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Posts Tagged ‘Roger Corman’

You may recall that last week we talked about the Roger Corman-produced movie Humanoids of the Deep, on which occasion I concluded that, despite appearances, the film’s similarities with the Lovecraft short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth were probably just coincidental. I still stand by that, on the whole, but just the other day I saw another old movie which did give me pause and reason to possibly reconsider: 1963’s The Haunted Palace, directed by Corman himself.

The movie opens in the 18th century New England village of Arkham, where rum doings are a-transpiring, as young women are being lured to the palatial residence of wealthy local grandee Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price, naturally). The music is stirring, the production values classy, and the sense that these AIP movies were the closest thing to Hammer horror in American domestic cinema is only intensified when the local villagers grab their blazing torches and decide to pay Curwen a visit, declaring him to be a necromancer and magician. This is bad news for Curwen, and also for the tree that they decide to tie him to before setting fire to him (presumably they didn’t have a stake handy). In true malevolent warlock style, though, Curwen declares that he will have his revenge – if not on the men present there that night, but on their descendants…

Cue fade out and a quick quotation from Edgar Allan Poe; this was (rather spuriously, as we shall see) promoted as being part of the series of Poe adaptations Corman and Price were engaged upon at the time. Before we know it, it is the 1870s, but Arkham is still blighted by its dark past. Clearly unaware of all this is Bostonian gentleman Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget). Ward has just inherited his great-great-grandfather’s house in Arkham, and this turns out to be the ‘palace’ that Curwen had imported stone-by-stone from Europe. It almost goes without saying that Price is playing his own descendant, but who exactly he’s inherited the house from is left a little obscure.

The Wards get an unfriendly reception from the Arkhamites, but in this circumstances this is not entirely surprising: since Curwen’s day the town has been plagued by horrific deformities, with some families having to keep their less-human members chained up for the safety of everyone. (There are various people with webbed fingers, missing eyes and homicidal dispositions, but also one man who appears to have been born without a mouth, which does raise some questions). Ward decides it would be best just to stick around long enough to organise the sale of the house – an encounter with the ‘housekeeper’ of the palace, played by Lon Chaney Jr, may contribute to this – but is in much greater peril than he realises. The portrait of Joseph Curwen still hanging in the house exerts a strange influence upon him, and it soon becomes clear that Curwen’s spirit has been hanging around ever since his untimely cremation, waiting for a suitable vessel to occupy.

The local doctor is friendlier than the other villagers and explains some of the back-story to Ward and his wife: Curwen managed to lay his hands on a copy of a dreaded book entitled the Necronomicon and used it to summon dark otherworldly beings, such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, so they could breed with human women and create a hybrid race which would go on to dominate the world. With Ward increasingly under the possession of Curwen, and his wife not really any the wiser, this project is back on – as soon as Curwen exacts a little revenge on the descendants of his executioners…

As I may have said before, I only really became aware of the Corman-Price-Poe cycle of films when the BBC showed a season of them in 1990 (prime time BBC2, each with a special introduction from Corman himself, how very different the world was then): The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and (of course) The Masque of the Red Death. The Haunted Palace was notably absent from this run, though – but I can think of a couple of possible reasons why.

Firstly, it may just have been that this was a bit too much for BBC2 at 9pm: it’s not what you’d actually call scary, but it has a profoundly effective brooding and doomy atmosphere, and some of the sequences – particularly those with the mutant, hybrid villagers – are very unsettling even today. There are strange notes being struck here which are not present in any of the other Poe movies Corman was involved with.

Of course, this may be because it’s not actually based on Edgar Allan Poe in any meaningful sense (which is another possible reason why it wasn’t included in a season of Poe movies). The title is Poe, the main ‘based on’ credit goes to Poe, and there are a couple of Poe quotes inserted into the film, but the actual plot is from elsewhere: as the script’s references to Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and the Necronomicon suggest, this is really an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (and the first credited Lovecraft-derived movie, which makes this a landmark in horror cinema). But Lovecraft was virtually unheard-of back in the 1960s, and it was Poe’s name that would sell tickets.

Nevertheless, as a modern viewer, used to nudge-wink references to Lovecraft and his mythology in various movies and TV shows, it’s startling to come across a movie from so long ago which so openly makes use of iconic Lovecraftian props and concepts: the only slight disappointment is that we don’t actually get to hear Vincent Price say ‘Cthulhu’, as that dialogue goes to Frank Maxwell’s character. One thing which slightly irritates me is the way that anything which features a slimy tentacle lazily gets described as ‘Lovecraftian’ by default, when the writer really worked from a wider palette. But The Haunted Palace captures much of the essential Lovecraftian feel – the pervasive atmosphere of gloom and despair, the obsession with the influence of the past upon the present, the almost-instinctive revulsion connected to notions of heredity and miscegenation. This may have been one of the first ‘official’ Lovecraft movies, but it remains one of the most authentic.

Even if you’re not particularly bothered either way about the origins of the story, this is still an effectively creepy movie – Price is on top form in what’s effectively a double role, as you’d expect, but there’s also a very good supporting turn from Lon Chaney Jr, as you might not. That said, this is a movie filled with good performances, made with impressive production values and capable direction. Several times during this film I was struck by how much it resembled the kind of Gothic horror which Hammer Films were making in the UK during the same period. The Corman-Price films often had a slightly lighter touch and a little more colour about them, but the best of them are as good as any classic Hammer film, and The Haunted Palace is amongst the best.

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Before everything went to hell, there was a lot of talk about what an annus mirabilis this was going to be, in certain specific senses at least. The release of Underwater and Colour Out of Space had some people talking about how films based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft were about to finally achieve some mainstream leverage. I was never too sure about that, because just what constitutes a ‘Lovecraftian film’ is to some extent open to question, while it’s not as if Lovecraft’s work hasn’t had a massive influence on the horror genre already, inspiring some classic films along the way. There are also many examples of people making apparently-Lovecraftian films without being aware of his work.

One of the more dubious offerings currently available on the world’s most prominent streaming service not owned by a mouse is Barbara Peeters’ Humanoids from the Deep (known as Monster in some parts of the world), a product of Roger Corman’s exploitation movie conveyor belt production line. It kind of resembles a very dubious precursor of any number of dumb Sci-Fi channel TV movies, or possibly the kind of thing that Hannibal Smith appeared in as a part-time job between A-Team episodes. The film is set in California, in the small fishing town of Noyo, where the locals are perturbed by a mysterious drop in fish numbers.

The leading citizen, as far as we are concerned, is Jim Hill (Doug McClure), who is a decent, fair-minded guy without much of a personality. Everyone else has names like Hank and Deke. Deke, however, is not in the film for long as his fishing boat snags something very odd in its net, shortly after which it explodes in a rather contrived accident. What could be going on? We have seen the poster, plus the rubber glove hands of the thing in the net, so we have our suspicions, but the townsfolk are in the dark. They are more concerned with a deal with a cannery company that could potentially turn the town’s fortunes around. However, the fly in this particular ointment is the local Native American, Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), who announces he will be mounting a legal challenge to the building of the new cannery as it is on his tribe’s ancestral lands. There is much ill-spirited grumbling from the rest of the town.

As interesting as this plotline concerning the intersection of economic hardships and racial prejudice in small-town America may be (and, to be honest, it’s not actually that interesting), it is plainly just filler to keep the film ticking along to the point where the monsters can come on in earnest (Humanoids from the Deep is only 80 minutes long but still struggles to fill its running time). Soon enough that point arrives. A young couple fooling around on the beach (it looks horribly cold and the weather is clearly dismal, but they crank fake smiles onto their faces anyway) are attacked by, well, a creature resembling a man in a cheap-ass rubber suit. He is gorily slain, but the monster has other plans for her, tackily enough. Not long after, a young ventriloquist and his improbably hot girlfriend (look, I just report what I see) meet similar fates.

The rising death toll amongst the young people, and the sheer number of bikinis torn off, soon convinces Jim that something is afoot, even if that foot is unconvincingly webbed. He is assisted in his investigations by cannery company scientist Dr Susan Drake (Ann Turkel), who seems to know more than she at first lets on. Eventually she is forced to admit that genetic experiments to accelerate local fish growth have gone wrong and produced a breed of randy fish-men intent on molesting the local female population (‘gone wrong’ is rather an understatement in the circumstances). Can Jim and the scientist save the local salmon festival from disaster?

Roger Corman’s exploitation films have a better than usual chance of being watchable, simply because his policy was to hire talented people and basically let them do what they wanted, once they had satisfied the conventions of whatever genre they were working in. ‘Roger lets you do what you want. Just be sure you put in either a sex scene or an action scene every fifteen minutes,’ said Barbara Peeters in 1978, two years before making Humanoids. Unfortunately, this film proved to be an unhappy experience and saw the end of Corman and Peeters’ professional relationship, simply because – and, as an admirer of many Corman movies, it pains me to say this – the producer felt there wasn’t a sufficiently high level of explicit nudity and sexual violence in the film that Peeters eventually delivered. Additional scenes were filmed, under the direction of Jimmy Murakami, and edited in. As a result, Peeters never worked for Corman again and spent most of the eighties directing episodes of Remington Steele and Falcon Crest.

The extent to which the film focuses on the fish-men’s unchivalrous intentions with respect to the young women of Noyo – and it does bang on about this to a very significant degree – kind of colours the whole experience of watching it. I have a very great tolerance for low-budget monster movies, even ones as formulaic as this one, but when it seems they’re largely being pitched on the sheer quantity of rape they involve, it sours the whole thing for me. It turns it from a trashy film into a genuinely tasteless and nasty one; you do wonder about the kind of thinking involved.

I am kind of reminded of a graphic novel called Neonomicon, written by Alan Moore as a riff on some of Lovecraft’s themes. Lovecraft wrote quite a bit about miscegeny, but did so in an oblique, implied manner – Moore dealt with the same material in a bluntly explicit manner. I mention this because Humanoids from the Deep, a story about aquatic humanoids with an unpleasant reproductive interest in the inhabitants of a small American town, bears a superficial resemblance to Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a story about aquatic humanoids with an unpleasant reproductive interest in the inhabitants of a small American town. But in this case, I think the resemblance is only a trick of the light – if this film is derivative, it is only from other films, particularly Creature from the Black Lagoon and Jaws.

Even if you can put the uglier aspects of the narrative to one side, this would still be a hokey, primitive and rather stodgy film, for all that the climax of the story is quite well staged with an impressive sense of scale. (The epilogue of the film is another piece of brazen shockery, for all that there appears to be a call-back to it in the second Alien Vs Predator movie.) At least Doug McClure, veteran of a series of much more family-friendly monster movies, has the decency to look mildly embarrassed throughout. This would be mildly entertaining exploitation nonsense without the extra footage Corman added: as it is, you can see why Peeters and Turkel wanted their names taking off the finished product, for this is really a gratuitously sleazy concoction.

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In the UK we are used to genre movies being given distinction and a touch of gravitas by the presence of classy actors who you wouldn’t automatically associate with low-budget horror and fantasy – the most famous examples being, of course, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This famous duo top a list of first-rate performers which includes people like Andre Morell, Oliver Reed, George Sanders, Ralph Richardson, Patrick Troughton, and many more. When it comes to American films, however, it feels like this doesn’t happen nearly so much. The blazingly obvious exception is Vincent Price, of course (an actor who also made films in Britain, of course), but apart from him, who else is there? Mostly just people at the very beginnings (Jack Nicholson) or ends (Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone) of their careers.

And then there is Ray Milland, an A-list star for many years, and Paramount’s highest paid performer as well. In his later years Milland turned up in various made-for-TV fare, some of which got theatrical releases over here (he is in the first Battlestar Galactica movie, for example), but in the 1960s he followed in Vincent Price’s footsteps and made a handful of films with Roger Corman. One of these was an entry into Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations; the other, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, is slightly trickier to pin down when it comes to its pedigree.

The film was released in 1963. Milland plays James Xavier, a scientist and surgeon who is brilliant to the point of actual arrogance. The particular bee in Xavier’s bonnet is his dissatisfaction with the fact that the human eye can only perceive 10% or so of the spectrum. Feeling we should do better, he has obtained funding to develop some hormonal eyedrops to expand the range of human vision, and happily demonstrates them to a representative of the funding body, Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), by testing them on a monkey. The monkey indeed appears to briefly acquire the ability to see through sheets of card, which is good, but then it appears to die of shock, which is not. Having skipped the same class on hubris and nemesis as Dr Frankenstein, Seth Brundle, and every other SF-horror movie scientist you care to mention, Xavier cheerfully ignores the deceased simian and, facing a review from the money men, takes the eyedrops himself.

Well, the results are mixed, as his funding is suspended as the committee holding the purse strings have grave doubts about his work – but looking on the bright side, he can now achieve miracles of surgery, and also see everyone naked at parties (of course, as the movie was made in 1963, so this is all presented very innocently). However, an uneasy colleague, disturbed by Xavier’s arrogance, assures him he will be tried for malpractice, and a friend’s attempt to make an intervention results in the friend falling out of a window many stories up (this bit is not fantastically well presented).

Xavier is forced to drop out of sight (no pun intended), taking up residence first as a theme park novelty act, and later as a kind of faith healer, encouraged in both of these by an unscrupulous associate, Crane (a really nice performance by Don Rickles) – it’s the only way he can make any money to fund further research, for his sight is continuing to change. But when Diane finds him, he resolves to use his special faculties to fund his research – by going to Las Vegas and taking on the casinos. However, his vision is continuing to expand, causing him no small psychological stress, as reality itself literally unravels before his eyes…

So, on one level this is obviously another of those cautionary tales about Misguided Scientists Meddling In Things Of Which Man Was Not Meant To Know, although some commentators have found more interesting and subtle elements to it – Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, suggests that it is one of the few American horror films to conjure up an authentically Lovecraftian sense of dreadful cosmic horror, which I suppose is arguably the case: Xavier gibbers of catching sight of a great, all-seeing eye at the heart of the universe, which certainly sounds like the sort of thing Lovecraft would have come up with. (King also writes of a supposedly lost ‘original ending’, in which Xavier despairingly wails ‘I can still see!’, even after [spoilers redacted]. Roger Corman denies this ever existed, but acknowledges it is a better conclusion than the one in the film.)

Whatever you think of the story – and personally, I find it to be just a bit too linear and obvious, and by no means rushed even at less than 80 minutes in duration – the film works as well as it does mostly because of Milland’s terrific central performance. You can see why this guy was a major star for decades – in the early part of the film in particular, it’s like watching Cary Grant making a sci-fi B-movie: Milland has the same effortless suave charisma, he even sounds a bit like Grant. As the film goes on, he handles Xavier’s descent into haunted despair and then mania equally well, wringing every drop from a script, which (naked party scenes aside) handles its subject matter with commendable seriousness. With the possible exception of Rickles, no-one else really gets a look in.

Of course, you can pretty much guarantee that a film subtitled The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is going to include some ambitious point-of-view shots, and for a film of its time this one produces some interesting effects as it goes on. They are striking and lurid, for the most part, especially the psychedelic cityscapes that Xavier witnesses towards the end of the film. On the other hand, they are to some degree expressionistic – Corman has spoken of updating the film with more modern optical effects, and you can understand why. Whether this would include taking a second look at the final shot of the film, which for me doesn’t really work, I don’t know.

In any case, this is a solid, well-scripted film, interesting to look at and with a clear sense of what it wants to be. It’s Ray Milland’s performance, though, which really makes it memorable and distinctive.

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I’m all for people getting a bit evangelical and sharing the things that they love, but even I have to admit there’s usually a time and a place. In recent years I have been regularly amused and bemused by the good folk at the Horror Channel’s attempts to bring Roger Corman’s 1964 version of The Masque of the Red Death to a new audience, mainly by screening it in wildly inappropriate time-slots: 11am during the school holidays, for instance, or eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Prefacing the movie with the announcement that ‘this film contains scenes which may be unsuitable for younger children’ hardly gets them off the hook; there would be nothing more certain to make me settle down in front of the screen as a younger child than hearing such a disclaimer. (Though it is of course not just this film that gets eccentrically scheduled: The Devil Rides Out has turned up as the Monday matinee in the past, while Quatermass and the Pit was on in the Sunday teatime slot just the other week.)

I suppose you could argue that it’s the ideas, not the visuals, of The Masque of the Red Death that make it the film that it is, and that your average nine-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention to those – I first saw this film as a teenager, and while I was blown away by some of the more fantastical imagery, the film’s musings on good and evil and the fate of the world sort of went over my head. Even then, though, it clearly seemed to me to be by far the best of the Corman-Price cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which it comes near the end of.

The film is set in late-mediaeval Italy, with the land ravaged by plague. Local despot Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, obviously), making one of his usual trips to terrorise the peasantry, is horrified to see that the dreaded red death has begun to spread amongst the villagers of his domain, and resolves to retire within his castle walls until the disease has run its course. Mainly to pass the time, he takes with him pious young peasant girl Francesca (an 18-year-old Jane Asher, in her pre-cakes Macca’s-girlfriend period); the prospect of destroying her faith in God amuses him (also he plans on having her boyfriend and father fight to the death for the entertainment of his cronies).

Prospero, as you may have been able to gather, is a toweringly nasty piece of work, but in his own way he is equally devout in his beliefs: it’s just that he is a devil-worshipper who believes that God is dead and Satan holds dominion over the world. Cruelty and viciousness are practically religious duties for Prospero, and he has done his best to encourage others in the faith – particularly his lover Juliana (Hazel Court), who is not best pleased when Prospero brings another woman home with him.

Well, Prospero sets about educating Francesca in what he sees as the deeper truths of existence, while at the same time planning for a grand masquerade ball to be held in the castle. Meanwhile, Francesca’s presence has made Juliana contemplate making a deeper commitment to Satanism, while another subplot concerns a dwarf acrobat planning a cunning revenge on another nobleman who has been cruel to his lover. Also occasionally glimpsed is a figure robed and cowled in crimson, who speaks somewhat cryptically of deliverance and fate. Could it be that Prospero’s dark master will be putting in an appearance at the masque? Or has he inadvertantly summoned up something even worse?

This movie was made in the UK, largely using home-grown talent (as well as Asher, stalwart character performers like Nigel Green, Robert Brown and Patrick Magee appear, with an uncredited John Westbrook doing really excellent work in the title role), which results in a well-played and very good-looking film, even if the slightly garish depiction of mediaeval life is a bit cod-Hollywood (the cinematography was the work of a fairly young Nicolas Roeg).

Historical realism is not really on the agenda, anyway, as this is a much more thoughtful, impressionistic kind of horror film. The slightly facile way to describe Masque of the Red Death is that it looks like the result of a torrid get-together between Ingmar Bergman and the people at Hammer Films (Corman repeatedly delayed production, as he was aware people would assume he was ripping off The Seventh Seal), but the truth is that this film is the product of a slightly different sensibility than the one at Hammer: Hammer were making classy costume dramas which they sold to a youthful audience by the inclusion of elements of gore and fantasy, but Corman mostly eschews fake blood and easy shocks.

Instead, the success of the film comes from a consistently-maintained atmosphere of moral and intellectual decadence, and a strong sense of impending doom as the red death draws closer and closer. Prospero isn’t just evil: he’s clearly having a whale of a time being evil, and it’s this which is as disturbing as anything which happens in the film (and some fairly serious stuff goes down, especially considering this movie was made in 1964).

Much of the work on the script was done by Charles Beaumont, although the illness that would eventually kill him meant he was unable to complete the project. Beaumont is probably best-known for his work as one of the three main writers on the original version of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a very real sense in which Masque of the Red Death almost feels like an extended episode of that series, made in lavish colour. Personifications of abstract ideas stalk the land, characters engage in lengthy discussions about good and evil, there is a killer twist ending. And the dialogue has an extraordinarily poetic quality to it – ‘I want to help save your soul, so you can join me in the glories of hell,’ Prospero tells Francesca, while Juliana later declares ‘I have tasted the beauties of terror.’

It may look a little iffy written down, but delivered by these actors it really sings, and no-one gives a more operatic performance than Vincent Price. No-one, I would say, could have been better suited to this depiction of playful, apparently civilised evil; and Price is a good enough technician to leave the tiniest cracks through which the remains of Prospero’s humanity can be glimpsed – he seems genuinely moved and unsettled by Francesca’s faith, and the film’s big pay-off comes in his great moment of pride and hubris, when he comes to realise there may be limits to his wisdom and understanding after all.

Most of the Corman-Price-Poe films are competent entertainments or amusing diversions, but this one takes the series to a higher level, filled with memorable imagery and striking ideas. In the first rank of Vincent Price’s horror film career, the fact is that I’ve never seen another film quite like this one: if The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t qualify as a classic horror movie, I don’t know what does.

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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.

tales_of_terror_1962_poster

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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As usual, the film companies have taken pity and not bothered to release any big movies over the Christmas period, thus allowing us a little bit longer to consider the finer works of some of the people who have left this dimension in the last twelve months. Having recently doffed my figurative cap to the late Peter Vaughan, how else could one follow this but by adhering strictly to alphabetical order and paying a small but not unattractively formed tribute to another of the year’s more notable departees, Mr Robert Vaughn?

Vaughn split his career between cinema and TV before it was really acceptable, with plenty of famous movies and iconic TV shows on his CV: The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Towering Inferno, Superman III, The Man from UNCLE, The A-Team, Hustle… However, if we’re short of one thing at this time of year, then it’s surely knockabout late-70s-influenced space opera, and so in remembrance of Mr Vaughn I thought we might cast our minds back and consider Jimmy Murakami’s 1980 movie Battle Beyond The Stars.

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Our story takes place a long time in the future, in a galaxy quite a long way away, where the peaceful natives of the planet Akir find themselves being hassled by interstellar despot Sador of the Malmori (John Saxon) and his mutant raider henchmen. Being a despot with a well-organised schedule, Sador informs the Akira that he will be back in a week to conquer their planet, as he has some other tyrannising to do in the meantime. Cue concerned discussions amongst the Akira, and the decision to send bold young fellow Shad (Richard Thomas) off in their one and only spaceship to recruit some mercenaries to help defend the village – sorry, I mean planet…

Is this sounding a bit familiar, plot-wise? Well, it should, because… hmmm. Firstly, we should take a moment to pay tribute to the wisdom of producer Roger Corman and screenwriter John Sayles. Corman is a legendary figure in the low-budget exploitation movie business, but justly admired for his willingness to leave his writers and directors alone as long as their films hit the requisite quotas of whatever exploitation ingredients he was after. Hence, they are quite often much more interesting movies than you might expect, and some very distinguished people started their careers working on Corman movies (as we shall see). It was this policy that allowed Sayles to write a script which is much more inventive and knowing than could easily have been the case.

You couldn’t turn round in a cinema in the late 70s without falling over a homage/rip-off clearly inspired by a George Lucas stellar conflict project (how far we have come since then), and the question was obviously one of how to make Battle Beyond The Stars distinctive and less obviously a rip-off. Sayles hit upon the solution of diverting everyone’s attention by making it an equally blatant rip-off of another, equally famous film, The Magnificent Seven. It would be lazy critical shorthand to describe Battle Beyond The Stars as The Magnificent Seven in Space. But it would also be perfectly true.

The real cleverness of this ploy, if you ask me, is that it means the movie is essentially remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai again, and quite apart from the fact that this is almost never a bad idea, it puts this film on a much more level pegging with that other stellar conflict movie which we’re being quite careful not to name, for that itself was famously inspired by another Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress. Sayles clearly knows exactly what he’s doing – as well as various tips of the hat to The Magnificent Seven, the script references elements of Seven Samurai which didn’t make it into the 1960 remake (plus, of course, the villagers in peril are called Akira).

Chief amongst the loving little references is, of course, the presence of Robert Vaughn as Gelt, the most experienced and lethal of the mercenaries gathered to defend the Akira. It’s not exactly a reprise of his role as Lee from The Magnificent Seven, but it’s close enough, and if Vaughn found appearing in a low-budget SF B-movie in any way beneath him, you can’t tell that from his performance, which is immaculate. Elsewhere the film looks a little further afield, and isn’t afraid to go properly SF on the audience: apart from Shad and his techie love interest (Darlanne Fluegel), the team includes Gelt, a wise-cracking trucker called Space Cowboy, a cloned telepathic hive-mind entity, Cayman the space-whaling slaver lizard, two dwarves who communicate through manipulating the local temperature, and a warrior woman called Saint-Exmin. It’s a toss up whether the characters are any more of a mixed bag than the cast assembled to play them, which includes one of The Waltons, two bona fide movie stars in Vaughn and George Peppard, Morgan Woodward (probably best known for playing a nutty Federation captain in an episode of Star Trek only I seem to like), a handful of anonymous character actors, and Sybil Danning, an actress who started her career appearing in, erm, specialist films for German gentlemen. (When this movie got a UK release I distinctly recall Danning doing the publicity circuit to promote it, which must have been the only time anyone from The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried turned up on Saturday morning kids’ TV.)

Battle Beyond The Stars arguably surpasses many of its late 70s brethren in its imagination and its capacity to build some of its SF ideas into the plot, rather than just treating them as set dressing: the various alien powers of the hive-mind and the thermal dwarves do end up influencing the action, one way or another. Being only 100 minutes or so long means that the film never has time to get stale or particularly repetitive; it may not all quite be killer, but there’s certainly no filler – there is a consistently high level of inventiveness and wit that makes it easy to overlook the obviously very low budget. The ebullient score is another major plus – one of the very first works of James Horner, later to go on to score two of the better Star Trek movies and Krull (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar).

In fact, the only thing that keeps this film from being a real gem is the slightly ropey nature of the special effects, primarily the space battles. Now, some of the ship designs are interesting and most of the models are okay, but the special effects people responsible just don’t have the technical capacity to put more than one spaceship in any given shot, which is a bit of a problem in any film with as many space dogfights as this one: it’s the equivalent of trying to film a drama with the camera locked in a static medium shot. The rest of the film is good enough for this not to completely torpedo it, and given that the special effects guy involved was James Cameron, later to direct The Terminator and Aliens (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar), we must assume he was doing the best he could.

A lot of homaging and ripping-off has gone on over the past nearly-forty years since George Lucas had his bright idea; it continues to this day and shows no signs of stopping. The quality of the results has frankly been rather variable, with actual possession of the rights apparently no guarantee of a good movie being the end result. Battle Beyond The Stars gets much closer than many better-resourced movies to capturing the same imagination and free-wheeling sense of fun that Lucas did in his original films: this is the movie that deserved the big budget, all-star remake, not The Magnificent Seven (which they got right the first time round anyway). One would have thought James Cameron would have felt some obligation… but no, apparently not. Oh well: nothing can change the fact that this is a great little movie, and a fine showcase for everyone involved. Except James Cameron, obviously.

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