Tales of Terror (1962)

This Roger Corman adaptation of three Edgar Allan Poe stories is fun to watch, hard to take too seriously. The first tale, Morella, is the most sombre, featuring Vincent Price mourning the death of his wife, for which he blames his young daughter. It’s short and quite dramatic. The second story, The Black Cat, is an amiable mess, featuring Price and Peter Lorre. It has some agreeable humor, especially in its wine tasting scenes, and has some evocative nineteenth century street and tavern sets. The final tale, Facts In the Case Of M. Valdemar, features Price as a dying man whose consciousness but not body is kept alive by a scheming mesmerist, played by Basil Rathbone. This one ends on a note of pure horror, and is nearest to Poe in its mood and ideas.

Screenwriter Richard Matheson did a reasonable job of adapting Poe, and Corman was probably wise to emphasize jokes in the middle tale, as Poe was one grim, death-haunted writer, and each of these stories is a meditation on death and the tricks it plays on us. Perhaps to compensate somewhat for the morbidity of the stories, Corman emphasizes bright colors throughout, as the decor and costumes are quite attractive, almost garish at times. The actors are fine, the older ones especially, though Maggie Pierce in Morella is quite good, if too contemporary in looks and voice.

I can’t resist a few sociological comments on the Corman-Poe cycle of films of the early sixties. Tales Of Terror came out in 1962, the high noon of the New Frontier. This was a time of optimism and social change, the start of the space program and the Civil Rights movement, and yet in the middle of it all there was this series of low budget horror films, aimed mostly at children and teenagers, and quite unwholesome in atmosphere and subject matter. These weren’t even monster movies, like the horrors of old, they were morbid movies about death, torture, witchcraft and premature burials. They were like anti-Disney films, with Price, Lorre and Rathbone instead of MacMurray, Brian Keith and Dorothy McGuire. If in Disney nothing really bad ever happened, in Corman-Poe nothing really good ever happened. Disney represented the smiling surface of America, while Corman-Poe hinted as anxieties just below the surface, and as such, sad to say, portents of things to come.