Roger Corman, 1962
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Maggie Pierce, Debra Paget
Following on the heels of House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror is director Roger Corman and star Vincent Price’s third Edgar Allen Poe themed film in an ongoing series. Eschewing the serious, almost tragic tone, well-paced horror, and atmospheric style of the first two films, Tales of Terror is an anthology film made up of three stories that horrific, but with a dash of comedy and more than a little campiness.
In typical Corman fashion, all three shorts are based on the Poe stories, "Morella," "The Black Cat," and "The Facts in the Case of M. Vandemar." In "Morella" the young Lenora returns home to visit her father (Price), who is drunk and depressed in his decaying mansion. He is crazed and blames Lenora for her mother's death. She discovers, to her horror, that he has kept her mother's corpse in the bedroom the entire time. Her father becomes more sympathetic when he realizes she has returned home because of a terminal illness, but before they can properly reunite, her mother's ghost, the titular Morella, comes back to claim her revenge.
"The Black Cat" is obviously a more famous story and is the center piece of the anthology. M. Herringbone (the wonderful Peter Lorre) loves alcohol, but hates his wife and her cat. He begins a competitive friendships with wine aficionado Fortunado (Price), who becomes smitten with Herringbone's wife. They begin a secret affair, which doesn't sit well with Herringbone, who walls them up in his wine cellar (which is actually taken from Poe’s beloved story "The Casque of Amontillado"). Suspicion falls on Herringbone when a strange screaming emerges from the cellar.
In "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," Price’s character is dying of an agonizing illness. A hypnotist (Rathbone) puts him under to lessen his suffering, but then he gets stuck in the world between the living and the dead. The hypnotist refuses to put things right and keeps Valdemar's decaying body completely under his control. However, he goes too far when he tries to steal Valdemar's faithful wife.
Though Tales of Terror received mixed reviews and there are some dull moments, overall it is very enjoyable and it’s nice that Corman took a break from the similar tone in House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum. Price and Lorre are obviously having a great time here - the whole film is worth watching for their drinking contest - though be prepared for some very mean spirited moments. Poe frequently wrote about the sheer nastiness of humanity and it is certainly on display in this film. Corman should be given some credit, because I imagine it’s quite difficult to translate Poe to the screen. His fiction is full of nasty, unsympathetic characters whose selfish actions have tragic consequences in this world and the next. If you enjoy this kind of moral blackness, you will be more than entertained.
"The Black Cat" is easily the best in the anthology and Lorre and Price are very funny in it. Their obvious enthusiasm working together is infectious, though Lorre was supposedly at a low point in his life during production. After years of success in pre-war Germany, he was basically forced to play caricatures of himself after emigrating to the U.S. to escape Nazi Germany. Similarly, Basil Rathbone, who had worked with Price on Tower of London (1939), was allegedly very bitter by this point. He had gotten his start on the stage as a well known Shakespearean actor, but made his fame starring in dozens of films as Sherlock Holmes. If you're a Holmes fan, check some of them out. While Rathbone may have resented being pigeonholed, he is an excellent Holmes, certainly one of the best in cinema.
Tales of Terror is well shot and has good production values. By this point Corman obviously knew how to make the best of what he had to work with and it really shows throughout the entire Poe series he did for American International Pictures. Of course, I am a little biased, because I’m a sucked for horror anthology films. A lot of them are certified crap, but I will watch basically any of them. Tales of Terror is one of Roger Corman's few attempts at this subgenre and he does it quite well. It might be a little slow and sensational for modern horror film fans, but is still a pleasant delight. Of course, it's hard to say no to a script by the great Richard Matheson and with lots of murder and ghostly mayhem and what more could you want from an early '60s horror anthology?