|Tales of Terror|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 19 September 2000|
MGM has been steadily issuing old American International thrillers that, through complicated transactions, they've ended up owning. Hopefully, in time they'll work their way through all of the possible titles; entries in Roger Corman's series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, like 'Tales of Terror,' are particularly welcome.
That being said, 'Tales of Terror' is not overall one of the best in the Poe series, though it does have its moments. Screenwriter Richard Matheson condensed four Poe stories into the three segments of this movie. The first, "Morella," is practically the entire series in miniature. Lenora Locke (Maggie Pierce) arrives at her father's distant, fog-shrouded New England mansion; he (Vincent Price, who's in all three segments) is hardly happy to see her, having sent her away as a baby following the death of his beloved wife, Morella. The luxury-loving Morella was injured during childbirth, and died not long thereafter, blaming the child with her last breath. But Locke and Lenora, who's dying herself, are on the verge of reconciliation when the supernatural intervenes. The segment concludes with yet another Corman/Poe conflagration, with the same shots of the burning chicken coop (literally) crashing down on the camera.
The second section was a major departure for Corman and Matheson, and led to 'The Raven' that soon followed. Just for the sake of variety, Matheson adapted "The Black Cat" (combined with "A Cask of Amontillado") as a quirky comedy. Peter Lorre stars as Montresor, a drunken bum -- hasn't had a job in 17 years -- who's constantly badgering, and sometimes worse, his wife (Joyce Jameson) for money to buy wine. He detests his wife's black cat (which seems to like him).
His deep devotion to drinking has led him with the tasting ability of a wine connoisseur -- which he ably proves when pitted against the famous wine expert Fortunato (Price again). Fortunato goes through elaborate, and evidently technically accurate, rituals, sampling just a taste of each wine before pronouncing its vintage, label and quality. Montresor guzzles a glassful, coming up with the accurate information, too -- though to him, all wines are good.
When Fortunato takes the soused Montresor home, he catches the eye of Montresor's beleaguered wife, and they begin an affair which, of course, leads to disaster for all.
The final story is Matheson's adaptation of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Price is the elderly Valdemar, married to the much younger Helene (Debra Paget), who is drawn -- with her husband's consent -- to his physician, Dr. James (David Frankham), a man of her age. Both Helene and James are skeptical of mesmerist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone), who has been experimenting with Valdemar -- who is a dying man.
Carmichael is a conniver, obsequious to Valdemar when the old gentleman is conscious, tyrannical to him when he's in a hypnotic trance. And Carmichael wants Valdemar's wealth, as well as his wife. As Valdemar is on the verge of death, Carmichael hypnotizes him again, and keeps him in a trance even after Valdemar dies.
Months pass, and Carmichael dominates the house, refusing to release the suffering Valdemar from his trance. Of course, things go very wrong for the villain.
Floyd Crosby's Panavision photography is beautifully presented in this disc -- at least on the letterboxed side. The color is excellent, and the print is in superb shape, with only minor speckling. In 1962, of course, low-key photography was rare; a lot of movies -- particularly horror films -- played at drive-ins, where a brightly-lit image was considered mandatory. So Corman had to maintain this high-key approach; the sets are lit from edge to edge. He and Crosby get away with more shadowy work in the street scenes in 'The Black Cat,' and use rich, saturated colors in 'Valdemar.'
This was a relatively low-budget movie, so don't expect high-quality sound; it's acceptable, but it's not stereo, and there's nothing unusual about it, except in the awkward dream sequences in "The Black Cat" segment.
"Morella" is very standard, familiar stuff; too bad they didn't try one of the stranger Poe stories. Price glowers and fumes, but there's no character here. He's far more interesting in "The Black Cat," flamboyantly funny. He even out-cutes Peter Lorre, which is no small task. Lorre is burdened with a role that has only three notes: drunken mirth, sullen anger and suspicion, and at times is uncomfortably realistic. He's a lot more fun in 'The Raven.'
The third segment is the best, a creepy, even disturbing little shocker with a satisfactorily gruesome ending, a strong, colorful performance by Basil Rathbone, and a warm, avuncular Price. It's just long enough, just shocking enough, an almost ideal version of the Poe story (though it does add a romance). And Rathbone looks dashing in a crimson velvet smoking jacket.
Keep 'em coming, MGM.