Friday, June 15, 2007

Corman's Poe: Are You Experienced?

"Here I am -- young and handsome!"

Our visiting friends from out-of-town have departed, so today we're buckling back down to work today -- albeit slowly and not altogether willingly. Sitting in the sunlight for a few days engenders its own form of drunkenness and it's a pleasant way to wile away the waning days of spring. Maybe I'll do my proofreading outdoors on the patio swing, as the sun totters below the horizon.

I mentioned showing Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) to my teenage animator friend and Poe devotée. When he and his parents returned yesterday, I surprised him with a spontaneous showing of Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962), a copy of which happened to be handy. When it ended, I asked him for his thoughts. He felt it had its moments, but that, on the whole, it wasn't quite the equal of PIT -- which prompted from me a sidebar on the subject of how, sometimes, the whole of a movie experience can sometimes feel inequal to the sum of its parts.
Actually, I believe he was quite correct in his assessment -- as horror anthologies go, TALES OF TERROR isn't even in the same neighborhood with Bava's BLACK SABBATH or Kobayashi's KWAIDAN, and I suppose there are other horror anthologies of frankly lesser parts that somehow feel stronger as a whole. Though it feels like the stronger picture, PIT suffers (in my opinion) from some miscasting that results in some subpar performances. John Kerr's one-note, sullen performance makes for an unappealing hero, and though Luana Anders is good, as she always is, she looks uncomfortable in the movie; she's too modern an actress to be saddled with that 16th century wardrobe and dialogue. And Antony Carbone, as the doctor who likes to advertise his chest hairs, loses me from the second he mispronounces the word "forté." It's also a very talky film, but somehow the coups de theatre of Elizabeth's return from the grave, Nicolas' mental breakdown, and the climactic pit sequence redeems it almost entirely in its last couple of reels.
TALES OF TERROR, on the other hand, is extremely well-acted throughout but, because it's an anthology of stories, it cannot build to a superb last couple of reels, even though it reserves the strongest story for last. The anthology format itself gives the whole an erratic, inconsistent pace. It's difficult to consider the film as a whole, only in terms of the part that constitute its uneven sum.

The opening story, "Morella," is almost universally disliked -- those of us who can remember the scary promotional images of the undead Leona Gage and her wicked fingernails can't help but wonder why she was replaced in the final cut with the subtler image of a spectral silhouette. Yet, each time I see "Morella," I gain more appreciation for Vincent Price's performance as the haunted, alcoholic Locke, which strikes me as possibly the most sincere and best modulated of all his dramatic performances in the Poe series. There's not a whiff of humor or self-consciousness about it, one of his most undeservedly overlooked characterizations. Maggie Pierce gives a sincere-enough supporting performance, but her wholesome, blonde looks seem out of register with the story's atmosphere and she pales and merges with the predominantly colorless scenery (one of the episode's more intriguing aspects).
"The Black Cat" is rightfully honored for the superlative comic performances of Price, Peter Lorre and Joyce Jameson, Richard Matheson's script neatly dovetails the title story and "The Cask of Amontillado," and nearly every line of dialogue (including the one I used to open this blog entry) is a delight. "The Case of M. Valdemar" is the most potent of the three stories, thanks to a wickedly authoritative performance by Basil Rathbone and a story that ventures beyond mere morbidity and taps into the genuinely metaphysical. It's an uneven film, I agree, but each of the three stories has great (not just good) things to offer.
So why doesn't TALES OF TERROR hang together better? I suspect it's because the first story isn't quite assertive enough, either in its impact or familiarity, and the film also has a very odd, even tacky manner of transition -- freezing images and zooming in and out of their details. (Upon seeing these, my teenage friend's father, a documentary filmmaker, asked if the film had been originally made for television, and it was a reasonable enough question.) The final shots of two episodes are so lacking in revelatory detail that they require the "fade-to-etching" end cards to point out the crying cat atop Annabelle's head or the skeleton within the putrescent muck that descends on the mesmerist. By casting Vincent Price in each story, the film also seems to emphasize itself as a portfolio of Price's range as an actor, rather than as an advertisement for Roger Corman's range as a director -- but he presides over some very fine performances here, as well as some classic horror sequences of the mid-to-late 20th century.
I know from researching my book on Mario Bava that American International Pictures was going through a censorious phase at this time, bowing to pressure from parents groups to soften the impact of the horror films they were selling primarily to kiddie matinee audiences. They tampered quite a bit with the US version of BLACK SABBATH, so might it also be possible that TALES OF TERROR was similarly toned-down in anticipation of its release?
One thing I do know about TALES OF TERROR and PIT AND THE PENDULUM: Neither of these pictures was available for viewing in their correct Panavision screen ratios for more than thirty years. Tragic as it is to consider, it is possible that some short-lived fans never had a chance to see these films any other way but in an unsatisfying pan&scan presentation on television, or on VHS. Even though both films are more easily appreciated now that they are available on DVD in widescreen transfers, even a 57" screen like mine can't hope to deliver the theatrical experience of these films. TALES OF TERROR was one of my earliest scope memories, and I can still vividly remember having to turn my head throughout the film, like a tennis viewer, to see what was happening on different sides of the screen. And there is little in my childhood memories to rival the experience of sitting in a darkened theater full of screaming kids as PIT's pendulum began its swinging descent.
DVD is able to deliver Roger Corman's Poe films on some levels, but almost exclusively, those levels feel more cerebral to me than visceral, which is the level where they most seriously counted when I was first exposed to them. I suspect that not even HD will be likely to fully render the full experience of the Poe films, at least as I have the good fortune to remember them. But it was a real pleasure for me to introduce these movies to a young person and to see, from his response, that they are capable of thrilling newcomers even in that reduced arena, at least to the extent of exciting their imaginations and giving them a sleepless night or two.

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