BBFC Classification: 12
Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Hazel Court, Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steel, Elizabeth Shepherd, Mark Damon, John Kerr, Myrna Fahey, Lon Chaney, Jr.
Anybody who has paid attention to Arrow Video’s release schedule over the past year or so would have noticed a few classic Vincent Price movies getting released on Blu-ray in some rather lavish packages, and although their versions of The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit & The Pendulum are quite spectacular to have on your shelf in their own right, when boxed together with four other films from the Price/Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of the early 1960s they have a bit more added clout when it comes to collectable appeal.
Looking at the films in the order they were originally released, 1960’s The Fall of the House of Usher comes first and in many ways is the best, with Vincent Price at his most fragile yet commanding and Roger Corman still finding his directorial feet as he moved away from the sci-fi creature features of the 1950s and tried to compete with Hammer Films, who were dominating the horror movie market at the time. In Poe’s tale of the cursed Usher family, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the Usher mansion to see his bride-to-be Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) but is met by her domineering brother Roderick (Price) who tries to dissuade the earnest young man from marrying his sister, before manipulating events to his advantage as Winthrop refuses to accept Usher’s tales of family curses.
The Fall of the House of Usher is an amazingly creepy and atmospheric film that has stood the test of time as a film that achieves so much with so very little. A bleach-blond Price was never better than he was here, flitting between tortured victim and mischievous aggressor with ease, and in a cast of only four he gets to flex his acting muscles and dominate the film entirely. So when Roger Corman set about following the film up with another Poe adaptation he turned to Price again for 1961’s The Pit & The Pendulum, where Price was cast as Nicholas Medina, the son of Spain’s most famous torturer. Medina is visited in his castle by Francis Barnard (John Kerr) who is investigating the death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), who happens to be Medina’s wife. But Francis’ snooping leads him to uncover things about Medina and his family that culminate in the revelation of Medina’s most feared torture device.
The Pit & The Pendulum was a bigger budget affair than …Usher and has a bit more of a pace to it, especially during the last half of the film, and Vincent Price hams it up for all he’s worth in what is probably the first example of the ‘typical’ Price performance he would become known for. The appearance of Barbara ‘Black Sunday‘ Steele as Elizabeth adds a little Gothic glamour and although John Kerr isn’t the most engaging of leading men he is perfectly adequate as a straight man to Price’s demented scenery chewing, making The Pit & The Pendulum a little less groundbreaking than its predecessor but still a worthy competitor to Hammer’s output of the time.
Tales of Terror followed in 1962 and saw Roger Corman adopt the anthology format to tell three short stories which, in many ways, is the best way to adapt Poe for the screen. Vincent Price stars in all three stories – Morella, The Black Cat and The Case of M. Valdemar (the latter two remade by George A. Romero and Dario Argento as Two Evil Eyes in 1990) – and steals the show again, although celebrated German actor Peter Lorre gives him a run for his money in The Black Cat, easily the most entertaining of the three stories.
Peter Lorre returned with Price for The Raven in 1963, which saw fellow horror legend Boris Karloff (who appeared in Universal’s 1935 adaptation of Poe’s poem with Bela Lugosi) join the pair for a comic take on Poe that drastically lightened the tone but showed that treated correctly Poe’s source material could be adapted for a wider audience. Taken at face value the script is a little silly but the improvisational style of Peter Lorre clashing with the classical acting style of Karloff is a joy to watch, with Vincent Price holding it together between the pair of them as an actor able to perform in both styles. And the final showdown between magicians Price and Karloff is worth watching just to see the crazy 1960’s optical effects, which would no doubt have been seen as cutting edge at the time.
The Haunted Palace was also released in 1963 and saw Corman and Price return to the darker roots of The Fall of the House of Usher in a tale of possession by ancient ancestors where Price plays the dual role of Charles Dexter Ward and his warlock ancestor Joseph Curwen, who was executed by a mob of angry villagers but not before placing a curse on those who wronged him. Also featuring legendary horror actor Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man) as Curwen’s faithful disciple Simon, The Haunted Palce brings back the creeping dread of …Usher and …Pendulum that the previous two films lacked and showed that Price and Corman still had a few tricks up their collective sleeve.
Such as changing the filming location to England for 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia. Vincent Price himself has gone on record saying that this was his favourite of the Poe adaptations he did and from an actor’s point of view you can see why as it is a script that doesn’t translate easily to the screen, giving Price a chance to do a little more than laugh maniacally and chew some scenery. However, from an audience point of view it’s probably the least exciting or engaging of the six films in this set, despite being beautifully shot and well acted. Price holds it together well, playing his most interesting character since Roderick Usher and possibly being the most sombre he has appeared in film up until that point, but the script is a little awkward and inconsistent, with lines like “I tried to kill a stray cat with a cabbage” going for the theatrically absurd but not quite hitting the right tone, despite Price’s delivery. Nevertheless, The Tomb of Ligeia still feels very Poe with its themes of lost loves and the living being driven to madness by the dead, and the change of scenery away from the sound stages of American International Pictures and into the green fields of Norfolk makes it stand out from the rest.
Needless to say, this is a collection worth owning. Each disc looks pristine and comes with a glutton of special features that help flesh out the material and give you a picture of what the filmmaking process was for each film, mainly thanks to Roger Corman’s detailed recollections. If you watch them in order then you can see a progression in Corman’s technical skill as he was able to work with bigger budgets and seeing Vincent Price grow into his own legend is simply wonderful, even though his best and most memorable performance is arguably still that of Roderick Usher in the first of these films. Now Arrow, how about a Blu-ray of The Masque of the Red Death?
Special Features: Trailers for each film, reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork for all films, audio commentaries by Roger Corman, Tim Lucas, David Del Valle, Ron Chaney and Elizabeth Shepherd, exclusive interviews with cast and crew, archive interviews with director Roger Corman, writer Richard Matheson and star Vincent Price, featurettes with Kim Newman discussing Poe and Lovecraft in film, documentaries, short films, stills and poster galleries, 200-page limited edition collector’s book containing new writings on the films, an interview with Roger Corman, extracts from Vincent Price’s autobiography and full reproductions of tie-in comic books for Tales of Terror, The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia.
UK Release Date: 8th December 2014