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Posts Tagged ‘Vincent Price’

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 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’ve thought for a long time that there’s nothing more comical than a botched attempt at a horror movie, and few things more guaranteed to chill the soul than an inept comedy film. By this logic, then, comedy-horror films are particularly odd beasts, because you have to get both things right, and in the appropriate places, too. Film-makers who attempt to hedge their bets by putting a few funny bits in what’s supposed to be a horror movie are taking a big risk, and when they come a cropper it is frequently spectacular.

On the other hand, when it works, the results are often something quite distinctive, which sort of brings us to the case of Robert Fuest’s 1972 film Dr Phibes Rises Again, a sequel (rather self-evidently) to the previous year’s The Abominable Dr Phibes. Wikipedia lists this movie as a horror film, plain and simple; the IMDB takes a more cautious position and pegs it as ‘comedy, horror’. None of this really does the peculiar tone of the movie justice.

We open with a brief recap of the first film, and the murderous revenge-spree undertaken by the insane genius Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, obviously) – theologian, organist, inventor, and general man of many parts – against the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife (Caroline Munro, not doing a great deal). The film concluded with Phibes eluding the police and putting himself into suspended animation alongside his wife, in preparation for the hour of his return.

And, of course, said hour has now come. The sequel opens with Phibes rising from his sarcophagus, and – just to get things off on the right foot – he proceeds to do a little light dusting around his crypt, before rattling off a few organ arpeggios. As you would. From somewhere or other he summons his glamorous assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp, this time around), his plan being to use an ancient map in his possession to find the River of Life which runs through the basement of a secluded Egyptian temple. The River of Life will apparently resurrect Mrs Phibes and give the pair of them eternal life (whether it will allow Dr Phibes to grow a new face is not made clear). However – zounds! – in the years since the first film, Dr Phibes’ house has been demolished and the map stolen.

Luckily the doc knows exactly who would be in the market for a relic like that: Darius Biederbeck (hmm, like that’s a real name), played by Robert Quarry. Biederbeck is also searching for the River of Life – it eventually transpires that he has managed to enormously extend his own life by (presumably) alchemical means, but his means of doing this are almost exhausted. He will soon be departing from London for Egypt, where he will lead an archaeological dig to the hidden temple.

Well, Dr Phibes steals the map back, killing Biederbeck’s servant in the process (lest you think the film has adopted too quotidian a tone, he does so using a basketful of clockwork snakes and a trick telephone), and everyone departs for the valley of the Nile (which is played by southern Spain), with Phibes and Vulnavia leaving a trail of bizarre killings behind them. The police eventually cotton on to the fact that Dr Phibes is back in action, and top detectives/idiots Waverly (John Cater) and Trout (Peter Jeffrey) are dispatched in pursuit.

You could argue with some merit that many of these early-seventies Vincent Price movies are basically just strings of set pieces held together by rather basic plots – watching The Abominable Dr Phibes or Theatre of Blood, it quickly becomes apparent that these movies are about Price having a hit list of victims, which he is going to work his way down in his inimitably outlandish style. Dr Phibes Rises Again does depart from this formula, but only to the extent that Price has another agenda, and just ends up killing people who get in his way. (New characters are written in solely to facilitate the set pieces – John Thaw turns up, gets savaged to death by Phibes’ pet eagle, and is barely mentioned again after the one sequence he appears in.) It is, I suppose, a little more plot-driven, but that would give the impression that the plot, or indeed the film, actually makes sense as a conventional, naturalistic narrative. It does not – and lest that sound like a criticism, I think it was never really intended to, nor is this particularly a problem.

Unlike the first film, the sequel does appear to include a genuine element of mysticism or the supernatural, in that Biederbeck does seem to have achieved a degree of immortality, but even without this, nothing about this film is remotely credible. It’s almost like a rather gory cartoon in which the laws of physics themselves have been suspended for the duration: not only is Phibes able to booby-trap the dashboard of someone’s car so they are sandblasted to a skeleton while driving along, he manages to do so in about five minutes flat. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t all so knowing and tongue-in-cheek: the Price horror movies of this period come closer than most to managing to be funny and scary at exactly the same moment.

That said, while Price and the returning cast members all seem to be in on the joke, some of the others aren’t, which can be problematic. Peter Cushing turns up for one scene (he is credited as a ‘guest star’), which he plays entirely straight; the part isn’t really worthy of him. Interesting to imagine what would have happened if he’d played Biederbeck instead – Robert Quarry had recently appeared in the bad-but-influential Count Yorga movies and was apparently being groomed as a new horror star by AIP, but isn’t remotely in Vincent Price’s league. (Legend has it the two had an acrimonious relationship – when Price came upon Quarry singing in his dressing room, Quarry said ‘You didn’t know I could sing, did you?’, to which Price replied ‘Well, I knew you couldn’t act.’) About the best thing you can say about Quarry’s performance in this film is that he is not actively bad.

Biederbeck is written as such an odd character, and performed so flatly, that it’s hard to tell if he’s genuinely meant to be the hero of the movie or not. As it is, you end up – well, not quite rooting for Phibes, but certainly wanting to see more of him and the ridiculous costumes and death-traps and other gadgets that invariably surround him. There’s a sort of cheery amorality about every aspect of this story, certainly no sense of moral outrage – every death is there to be enjoyed. The ending, with Phibes seemingly triumphant, Biederbeck defeated, and Price giving us a technically anachronistic rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ as he vanishes into shadow, doesn’t feel downbeat or a case of evil ascendant. But then this movie is not much concerned with good or evil, just with its own peculiar style. Perhaps it’s better to consider this film as a collection of individual moments, intended to amuse and distract, rather than as any kind of plausible story. As such, Dr Phibes Rises Again is rather entertaining, always assuming you are on its wavelength.

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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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It would be impossible to write the history of American genre film-making without devoting a hefty section to American International Pictures and its founders Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson (also known as Jack’s dad). These are the guys who made the original version of The Fast and the Furious, and a bunch of other movies which have brilliant titles even if they’re (perhaps deservedly) obscure: The Astounding She-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers The World, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die… those films alone sound like a long weekend of bliss to me, and there are hundreds more.

Not that AIP didn’t aspire to a touch of class sometimes, perhaps most famously with their cycle of Poe adaptations overseen by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Those films came out in the late 1950s and early 60s, and nearly ten years later Price was back with the company for another well-remembered and reasonably classy outing, in Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The film is set in 1920s England (not that this is immediately apparent). Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is investigating a series of bizarre and grisly murders: one man has been stung to death by bees, another savaged by bats, a third has had his head crushed by a rigged fancy-dress mask, and so on. It turns out that all the victims were doctors, and a further connection is that they all worked on the same case, an operation overseen by Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten). The patient died, and Trout begins to suspect that her husband, who was believed dead, may in fact be nothing of the sort.

He is right, of course, for the outraged widower, Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, of course), brilliant organist, theologian, and inventive genius, is back on the scene and intent on extracting revenge on the men he holds responsible for the death of his beautiful young wife (I suppose this qualifies as another ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’ movie – Mrs Phibes is played by the delectable Caroline Munro, only adding to the movie’s cult credentials). Can Trout anticipate Phibes’ plans and stop him from completing the nine murders he has planned?

Stripped back to its absolute bare bones, The Abominable Dr Phibes sounds relatively straightforward – an unhinged killer sets out to take revenge on a group of men he holds responsible for a loved one’s death. What elevates the film from being a relatively routine suspense or horror movie into its own special realm is the bizarre, whimsical, baroque detail the film indulges in throughout. The film could have just opened with Dr Phibes emerging from his inner sanctum and setting off to orchestrate another murder. However, what actually happens is that Price emerges through the floor while playing a pipe organ (rather in the manner of Reginald Dixon), performing a piece by Mendelssohn. Having completed this important part of his plan, he goes on to engage in a little ball-room dancing with his enigmatic sidekick (Virginia North), the music being played by a band composed of life-sized clockwork automatons. Then he goes off to murder someone.

I don’t say this as a criticism of the movie, far from it – for it is the absurd excess of the film, and its darkly comic overtones, that give it so much of its charm and entertainment value. Is there a particularly plausible reason for Phibes to theme his revenge scheme around the biblical plagues of Egypt? Well, no, of course not: but it would be a much duller film without this. You could argue it is part of a great tradition of extravagant, somewhat gothic horror – and the film is surely partly inspired by The Phantom of the Opera – where odd details are actually very important. Things like the way that Phibes can only speak by plugging a gramophone into the side of his neck, and only eat and drink in a similar manner, may not be terribly important to the plot, but they add enormously to the atmosphere and style of the film.

Now, seasoned Price-watchers will of course be aware that the structure of this film is not unique in the actor’s canon: embittered maniac, aided by a mysterious young woman, embarks upon a series of elaborate themed murders against those he perceives as having done him wrong. That is, of course, the outline synopsis not just of The Abominable Dr Phibes but also Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood, which came out a couple of years later. The Abominable Dr Phibes is an entertaining and well-made movie, but it can’t help but come across as a dry run for Hickox’s movie, which is arguably superior: the theme is more coherent, and it’s not afraid to really put the pedal to the metal when it comes to including elements of black comedy.

And, of course, it gives Price an unparalleled opportunity to show off his range. In The Abominable Dr Phibes, he’s playing a character who is effectively permanently masked and largely mute, thus drastically limiting the options for Price’s performance. That the actor still gives a striking and memorable performance says much about his class, but the thing that distinguishes Vincent Price from peers like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee is his capacity for outrageous, operatic, over-the-top performances, and it’s this that’s missing from The Abominable Dr Phibes.

This is a fun film, which feels very much like a product of the British film industry in the 1970s – various distinguished figures show up for brief cameo roles (Terry-Thomas, John Laurie, Hugh Griffith) – for all that you can, perhaps, if you squint, see how it may have had some kind of influence on a later generation of horror movies (one element of the climax seems to me to anticipate Saw). Its ostentatious wackiness may not be to everyone’s taste, nor does it really make ideal use of its biggest asset (Price himself), and so for me the real significance of this movie comes from the fact it represents a first attempt at the formula which Theatre of Blood later perfected so wonderfully. Still highly entertaining in its own right, though, of course.

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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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Lover as I am of pretty much all of Hammer Films’ horror and fantasy output, I still have to admit that I can’t see these films appealing much to a youthful modern audience, lest it be due to their perceived ‘campness’. Well, I suppose that’s okay; I have no time for most modern horror films – never seen a Saw, never seen a Hostel, the closest I came was a quite frankly appalling film called Captivity, which… well, that’s another story.

Having said that, I watched Witchfinder General (1968) again the other night, and I can see the glimmerings of a connection there between the Gothic horrors of the 1960s and the torture porn befouling modern cinemas. Witchfinder General isn’t, of course, a Hammer production, nor does it feature any of the famous Hammer faces: but it does feature a period setting and a very distinguished leading actor in the title role – Vincent Price, in case you’ve never heard of this film.

If you don’t know this movie the plot is as follows: Matthew Hopkins (Price) and his torturer assistant (Robert Russell) roam an England in the throes of civil war, claiming to do God’s work but really just getting rich and indulging their appetites as they persecute anyone unlucky enough to even come under the suspicion of being a witch. This includes a Catholic priest, whom they eventually hang, despite his comely niece (Hilary Dwyer)’s attempts to save him. Learning what has transpired, a young soldier engaged to the niece (Ian Ogilvy) vows revenge on the self-styled Witchfinder General.

Witchfinder General tends to get mentioned in the same breath as The Wicker Man, a film with which it doesn’t really have that many similarities – this is a movie about the collapse of all morality, whereas The Wicker Man is about a clash of different social codes. But one thing they do have in common, which makes them fairly unusual for horror films of their period, is that neither of them is really a fantasy. Basically, Witchfinder General doesn’t feature any witches, and the villain of the piece is an establishment figure. Price gives a remarkable performance, and is utterly unrecognisable from the Poe movies he was best known for at the time – there’s no trace of the charm he displayed in most of those. Here, he is just a nasty, nasty piece of work.

An uncharitable reviewer might say the same about the whole movie, to be honest. The BBFC’s report on an early draft of the script described it as ‘a study in sadism in which every detail of cruelty and suffering is lovingly dwelt on‘ and this really survives into the final version. Compared to the kind of thing Hammer and Amicus were making at around the same time, Witchfinder General is startlingly explicit, even disturbingly so – the print the BBC showed has clearly been reconstructed from a heavily-censored earlier edit, restoring various graphic stabbings, beatings, eye-gougings and women being burnt alive.

I did actually think to myself at one point ‘This is just torture porn – being in period dress and having Vincent Price in it doesn’t excuse anything’. And it does lack the gentility of other British horror films of this time, their (mostly) high production values, and their reassuringly strong moral framework (basically, you always know who the bad guy is and that the young lovers will escape at the end). Witchfinder General has a good guy and a bad guy, true, but it’s certainly not reassuring – rather than the restoration of the status quo, with virtue triumphant, this movie ends with a crescendo of frenzied violence, gore, and madness.

And one does sense that the script by Reeves and (not the) Tom Baker is trying to say something about the nature of human beings and society, even if it’s not something particularly optimistic – in other words, the film isn’t quite just a string of torture sequences strung together. I can’t quite work out what that is beyond the rather obvious ‘left to their own devices, people will behave like animals’, and I certainly can’t detect any sense of what the film thinks could be done about this – but it’s enough to elevate the film above the level of just being a splatter nasty graced by one of the greatest performances of one of horror’s greatest actors.

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