Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.
One day in the past, Roger Corman probably did metaphorical backflips when Vincent Price decided to work with him on a number of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. The Masque of the Red Death is still one of Corman’s best movies. That doesn’t say much at first when you realize the kind of movies Corman makes, but Masque is actually a lot of fun. Corman doing Poe stories is his natural wheelhouse, so I’m always interested in this kind of film. Tales of Terror is a Corman-lead troika of Poe stories (actually there are kind of four stories here) that feature the horror movie legends of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone.
Tales of Terror runs a spare 90 minutes, which gives us a skosh under 30 minutes for each of the three stories. The first, “Morella”, is probably not a story with which you are familiar, but when you hear the set-up, you’ll know immediately that it’s Poe. A young woman (Maggie Pierce) arrives to visit her father (Vincent Price), who she has not seen for years. He sent her away as an infant, because her mother, Morella (Leona Gage), died just after childbirth. Since this is a Poe story, he’s naturally kept the body. The daughter reveals that she is dying, and this somehow brings the corpse of Morella back to life.
Second is “The Black Cat,” the story that is clearly a melding of two Poe classics that involve walling people up in a basement. If that doesn’t give away the game, when I reveal the names of our two main characters, you’ll get where we’re going. Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre) is a drunk who demands money from his young wife (Joyce Jameson) to go drinking. One night, he encounters Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price) and the two have a wine tasting contest. Herringbone gets smashed and Luchresi takes him home, encounters Herringbone’s wife, and nature takes its course. When Herringbone discovers this indiscretion, well, the mortar and bricks come out.
Rounding out the trio of films is “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” The eponymous Valdemar (Price) is dying but agrees to be hypnotized while dying by Carmichael (Basil Rathbone). Valdemar’s doctor (David Frankham) thinks this is a mistake, but Valdemar wants to go through with it, and wants the doctor to eventually marry his young wife (Debra Paget). But Carmichael has designs on her, of course. Valdemar dies, but since he is hypnotized, he stays in a sort of stasis—dead and in a black nowhere, but still able to communicate. And, of course, Carmichael refuses to release him, holding his suffering over Valdemar’s widow to submit to his demands.
None of these stories are really that thrilling, although “The Black Cat,” tinged as it is with some humorous moments, is the best of them. The biggest issue I have here is that all of these stories are significantly changed from Poe’s originals. In fact, the two stories that are melded together are in many ways the least changed from the source material, but the affair subplot that drives this happens in neither story. “Morella” ends in a way that is completely different from the original story and “Valdemar” again includes a romance plot that isn’t present in the original.
In many cases, changing the source material to be something that is more cinematic isn’t a terrible sin. In both cases where the stories are significantly altered, though, the original story and ending is much, much better. “M. Valdemar” turns into a sort of corpse revenge plot where the original contained a sort of deep existential dread.
In terms of scares, Tales of Terror doesn’t come close to living up to its name. But it’s fun seeing these actors on screen together, and how many other places are you going to see Vincent Price die three times in 90 minutes?
Why to watch Tales of Terror: Corman is often at his best when he’s picking the bones of Poe.
Why not to watch: This still isn’t Corman at his best.