|Original caricature by Jeff York of Vincent Price in "The Masque of the Red Death"|
HOUSE OF USHER (1960)
During the 60’s, Roger Corman brought a number of works by Poe to the big screen, with mixed results. Some were sublime, and some were utterly ridiculous. Corman started off the decade with a faithful adaptation of the disturbing tale of the twisted bond between the wealthy Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline. Roderick is a hypochondriac, expecting to be engulfed by disease, and Vincent Prince plays him with a jittery mix of sensitivity and ruthlessness. The story takes place in a doomed mansion, a brilliant metaphor for the equally crumbling interior of his main characters, and the art direction is quite something here. It helps make this moody character study truly disturbing putting the Gothic in gothic horror with every velvet curtain and sinister hallway.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)
With the success of ‘Usher’, Corman next brought Poe’s most horrifying tale to the screen, although it never came close to matching the author’s original potent prose. The story of a prisoner fighting the Spanish Inquisition in a torture chamber never seems more than utter cheese as John Kerr’s tepid performance doesn’t help matters at all. A dragging pace and some fleeting hamminess by returning star Price do not help either. The Pendulum does have its scary moments however, mostly due to the fact that Corman took out every other frame of it in post to add to its appearance of being swift and brutal. Unfortunately the rest of this mish-mash doesn’t cut nearly close enough to the bone.
THE RAVEN (1963)
An utter embarrassment. Price returns yet again, this time to compete in the contest for most-over-the-top performance against tired and bloated veteran performers Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. Corman reduced these three great horror legends to Virginia hams, allowing them to vamp their way through this shameful adaptation of Poe’s most famous and haunting poem. Price always said he regretted this one, as well he should have.
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)
For my money, this is Corman’s greatest work, and easily the best Poe adaptation filmed for the big screen. Yet again Price returns, but this time he gives a marvelous performance as Prince Prospero, the vain European prince hedonistically ruling over the land with an insatiable appetite for wine, women and song. Price cameos as the Masque himself towards the end of the film, and is shown in my original caricature that accompanies this article. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH here is a timeless dissertation on the ruling class and their oppression of the masses, an indictment of the 1% almost fifty years before the occupy movement took hold of our economically ravaged world.
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)
This one is barely remembered and that’s an utter shame as Corman’s last Poe tribute is a gnawing piece of psychological horror. Once again, Corman favorite Price is the lead, this time taking the role of Verden Fell, a newly married man who just can’t let go of the memories of his dead first wife Ligeia. He becomes obsessed with her visage, insisting that somehow she’s still alive. It drives Fell and everyone around him mad, leading to madness, seclusion and a grotesque exhumation. Any similarity to Poe’s real life, what with his stultifying inability to get past his wife’s death, was purely intentional by the author, and faithfully rendered here.
In fact, it’s that promise of capturing Poe’s obsessions that has me excited to see THE RAVEN this weekend. Sure, it’s about Poe helping a detective trap a killer aping Poe’s death scenes, but what I really hope it’s about is Poe himself, and all his peccadilloes that informed his work and most of Corman’s fitting tributes. We shall see.