Thursday, March 17, 2011

Classic Horror: Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe Cycle

While most people associate Roger Corman with b-grade or lower filmmaking (Sharktopus, which he produced for SyFy, just came out on DVD), one often forgets that when given the time and the inclination, he has been more than capable of making some great films. He didn't win an honorary Oscar in 2009 for just being a showman; see an excerpt from the Governor's Awards ceremony here.  Among his best films were his Edgar Allen Poe adaptations in the 1960s, and several of them are currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly.  A personal favorite of mine is Masque of the Red Death, with amazing color cinematography by Nicholas Roeg, who is just one of many Corman alumni who went on to great success as a director.

Pop Quiz: How many directors of films produced by Corman have gone on to win Best Director Oscars?  (Answer at the bottom of the post).

A good survey of Corman's Poe cycle can be found at Gary Morris's Bright Lights Film Journal in the article "From the House to the Tomb." If you decide to join me as I explore the rest of the cycle, I hope you get a chance to share your thoughts and responses in the comments section below.

The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, USA, 1964, 88 minutes)
Netflix: At a 12th-century masked ball from hell, dissolute satanist Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) torments his guests, forcing them to participate in a variety of gruesome lethal games in this Roger Corman-directed horror flick based on two stories by Edgar Allen Poe. While most of the games end in someone's death, those who survive Prospero's amusements must endure the nightmare of torture and unthinkable depravity. Netflix link.

Looking at this again reminded me that I had only seen a pan-and-scan television version of the film; Netflix is screening a pretty decent looking widescreen edition.  Besides the widescreen compositions, what really stands out is the use of color in the film.  The saturated red in the opening scene, as the old woman receives a flower from the mysterious cloaked figure, gives the film an other-worldly feeling right from the start.  Obviously, red becomes an important motif in the rest of the film, but the visceral impact of the hooded figure never diminishes.  The most stunning sequences, however, involve a series of vividly painted rooms (yellow, violet, white, and black) that heighten the tension as the characters move through them.  It's an amazingly simple effect that, like the hooded figure, maintains its impact each time it is repeated.  The best variation of this involves Francesca (Jane Asher) slowly walking through the rooms as the camera follows behind her; the doors are positioned ajar in such a way that we can see the final door at the end of the corridor, but not the colors of each room until she pushes them open.  We know the horror conventions, we've seen this all before, but the colors create a direct response to the scene that transcends those conventions.

I was also struck by how genuinely bleak the film is, and how nihilistic Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is as he embraces his satanism with pure gusto.  While the decadence is portrayed within 1964 conventions and norms, in a way the restraints placed on Corman make the extreme moments even more jarring.  Prospero's instructions to his guests to behave like animals is incredibly tame by today's standards, but there's something effectively off-putting about the submissiveness and the spectacle.  As the party guests watch a man burn to death in front of them as if it were part of the evening's entertainment, one wonders exactly how some of these scenes played to 1964 audiences. And despite the need to ultimately punish Prospero for his transgressions, the film does allow him to break Francesca's faith in God (she seems unaffected by the death by fire). While most horror films are transgressive by definition, the lack of an epilogue that restores Francsesca's faith might be the film's most transgressive quality.

I'll be watching the rest of the cycle over the next few days and if I get a chance I will follow up with thoughts on the films below.

The House of Usher (Roger Corman, USA, 1960, 79 minutes)
Vincent Price stars in Roger Corman's first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation as Roderick Usher, whose cursed New England bloodline dooms him and his sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), to madness and debauchery. When Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the grim Usher mansion with plans of marrying Madeline, Roderick attempts to dissuade him with the tales of the Usher curse. But Philip is undeterred ... until the horrors begin. Netflix link.

Tales of Terror (Roger Corman, USA, 1962, 88 minutes)
Netflix: It's a triple threat of terror from the master of the genre: Edgar Allan Poe. This collection of three films -- The Black Cat, Morella and The Case of M. Valdemar -- offers everything horror fans can't get enough of, from murder and dementia to live burials, open tombs, resurrection and zombies. And with three of horrordom's greatest villains (Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone) in the lead roles, the chills are guaranteed. Netflix link.

The Raven (Roger Corman, USA, 1963, 85 minutes)
Netflix: Roger Corman directs this hoot of a film featuring Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price), a washed-up sorcerer who turns a talking raven back into a man and learns that his presumed-dead wife is actually living with a rival magician (Boris Karloff). But when Craven tries to rescue his wife, he gets more than he bargained for. Loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem, this tongue-in-cheek classic co-stars Peter Lorre and a young Jack Nicholson. Netflix link.

Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman, USA, 1964, 81 minutes)
Netflix: From director Roger Corman comes this supernatural tale of undying love set in the early 19th century. After the death of his wife, Ligeia, eccentric Verdon Fell (Vincent Price) will do anything to replace her, even if he must sacrifice his new wife, Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd). Plagued by eerie events in her new home, the terrified Rowena seeks help from former suitor Christopher (John Westbrook), but can he thwart Fell's plan to revive Ligeia? Netflix link.

Pop Quiz Answer: Five.  Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron.  [Edit: see slight correction in comments below.]


  1. I have a question. What movies/films did each of the five directors film for Corman? I have a guess for two of them, but don't want to post them so as to not appear foolish.

  2. Coppola: Dementia 13
    Scorsese: Boxcar Bertha
    Howard: Grand Theft Auto
    Demme: Crazy Mama (and others, I think)

    Cameron: Well now that I've double checked this...I may have made a small error. Cameron directed second unit on Galaxy of Terror (including work with principal actors). That's how I found the quote from Cameron, ""I trained at the Roger Corman Film School."

    When I posted the question, I thought that Corman had produced Piranha 2, Cameron's directorial debut, since Corman produced the original Piranha. I think I was mistaken about that.

    Still, here's a Wikipedia list of other directors who started their career in some way with Corman: