Roger Corman has two dark and opposing forces that define his cinematic output. On one side is the twisted camp of dark B-movies like Little Shop of Horrors and A Bucket of Blood. They’re low budget features stuffed with gags to shock the audience into a state of glee. The other side is the lush and brooding adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. Packed with period detail and an innate understanding of what makes Poe tick, Corman’s Poe films are some of the most Romantic and successful adaptations of the original master of horror.
Tales of Terror is an anthology film comprised entirely of Poe’s stories. “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” all get the Corman big screen treatment. Vincent Price acts as narrator and a major character in every story, adding a nice little through line filled with nods to other Poe stories.
The reason Corman is so successful at directing Poe’s stories is that his films never stick to the text. Instead, frequent screenwriting collaborator Richard Matheson aims for the tone of the story. You won’t pass a terrible quiz in an English class watching a Corman film instead of reading the story unless the only questions asked to test your reading are thematic ones.
“Morella,” on the page, is a sad little tale about a mother losing her life in childbirth and blessing her daughter with her spirit. Matheson’s adaptation changes the story entirely, only lingering on the sadness of a broken family where the corpse of the mother is kept in the parlor due to misplaced devotion. It’s painfully Gothic, with explanations for all the scares and a young female lead incapable of doing anything herself. It’s a tight little story that sets just the right tone for this vision of Poe.
“The Black Cat” shifts the focus from the human/cat relationship to a human/alcohol relationship. A lush who does not care for his wife or her cat gets in a drinking contest with the man who will cuckold him. Where “Morella” had a strong focus and essentially a new Poe-esque story, “The Black Cat” mashes a bunch of different Poe stories and poems together. Ironically, “The Black Cat” is not one of them. This is an attempt at levity in the middle of the film and at that it succeeds.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is the most faithful adaptation in the film. A mesmerist puts a man in a state of hypnosis and slowly steals his life away. Poe’s story, originally a hoax news article, is about a man attempting to stave off a patient’s death by hypnotizing him at the moment of his passing. The distinction is the difference between the satirical Poe who earned so many enemies and the twisted “don’t trust the narrator” Poe studied today.
Tales of Terror is the kind of film you put on to set a dark sort of mood. That’s a descriptor fitting any of Corman’s Poe films. This anthology is perhaps a slighter effort, with less room for visual flourish and suspense, but one that delvers a rarity in horror. This collection is shocking without overt violence. It is psychological horror built of the flesh, not the brain. It is an instinctual horror that you can’t explain even after the chills have faded away.
Really, you can’t go wrong with Corman’s Poe films. I go back and forth between Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum as my favorite. Corman’s vision soars when he gets to build up the luscious castle environments. Seen it? Share your thoughts below.