The Criterion Shelf: Grindhouse Gothic – Roger Corman Directs Edgar Allan Poe

Eight classic horror films provide the perfect autumnal preparation for next month's scare-ific celebrations

Roger Corman became a film critic because it meant he could enjoy free movie tickets. Learning this bit of information might give you the template for the reputation he would establish as one of the pioneers of independent cinema. Still with us at press time at the age of 97, Corman was the youngest filmmaker to have a retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française when they featured his work in 1964, having already made dozens of films and only losing money on one, the critically-acclaimed anti-racism drama The Intruder. At the time, he had just finished a series of eight films that gave him his first breath of name recognition and popularity and still stand as being up there with his greatest achievements.

After graduating with a degree from Stanford and working as an industrial engineer for four days, Corman decided to follow his agent brother Gene into show business, working his way up (literally) from the mail room at Twentieth Century-Fox to story reader and eventually selling an independent film to what was then called American Releasing Company. Under its later company name, American International Pictures, Corman would direct eight films in five years based on Edgar Allan Poe poems and stories, inspired by the fact that the rights were free. With the filmmaker looking to pull things off as cheaply as possible would famously become a hallmark of his career (and would be covered beautifully in former colleague Beverly Gray’s book Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, which I highly recommend), Poe would prove a gold mine for public domain material.

Poe, who was born in 1809 and published his first collection of stories in 1827, was something of a maverick himself, considered the inventor of detective fiction and one of the first major authors to promote the genre of short story writing. Born in Boston and raised by adoptive parents in Richmond, Virginia after his own parents died young, he struggled financially to get an education but spent his few years on earth creating a wealth of stories whose images and themes continue to invade the psyche of horror lovers everywhere. Who doesn’t think the word “Nevermore” every time they see a raven? (Admittedly this is, for many of us, because of a Simpsons episode.) Meanwhile, references to the “tell-tale heart” can be found in numerous writings. Recently, Netflix released The Pale Blue Eye, a detective story that features a fictionalized young Poe played by Harry Melling, and there are no small amount of awards, festivals and pubs named after the man who died, under circumstances as mysterious as one of his more ominous tales, at the mere age of forty.

Corman’s eight films based on Poe (really seven, since one is actually based on an H.P. Lovecraft story) are not likely the reason for the author’s weight in the collective imagination, but the series did contribute a great deal to Corman’s own magnificent career. Each of them was shot quickly on sets that you can see were frequently reused (or in the case of The Masque of the Red Death, the sets were from the more prestigious Hollywood production of Peter Glenville’s Becket), and yet none of them gives a sense of bland repetition. Corman leans heavily on comedy in some (the silliest being The Raven) and goes deep into terror in others (The Haunted Palace is the scariest) and never lets low budgets or short schedules appear on screen thanks to rich cinematography (by Nicolas Roeg in Masque) and a magnificent cast in each. Reams more could be written about Vincent Price’s contribution to horror cinema and Poe’s legacy, but suffice it to say that he went from being a well-regarded character in the Studio era to turning into an unlikely star of drive-in entertainment thanks to his appearance in no end of horror classics, and we get seven of them here (contractual silliness saw him replaced by Ray Milland in The Premature Burial, and it only further proved how vital Price was to these films).

In an interview featured on the Criterion Channel, Joe Morgenstern calls Corman “the least self important person I know.” The fact that the filmmaker doesn’t consider his own work important doesn’t downplay the mark he has left on show business. His Poe films brought American International into a new realm of success, with House of Usher its first full-colour extravaganza (and whose box office intake was what led to the rest being made). After growing tired of AIP’s control over his final cut, Corman created New World Pictures and, with studios no longer interested in bringing the likes of Bergman and Fellini to North America, also moved into distribution of international classics that brought him further profits when not churning out endless exploitation pictures. When he was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2009, the inscription read that it was “for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers,” likely because of his “film school” that provided the start of many a successful director’s career: Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Todd Field, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Hanson, Ron Howard, John Sayles, and Jonathan Demme all came through his ranks, as did Jack Nicholson both in front of and behind the camera (his second film as actor, The Raven, is in this collection). Gale Anne Hurd, who would eventually produce the likes of Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Walking Dead, began working in Corman’s outfit and, while she points out that he usually hired women because they were willing to work for less, knowing this didn’t take away her appreciation for the opportunity she was given to get her magnificent career off the ground.  Corman’s last film as director was Frankenstein Unbound in 1990, while his last as producer Death Race in 2050 in 2017.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted, with thanks to Dakota Arsenault and Matthew Simpson for their generous contributions.

It must be noted that all films in this collection are Must-Sees. While the Criterion Channel’s showcase of Corman’s Poe’s films has passed, they’re truly worth hunting down. Especially for Halloween!


House of Usher (1960)

Dakota Arsenault: Mark Damon plays Phillip Winthorp, a man who has come to find his fiancée Madeline Usher, played by Myrna Fahey. When he arrives at their crumbling estate he is told by both Madeline and her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) that they are cursed and will die soon, so Phillip must leave at once. What follows is an exploration of determinism versus predetermination: are Madeline and Roderick dying because they are cursed by centuries of relatives being evil and bringing everything to ruin, or is it just psychosomatic? Price looks almost unrecognizable with his hair dyed blonde and his pencil mustache shaved off. The film features some iconic horror imagery in the form of Madeline, who has gone insane by the end of the film, covered in blood and makeup accentuating the crazed look in her eyes as the titular house begins to burn down. It’s no surprise that this film kicked off the trend for the other Poe adaptations directed by Corman and starring Price. It makes great homework for the Mike Flannigan remake for Netflix.


The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Corman’s frequent collaborator Richard Matheson creates a delightful tale that bears little resemblance to Poe’s original story, keeping the setting (the original story took place during the Spanish Inquisition) and the torture device that appears in the last few minutes of the film. Similar to the set-up in House of Usher, it begins when sixteenth-century Englishman John Kerr shows up at the manor of the Medina family to determine the cause of his sister’s death. He finds that her widower husband (Price) is cagey about the details, which Price’s sister (Luana Anders) and doctor (Antony Carbone) insist is the result of his grief affecting his nerves, which were already tenderized by his having witnessed a gruesome atrocity when he was a child. Kerr smells something rotten and is in disbelief when servants begin hearing the voice of the dead woman (played by the legendary Barbara Steele) calling to them at night, but what he’s in for is quite the surprise when the secrets all come out. The brightly colourful, ravishing cinematography is a pleasure and the delightful acting by an impressive cast make for tons of fun to be had with all the chilly imagery, some of which includes reused shots from the previous film, no big deal.


The Premature Burial (1962)

Storytelling takes something of a hit in this third Corman-Poe venture, in which the great author’s story is padded out to feature length using a great deal of the same story elements (betrayals in love) that padded out Pit and the Pendulum (and also filmed in the same cobweb-infested basement as the earlier two films). A complicated production history in which Corman initially tried to shoot outside the purview of American International Pictures resulted in it also being the only film in this collection to not star Vincent Price, with Ray Milland filling in for the lead.  He plays a paranoid nobleman who is terrified of being buried alive, his frequent bouts of catalepsy, a nervous condition that renders a person into a trance that appears like death, making him afraid that he will be entombed by accident.  This is something he believes happened to his father when he was a child, so he concocts an elaborate tomb with handy escape tricks that he believes will be useful if it does happen. His wife, however, believes that he is encouraging his symptoms with his fear and begs him to destroy his game-room mausoleum and take her once and for all on their honeymoon in Venice. The ending feels confused, as if changes were made to the plot at the last minute, and it’s missing the glee with which Price would have swanned around in so ridiculous a plot, but it looks as good as the previous two and is not without its moments.


Tales of Terror (1962)

Almost as if he was pushing his luck by stretching some of Poe’s shorter stories into features, Corman takes advantage of the popularity of omnibus films and presents three tales for the price of one. The first, Morella, changes the original narrative about a possessed child and a creepy baptism and instead has Lenora (Maggie Pierce) return to the father who gave her away more than twenty years ago, finding him haunted and embittered by the death of his wife in childbirth. The grieving widower (played with unfettered severity by Price) refuses to connect with her until he realizes that she is the victim of his wife’s diabolical plans from beyond the grave. The second segment only claims to be based on The Black Cat, but it actually combines elements of that story’s plot with The Cask of Amontillado, in which Peter Lorre portrays a drunkard who makes his wife (Joyce Jameson) miserable by spending all their money at the bar. Winning a tavern competition against a foppish wine expert (Price), Lorre is happy by his wife’s sudden change of attitude towards letting him spend his evenings getting drunk in the local tavern, until he realizes it’s because she likes being left alone with his new friend. The dire conclusion is really the only part of the story that matters and is usually the only part of the original story that is adapted faithfully in other versions, notably Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Lucio Fulci’s 1981 The Black Cat. The third tale, The Case of M. Valdemar (originally published as The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar), adds Corman’s most frequent narrative plot in thickening up Poe’s simple tales of dread: the love triangle. Valdemar (Price) suffers from a terminal illness and enjoys the efforts of a mesmerist (Basil Rathbone) to ease his pain, agreeing to the pseudoscientist’s request that he allow him to try and mesmerize him beyond the grave. Wife Debra Paget believes that her husband is signing up for something unnecessarily vexing, while the patient’s doctor (David Frankham) wants the old man to die so he can run away with the beautiful young bride. It’s likely that none of these tales will keep you up late at night, but they’re a delicious treat to behold and enjoy the presence of a magnificent cast and plush production design.


The Haunted Palace (1963)

Corman actually adapts an H.P. Lovecraft story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and not Poe’s 1839 poem The Haunted Palace for this superb entry in this collection, but the studio was nervous about Lovecraft’s lack of popularity and insisted it be retrofitted as a Poe adaptation. (Corman throws a few lines from the poem over the end credits.)  Price plays a nineteenth century gentleman who comes to Arkham, Massachusetts with his beautiful young bride (Debra Paget, her last role before retiring) to take over a manor that he has inherited. Finding the townspeople deeply unfriendly to the point of hostility, Price learns that they burned his great-great-grandfather on suspicion of sorcery over a century ago and now believe his wickedness has come back. You could chalk it up to ignorant superstition except that the more our hero looks at the painting of his ancestor hanging over the fireplace, the more his congenial and loving personality is overtaken by a steely-eyed wizard who starts casting resurrection spells and enacting revenge for his murder.  Price gives one of his career-best performances here. It’s the kind of acting no one properly appreciated at the time because of the genre, and despite a few underbaked plot strands (like the town bully’s monstrous son in the attic) it’s one of the most exciting and enjoyable entries in this series.


The Raven (1963)

Dakota Arsenault: Unlike the rest of the movies in this collection, The Raven is Corman’s attempt to turn Poe’s work into a comedy. The film starts out with the famous poem being recited about a grief-stricken man who is visited by a raven taunting him about his dead lover Lenore. From there the film takes the themes of the poem and leaves everything else to the side. Once again Price leads the way, playing a magician Dr. Erasmus Craven (later the inspiration for the Marvel character Dr. Strange), who is visited by the titular raven who has had a curse placed on him. Dr. Craven helps the raven turn back to human form, legendary Hungarian actor Peter Lorre, who tells the depressed sorcerer that his dead wife, Lenore, is actually alive and living with Dr. Scarabus, the archenemy of Craven’s deceased father. The film indulges itself by poking fun at the Renaissance era, specifically the wardrobe where an entire scene is dedicated to Peter Lorre trying to find the perfect cloak and hat to wear. Not only does it star Corman-regular Price and the bug-eyed Lorre, but it also stars Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff as Dr. Scarabus, Jack Nicholson in one of his first movie roles as Lorre’s adult son and horror icon Hazel Court as Lenore. The film ends with a final duel so ridiculous that when I say it is Craven and Scarabus just sitting in chairs using their hands to conjure funny things towards their opponents, you are already underestimating it. All of it is gold. The best part of the film is the improvised bickering that Lorre and Nicholson do, which reportedly was because they didn’t like each other and confused the veterans Price and Karloff, who only knew how to stick to the script.


The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Matthew Simpson: If you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s with Tim Burton movies (and the music video for Thriller), a specific version of Vincent Price is probably fixed in your mind. The incredible thrill of watching films like this one, or (almost) any of the Corman-Poe cycle films, is the realization that the version is not a caricature: Price was a larger-than-life, stagy-as-hell performer, and this is in no way a complaint. Playing a Satan-worshipping nobleman content to watch the villagers around him die of a mysterious plague while he and his court engage in decadent parties–a plot that hits a little different after the last three years of COVID-19–Price is having the time of his life making a three-course meal of the scenery, yet none of it feels over the top or out of place. His Prince Prospero is evil but in cold, calculating ways, and Price knows precisely how to deliver. It helps that he has a near-perfect foil in Jane Asher’s Francesca, the pure young woman he hopes to corrupt. Asher plays the wide-eyed yet still-knowing innocence of the character beautifully, and she has compelling chemistry with her co-star. As the seventh of eight films in director Roger Corman’s Poe cycle, the trappings of the world created for the film are exquisite also. Much of the film plays out within the walls of a beautifully appointed medieval castle full of people wearing intricate and brightly coloured costumes, all giving their all as hedonistic and cruel sycophants to Prospero. The film is truly a feast for the eyes. The brightly coloured and stagy nature of the film does mean it never truly becomes scary in any way other than philosophically, but by the time Prince Prospero meets his comeuppance, you may not want it to end.


The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Another one of Poe’s slimmer narratives, his 1838 story Ligeia, is enriched by Corman for one of his most visually stunning efforts, the last of the Poe films released in a remarkably quick span.  Price is mourning the death of his rebelliously agnostic wife when he meets the beautiful Elizabeth Shepherd at his late wife’s grave. She is engaged to someone else, but is fascinated by this dark stranger’s rejection of the wider world and life in his creepy, crumbling abbey. She marries him instead, not realizing that the aggressive black cat who prowls the grounds is very likely the vengeful spirit of his first wife. The plot loses a great deal of its vigour in the last third and isn’t up to par in terms of the stunning images of other films, and Price is starting to get a bit too ripe for this sort of thing (Corman actually wanted Richard Chamberlain for the role but AIP wouldn’t budge), but it’s still a wonderful time.