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Home / Film / Feature Articles / Such perfection of treachery: Malignance and lunacy in Corman’s Poe Cycle (Part One)

Such perfection of treachery: Malignance and lunacy in Corman’s Poe Cycle (Part One)

Tales-of-Terror-5x1No American Gothic series would be complete without Edgar Allan Poe, and if we are talking about cinematic adaptations, Roger Corman’s famous “Poe Cycle” deserves a big piece of the spotlight — a series of eight films, made between 1960-1964(5); seven of which starred the icon of American Gothic: Vincent Price.

The sixties was a busy time for Gothic cinema. UK studios Hammer Films were well on the way to establishing a distinct brand of Gothic on British shores; resurrecting many of the literary classics used by Universal in its heyday and giving them a sexy makeover. Meanwhile, in Italy, Gothic was just about to hit its full stride. Filmmakers such as Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda laced Gothic with grotesque violence and a sexually charged current; trading in dreamlike narratives and spectacular visual style. Roger Corman, on the other hand, made something distinctly American in flavour; even if he was influenced by the European masters in one way or another— as ironically was Poe; this fact making an all the more fitting tribute to the writer’s legacy in film. What American Gothic cinema lacked was the coherent movement found in Europe, and therefore Corman’s period set series stands as a bit of a loner when compared to the other themes endemic to American genre cinema at the time; sci-fi outsiders, creature features, or as the sixties hit mid-point (in the wake of films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Night of the Living Dead (1965) contemporary suburban terror.

Poet W.H Auden said of Poe— in his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: selected Prose and Poetry — that, “Poe is sometimes attacked for the operatic quality of the prose and decor in his tales, but they are essential to preserve the illusion. His heroes cannot exist except operatically”. If we bear this in mind, and agree (which I certainly do) then when you think about it, there could have only really ever been one person for the job when it came to building a filmic legacy for Poe’s work. As luck would have it that’s exactly who Corman chose to cast for most of his Poe films. Vincent Price was well known for his (often) charismatic brand of theatrical acting style, his ability for high camp histrionics, and talent in portraying the most treacherous and tragic of characters with much pathos. When so inclined he became the ultimate pantomime villain; dishing out characters you just loved to hate, and then loved to love, just because they were so deliciously wicked. Just like Peter Cushing, Price was already mature when he hit his stride, finding his niche in the horror genre after making the revenge tragedy House of Wax (1953):  a film which aided to install Price as one of the leading figures in American horror. And although it was a consequent stint in William Castle’s Grand Guignol styled films that fused the actor into the very bones of the genre, Corman’s Poe cycle allowed him to fully shape a corner of American horror into something of his very own. The characters he played for Corman— in what was a relatively brief but nevertheless prolific and potent period in the actor’s career— continued to influence his presence in horror, when it came to the type of roles he played, as he continued on well into the next two decades and beyond.

However, it’s not entirely fair to give full credit to Price, no matter how much of a powerhouse he was, and even if he overshadowed much of the Corman Poe cycle. Ray Milland, who starred in The Premature Burial (1962), owns his own part of the legacy; as do the myriad of supporting players who featured throughout the series. Of course, it also goes without saying the cycle owes a huge debt to scriptwriter Richard Matheson, who was able to adapt and translate many of Poe’s seminal works for Corman; widening out the narratives (while keeping the central sentiment intact) and making them suitable for feature length film.

It is because of these narratives that the collection offers up such a rich tapestry of characters— giving Price and many of his co-stars something really meaty to sink their acting chops into. Like Gothic fairytales in many respects— especially when you look at the lavish sets, and beautiful costumes on display—  good versus evil are pitted against each other in some of the most marvellous of ways. Without taking anything away from the players involved, the most interesting of these characterisations usually fell to the side of “evil”; the scripts and performances fleshing out some of Poe’s most chilling sentiment. From the anguish of Roderick Usher to the ruthless and perverse Prince Prospero, Corman’s Poe Cycle provides a delectable array of fiendish characters to enjoy. Let’s take a look in further depth to find out just what makes them so irresistible. Part One will focus on The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), the Pit and the Pendulum (1961) The Premature Burial (1962) and Tales of Terror (1962). Part Two will continue with The Raven (1963) The Haunted Palace (1963)  The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and finally, The Tomb of Ligeia (1965).

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The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

Originally intended as a stand alone film Corman’s first port of call was to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most influential titles: The Fall of the House of Usher. Richard Matheson adapted the script quite faithfully, while embellishing his version with romantic flavour traditionally seen in genre cinema of the time (but which was lacking in the original text— a formula that continued throughout the series). Vincent Price stars as the lamentable Roderick Usher, a man racked with the pain of his very existence; so much so that he has become sensitive to noise and is tormented by the tiniest of sounds. Shut off from the world in his isolated castle, surrounded by a desolate landscape, Roderick fears for his sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who is afflicted, just as he, by the curse of the Usher family. When Madeline’s suitor, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives to take her back to Boston, Roderick proves how far he will go to stop his sister from leaving, by burying her alive: an act which turns the poor maiden insane, and full of furious vengeance.

In the role of Roderick Usher Vincent Price really epitomises the sense of melancholic drama inherent in Poe. Neuroticism, madness, jealousy, guilt, flow from his portrayal, giving the narrative a complexity that lends itself to deeper meaning. Just like the original tale, the true evil flows from the house itself; “Usher” being a forefather for many of the “consuming house” tales that would spawn in the field of American Gothic literature; such as Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King’s The Shining (both of which were later adapted for cinema). Although houses, and their malignant influence, are a core staple for Gothic in general, it was American Gothic— through Charles Brockden Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe— that aligned the idea with Freudian aspects, the human psyche, madness and decay. Roderick’s madness, and fragile physical state, are strongly linked to the house. The paintings that adorn the walls of the Usher ancestors paint the gruesome picture that the wealth enjoyed by the family has been drawn from a bloody history involving murder, torture, and even piracy. Roderick, unable to stand the weight of this (the house being a concrete reminder of this) and believing the family to be cursed has been reduced to his lunatic state by a sense of shame and guilt. What is interesting is the idea that Madeline has enjoyed freedom and normality while away from the house—  and it could be suggested so too could Roderick—  but while locked inside the dwelling both souls rot along with the miserable history attached to the place. This idea of being unable to leave a dark, foreboding, oppressive environment, is a key motif that pops up in many of the Corman Poe adaptations. As does a sense of past and present in constant collision, resulting in misery and death for those trapped within the vortex.

Through the dynamic between Madeline and Roderick we begin to see a transgressive edge to the brother/sister relationship. Bringing in Philip Winthrop as as Madeleine’s fiance becomes the catalyst that tips Roderick over the edge; the dynamic of which encouraging subtle undertones of incest to flow through the subtext just for good measure. Although not explicit, his obvious jealousy toward the relationship his sister has with an outsider, drives him to take extreme measures to stop her leaving. Also introduced into this line of thinking is that Roderick sees his sister as an incarnation of original sin, as Eve, ready to go out and infect the world with the fruits of her womb; able to spread the family curse like a cancer. This proves lethal for them both, when Madeline is sent mad, and almost to the point of death, buried alive in the family tomb, ripping off her fingernails as she tries desperately to escape such a hideous fate. She is forced into the abyss, just like her brother, by the resulting madness. As the two fight it out in the grim denouement, we see a perfectly doubling (a key Poe motif) which brings about the eventual destruction of not only the last of the Usher line, but the evil establishment which has trapped them in their fatalistic journey.

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The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)  

As one film turned into a series Corman had wanted to produce The Masque of the Red Death after the success of Usher. However, the director saw some similarity in thematic content between his idea for this and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), and so it fell to The Pit and the Pendulum to carry on the momentum as the series took off. The original story was not so easy to adapt for scriptwriter Matheson given that it consists of a simple (yet effective and downright horrid) first person narrative of a victim of the Spanish inquisition trying to escape a death sentence in a locked room, and having to endure a series of tortures. Matheson, a highly talented writer, drew some of the most sadistic aspects of Poe’s tale, building on these concepts to make a fuller story that would translate well to cinema; the result of which became a solid highlight for the series, giving star Vincent Price the perfect opportunity to display both pathos and treachery through the dual nature of his character.

Price returns, as the poor lamentable Don Nicholas Medina, another character trapped by an oppressive environment, which happens to be a 16th century Spanish castle saturated in the pestilence of a horrible family history. Medina’s father was a key figure in the Spanish inquisition, and his torture chamber lays in the core of the Medina’s home, alongside the family crypt. Just like the previous feature, Usher, the story begins with the arrival of an unwanted visitor, Francis Barnard (John Kerr), who is investigating the mysterious circumstances under which his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), Medina’s wife, died three months before. The story paints a picture of Medina as racked with grief for the untimely death of a wife which he idolised; thus tapping into Poe’s recurring theme of the loss of love (something he suffered many times over in his personal life, when he lost his mother, foster mother and wife to illness and premature death). It was a theme Poe revisited time and time again in his work, and one which Corman did well to exploit for his series.

Barnard, suspicious of the circumstances, pushes for information on Elizabeth’s demise, despite the protestations of Medina’s sister Catherine (Luana Anders) and the family physician— who was present at the time of death — Dr. Leon (Anthony Carbone). Medina is in pieces, crushed by guilt, and the fear that he buried his wife alive, unable to come to terms with the loss and further fuelled by the idea that his wife’s vengeful ghost may be haunting him; weird happenings in the castle, like a harpsichord playing in the night, or Elizabeth’s room being vandalised, would suggest this may be the case. After the miserable truth comes out, her death is described as occurring from a state of shock— is it said that Elizabeth became fixated and obsessed with the instruments of torture in the basement; she was found dying in an iron maiden shortly after, calling Medina’s father’s name: “Sebastian”. But there is more, Nicolas is not solely mad because he is grieving, it further transpires that he suffered a childhood trauma, witnessing his mother tortured to death by his  father— she was walled up and buried alive when it was found, by father Sebastian, that she was having an affair with his brother. Nicolas, as a ten year old boy, was unfortunate enough to spy on the event after creeping into the chamber, curious about the evil which lurked within. And so it is with the weight of all this crushing on him that when he finally goes completely insane, it is in quite spectacular style indeed.

Nicolas isn’t evil though, even if his father was. But when he does go off the deep end, as a result of the psychological mind games played on him by wife Elizabeth and her lover, he channels the dark sadistic spirit of Sebastian Medina to do so. Elizabeth, far from the angelic lost love we are first presented with, is a truly wicked woman. Nasty, spiteful, curling her evil lips in a sneer, Barbara Steele (who had been hired on the back of her pivotal performance in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) chews up the scenery as the true villain of the entire sensational show. The scenes between Price and Steele are laced in a glorious layer of sexual sadism; especially in the way Price clinches his co-star and caresses her, all while gripping a firm hand around her throat. The dialogue in these scenes takes on a gleeful celebration of Grand Guignol violence and depravity. Just as with Usher it is madness that turns up the tempo as matters rush toward a gripping climax— Barnard trapped under the swinging blade of the Pendulum, a vicious instrument of death, Medina utterly insane and intent on death and destruction. Fuelled by an aura of doom and despair, in the style of a true Shakespearean tragedy, Corman proves (once again) there will be no happy ending for many of those fated by the Castle Medina and the grim echoes of a bloody family history.

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The Premature Burial (1962)

The Premature Burial became the third installment of the series, that almost never was (not officially at least). Corman had started production on the feature independently and therefore was unable to cast Price who was under an exclusive contract to AIP, but shifted the picture back into the fold when it became problematic with the studio (who by this point felt something of an entitlement to the Corman Poe “brand” as it was developing). Ray Milland took up centre stage, as the doomed Guy Carrell: a man sent to the brink of despair by childhood trauma and a fear of being buried alive. The script duties fell to Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell, using Poe’s short story as inspiration, bringing in other familiar aspects of the cycle as a whole, to align the overall feel and tone with the recurrent themes of the series.

Set in the early 1800’s Corman loads on the funeral garnish like there is no tomorrow, drawing the narrative outside of the fateful doomed family home, to include a creepy graveyard shrouded in mist. This imbibes everything with a distinct fairytale quality, with nightmarish overtones. Poe’s story is again, like Pit, a singular first person narrative about a man— who sets the scene by reporting on a number of alarming “real life” cases of poor unfortunates being buried alive when mistakenly thought dead— divulging his own morbid tale of distress that there is a very real chance this might actually happen to him too. The protagonist is a cataleptic— falling into death like trances that give the appearance of demise— (a theme that also crops up in Poe’s Usher, and many times in the Corman Poe series),and is almost driven out of his mind as he obsesses over the worry that he will one day wake up in a coffin. He goes to great lengths to ensure this won’t happen to him. Beaumont and Russell use this as the foundation for their adaptation, but introduce some childhood trauma— father possibly buried alive—  some recent trauma— accidentally seeing a contorted corpse roll out of its coffin while grave robbing — and their protagonist being recently married, to draw out as much drama from one terrifying concept.

Although Ray Milland lacks the flamboyance of Price, he does bring something of his own to the role of Guy Carrell; an individual driven to the point of obsession: fragile, neurotic, fatalistic. He is certainly far more serious in his part, which works well with the narrative. Hazel Court, who would go on to appear in two more of the Corman Poe adaptations— The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death— also puts in an incredibly understated and nuanced performance in her role as wife Emily. Building on from Usher we also get the sense of a far too close for comfort relationship between Guy and his sister Kate (Heather Angel) who presents as jealous of Guy’s impending marriage, and suspicious of his new wife when she moves into the family home. What the tale lacks is the spark and charismatic flow that Price was able to bring, although the climactic scenes are some of the most grim and devastating seen in the franchise.

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Tales of Terror (1962)

Produced the same year as The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror saw something of a return to form; reuniting actor Price with the series, and also bringing in the talents of Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre (the three would later star together, along with Boris Karloff, in Comedy of Terrors (1963). In an attempt to alter the formula slightly from a lone story, the film presents an anthology of three tales inspired by Poe; this is fitting given the “read in one sitting” short story method utilized by the author in much of his work.

Morella

The first segment kicks off on a somber note. Young Lenora (Maggie Pierce), a girl suffering from a terminal illness, reunites with her father Locke (Vincent Price) who she hasn’t seen in 26 years. On arrival she finds him in a complete state; drunk, bitter, dismissive, and grieving for his wife Morella who died after giving birth to the girl. Blaming her for the death Lenora was sent away; the widower left wallowing in a pit of despair, like an American Gothic styled Miss Haversham, sitting in a cobwebbed room with the remnants of Morella’s last party feast rotting at the table, and his wife’s grotesque mummified corpse laid out in some sort of bizarre tribute display because he couldn’t bear the finality of burying the woman. Morella’s literary antecedent takes a slightly different design. Morella, an imposing figure, renders her husband spellbound turning him into a devoted slave, but she dies as a consequence of giving birth. As she grows, her daughter takes on such a likeness of the deceased mother, the husband starts to fear Morella has reincarnated through the body of her child. The story possesses aspects of vampirism in some respects; Morella feeding off the lifeforce of her own child becomes a figure of true Gothic monstrosity: serpentine, deadly and utterly defiant in the face of her own mortality. Corman’s rendition alters the course of the narrative, ever so slightly, retaining the underlying cruelty found in Poe. Morella, who has apparently been waiting for years for her daughter’s return, is able to resurrect herself by possessing Lenora as she sleeps. A fact which has devastating repercussions for the entire family.

The Black Cat

Injecting a buoyant energy into the midpoint, The Black Cat revels in the joy found in any pairing of actors Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. Peter Lorre is a belligerent drunk, Montresor Herringbone; abusive, workshy and downright nasty to his beautiful, sweet wife Annabel (an obvious nod to Poe’s Annabel Lee)  (Joyce Jameson). After running out of money for booze one evening he stumbles into a wine tasting convention where he sees fit to challenge the urbane Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price- giving a glorious send up of the gourmet culture he was a big fan of in real life). Fortunato is unable to beat Herringbone, but takes the real prize: Annabel (after walking the inebriated Herringbone home). After discovering the adulterous affair Herringbone takes revenge, walling up Fortunato alongside his dead wife, in his cellar, where he thinks his crime will never be discovered.

The Black Cat is actually an amalgamation of two Poe stories. The short from which the segment takes its title, and the revenge tale The Cask of Amontillado. The only facet of “Cat” is shown in Herringbone’s annoyance at his feline companion, which eventually turns to disgust, then pure outrage. In Poe’s version a man becomes increasingly sadistic and violent toward his cat, for reasons he can’t really explain, gouging out its eye before hanging it. When a second cat comes to take its place, guilt drives him to attempt to kill that too, only he murders his wife by accident instead. The Cask of Amontillado outlines the gruesome fate of Fortunato, lured into the catacombs by Montresor on the promise of tasting a rare wine. What Fortunato doesn’t know is, Montresor’s intentions are wholly dishonorable, there is no wine, just a slow and painful death waiting behind a soon to be bricked up wall. The motive for this is revenge; although it is never explained exactly why Montresor feels so much anger toward Fortunato. Scriptwriter Richard Matheson combines all the best elements from both tales in his screenplay; keeping the fiendish elements inherent in Montresor’s character, and amping up his villainous nature. Even though Annabel ultimately cheats on him, she is a pure character who deserves so much more than the constant abuse she recieves from her husband; the character remaining wholly sympathetic despite some moral ambiguity. Price on the other hand, as Fortunato, although willing to cheat on his newly found friend, displays nothing of the wickedness he demonstrates in many of the other characters he played throughout the series.

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The Facts in the Case in M. Valdemar

The final act is no less tasty, as Matheson adapts Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar; installing his interpretation with themes of abuse, sexual coercion, power and control. He manages this whilst exploring the amorphous boundaries between the living and the dead, which are often blurred or obscured in the tales of Poe. The literary source is fairly simple: a narrator describes a grotesque experiment whereby a man is hypnotized on his deathbed; dying during a trance state that renders him trapped in limbo between life and death.

Matheson manages to up the ante by painting on some particularly wicked and ghastly elements to an already gruesome undertone found in the original text. M. Valdemar (Price) is a man in his last few weeks of life,  who has been experimenting with some questionable pain relief for a terminal illness that degrades his weakening body. This comes via the hypnotic skills of a dubious gentleman by the name of Carmichael ( Basil Rathbone). Valdemar’s doting wife Helene (Deborah Paget) distrusts Carmichael’s intentions; as does the dashing young doctor (David Frankham) — who also attends to the dying man—  but Valdemar will have none of it and decides to put his complete trust in the hands of Carmichael. Valdemar is a sweet, kind and caring character, worried only for his wife’s happiness after he is gone. She is faithful to her husband, but he makes her promise that she will remarry when he passes and gives his consent that she should follow her heart, and consummate her obvious desire for the young doctor. As this is going on Carmichael has obvious desires of his own; embarking on some seriously cruel and underhand tactics to force Helene to be with him instead, by holding Valdemar in the tortuous void between life and death under trance state, as he continues to control him long after his heart has stopped beating.

It has to be said Rathbone is abominable in his role. He exploits his hypnotic power to try and coerce Helene into his arms, and his bed— which although not shown is spelled out quite clearly in the dialogue. Of all the characters in the film Carmichael is the most ruthless and hideous, making him a joy to watch. Matheson is clever in keeping all the other characters in the segment morally pure, so that by contrast Carmichael’s wickedness is further exaggerated by comparison.

What is interesting is that throughout Tales of Terror, unlike his previous two Corman Poe ventures, Price’s characters are kept solely on the side of good; only the first episode Morella really allows him to spit venom, although this is soon quashed, and he reverts into a doting father routine. Nevertheless he still manages to hold his own, even up against the marvellous performances of Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. He would return again in a similar capacity for the next Corman Poe feature, which teamed him up with Peter Lorre once again, and icon Boris Karloff, for horror comedy The Raven (1963).

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness podcast. Her writing has appeared in the pages of Fangoria, Scream Magazine (UK) and Gothic culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. She has recently worked a number of liner notes for cult home video label Arrow Films, as well as appearing on camera for them, written for Senses of Cinema and is currently working on a book on Daughters of Darkness (1971) for the Devil's Advocates Series (Auteur).

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