Continuing the review of the Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, Eamonn McCusker has reviewed Tales Of Terror, a compendium of three films mixing horror with comedy and also released on 20 October 2003.
Following two earlier adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories – The Fall Of The House Of Usher and The Pit And The Pendulum – Roger Corman and Richard Matheson turned to an anthology of four tales, which included a number of Poe’s more effective chillers.
Tales Of Terror opens with a voiceover from Price ruminating on the experiencing of death, under which fades in an etching of a mansion that overlooks a stormy sea. Within this house lives Locke (Price), who offers his daughter Lenora (Pierce) a decidedly chilly welcome on her return home, explaining to her that he holds her responsible for the death of his wife, Morella (Gage). As Lenora explores the house, she finds her mother’s corpse on the same bed in which she died but tells her father that she is suffering from a fatal disease. That night, as both Locke and Lenora sleep, Morella’s ghost roams the house to seek out her daughter…
The second story, an adaptation of The Black Cat, opens with Peter Lorre as Montresor, a drunk who terrorises his young wife, Annabel (Jameson). Having failed to work in years, Montresor spends his life begging for drinks at the local tavern and stealing money from his wife to fund his addiction. Into Montresor’s life comes Fortunato (Price), a wine expert who can tell the origin and year of any wine. In an excerpt from Poe’s The Cask Of Amontillado, Montresor challenges Fortunato to a test of identifying unlabelled bottles of wine by taste alone but, following Fortunato’s victory, Montresor invites him back to meet his wife. Small talk in the town leads Montresor to suspect his wife is being unfaithful with his new friend and he walls the pair up in his cellar with Annabel’s hated black cat. Despite assuming all three are dead, Montresor hears the mewling of the cat throughout his house, something he knows to be quite impossible.
The third tale is an adaptation of The Facts In The Case of M Valdemar in which mesmerist Carmichael (Rathbone) intends on hypnotising his patient, Valdemar (Price), near to the moment of his death so to discover one’s experiences at that time. Following his death, Carmichael forces Valdemar’s widow, Helene (Paget), to marry him whereupon Valdemar rises again to take his revenge on the hypnotist who failed to give him peace, even as his life ended.
After the serious adaptations of the two earlier films, both of which dealt with corruption, be it moral or political, Corman had clearly decided that he needed material that was a little more lighthearted yet would still offer the horrors that his drive-in audience demanded. Therefore, sandwiched between The Pit And The Pendulum and The Masque Of The Red Death was this film and the next year’s The Raven, both of which spoofed the reputation of Edgar Allan Poe a little, replacing the rich text of the stories for the rich humour of Matheson’s scripts.
Of course, as with any writer with so many consistent themes in his work, particularly with the fear of being buried alive that runs through his work, Edgar Allan Poe is ripe for sending up and in this, Tales Of Terror is largely successful. Matheson and Corman never let the audience forget that they are mixing both humour and horror and the film moves easily from the chills of Morella through the slapstick comedy of The Black Cat to the pseudo-science of The Facts in The Case Of M Valdemar. If there is a downside to this, it’s that Tales Of Terror can feel a little disjointed, with the voice overs from Vincent Price that link the three films doing little to offer a cohesive whole, tentatively using Poe’s fascination with death to hold onto a common theme. Therefore, the genuine terror as described by Poe in Morella is brought to the screen in a convincing fashion but it sits ill next to The Black Cat. Were each short film taken on its own merits, there wouldn’t be a problem but it’s the entire film that lacks form.
There is, though, one howler of a moment towards the end of The Black Cat that does require mention. As Poe describes it, the murderer continues to hear the cat through the walls even after it is walled up within his basement. As Corman and Matheson has adapted the tale, the murderer rarely hears the cat but is taunted by the ghosts of his wife and her lover. Worst of all, however, is a dream sequence in which these ghosts, played by Price and Jameson, play football with Peter Lorre’s head as he pleads with them to stop. That this sequence has been filmed in the hazy, affected style preferred by Corman to denote supernatural occurrences simply makes it all the worse and is clearly the low point in this otherwise likeable film.
Regarding the cast, Vincent Price is a great lead, drawing on a range of characterisations to create three distinct roles in Locke, Fortunato and Valdemar. Peter Lorre, who would return to work with Roger Corman in The Raven, has a great part as Montresor in The Black Cat but it is unfortunate that he was never given a more serious role by Corman. Otherwise, the rest of the cast is solid but unspectacular.
Tales Of Terror has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks very good indeed. The colours are rich and the picture is sharp but there are a small number of instances during which the brightness fades ever so slightly. These are, however, few and do not detract from the overall experience.
Tales Of Terror has been released with a 2.0 Mono soundtrack that sounds perfectly acceptable given the age of the film – the music is never allowed to overwhelm the dialogue, which is clear at all times. The film has been presented with a range of subtitles.
Given this film has been released as part of MGM’s budget range, the only bonus feature is the following:
Original Theatrical Trailer (2m16s, 2.35:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Mono): This is fair summary of the three features in this anthology, with a slight emphasis on the three star names – Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. This trailer has not been subtitled.
I am very fond of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings, believing that his complete collection of short stories are amongst the best that American literature has offered and certainly the greatest works of American Gothic. Still, any fan of Edgar Allan Poe will recognise how the recurrent themes in his work could so easily be lampooned as has been done here.
Despite this not being a true adaptation of Poe’s work, compared, say, to The Fall Of The House Of Usher or The Pit And The Pendulum, it is a fine addition to Corman’s series of late-sixties films. Whilst not as serious as either of these films, Tales Of Terror is similarly not as silly as The Raven, fitting in somewhere in between – recommended for those fans of literate, late-sixties horror but not wholly so.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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