Posts Tagged ‘Basil Rathbone’

Not that long ago, I found myself moved to commend the good sense of Roger Corman, producer of Battle Beyond The Stars (and many other exploitation and genre movies). Now I find myself about to say fairly positive things about Corman as a director, for the latest DVD (younger readers: ask your parents) to plop through my letterbox (younger readers: ditto) is one of Corman’s celebrated series of what are known as ‘Poe pictures’ – in this case, 1962’s Tales of Terror.


I suppose I was rather lucky in my cultural education – the BBC introduced me to Hammer with a lengthy retrospective running for most of the summer of 1987, and then in 1990 they showed all the Corman-helmed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations in prime time on BBC2, usually with an introduction by Corman himself. (Bliss it was in that dawn, etc.) I’m still not quite as fond of the Corman films as I am of Hammer’s 60s output – although The Masque of the Red Death is an exceptional movie – and now I find myself wondering just why this should be, for the Corman films do seem to represent a calculated attempt by an American company to exploit the same formula Hammer stumbled upon a few years earlier.

Both are basically attempts to make the horror movie respectable, both by basing the films on classic literature (Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson, etc, for Hammer, exclusively Poe for Corman), and by employing very distinguished and capable actors in the leading roles (mainly Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for the British company, Vincent Price – of course! – for the American one). The production values are equally classy.

Tales of Terror is perhaps a bit of an exception, in that it’s in some ways reminiscent of an Amicus movie as much as a Hammer production. By this I mean that it’s a portmanteau film, composed of three individual adaptations – essentially, a short story collection. The anthology format has obvious attractions for makers of horror films – multiple money shots, which you can get to with a significant reduction in faffing about – with the drawback being a loss in characterisation and atmosphere.

With reference to Tales of Terror, this is perhaps most apparent in the first segment, Morella. I had a guide to disreputable cinema a few years ago which broke films down into useful, if slightly idiosyncratic categories like ‘Underwater Nazi Zombies’, ‘I Dismember Mama’, and so on, and one of these was ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’. (Every film in this category was directed by Roger Corman, now I think on it.) Morella certainly qualifies, for it deals with a young woman returning to the family home from which she was removed as a very small infant. The house is decrepit and cobwebbed, her father (Price, of course) a wreck of a man not at all pleased to see her.

What follows is a rather over-ripe melodrama concerning guilt and impending death and a ghastly spectral visitation from beyond the grave. It all feels a bit rushed through at less than 30 minutes long, with hammy performances from all concerned, but on the other hand there are very few things more reliably enjoyable than watching Vincent Price melodramatically ham it up. Nevertheless, the slightest element of the movie and you can see why it’s presented as the entree.

The main course, if we’re going to stick with this metaphor, is subtitled The Black Cat, but it’s an amalgamation of that story and The Cask of Amontillado. The lead role in this installment is played by Peter Lorre, who plays the unpleasant drunkard Montresor Herringbone. Montresor makes the acquaintance of the ludicrously foppish bon vivant Fortunato (Price again) at a preposterous wine-tasting contest, and doesn’t realise for some time that he has unwittingly been facilitating an affair between Fortunato and his young wife (Joyce Jameson). When he does figure out what’s been going on, he plots a terrible revenge, but reckons without his wife’s beloved pet…

This segment marks a bit of an innovation for the Poe cycle, partly because it sees another big name brought in to co-star with Price, but mainly because it’s played absolutely for laughs – a droll black farce, with an outrageous performance by Price and a very dry one by Lorre. And it’s very funny, bringing to mind in places the fruitier moments of Theatre of Blood (surely Vincent Price’s magnum opus). Perhaps it goes on a bit too long, and the scene transitions are intrusively ostentatious, but it’s still very entertaining.

Another big-name signing appears in the final segment, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. This time Price plays the decent Valdemar, a wealthy man dying of an incurable and painful disease. He strikes a deal with the mesmerist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone), whereby Carmichael will alleviate his suffering in return for Valdemar’s participation in a strange experiment, where he will be hypnotised at the moment of death, basically just to see what happens as a result.

Well, once again Price is generous enough a performer to let Rathbone really do his thing and dominate the story, prior to a memorably icky climax. Again, it’s hard to shake the impression that it feels a little bit rushed through, but on the other hand it’s hard to imagine how this same story could have been expanded to form the basis of a whole movie without it feeling rather stretched. It probably works better as a short film, and provides a memorable climax to the whole film.

I’m not sure any anthology movie is a completely satisfying experience, because there are always issues of pacing and quality control and so on, but Tales of Terror is a pretty good one, mainly because of the performances and the fact that the three stories have just enough variation in tone to be distinctive. I think you can detect its influence on the later cycle of portmanteau horrors from Amicus (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and so on), certainly in the use of comic horror. Amicus’ innovation was the introduction of a frame story, usually providing a memorable (if usually predictable) ‘twist’ ending to the film. The lack of a frame does make Tales of Terror feel a bit odd, more like three short films just cobbled together than a cohesive whole, but this is still an engaging piece of old-school horror.

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The Sherlockian films starring Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson seemed to be on all the time when I was young, but they seem to have fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years – one can only hope that the fulsome praise lavished on them by Moffat and Gatiss, and the credit they’re given as an influence on Sherlock, will bring them to the attention of a younger audience.

One with more to interest this constituency than most is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, made in 1939 and directed by Alfred Werker. This was the second Basil Rathbone Holmes film, and the last to take place in anything approximating a period setting (the Second World War, which entered the public consciousness in the same week as this movie’s release, would prove to have an influence on Rathbone’s subsequent Holmesian career).

Anyway: it all kicks off in the London of 1894 with the nefarious Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) in the dock, accused of murder. Sherlock Holmes knows he’s guilty. The jury know he’s guilty. The judge knows he’s guilty. (Moriarty knows he’s guilty too, but sensibly keeps his mouth shut.) But there’s no proof, and being upstanding, cricket-loving British folk they are obliged to let him go. Holmes arrives on the scene with evidence just after the nick of time has passed, and the two arch-enemies share a pleasant cab ride.

Holmes confesses to Moriarty he’d like to extract his brain and donate it to science. Moriarty takes this rather well and in turn confesses to Holmes that he’s getting bored of life as a master criminal – he’s going to commit one more really big crime, so audacious and shocking that its success will destroy Holmes, and then retire to spend more time with his algebra.

And so the stage is set – however, and I’m by no means the first to point this out, at this point the structure of the film turns out to have a serious flaw in it. Moriarty’s plan, which is as fiendishly clever as his rep would lead one to expect, is to carry out a major but relatively dull crime (stealing the crown jewels – see what I mean about the Sherlock connections?), having first ensured that Holmes is looking the wrong way by throwing a really macabre and weird mystery into his lap that’s of no special significance.

It’s this story that takes up the bulk of the film, and it concerns Ida Lupino as a troubled young woman, her possibly-dodgy lawyer fiance, lucky chinchilla feet, Andean funeral chants and a bolas-wielding Inca gaucho hitman with a club foot. Although original to the play this movie is based on (written by William Gillette, the first Sherlock to wear a deerstalker), this plot is authentically Doylean in both its atmosphere and many of its details.

On the other hand, we’re always aware that it’s nothing more than a very intricate blind contrived by Moriarty and as a result it never completely engrosses. Holmes, obviously, also figures this out, but quite how – other than because the script requires it – is never made clear. The whole climax of the film has a slightly rushed and perfunctory air about it, which is shame given how lavishly solidly its opening section is.

But never mind, there is much to enjoy here – Basil Rathbone’s dynamic, rather genial Detective, Nigel Bruce’s pompous and slightly petulant but still rather endearing Watson, and George Zucco’s silkily sinister Moriarty. Moriarty is revealed to have a touch of the green fingers on this appearance, which somehow doesn’t feel quite right, but it’s hardly a major element.

One serious plot-hole doesn’t get mentioned – the bizarre death Moriarty arranges as a distraction for Holmes is, apparently, eerily similar to one which occurred ten years previously. Now, does this just mean Moriarty really plans ahead? Or does he just keep up with the True Crime section of his local bookshop, where he read about this crime and figured out how to replicate it? The other alternative is for him to borrow HG Wells’ time machine and pop back to do it himself – not quite as implausible as it sounds, given that the film’s most off-the-wall moment has a heavily disguised Basil Rathbone performing a high-energy song-and-dance version of ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’ (for no reason required by the plot), a song not written until 1907.

Different people want different things from their Holmes adaptations, whether that means painstaking accuracy to the canon, scintillating plotting and dialogue, or broad character comedy and visual pyrotechnics. The virtues of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes lie in its broadly faithful performances and characterisations, its convincing period setting, the atmosphere Werker creates, and its breezy pace. There have been much bigger and more colourful Sherlock Holmes movies, but few which have combined fun with fidelity with quite such success.

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