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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Movie Review: Tales of Terror

Tales of Terror - 1962
directed by Roger Corman
adapted by Richard Matheson
starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Debra Paget, and Joyce Jameson


reviewed by Ryan C. Lieske

Horror luminary Vincent Price stars in all three of the tales in this anthology, which is in my opinion one of the more enjoyable, if not entirely faithful, Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's work.

As usual, Corman seeks to wring every ounce of juice he can out of his miniscule budget, and for the most part here he succeeds. While not exactly terrifying, the film is still very entertaining, and, in places, almost creepy.

The film opens with its weakest entry: "Morella." Price plays Locke, a man haunted by the death of his beloved wife Morella, who died shortly after giving birth to their daughter Lenora. He has spent the subsequent 20-some years wishing for death (but unable to bring it upon himself for reasons he has never understood) and drinking himself into mournful stupors. When his estranged daughter returns home after many years of alienation, he must confront his hostility towards her (Morella blamed her death on Lenora, saying, on her deathbed, "It's because of the baby ... the baby...."). Once he discovers that his daughter only has a few months to live, he breaks down and attempts to reconcile with her. However, Morella (who also vowed revenge on her child moments before she expired) has other plans for this morose family reunion. "Morella" didn't make much of an impression, other than to make me worry about the quality of the other stories.

But my concerns were put to rest with the next tale, "The Black Cat," which an amalgamation of Poe's "The Cask of the Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." This is the best of the three stories, and it's actually more humorous than the others. Peter Lorre plays Montresor Herringbone, a drunken old man who stumbles one night into a gathering of wine tasters. There, he meets Fortunato (Price, again), who can "name any wine just by tasting it." Lorre, looking only for free wine, passes himself off as a wine connoseur, and challenges Fortunato to a taste test. Eventually, Herringbone drinks himself silly, and it falls on Fortunato to guide him home. There, Fortunato is introduced to Herringbone's lovely wife Annabel. The two become lovers, and begin having an affair.

Soon, Herringbone discovers their trysts and goes about murdering them by sealing them behind a brick wall. Lorre makes this story all his. He plays his role of the drunken, jealous lover to perfection. The dark comedic highlight is the taste testing challenge. Watching Price's silly wine-tasting "techniques," and Lorre's mocking impersonations of him are worth the price of the video rental. There's also a rather strange dream sequence where Corman twists the camera angle so that everything on screen appears flattened and distorted, making Lorre and Price look like midgets with long arms. At one point, Price and his lover play catch with Lorre's head. If it wasn't so damn funny it might actually be disturbing.

And the film ends on a genuinely creepy note with the third and final tale, "The Case of M. Valdemar," which I've always though was the scariest story Poe ever wrote. Here Price plays the title character, a man on the verge of death. He has enlisted the help of a "mesmerist," played by Basil Rathbone. Rathbone is using hypnosis on Valdemar to ease his pain. He also manages to convince Valdemar to let him "mesmerize" him on the brink of death, so that Valdemar feels no pain, instead just slipping into a deep sleep from which he will never awake. Rathbone does just that, but something goes wrong (at least it appears to go wrong; Rathbone just may have some ulterior motives here): Valdemar's body does indeed die, but his spirit remains mesmerized, locked in stasis. They can hear his voice, coming out of the ether, but his dead lips do not move.

Matheson took artistic license with the original Poe stories, throwing in subplots of jealousy and adultery. He and Corman move the action along, while maintaining the essence of the original tales. While the video doesn't quite live up to its title, it's still an entertaining hour and a half, with great campy performances by three of the Elder Statesmen of Horror: Price, Lorre, and Rathbone. It's a pleasure to watch them work.

So, check this one out, that's what I say. It should please fans of Corman and his AIP Poe adaptations, not to mention fans of the aforementioned stars. This is some of their best work all around. While not high on scares or gore, it's still full of fun, despite its rather dull but watchable opening. As the back of the box promises, this is a "blood-dripping package that includes murder, necrophilia, dementia, live burials, open tombs, exhumation, resurrection, zombies and feline vengeance," so what else do you want?

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