By Steve Vivona
Most people agree that B-movie auteur Roger Corman's most prolific period came in the early 60's during his fruitful collaboration with horror master Vincent Price. The pair teamed up to make several loose film adaptations based on the classic writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and they are widely regarded as both man's best work. American International Pictures was so happy with their initial effort, "The Fall of the House of Usher," that they demanded several more, all to be shot in color and in Cinemascope, something previously unheard of from those notorious penny-pinchers.
Aside from a few horror efforts like "House of Wax" and "House on Haunted Hill" Price was not yet the reigning king of horror. For the better part of his twenty years in the business Price was known as a reliable and well-respected character actor who usually received third or fourth billing on a film. He may have been content to remain so, but after starring roles in some of master showman William Castle's gimmicky classics like "The Tingler," Price's hammy over-the-top style was deemed perfect for AIP's proposed Poe series.
Only then did Price assume the horror mantle from the likes of Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney. He was brilliant at playing the tortured protagonists of Poe's sorrowful tales of loss, murder and revenge. Price had the ability to control the range of any performance and always delivered the required performance whether it was necessary to be mournful, manic or just pure evil. He also had a flair for comedy that these films exploited to their credit. "Tales of Terror," with its three wildly divergent stories, asks Price to deliver three totally separate performances and he does so with equal aplomb.
My favorite vignette will always be "The Black Cat," which pairs Price with his good friend Peter Lorre, another great actor whose flair for comedy was tapped too late in his life. As a result of this installment Price and Lorre were paired with Boris Karloff for the full-length horror comedy "The Raven." Then those three giants would be teamed with Basil Rathbone for the non-Corman horror comedy romp,
"The Comedy of Terrors." All these films gave these aging thesps the opportunity to show talents they rarely could before.
In "The Black Cat" Price plays Fortunato Luchresi, a foppish wine connoisseur who gets embroiled in a wine tasting contest with the boorish Montressor Herringbone (Lorre), a drunken lout whose abilities in this area, while they lack polish, rival Luchresi's. The contest is a hilarious bit of comedy that is by far the best scene in the film. Lorre was known for ad-libbing on the set and its obvious hes embellishing on the script and putting his own unique stamp on the proceedings. Price nails the affected posturing of the snobbish character hes playing with his ridiculous facial expressions and lilting dialogue.
Believe it or not there is a horror story to be found within. Herringbone and Luchresi become fast friends, but Luchresi soon begins an affair with Montressor's long-neglected wife (Joyce Jameson). Once he discovers the affair Montressor dispatches them in typical Poe style by walling them up in his basement with his wife's beloved cat. You can imagine where it goes from there!
The two remaining vignettes, "Morella" and "The Case of M. Valdemar" are more standard horror fare. In "Morella" Price plays a man haunted by the spectre of his dead wife, and in "Valdemar" he portrays a dying man who allows a mesmerist to hypnotize him at the moment of death in order to see what lies beyond the veil. Basil Rathbone essays the role of the mesmerist with all his Shakespearian vigor.
Both installments are fine examples of the Corman style. "Morella" features the familiar themes of tragic loss and restless ghosts who torture their surviving loved ones. Price could play this character in his sleep and it really is a variation on Roderick Usher from "The Fall of the House of Usher." Rathbone is the true villain of "Valdemar" and it is Price's character who suffers, and ultimately takes revenge, on this malicious beast (in a particularly nasty way!)
MGM's DVD presentation of "Tales of Terror" is a revelation. Thankfully it has been remastered in anamorphic widescreen, which does justice to Corman's widescreen compostions. There is a fullscreen version included but it just doesn;t work for this film. Colors are very strong and the image is unbelievably crisp and free of compression artifacts. Any imperfections are a result of the source print which looks to have been cleaned up considerably. A nice theatrical trailer has been included as well.
I'm thrilled that MGM has finally opened the AIP vaults and begun releasing these important horror gems, and trust me when I say the best is yet to come! I only hope MGM taps Roger Corman for some interviews. The man always has a great deal to say and that could only enhance the presentations of these great films.