working for them.

The Premature Burial‘s screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell stands out not only because of the lack of Price. Milland plays Guy Gault, a wealthy son of a physician who is obsessed by an irrational fear of death, and more over, of being buried alive and left to die. His father has a body exhumed for medical research and Guy sees scratch marks on the inside of the coffin, meaning the man was indeed alive when buried. Guy then spends weeks and months attempting to create a coffin for himself that will open at the smallest of twitches from his own body, should he be placed inside while alive. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, his wife (Hazel Court) is trying to make sure that fear becomes a reality.

Tales of Terror (1962)

Firmly back at AIP, and with three successful, mostly straightforward adaptations of Poe, Corman changed things up for the first time by making a portmanteau movie with three separate Poe stories, each of which would feature Vincent Price in a different role.

The first story is “Morella,” a by-the-numbers Poe where Price plays the angry and lonely father of Lenora (Maggie Pierce), who was shunned away to boarding school because Price’s beloved wife, Morella, died in childbirth. He has kept the decomposing corpse of Morella in his room for all these years, and her ghost rises to seek revenge on the daughter.

Second is “The Black Cat,” mixed with “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which Peter Lorre plays the drunkard husband of a much younger, pretty wife. He hates his wife’s cat. One night, he stumbles his way into a wine-tasting competition against Price, a snooty critic. After the competition, Price helps Lorre home where he passes out, but Price meets and begins to fall in love with the wife. An affair commences, which Lorre is not pleased about when he finds out. This section is notable for being highly comedic, played for laughs and not at all for scares.

Thirdly, we go back to horror for “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which has Price as the titular Valdemar, dying of a horrible disease, who employs a hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) to alleviate the pain. However, the hypnotist is a cruel, evil man and keeps Valdemar’s soul in limbo while his body putrefies, demanding Valdemar’s wife marry him instead. You guessed it! Corpse rises.

This is an enjoyable series of three that allows for Price to flex his acting muscles. He and Lorre got along so well that they were paired for the next film, a pure comedy.

The Raven (1963)

Now, already the fifth Poe film, we begin to see Corman’s attempt to make it more interesting for himself, and for Price. This movie only has nominal ties to the poem “The Raven” and is instead about magicians in the 15th Century. Price plays Dr. Craven, a magician who is mourning his late wife Lenore (Hazel Court) and encounters a talking raven, only to discover it’s actually a wizard Dr. Bedlo (Lorre), transformed by the evil Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Bedlo convinces Craven to travel to Scarabus’ castle for revenge. Along for the ride are Craven’s daughter (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo’s son (a very young Jack Nicholson).

This movie isn’t my favorite of the cycle, but it’s undoubtedly a fun time at the movies. Price and Lorre make a wonderful comedy double act and Karloff gets to be menacing and, yes, even gets to feel up Hazel Court in one scene. Not bad for a guy pushing 80 and unable to walk for very long.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

This movie certainly feels different than the others, and there’s a very good reason for that: it’s not a real Poe movie. It falls into the cycle, but it was only given the Poe title “The Haunted Palace” and had lines from Poe inserted into it much later. The movie is really Corman’s attempt to do an H.P. Lovecraft story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This was the first adaptation of Lovecraft to film.

Price plays Charles Dexter Ward, a descendant of Joseph Curwen (whom Price also plays), an accused warlock who was cast out and killed by members of the community. Ward is shocked to learn of this lineage when he inherits Curwen’s palace 110 years later. However, the evil of Curwen hasn’t died and the kindly Ward soon finds himself possessed by the warlock’s ghost. But only one spirit can survive.

Corman shot this movie with as much dingy gloom as possible, full of grey color and smoke everywhere. He wanted to differentiate it from the other, very colorful Poe films. Even Price himself seems to be relishing the chance to play a true villain, which he would again get to in the next film.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

With this film, Corman was really trying to be different. He shot it in England and purposely made it look more European, like a Fellini or Bergman film. Floyd Crosby was no longer the cinematographer, and instead Corman used Nicolas Roeg, who would himself go on to direct terrifying visions like Don’t Look Now and the 1990s film The Witches.

Price plays an Italian satanist who is the Prince of a portion of the kingdom. He’s an awful, greedy sort who has no care in the world that the people of the village are dying from the mysterious “Red Death,” a sickness which causes the blood vessels in a person’s face to explode (probably). He means to execute two men, but he becomes enamored of a young girl, who is one of the men’s daughter and the other man’s fiance. The Prince decides to play with them and holds them in his castle while a hedonistic orgy of the rich takes place. Little does he know, someone much more sinister, and possibly supernatural, is paying very close attention to his actions.

This movie didn’t perform quite as well as the others, and that’s likely due to it being a little more arty and pretentious than the others. I still like it, and I think it’s because Corman is an artist trying to do something interesting to satisfy his creative needs, even on his seventh film in a cycle.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1965)

The final film in the cycle was a massive departure for everyone involved. Of the original cadre of creative people, only Corman and Price remained. Breaking his own rule about only shooting in a studio, Corman wanted to use the English countryside, and so found a ruined old castle and made sure to shoot it in the harsh light of day as much as possible, even beginning with a lavish foxhunting sequence.

Price’s final role for the cycle is of a man who, guess what, is mourning the loss of his wife, Ligeia, who died very young and was buried in a shallow grave with a window to see her face. Really creepy. He is cold and removed, just like the crumbling castle in which he lives, but he soon sees life return when he meets a headstrong young noblewoman (Elizabeth Shepherd) and the two fall in love and marry. When they’re away, things are wonderful, but as soon as they return to the manor to sell it, Price falls back into despair and fear of Ligeia. The presence of a black cat almost always signifies this change, and the young wife begins to suspect the cat isn’t just a cat at all.

This is a very worthy end to the cycle. Although visually and mechanically the most different, it also has some classic Poe and Corman touches along the way, including the scariest of the dream sequences, and a very downbeat ending, true to most of the films.

Corman made these eight movies in the course of only about four or five years, which seems like quite a bit, and it is, except when you consider these weren’t the only movies Corman made during that period. All told, between 1960 and 1965, Corman directed 19 films, almost all of them horror flicks for AIP, including The Little Shop of Horrors and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. That’s an absurdly high output, and it’s sort of no wonder that, following The Tomb of Ligeia, Corman completely stopped making horror movies, turning to his short cycle of bikers and psychedelia movies before turning to producing almost full-time.

The Poe Cycle stands as Corman’s crowning directorial achievement. It’s easy to discount his artistic output because they were “just” low-budget horror movies, but this was a man who was using the assignment he was given to create a truly unique and wholly American series that borrowed from Britain and Italy but could have only been made by Roger Corman. I highly recommend you check these out if you can. The Premature Burial and Tales of Terror are available from Kino Lorber while the rest were released as part of the two-volume Vincent Price collection put out by MGM and Scream Factory.

Featured Image: MGM

Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Follow him on Twitter!

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