‘Tales of Terror’ or — A Lighter Side To Darkness?
Roger Corman’s ‘Tales of Terror’ (1962) is a portmanteau (isn’t that a fun word to say?) film consisting of three creepy stories by master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe. All star Vincent Price yet all have a distinct flavour to their own. One might even make you laugh! All will give you the chills. Let’s dive into this terrifying trio of tremulous terror.
‘Morella’ or — Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em?
The first tale in this set kicks off in typical Corman/Poe fashion with a young woman from cultivated Boston (for some reason Poe regards Boston as being the pinnacle of civilisation compared to what lurks in the backwaters of “young” America) arriving by coach at a creepy, crumbling castle by the sea. Here her father, played by Vincent Price, is suffering from existential ennui and dealing with it by having become an alcoholic. Once again, it seems as though there is a spectre of a dark family secret hanging over this decaying pile that’s as all consuming as the cobwebs.
What immediately makes ‘Morella’ stand out from all the other Poe adaptations is the surprising sense of humanity and longing for warmth between the two main characters. This is a young woman who has come to make a heart-felt connection with her depressed father and it is genuinely touching and moving. Despite the Grand Guignol of the settings — the usual trappings of red candles, Gothic design and heavy drapes — it is all played straight with no hint of the supernatural at first; you really feel for these two.
And then the reveal comes and it’s as shocking as everything that proceeded was touching and we discover why Price has cut himself from his daughter and just what the impending retribution from beyond the grave is going to be. And it’s horrifying! All sentiment is drastically undercut and destroyed. This might be the darkest tale in all the Corman/Poe films and with the heavy intimation of incest via possession shares a lot of DNA with Jack Clayton’s ‘The Innocents’ (1961) or a sort of inverted ‘Angel Heart’ (1987). It doesn’t quite “go there” but trust me, the implication is enough and it’s too horrible to think about. But don’t we want our horror to be truly horrifying?
Don’t worry though as ‘Morella’ this still has all the usual Poe/Corman tropes so there’s a fear of being buried alive and, slight spoilers, this is another one of theirs where the castle burns down at the end but come on, we all knew THAT was going to happen.
‘The Black Cat’ or “Genuinely Dedicated To Your Destruction”?
Fortunately we have a refreshing palette cleanser next to rinse those rich, terrifying tannins away with the wonderful pairing up of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in ‘The Black Cat’, and it’s a blast.
Lorre plays a selfish drunk with the wonderful name of Mr Herringbone who constantly bullies his wife for drinking money. The only thing more annoying than his wife is her darn black cat. Unable to wring any cash out of her (she obviously doesn’t have any… or does she?) he stumbles about town begging but to no avail. But wait! What’s this? A ‘Wine Merchants Convention’ is in town? How fortunate! He bumbles in and starts glugging down the samples with wide-eyed delight but soon his sozzled state unleashes his bravado and he challenges the famous wine taster, player by Price and with the even more wonderful name of Fortunato Luchresi (pronounced ‘Le Crazy’), to a wine tasting duel. Herringbone might be a drunk but he sure knows his wine.
Strangely the two sort of hit it off and Luchresi escorts the drunken Herringbone back to his home to his wife and the cat where Luchresi hits it off even more with Herringbone’s long suffering wife. Fortunately Herringbone is too drunk to notice the flirting, the alcohol dulling his mind. Yet its alcohol that leads to his rumbling of the affair when the local landlord drops some none too subtle hints about what everyone in town must know — that Mrs Herringbone might be being boned by someone who isn’t Mr Herringbone. What will Mr Herringbone do?!
‘The Black Cat’ is an absolute delight, not just because it’s a nice, little horror tale or that we get to see two horror icons team-up and have fun but because you can feel the delight Corman and Price must be having in allowing the unadulterated comedy to burst forth for a change. Lorre steals the show, possibly because he is the focus, but it is Price who gets the best moment to shine, namely during the wine-tasting where his effete, dandyish gurnings of sommelier’s pretence are simply wonderful and timed to perfection.
‘The Black Cat’ is great. It’s funny, entertaining as hell and still contains a decent kicker of an ending.
‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ or — Are You Some Kind of Hypnotist?
M. Valdemar (Price again) is not a well man. In fact, he’s dying and quite painfully from all appearances. To combat his agony he employs the services of mesmerist Mr Carmichael (Basil Rathbone). These trances seem to help M. Valdemar so much so that he requests that Mr Carmichael hypnotise him at the moment of this death to ease his passage to the other side. And who knows, maybe they’ll discover something about the afterlife whilst Valdemar exists between the planes of life and death, something that seems to have happened when the dead Valdemar communicates to them via his now deceased corpse. Although this wouldn’t be of such concern if it wasn’t for the fact that Carmichael keeps Valdemar in this state of limbo for months, Valdemar pleading to be released from his decaying physical vessel. But why is Carmichael doing this? What is his plan?
‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ I found to be the least compelling of the three tales, playing out as a short chamber piece in a dying man’s room and with a more subdued performance by Price this time (I guess he is dying after all). Although that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable; it has a suitably gruesome, and icky, ending foreshadowing films such as ‘The Incredible Melting Man’ (1977) and Corman manages to imbue proceedings with more space than budget or setting would allow, the use of snow outside the window to add a sense of a wider world beyond the dead man’s bedroom (or, more precisely, the small studio set) being a nice touch.
All in all these three tales taken together are a big load of fun and, again, demonstrate how Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson, were able to take all those Poe elements and continually construct fresh new angles and slants on them. Each story contained (buried alive?) within the walls of this film are great and the distinct flavour of each of them makes this a particularly enticing blend of the grotesque, if your palette is refined enough to detect those subtle aromas that is.