Corman in the countryside
The English Poe Films
Johnny Restall explores Roger Corman’s UK Poe Films: When American Gothic met festering English Arcadia…
By 1964, Roger Corman had directed six successful and influential films based (sometimes very loosely) on the work of the 19th-century American author Edgar Allan Poe.
The series began in 1960, with a reasonably faithful adaptation of The Fall Of The House Of Usher. It mixed ravishing colour and gothic psychodrama with the director’s thrifty but intelligent B-movie style and established Vincent Price as the jewel in their crown. The popularity of the film surprised Corman’s producers at American International Pictures (AIP), who had feared that their target teenage audience would not exactly flock to watch movies based on some of the very same dense, metaphorical, literary classics they were forced to endure at school.
Hot on the heels of Usher there followed The Pit And The Pendulum (1961), the Price-less The Premature Burial (1962), with Ray Milland taking the lead, and the compendium Tales Of Terror (1962). By The Raven (1963) and The Haunted Palace (1963), the source material was being almost entirely dispensed with, the former being richer in comedy than gothic foreboding, and the latter actually being based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, despite taking its title from a Poe poem.
AIP had a deal with the British production company Anglo-Amalgamated (probably best remembered today for several Carry-On films, as well as Michael Powell’s infamous 1960 film, Peeping Tom). Ever keen to keep costs down, AIP spotted an opportunity in this arrangement – if the next entries in the cycle were filmed in England as co-productions, they could take advantage of the Eady Levy, a UK tax break designed to support the British film industry. This decision led to the distinctive final entries in Corman’s Poe series: The Masque Of The Red Death and The Tomb Of Ligeia (both 1964).
The Masque Of The Red Death adapts one of Poe’s most memorable and hallucinatory tales. The original story tells of the ‘happy, dauntless and sagacious’ Prince Prospero, who holds a masked ball in his lavishly decorated palace, while the countryside outside is ravaged by the disease of the ‘red death’. At the chime of midnight, an unexpected, terrible reveller joins the celebrations, and things do not end well for the Prince or his followers.
As with most of the author’s work, the original text is brief and complex, rich with poetic description but fairly light on adaptable action and plot for a screenplay. The film’s writers, Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, flesh the story out to fill 90 minutes by adding numerous additional characters, including death-like figures stalking the countryside (a deliberate reference to Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal), and incorporating a further Poe tale, Hop-Frog, as a prominent subplot.
Prince Prospero, played by recurring star Price in his one of his finest performances, is now a committed Satanist, convinced that God is dead and that the Devil rules the Earth. The land may be ravaged by disease, but Prospero’s castle offers only limited refuge to his followers (and his prisoners). Their smoothly sadistic host toys with his guests, mercilessly exposing their vanities and weaknesses.
Price is at his most charismatic and cruel in the role, particularly when explaining the more sinister purposes of the mono-coloured chambers in his castle (‘My father imprisoned a friend of his in this room for three years…When he was released, he could never again bear to look at the sun – or even a daffodil!’). Many of his beautifully delivered speeches from Masque have found a certain infamy beyond the film itself, being prominently sampled by various doom metal bands. Typically for the actor, he manages to keep Prospero from being an entirely repugnant villain, bringing wicked persuasiveness and even a certain sympathetic world-weariness to the part.
Much of the plot’s conflict revolves around Francesca (Jane Asher), a village girl kidnapped by Prospero, after she pleads for the life of her imprisoned partner and her father. Initially, the two are in stark opposition, the Prince’s bleak view of humanity seeking to overwhelm Francesca’s more hopeful, merciful ideals. Over the course of the film, each influences the other, culminating in their actions at the climactic masked ball – Prospero pleads for Francesca’s life with the unexpected guest, having shown little previous clemency, while she willing kisses the Prince goodbye, despite having professed his moral repugnance to her. It is remarkable how successfully the film is driven by theological debate, demonstrating just how far Corman was prepared to push his successful B-movie horror formula.
Aside from Price, the majority of the supporting cast are drawn from the UK, including familiar faces such as the aforementioned Asher, Hazel Court (as Prospero’s unfortunate mistress, Juliana), Nigel Green, and the ever-astonishing Patrick Magee, who meets a particularly grisly demise in the Hop-Frog subplot. The striking cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, soon to establish himself as a brilliant director in his own right, creates a dreamlike and darkly vibrant mood, enriching the film’s many iconic horror moments.
Thrifty use of leftover sets from the historical epic Becket (filmed earlier the same year), combined with strong performances, a thoughtful script, rich costume design, a brooding score from jazz pianist David Lee, and a memorably choreographed finale, arguably make Masque the most elegant and fascinating of the Poe adaptations.
In terms of style, the eighth and final instalment of the series, The Tomb Of Ligeia, breaks with the traditions established in the previous films. The other entries had been largely studio-bound, skilfully turning the obvious artificiality of the sets into an expressively-decorated advantage, mirroring the unreal atmosphere of the stories that had inspired them. In contrast, most of the opening third of Ligeia takes place outside in bright sunlight, with Corman deciding to take advantage of his new location by filming in the British countryside. While many interiors are again recycled sets from Becket, the outdoor scenes were filmed in and around the ruins of Castle Acre Abbey in Norfolk, with dazzling greenery and traditional hunting reds vividly photographed by Arthur Grant.
The location shooting brings quite a different feel to the film, though it is debatable how well it really gels with its story. This retains several of the familiar trappings (haunted protagonists, deceased wives or relatives, cobwebbed interiors, and a finale of flame), though the tone is closer to romantic melodrama than horror. The script stretches Poe’s brief tale, a disturbed husband’s account of a wife who appears to will herself back from the grave, to eighty minutes by adding fox hunting, hypnotism, villainous animals, and desecrated holy ground while expanding the roles of supporting characters barely mentioned in the original work.
Screenwriter Robert Towne later found acclaim for 1973’s salty The Last Detail and 1974’s classic neo-noir Chinatown, but to my mind seems somewhat less suited to the material here. Earlier adaptations by genre pros such as Richard Matheson had proved more adept at keeping their plates spinning until the end, covering for their lack of action through rich psychological intrigue and gothic atmosphere. Its over-expanded story tries to combine both supernatural and rational explanations at once, without really satisfying either. Largely stripped of the advantage of expressionistic sets, it seems over-exposed in the sunshine to me, struggling to create a comparable intensity of mood.
Price returns to play widower Vernon Fell, haunted by his ‘undead’ wife Ligeia, and driven to sport dark glasses due to a ‘rather morbid reaction to sunlight.’ Once again, the remainder of the cast are from the UK, led by Elizabeth Shepherd, playing Fell’s new love Rowena, as well as the late Ligeia (differentiated by blonde and brunette hair respectively). While remaining highly watchable, Price is perhaps too old for the role of troubled romantic lead, and the part leaves him little to do beyond mope, with Shepherd similarly stranded as the dull Rowena for the majority of the duration.
With the menace largely confined to appearances from a small black cat (who may or not be the reincarnation of Ligeia), the film struggles to match the Usher gallery of grotesques or Prospero’s Satanic charisma. (This does, however, lead to Price exclaiming, ‘I tried to kill a stray cat with a cabbage!’, which is worth the cost of admission alone.) Even the fiery climax seems somewhat routine, with Corman reusing stock footage of a burning barn already utilised in previous efforts, though the sequence does provide some neat visual echoes of the arguably far more memorable opening scenes of 1953’s Price-starring House Of Wax.
Sadly, these last two pictures were less financially successful than their predecessors, bringing the series to a close. Perhaps inevitably, after eight films in five years, audiences were growing weary, and despite Corman’s commendable efforts in trying the different styles explored here, the formula was running out of steam. Regardless, the director’s Poe films have exerted an influence on horror cinema for many years, and at their best, their colourful, psychological style remains thrillingly potent.