Roger Corman’s Poe Movies

Terrifying tales of torture, madness, grizzly death and blood-curdling burials alive. These are core elements of Edgar Allan Poe, the most significant American writer of gothic and grandiose horror stories, the original grandmaster of gore.

On the sliver screen, Poe’s literary legacy of terror was readily plundered for inspiration as early as the silent era. From Jean Epstein’s poetic French interpretation of The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928) to Universal’s flamboyant ode to Poe with The Raven (1935), the writer’s name was regularly used as a lure to terrify all asunder, even if the finished product bore little relation to the original source material. Yet it really wasn’t until the nineteen sixties when a young maverick writer, director and producer took interest in the macabre horror fables, that Poe’s morbid fascinations were brought to a modern audience and made cinema box office tills ring with aplomb.

Roger Corman had made a significant mark in independent film with his eclectic array of genre movies, consistently turning a profit despite tight shooting schedules and miniscule budgets. He virtually started American International Pictures on the path of success with the racer flick The Fast And The Furious (1954), and would further cement his relationship with the company by scoring such hits as The Day The World Ended (1955), Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and the phenomena-creating Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Later in his career, he found solace from the rigors of directing by sitting in the producer’s chair, forming his own hugely successful distribution company New World Pictures, releasing films like Paul Bartel’s Deathrace 2000 (1975), David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977), and Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978). While Corman has a reputation as something of a Hollywood cheapskate with his maverick approach, he is also a renowned spotter of talent, assisting the careers of a glittering array of Hollywood talent. Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson and Jonathan Demme are amongst his protégés.

In the sixties, Corman embarked on one of his most acclaimed periods of creativity and box office success with a series of eight films based on the aforementioned Edgar Allan Poe, nearly all starring horror stalwart Vincent Price as tormented mad men. Corman also shot a version of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward during this period. Since this starred Vincent Price as an agonising protagonist, AIP tried to cash-in on the Poe popularity by changing its name to The Haunted Palace (196). Remember, this is the studio that also released the classic British witch-hunting horror Witchfinder General (1968) as The Conquerer Worm, the title of a short Poe poem on death.

In 1960, AIP’s cigar-chomping studio heads James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff approached Corman to make two more black and white horror films for $100,000 each. Wanting to expand his creative palette, the filmmaker instead suggested making just one movie, but shot in colour and CinemaScope on a doubled budget. Compared to the big studios, this was still pocket money, but AIP were uneasy. This was a genuine gamble, but nevertheless Poe’s House Of Usherbegan shooting later in the year with The Twilight Zone’s Richard Matheson providing the screenplay.

His adaptation sees a blond Vincent Price tormented by his ancestors, afflicted with a strange madness that the entire Usher clan share. He buries his sister alive in a crypt rather than risking her continuing the family line with her fiancé. As would become a regular feature of the Poe movies, the film ends in mass destruction, the house destroyed with the two siblings fighting to the death amongst the flames.

Corman’s version is a virtually studio-bound affair, but he achieved a far more lavish look than the budget might have suggested. Art director Dan Haller bought $2,500 of stock sets from Universal; broken pillars, cobwebbed candelabras, distempered walls and rusty gates were all dramatically lit by cinematographer Floyd Crosby. For the destruction of the house, Corman heard an old barn was to be demolished. He gave the farmer $50 and with two cameras filming, instead burned the building to the ground and edited it into the final scene. So impressed with this footage, he reused it a number of times throughout the series, as well as retaining Dan Haller’s sets. It meant the Poe films feel progressively more expensive, but the reuse of set and footage is painfully obvious for modern video viewers, though still quite fun.

Corman was fascinated with Freudian psychoanalysis and the inner workings of the psyche. He used these theories to interpret the work of Poe because he felt that the gothic writer and Freud had been working in different ways toward a similar concept of the unconscious mind. In all of these films, Corman would make use of Freudian-like dream sequences to show the inner turmoil of characters. Coloured gels, distorting lenses, multiple printing, eerie scores, and high-speed camera techniques were all used to create disturbing sequences that were attempting to tap into the audience’s subconscious fear. Corman’s theory was that “horror can be a reenactment of some long-suppressed fear. A dream. A taboo. It gets locked in the subconscious.” Although his Poe films vary from being faithful adaptations to little more than using a Poe title, such a psychological approach captured the atmosphere and the poetic sense of macabre foreboding of the original tales quite authentically, certainly more successfully than anyone before or since.

House Of Usher was an incredible financial and critical success, grossing more than a million dollars in summer receipts alone. A follow-up was inevitable and Pit And The Pendulum began immediate production, released in 1961. With the giant swinging pendulum of its title, filmed from every angle imaginable by Corman, this Poe movie is perhaps the most iconic. Vincent Price cackling with insanity at the controls of his giant torture machine is sheer camp magic and with the appearance of scream queen Barbara Steele as his wide-eyed wife trapped inside an iron maiden, Pit And The Pendulum is full of terrific shock moments.

Audiences certainly agreed, with grosses around $2,000,000. However, it led Corman into a dispute with AIP over money and for his next Poe movie The Premature Burial (1962) he went solo, using finance from the Pathé printing lab. AIP wanted to make the film originally and deprived him of the use of Vincent Price. Undaunted, Corman wisely cast Ray Milland, who gives a superbly tense performance, full of pathos as a man driven insane by the fear of burial alive. Ironically, during the first day of shooting, Corman was surprised to see Arkoff and Nicholson walk onto set. They congratulated Corman on their renewed partnership; they had bought the Pathé laboratory and this was now an AIP film!

Needing to change the formula, the next Poe adaptation followed the author’s tales more closely. Tales Of Terror (1962) was an anthology movie with three stories. The second tale, ‘The Black Cat’ (with elements of Poe’s The Cask Of Amontillado) was Corman’s first stab at comedy in the series. Encouraging improvisation, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre are hilarious as two love rivals getting hideously drunk at a private wine-tasting session, all ending very nastily with Lorre bricking-up Price behind a wall to slowly die in terror.

Since the mix of humour and horror proved popular, when it came to adapting Poe’s famous poem The Raven (1963) comedy became the driving force of the narrative, and breathed life into the series. Perhaps the most fondly remembered of the Poe cycle, the movie boasts an incredible ensemble cast -Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court and Jack Nicholson. It bares only reference to its famous poem, and is concerned with battling warlocks and whiz-bang special effects. Lorre’s scenes with Price are again a riot, particularly when the rotund comic character is half-transformed from a raven and is left waddling around with giant bird wings for arms.

The penultimate Poe movie, Masque Of The Red Death (1964) looks stunning. From its eerie castle exteriors to the decadent masked ball finale, Masque oozes decadence, and was filmed by a young Nicholas Roeg. Corman was greatly influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s interpretation of the character of Death in The Seventh Seal (195) and his representations of the three Plague’s are truly chilling; the Red Death character mingling between party guests infecting them with disease is remarkable effective.

The final nail in the gothic coffin was with Tomb Of Ligeia, which changed the feel of the series with its extensive use of locations. It was “the first time the sun shone on the works of Edgar Allan Poe” marked the director. With emphasis on a love story, this is perhaps the least satisfying of a consistently proficient series, though it still offers a wonderfully evocative art direction and splendidly hammy sunglasses-wearing Price, looking like a swinging-hipster.

Corman was bored however, and had finally relinquished the quill of Edgar Allan Poe from his filmic parchment, but this cycle of low-budget horror films had earned him international acclaim he deserved. When the French Film Institute honored him with a retrospective in 1964, Corman became the youngest producer/director ever to receive such an accolade. Not surprising, since the gothic grandeur from tiny budgets still look impressive today, and Corman’s authorial style remains consistent throughout the entire series. Though the likes of Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento and George Romero have delved into the world of Edgar Allan Poe, it is the adaptations helmed by Roger Corman that leave a subconscious trace of true gothic terror.