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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Lorre’

I know, I know: you go seven years without a single review of an AIP Vincent Price movie, and then three come along in as many months. Blame the lucky dip nature of my DVD rental service (still waiting for Tiptoes, alas) – still, these are AIP Vincent Price movies, so there’s only so disappointed you can legitimately be. This week they sent me The Raven, a 1963 movie directed by (but of course!) Roger Corman, from AIP’s series of Poe movies.

This time around, the movie is based on a poem rather than a work of fiction, but otherwise the formula is wholly intact. Here is a screenplay from the great Richard Matheson. Here is Vincent Price, brooding over his dead wife’s picture. Here is a supporting cast featuring some unexpectedly big names, given the kind of movie that this is. Here are some pretty decent production values. It’s basically rather like an American Hammer movie, except slightly more genteel and with fewer hard edges.

The Raven is set in a rather fantasticalised version of the 16th century (historical accuracy is extremely low on the movie’s list of priorities), with Price playing Erasmus Craven, gentleman, scholar, and magician. Erasmus has withdrawn from the society of his peers and has become a bit of a recluse, partly because he objects to the plotting and scheming of his fellow adepts, and also because it gives him more time to brood over the portrait of his dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court, which may tip you off to the fact that Lenore is not as dead as originally advertised), somewhat to the concern of his lovely daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess).

Then, one dreary midnight, as Erasmus sits, weak and weary, pondering over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (oh yes, I know a thing or two about Poe, and also how to Google the text of a poem), a raven turns up, knocking at his window. Erasmus lets the bird in, and, as he is played by Vincent Price in a Roger Corman movie, beseeches the bird thusly – ‘Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?’ The raven departs from Poe by responding ‘How the hell should I know?’, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows. (Apparently this was a departure from the script, as well as Poe, as Peter Lorre (who voices the bird) was much given to ad libbing on the set.)

It turns out that the raven is actually Erasmus’ fellow magician Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), who has been magically transformed into a bird following a magical duel with the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the arch-rival of Erasmus’ dead father. Erasmus is happy to help Bedlo return to human form, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in the squabble between Bedlo and Scarabus – until he mentions that he has seen a woman resembling the supposedly dead Lenore in Scarabus’s castle. Erasmus pooh-poohs this idea, and offers to show Bedlo Lenore’s body, which he keeps in a box in his hallway (‘Where else?’ deadpans Lorre), but he is shocked to see she has been replaced by that of someone else. Desperate to learn the truth, Erasmus agrees to go to Scarabus’s castle with Bedlo, accompanied by his daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (John J Nicholson, who could have had a pretty good career if he’d just stuck with low-budget horror movies). Perhaps another clash of magics is on the cards…

The immediately previous movie in the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, had as its centrepiece The Black Cat, a darkly comic, more than slightly outrageous tale co-starring Price and Lorre, and Corman and Matheson apparently enjoyed making it so much that they decided to have a go at making a full-length movie in a similar vein. Most of The Raven was invented whole-cloth by Richard Matheson, there not being quite enough material in a 108-line poem to sustain a movie even of only 86 minutes. I think it’s really stretching to describe The Raven as an actual horror film, even by the standards of the early 1960s – it’s more of a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, impossible to take seriously.

It does make full use of Price’s ability as a comic actor, of course, and also – I’m tempted to say – his generosity as a performer, as he tends to be outrageously upstaged by Peter Lorre in every scene the two of them share, with Price very much the straight man of the duo (‘I think you need something for the cold,’ Erasmus declares to Bedlo, as the two of them prepare to depart, which prompts his guest to head straight for the drinks cabinet). Boris Karloff’s performance is less showy, but then the sheer understatedness of it is much of the fun. He’s up against it when competing with the other senior members of the cast.

If the overall quality of The Raven‘s cast isn’t quite clear yet, let me put it this way: one of the actors in this movie has received more Oscar nominations for his work than any other man in history. Yes, really. It’s not Price, Lorre, or Karloff, though – playing Lorre’s son, in case you haven’t worked it out, is Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), who turns up in a lot of AIP movies from this period, partly because his father James H Nicholson is the executive producer on them. It’s fair to say that there is not much sign here of the movie legend Nicholson would eventually become – although there’s a sequence where he is briefly possessed by evil magic, and does the same face made famous by The Shining – but he does give a very game performance, dashing about the set in tights, cape, and feathery hat. I doubt this movie was ever very prominent on his showreel, though.

The silliness of much of The Raven doesn’t prevent it from having a more intricate plot than you might expect, nor indeed an unexpectedly sound narrative structure, with a proper character arc for Vincent Price to work his way through. It may be a disposable comedy, but Matheson has clearly taken the writing of it very seriously, which is probably why it still stands up so well today. Corman directs with his usual efficiency, and comes up with at least one outstanding sequence, the final magician’s duel between Erasmus and Scarabus, which in addition to being witty and inventive, even has some pretty decent animated special effects.

I still think The Masque of the Red Death is the zenith of the Corman-Poe series of movies, but it’s a very different kind of film to The Raven, and very definitely a genuine horror-fantasy. The Raven is much more knockabout entertainment, but the strength of the script and particularly the comic performances means there is still a huge amount to enjoy about this movie even today.

 

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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.

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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 memory 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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