Movie Review: Tales of Terror

Posted: October 5, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Tales of Terror (1962 AIP Dir. Roger Corman)

Right before the out and out comedy of The Raven, the idea of adding a little lightness was experimented with in Tales of Terror. This is a little set of three Edgar Allan Poe stories, but done in that very special Corman way, by which I mean they only vaguely follow the original stories if at all. Part of the reasons Corman went on like this is that the stories are actually so short, or in some cases deal almost entirely with sensation, that it would be impossible to spin a coherent narrative out for 90 minutes. Partly it was budget constraints. Fewer characters meant fewer actors. For the most part, they pulled it off. This however, just might be the weakest of the Corman Poe Cycle. It’s okay though, chronologically they hit a low point in the middle and swept back up to great heights by the end. Usually a series dips and then just keeps going down hill, but Corman saved it and brought the whole thing to a triumphant conclusion.

How many times must we drive this same cab to this same door Roger? How many times?

Our first story is a version of Morella, which opens with what looks like the shot of the Usher house from the movie with an eerily similar name. Odd how often these movies start with someone driving a handsome cab through a field of mist that looks like a lot of dry ice. The same sparse sets that show up time after time are less an error of continuity, or even a choice of style but rather a selection of convenience. When watched in the order they were produced, one notices that the movies get more and more elaborate. This is simply because Corman saved everything that could be used again later and, well, used it again later. A lot of people accused Corman of cheapness, but it seems more like intelligence to me.

Hi! I’ll be your blue-eyed hottie for this story. Is there anything I can get for you?

One of the slight problems with Corman’s Poe movies, or the neat thing about them depending on your view, is that quite often the short stories and the filmed versions either didn’t have much to do with each other past an idea of a single scene, or the story was just used as a jumping off point to extend an idea. In Red Death and Usher, the story is heavily extended while in Pit, the original is almost entirely discarded. The reasons are mainly because the short stories are actually, for the most part, too short to actually give you enough ground to make a feature length movie. This shouldn’t be a problem in this, but it’s going to be. Each episode is only 30 minutes, but they can’t keep to the original story even for that much. One suggests that there are budget concerns.

Drunk Vinnie does not approve.

Morella involves a daughter who has come to her father’s neglected home after a 26-year absence, which as far as I can tell is her entire life. The girl’s name here is Lenora, instead of being nameless as she was in the story. The father is played by Vincent Price, who has a chief roll in all three stories as he does in all but one of the Corman Poe movies. Price never loved the girl and only lets her stay with him out of stubbornness. Clearly Vinney been drinking the whole time she’s been away, because he looks something of a mess. He also blames his daughter for murdering his wife, one assumes through childbirth but I suppose the little girl might have had a .44 tucked in her diapers. Kids are freaky things, they’ll turn on ya. That’s why I don’t have any. Even when you hear the explanation, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. I don’t get it, I really don’t.

MMM! Pure sex!

We quickly find that Lenora’s daddy is a bit Norman Bates, since he’s been keeping the body of his wife in her bed for the last 26 years or so. It seems he has had some trouble separating, so he left her to mummify in her bed, which is totally reasonable… I suppose. And then, they explain that Morella had died several months after giving birth. Soooo… why are they blaming the girl for the wife’s death? They had a party, the wife collapsed and said it was the daughter’s fault for this? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter because the daughter explains she’s dying as well. Aaand after a dramatic scene where the two make up, we get the shot of the Usher house again. It’s okay, I’m used to seeing the Usher house, it turns up a lot. If one can celebrate, rather than condemn little things like this, the sets and reused shots can become as much a part of the stock company as Price himself. I like the re-use, but that’s because I enjoy and love the cheaper aspects of these movies.

It’s that same dream where I’m running through the same hall I’ve run through for three movies now.

So anyway, Price and Lenora make up and Morella becomes unmummified, we see the house shot again and Morella starts walking around in the sort of ghost effect that would shame the Haunted Mansion if indeed it had any shame. We then find Lenora being strangled in her sleep, and her father comes in just in time to see her die. Price is always doing this in these movies, showing up too late to actually do anything. After the girl’s death, she seems to come back to life for a moment and while Price runs over to look at his daughter who has turned into his wife, I run to my copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination to see if any of this is actually in the original story. The wife’s remains have been swapped for the dead daughter, the house is caught on fire, Morella kills Vinney, and the fire effects from Usher are reused for the 87th time so far. In the end, when everyone’s dead, it the person with her hands around Vinney’s throat is actually… Lorena. So… um… kay? Not really sure how that all works with the original story, but whatevs, it’s over now.


We get a bit of narration and then we fall right into The Black Cat where Peter Lorre plays a drunk called Montresor. However, that’s his first name and not his last. His last name is Herringbone. He starts the story hating his wife and her cat, which removes us from the story already. This is supposed to be comic, but abusive drunks aren’t funny anymore. I’m not sure they were funny at the time, but they’re really not funny now. It’s like watching an old movie where someone tells “coon jokes” for ten minutes to show what a bounder and a cad they are. Yes, it sets them up as the villain, but you still have the jokes slipped in. The lack of comedy, along with the disapproval for having this sort of humor in at all, really makes this section drag because it’s just not amusing.

Yeah, it’s all about the cleavage.

Montresor wanders into a wine tasting and bumps into Price, playing Fortunato Luchresi. So now, we’ve got all the Amontillado names used up, guess they’ll have to call Monty’s wife Annabelle Lee won’t they? Oh, they do. Well, how nice. Anyway, Monty challenges Forty to a wine tasting contest, which is supposed to be funny. I suppose to an extent, it is amusing to watch Price make funny faces while tasting and to watch everyone’s disapproval of Lorre’s correct guesses. Actually, I’m selling this segment short. Price is being funny here. He gets to show his comic sense in this segment. Lorre can be funny as well, and they’d both prove it in The Raven and Comedy or Terrors a year later. However, this is a lot of drunk humor and drunk humor hasn’t been funny for sometime. Probably all the people getting really drunk and bringing great harm to themselves and others that made it not funny anymore. After picking up the pieces from one or two people being beaten up by drunken assholes, the joke looses some of its flavor. While not as offensive as racist humor, drunken humor is another of those “just not funny anymore” humors.

Pimpin’ just ain’t easy.

So Forty and Monty go back to Monty’s place which gets the Forty and Annabelle talking. Or something. This bit seriously drags because of what is supposed to be humor. Again, the falling down drunkenness is supposed to be used for comedy, but since it’s being used to adapt a story the is one of Poe’s biggest anti-drinking tales. I mean, the whole tale is a screed about the dangers of alcoholism, where as here the drunk is played up as a comedic tool. Anyway, Monty works out that Annabelle and Forty have been screwing around behind his back. Monty responds to this with the good grace and charm that is to be expected of a character such as this. The Cask of Amontillado is turned around as well, because Fortunato was a stuck up pretentious bastard who had no idea what he was talking about. In this he’s a kind, erudite, intelligent man. Instead, here, Fortunato and Annabelle are the blameless victims of the wicked and drunken Montresor.

Isn’t Peter Lorre short enough without having to subject him to this?

The problem is, after the killing, when Monty starts hallucinating we don’t care. He talks to his hallucinations, and my investment in him as a character is so low that I can’t even begin to care. However, the story is pretty much over at that point, even though it sort of doesn’t tell what happens after that. Yes, that’s how the story ends, but we know at the beginning how he ends up. I don’t know, I hate drunk humor and I throw up my hands at this. Let’s move on to Mr. Valdemar’s story.

No, no. Please go on, with your story. I’m not getting old just listening to you.

In this one, we get one of Poe’s creepier tales, a story of a man being caught between the world of the living and the dead through the power of mesmerism. We have Price playing a man having the pain from his terminal illness removed by hypnosis. While he knows he’s dying, he asks his wife to marry their friend, a doctor who has been caring for Valdemar. Basil Rathbone plays Carmichael, the mesmerist, and is the baddie of this story. As soon as he has Valdemar under his spell, he decides to try and use his position and hold Valdemar for as long as he likes. While the short story portrays the event as a scientific experiment, the horror here is based on what might be interpreted as a wicked BDSM control thing.

They stood in shocked silence. They would never discuss what they’d seen, and they would never forget.

Carmichael holds Valdemar, over a period of months while The Doctor and the wife demand he release Valdemar. The Doctor pulls out a gun and informs Carmichael that it’s not a sonic screwdriver. Carmichael then forces Valdemar to tell Valdemar’s wife into marrying him, instead of The Doctor. This raises a problematic point though. Earlier, Valdemar told her that nothing is more important to him than her happiness and a wife can’t be told who she is going to marry next by a husband who hasn’t yet departed. Carmichael tries to force his hand, announcing he’ll take what he likes and tries to force the wife. It’s a bit hard to be scared, because we know The Doctor is waiting outside to kill Carmichael. However that’s not needed because Valdemar hops up out of bed and as his face melts he kills Carmichael in an unspecified manner, leaving The Doctor to carry the wife out of the room. I mean that literally. He scoops her up with the sort of strength that only rampant mysoginy can grant and carries her from the room with only a single backward glance and a pronouncement of “Ew!” from the formerly loving wife.

Is it just me, or does he seem to be repulsed by the idea of lifting that little cutie?

So in all, not the best of the Poe adaptations. It might even be the worst, I’d have to check and see. They could have stuck closer to the source material, or they could have expanded some of those stories to feature length. None of them quite have the character development they needed and Valdemar in particular could have been a really interesting 90 minute story. That doesn’t make it bad, not exactly. It just makes it sort of weak sauce. You can watch it, but it might annoy you in places.

Official Score: 8 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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