Tuesday, October 23, 2012

We Rank 'Em: The Roger Corman-Vincent Price Poe Movies

From 1960-1965, Roger Corman released eight films that were billed as being based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (we'll come to the "billed as" part later). All but one of them starred Vincent Price. Taken together, they represent arguably the high-water mark of Corman's directorial work, they cemented Vincent Price's status as a horror icon, and helped establish the screenwriting career of the unbelievably influential Richard Matheson.

I confess that ranking these movies proved much harder than I anticipated, since I love all of them, and each for different reasons. But I nevertheless persevered, for the sake of our faithful Nerds of a Feather readers...

Bonus: An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe
Not officially part of the canon, since Corman didn't direct it, this is a collection of staged recitations of Poe short stories performed by Vincent Price. The second part of the Midnite Movies double feature on the Tomb of Ligeia disc from MGM, this collection showcases a series of remarkable performances by Vincent Price, and I don't believe it's very widely known, even among Price fans. Pieces include The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado.

7. Tomb of Ligeia
Ligeia has some of my favorite locations from the series, including the crumbling stone cemetery where Price buries his beloved bride at the beginning of the film. It inflates to feature length some of the situations that fueled either subplots or shorter segments in other Corman anthology films, and combines elements of several Poe stores under a single title. The result is enjoyable and atmospheric, but maybe not as memorable on the whole as the other films in the series.

6. The Pit and the Pendulum
Stephen King will disagree with me for not putting this one higher on the list, but while The Pit and the Pendulum pioneered many of the stylistic traits that would become synonymous with the series, the later films used them to more mature effect. The vividly saturated camera filters and bizarre angles helped define the rest of the series, and gave one of Poe's best-loved stories a tangential, but emotionally consistent treatment.

5. Tales of Terror
An anthology film that features three segments culled from possibly a half-dozen Poe stories, this movie straddles the line between outright Gothic horror and comedy. Other films in the series would commit to one or the other and do each better, but the wine-tasting competition between Vincent Price's effete and refined wine connoisseur and Peter Lorre's town drunk is unbelievably winning and plain fun. Basil Rathbone's appearance as an unscrupulous medium/psychiatrist is also noteworthy and sets up a fantastically...drippy...climax.

4. The Raven
Outright comedy, The Raven pits Vincent Price, who dabbles in white magic, against mighty sorcerer Boris Karloff, who began the evening by turning Peter Lorre into a raven. A young Jack Nicholson's appearance as Peter Lorre's son should give aspiring actors everywhere hope, because Jack is one of the greatest screen actors of all time, but man, he's not very good in this. This is a legitimately funny movie, and come on - it stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Jack Nicholson. What's not to love?

3. House of Usher
The one that started it all. A bleached-blonde Vincent Price is a sight to behold, but still, and after I-don't-know-how-many viewings, I'm not sure if it's a good sight or not. Premature burials, centuries-old tombs, a family curse, possible incest, this lurid adaptation is straight from the Gothic horror playbook and would've made Matthew Lewis himself proud. And when the house starts coming down, matte paintings and miniatures or not, it's pretty awesome.

2. The Haunted Palace
One annoying feature of the Corman-Poe movies was their habit of splashing non-sequitur lines of Poe's stories or poetry on the beginning and/or end of the movies a propos of nothing...certainly not anything we've just seen onscreen. But here The Haunted Palace really takes the cake, since it's not even based on anything Poe ever wrote, and divorced of their original context, the lines of Poe that are slapped onto it almost literally have no meaning at all. Of the films in the series, this is probably the most faithful adaptation, but it's an adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft, which is one of Lovecraft's best novellas. The movie is a wonder of art direction, has some memorably eerie scenes of mutant townspeople, and a nice dual performance by Price.

1. The Masque of the Red Death
Here, Vincent Price is his most vile and gleefully evil, the colors are the most saturated, the camera effects the most extreme, and the actual emotional content of the film the most engaging. Most of these films are like windows into Grand Guignol dysfunction, which is lurid fun. But Masque of the Red Death has a real sense of good and evil, right and wrong, and characters who have to make choices between the two. If these films are guilty pleasures for me (which they aren't really, since I don't feel guilty for liking them, in all their mustache-twirling archly villainous glory), this one makes the strongest argument for simply being a good movie.