Edgar Allan Poe as an author and poet was more diverse than he is often given credit for; among his material includes wry satire, proto-science fiction, the earliest examples of the modern detective story, and more besides. Still, it’s his morbid imagination and horror which he is most remembered for, and any particular copy of his complete works will likely see stories like The Fall of the House of Usher or poems like The Raven consulted more frequently than stuff like, say, The Businessman or Maelzel’s Chess-Player.
This has been only reinforced by the choices made about which of his material to adapt to other formats. Cinematically, for instance, American International Pictures managed an interesting string of adaptations of Poe stories in the 1960s, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. A weird exception is The Premature Burial, which Corman started without AIP’s involvement – and thus didn’t cast Price in, because he was an AIP exclusive – only for AIP to buy out the production to keep Corman’s Poe adaptations exclusive to them.
I’ve previously covered The Haunted Palace here, which is the other exception in this run because it’s not actually based on a Poe story – it borrows the title and a couple of lines from one of his poem’s, but is one of multiple adaptations of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Here I’ll cover the rest of the Price-and-Corman Poes from the era.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Extending Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher – a story in which significant chunks of action involve characters sitting down reading poetry to each other – into something resembling a viable B-movie is a tricky task; the script of Corman’s adaptation was penned by the capable hand of Richard Matheson – yes, Mr. I Am Legend himself – who would also pen the scripts for The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, and The Raven.
The opening of the story is tweaked; in the original Poe, the unnamed narrator is invited to visit the house by Roderick Usher, having not before met Madeline, and Usher’s illness is a new affliction which the narrator is shocked to discover. Here, the part of the visitor is given to Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who having previously met Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) when she spent some time in Boston and become engaged to her, is trying to visit her; he has not met Roderick Usher (Price, of course) before, and so far as can be told his intense sensory sensitivity is a lifelong affliction.
The character interactions are also tweaked. In the Poe original, Madeline is weirder yet than Roderick, ambling about the house and not even acknowledging the narrator’s presence; here, she and not Roderick is the one who has had a life outside the house and the prior connection to Winthrop, and it is through this connection that Roderick is persuaded to let Winthrop stay – that, and perhaps the intervention of the house itself, which expresses itself through the entropy which is consuming it – dropping a chandelier in Winthrop’s proximity after he has been dismissed by Roderick, prompting Madeline to urge Roderick to let Philip stay.
The exterior of the house is depicted by a gorgeously-realised matte painting. The interior is a triumph of lavish set design, setting the bar for the gorgeous sets which would be a hallmark of Price and Corman’s Poe cycle. The paintings made by Roderick of his ancestors – emphasising their villainy – are anachronistically modern in style, but this is nonetheless effective, and is perhaps more effective because of it – it makes the paintings stand out within the rich set designs. Visually, there’s also the gorgeous dream sequence at about an hour in, made all the more impressive for predating the psychedelic boom by half a decade or so.
The Poe cycle movies are much-praised for their set designs, of course, but House of Usher also deserves applause for its use of sound. There’s no background music as Winthrop and the Ushers’ manservant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) are having their first conversation in the reception hall, all the better to tease out the echoing acoustics of the room they are in – sowing the seeds of Roderick’s intense sensitivity to sound.
In terms of the overall theme, Poe’s original is a weird old thing which is hard to pin down, which makes for great literature but perhaps not such a satisfying B-movie; Matheson’s script here plays on the idea of the Usher family as perpetuating this cycle of morbidity, depression, and toxic pessimism, with Madeline showing off the family coffin collection – including one waiting for her – really driving this point home. Madeline is convinced she is dying because Roderick is convinced she is; Roderick is convinced she is dying or doomed to go made because he is convinced his whole family is doomed.
While his predictions come true after a fashion, it is precisely because of the morbid, depressing atmosphere he imposes on his home that this happens. “It is not I who forced her to live in a cemetery!” says Philip as he accuses Roderick of exactly this, prompting Roderick to regale Philip with the Usher family’s history of evil. Usher himself is persuaded that the house itself is evil, as is the family, but it’s equally possible that he is the victim of a longstanding cycle of abuse he is desperate to stop but can’t see any way of stopping outside of isolating the family, cutting off the house from the world, and allowing it all to go extinct.
This gets into difficult territory. One of the most awful things about mental health is that many forms of mental illness seem to carry with them an attitude that you are a bad person who has a bad effect on the people around you, or you do not deserve or should not expect the support of others because you would make yourself a burden of them. How much this is integral to the conditions in question and how much arises from the surrounding culture is an open question.
At the same time, whilst in terms of physical violence or abuse the mentally ill are in more danger from others than they pose to others, it’s also undeniably the case that someone’s difficulties can, and often does, have a major effect on those around them. The idea that people who have mental health difficulties are a burden to others who do not deserve support is a monstrous one, but it would be self-evidently absurd to suggest that this support comes for free and does not involve emotional labour on the part of others.
The balance between reassuring the person going through problems that they are worthy of that effort and ensuring that those giving that support in turn have the help they deserve and are not expected to shoulder a burden beyond their skill or capacity to carry is tremendously hard. It’s self-evident that if someone is prone to violent outbursts or the like, whether this be genuinely due to a condition or simply a personality defect exacerbated by their mental health, that their immediate family can’t necessarily be expected to handle that and their own safety must be a factor under consideration as well.
What’s astonishingly difficult, and what the movie captures aptly, is when the abusive behaviour – in this case, Roderick’s constant, gradual undermining of Madeline’s own sense of worth and health – is less obviously violent in nature. OK, sure, in this movie the cycle of abuse culminates in premature interment in the family crypt, but up to that point Roderick’s impact on Madeline’s state of mind has been much more subtle in nature.
In that sort of circumstance it’s really difficult to say whether the abuse is simply down to Roderick’s own personality flaws and how they shape his response to his mental illness, or a direct symptom of it – after all, he is clearly extremely depressed, and his morbid, pessimistic view of the world, himself, and the people around him (including Madeline), which is the primary vector for his erosion of Madeline, is surely part of that. Would Roderick Usher on antidepressants be less of a negative influence on Madeline? Impossible to say.
All the film can do is point out how the house of Usher – in the sense of the family as well as the physical house – has become a trap, and how perhaps the best thing for the well-being of everyone involved is to get them out of that context. But Philip is powerless to do that – and that’s why the movie ends in tragedy.
The Pit and the Pendulum
Francis Barnard (John Kerr) arrives at the gloomy seaside castle of the Medina family, having belatedly received word that his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), who had married Nicholas Medina (Price), has died. Barnard is intent on uncovering more of the story behind Elizabeth’s demise, his suspicions having been piqued by the almost complete lack of detail in the letter informing him of this grim turn of events.
Greeted by Nicholas’s sister Catherine (Luana Anders), Barnard soon finds he has more reason to be suspicious – Nicholas is behaving very strangely indeed, and seems to be spending much time lurking about in the expansive dungeons of the castle, tending to some manner of cacophonous machinery down there. As Barnard’s investigations progress, he finds more and more to be suspicious of – especially when he discovers that the machinery he heard is all part of a gruesome torture chamber left behind by Nicholas’ late father Sebastian Medina, who eagerly aided the Inquisition as a torturer.
Nicholas is haunted by his father’s legacy – and by the vile crimes which, as a child, he witnessed his father commit. (One could very easily infer other abuses suffered by Nicholas at Sebastian’s hands; given what we are told already, it’s hardly likely he was a kind father.) What especially gnaws at Nicholas is the way Elizabeth seemed obsessed with the chamber; he has come to believe that the atrocities committed here have left an evil atmosphere which preyed morbidly on Elizabeth’s mind. Did Elizabeth’s curiosity stir up dark forces? Is Nicholas’ recollection of events to be trusted? Is Nicholas an innocent man troubled by an abusive family history, or a murderer telling a sob story to get away with it? And will Barnard’s inquiry bring Nicholas to justice – or complete the process of his mental disintegration?
As in Usher, Price’s performance may be enjoyably campy, but there’s nuance to it, because he doesn’t play Medina as a sneering villain but as a haunted, troubled man who is ultimately the victim of on the one hand the viciousness of his abusive father, and on the other hand a vicious campaign of gaslighting by the true villains. It’s basically a riff on his performance of Roderick Usher, but warmer and more endearing – a performance in which the fragile mental health of Medina is readily apparent, but which isn’t his sole defining trait and doesn’t wholly disguise more positive qualities, like his self-evident devotion to Elizabeth and his acute sense of (unjustified) responsibility for what happened to her.
Kerr does a good job too, playing Barnard as a determined seeker of the truth – someone we would usually be inclined to see as the hero of the piece, but who in this case is deliberately played in as a cold, hard character who is difficult to like. Far from his investigation leading him to victory, he actually fails to uncover the mystery, succeeding only in making a farrago of accusations based on drawing the wrong conclusions from the evidence, getting himself subjected to the titular torture method, and unwittingly assisting the true villains in the psychological harassment of Medina to the point where Medina’s climactic outburst of violence is all the worse for Barnard’s involvement.
This is in the service of a script by Matheson which is more or less entirely a story original to him; the original Poe tale doesn’t really amount to a plot for a movie, merely the basis for a climactic scene, and that’s how it is deployed here. Matheson’s job was to flesh out the backstory leading up to that scene, which he manages magnificently; the psychological twists of his script, in particular, seem to provide a major precedent for and influence on the later development of the giallo genre, particularly in its use of plot twists, gaslighting, and playing with identity, and the way both this movie and giallo later blends gothic horror tropes and atmospheres with psychological horror plots. (The recounting of Elizabeth’s curious fascination with the torture equipment feels like it’s slipping something with substantially kinkier implications past the censors, sliding in themes which giallo would handle much more openly.)
Even more than with Usher, I am very tempted to read this as Matheson and Corman’s riposte to Psycho; as in that movie, the main character finds their personality overshadowed by that of an abusive parent. However, whereas Norman Bates is the way he is as an escape mechanism – a means to evade confronting his own responsibility for murdering Mother – and is a danger to others without their really doing anything, Nicholas Medina is a victim of the behaviour of others, and if this leads to him behaving in a way which puts others in danger, that’s because far from helping and supporting him, the other characters have harassed and undermined him to the point of destruction (with only Catherine really having his best interests at heart).
Once again, the set design is magnificent, all the more so given that the budget meant that they had to repurpose a lot of set dressing from other productions rather than making it to spec. The flashback sequences, and the swirling oils in the title sequence, are a successful amplification of the proto-psychedelic elements of Usher; in fact, the entire movie takes more or less all the bits in Fall of the House of Usher that worked and dialled it up.
Tales of Terror
Written again by Matheson, this is a portmanteau horror film, and as I’ve mentioned from time to time I rarely find these especially satisfying; they tend to be collections of short films which, by themselves, would not be up to much, but we’re expected to be satisfied by being offered quantity rather than quality. Too often, each of the individual stories in a portmanteau horror is too thin to either be a movie of its own, or even a full-length TV episode, and while it is possible to do this sort of material justice if the creators are adept at the short film format and are willing to take the task as seriously as they would a full-length movie, too often it’s quite evident that they just see it as a money-spinner and a dumping ground for ideas which wouldn’t sustain a full project.
Whilst this might be what the format evolved into, Tales of Terror is a pretty good example of the format. The first offering here is Morella, in which Lenora Locke (Maggie Pierce), who was sent away by her parents at birth to be raised in Boston, tracks down her father (Price) in his decrepit house (executed in part with recycled sets – and, for some sequences, footage – from House of Usher), where he explains his longstanding antipathy towards her – Morella (Leona Gage), Lenora’s mother, died in childbirth, and the widowed Locke cannot forgive Lenora for this. Then some ghostly possession stuff happens and they all die.
It’s atmospheric, sure, but that’s largely because of the gorgeous sets, and there’s plenty of indulgent atmosphere-via-sets in the other Poe cycle movies. Still, the revelation of Morella’s corpse still sat in its withered state on her bed is a good jump scare, and the special effect for Morella’s ghost when she becomes active is particularly haunting. Maggie Pierce also gives a good performance as a woman who’s happy to call one of Price’s mopey Poe protagonists on their shit and make demands of them, rather than just allowing them to stew.
The Black Cat is actually a mashup of two Poe “shit bricked up behind a wall” stories – The Black Cat itself and The Cask of Amontillado – with an intervention from the cat ensuring that Montresor (Peter Lorre) doesn’t get away scot free after avenging himself on Fortunato (Price). This is a more comically-themed story, for the sake of pacing, and whilst the comedy is a bit overdone it did pave the way for the substantially better The Raven, particularly since that movie like this short depends a lot on Price and Lorre as a comedic double act.
Lorre here is playing Montresor as a horrible abusive husband who is shitty to his wife (Joyce Jameson) and his cat alike (though there is less cruelty to cats than the actual story) and cares only about boozing it up, making him a comprehensively unlikable character. That’s suitable to the story, but does make the comedy here rather bleak, particularly since there’s a strong dose of “comedy drunk” here, and the plot point of an alcoholic gatecrashing a wine merchants’ convention to get free booze is kind of distasteful.
Still, it does offer the lead-in for the offences committed by Fortunato against Montresor, which are left unspecified in the original Poe to maintain ambiguity as to whether these insults and injuries are real or imagined on Montresor’s part – a gap which works in a short story, but is much harder to accommodate in a filmed adaptation unless you want to go for a full on psychological horror take on it.
Matheson handles it quite well here – Fortunato does have an affair with Montresor’s wife, but they only get into each others’ orbit when Montresor makes a scene at a wine-tasting contest and denigrates the standard techniques Fortunato uses, so there’s an escalation going on which Montresor kicked off by gatecrashing and then concludes with his bricklaying-themed murder plot. The Fortunato character also offers Price a chance to camp it up a bit, something he was rarely reluctant to do and which is a delight here; he seems to have enjoyed the chance to play a more comedic role for once, and we’ve seen from material like Theatre of Blood that he was pretty good at blending horror and comedy.
The last story here is Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar. This is a more loyal than usual adaptation than Matheson usually goes with, largely because the original story has such a strong concept for adaptation. Price is in the Valdemar role, whilst Basil Rathbone has a welcome guest appearance as Carmichael, the hypnotist whose methods keep Valdemar suspended in a hypnotic zone between life and death. Whilst Carmichael’s experiments, consented to in return for his help in alleviatng Valdemar’s pain during his decline, are reasonable enough in principle, Carmichael’s refusal to release Valdemar reveals that it’s not enough to have an ethically-devised experiment; you also need an ethical experimenter. Matheson jazzes up the story a bit by applying evil intentions to Carmichael, and by adding in the figures of Mrs. Valdemar (Debra Paget) and Valdemar’s doctor (David Frankham), who is sceptical of mesmerism and suspicious of Carmichael’s motives. It’s probably the best horror-as-horror story in here, with the gruesome ending showing an unusual amount of gore for Corman’s Poe adaptations.
Richard Matheson’s final contribution to the Poe cycle was the script for this one, and it’s essentially a wholly original Matheson story from beginning to end; as he explains it, the mandate had come down that Corman’s next Poe project was to be The Raven, but since the poem has almost no plot he considered the whole concept of adapting it to be a joke – so why not lean into the laughs and make it a comedy?
Not so much a horror piece as a comic fantasy with a gothic aesthetic, this brought together Lorre, Price, and an aging Boris Karloff, making it something of a convention of horror legends. It also includes an early performance from a young Jack Nicholson (astonishingly, not related to AIP boss James Nicholson), who’d previously had a spot in Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors.
Price plays Dr. Erasmus Craven, who kicks off the movie with a reading from the poem; we catch up with him as he creates a phantasmagoric image of a raven in his study. For, you see, those books of forgotten lore mentioned in the poem are grimoires, and Craven is part of a fractious subculture of magicians knocking about in around 1500-ish. The titular raven is one of Craven’s occult contemporaries, Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), transformed by hostile magic. Price is able to (approximately) turn Bedlo back into human form.
This is only the start of their troubles, though. The one responsible for transforming Bedlo was the evil Dr. Scarabus (Karloff), who defeated Bedlo in a magical duel and who, years earlier, had been a constant thorn in Craven’s father’s side whilst the elder Craven was Grand Master of the Brotherhood, a secret society of wizards. Bedlo wants to seek revenge, and Craven is persuaded to join forces with him when he hears that Bedlo saw Lenore (Hazel Court), Craven’s deceased wife who he is still in mourning for, whilst he was in Scarabus’ castle.
Concerned for Craven and curious in her own right about what possible link Scarabus may have had to her stepmother’s fate, Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) decides to come with. Rexford (Nicholson), Bedlo’s son, joins the party because his mother told him to go find Bedlo and supervise him until he gets safely home, and soon Estelle puts the moves on him. As the tragedy of Lenore soon proves to be a farce and magic contends against magic, Craven must ultimately face off against Scarabus in another magical duel – and hopefully, he’ll fare better than Bedlo did…
After the opening narration, the movie very much wears its comedy credentials on its sleeve, complete with goofy 1960s sitcom-style music. Still, there’s something resembling a properly developed plot arc here; Craven starts off as literally an armchair sorcerer, contenting himself with doodles and not doing serious work, and staying at arm’s length from the wider society of wizards due to the sour memories of his father’s feud with Scarabus. By the end of the movie he’s dusted off his neglected skills to the point where he can finally take down Scarabus.
The peak of the parody probably comes down to the fate of Lenore, who left Craven because she found him dreary and boring – about as sick a burn on the narrator of the original poem as could be mustered. It’s slightly rich that of all the female characters in the movie, one is a love interest for Jack Nicholson and doesn’t get to do very much other than get imperilled, one is extensively slut-shamed, and the last (Bedlo’s offscreen wife) is, in terms of how she’s described, very much in the “nagging wife” archetype.
The movie benefits from the usual gorgeous set designs and costumes the Poe cycle enjoyed, though it’s also evident that it was made on the cheap. There’s much evident use of recycled bits from previous movies in the Poe cycle – the gloomy exterior of the House of Usher, the melancholic coastline and trippy psychedelic swirling-oils opening of Pit and the Pendulum, and so on.
The special effects for the magic are a bit hit and miss, though some have held up rather well. By far the most impressive section is the climactic magical duel, which involved Karloff and Price sat suspended in midair as they sling magic at each other. This was apparently extremely uncomfortable for Karloff, who whilst not quite as stiff and immobile as he was in Die, Monster, Die! later in the decade was still quite ill, and he was apparently in great discomfort during the duel sequence. (Indeed, it’s notable that his performance requires more or less nothing in terms of energetic or rapid activity on his part.)
It was apparently a difficult production in other respects. Peter Lorre liked to improv lines, and Corman liked to indulge this because Lorre’s improvisations were pretty funny; whilst Price largely took this in stride, Karloff preferred to prepare and deliver a fully thought-out performance and wasn’t keen on this. Corman also claims that Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson didn’t get on brilliantly, which they decided to work into their character interactions with each other by playing up their mutual irritation.
In terms of more positive chemistry between actors, the raven they got in to play Bedlo in bird form is magnificent, as is Price’s acting with it. This might be a bit of a flippant feature to fix on, but to be honest this was one of AIP’s more flippant movies. Put it on last if you’re doing a marathon of these, it’s a good palette-cleanser.
Masque of the Red Death
This penultimate entry in the cycle takes the basic premise of Poe’s story and adds a Satanic twist to proceedings. In this interpretation, Prince Prospero (Price) is an eager Satanist and a murderous tyrant to the peasants under his rule. One of those peasants is Francesca (Jane Asher), who tries to beg mercy in the name of God when Prospero orders two of the villagers killed for their insolence – the men in question being Francesca’s father Ludovico (Nigel Green) and beloved Gino (David Weston).
Prospero extends this mercy in the cruellest possible fashion: he says he will spare one, but forces Francesca to choose which will live and which will die – but before she can select, the Red Death is discovered in the village. Wasting no time, Prospero has the village burned and decides to take Francesca, Gino, and Ludovico to his castle – the men to be his prisoners, Francesca to be his “guest”, since for the amusement of himself and his consort Juliana (Hazel Court) he intends to break her Christian faith and convert her to Satanism.
The opening sequence, in which the plague is unleashed by an old woman being given a rose by a stranger who is a sort of personification of the Red Death itself which becomes the source of the initial infection, is a nice embellishment which sets up a visually striking conclusion, particularly in the way it sets up the spectre of the Red Death which infiltrates the party, as in the story. It looks fantastic, and it sets the bar for what will be a dizzying proto-psychedelic visual feast over the course of the film.
The costumes and set design really get cranked up to 11 here, creating an absolutely decadent backdrop suited to the decadence of Prospero and guests, or for Price to deliver little monologues about maltheism and the nature of terror and whatnot. I think more effort could have been taken to ensure that nobody was wearing any colours which could be mistaken for red – no deep oranges, no burgandies, nothing like that – in the final party scene, where Prospero’s griping about a guest wearing red, though perhaps the fact that almost everyone you see has a touch of red to them is intentional.
The imagery also includes some fun little visual nods to earlier parts of the cycle; in Prospero’s great hall there’s a clock whose pendulum is a swinging axe, a clear riff on The Pit and the Pendulum, and a raven incongruously appears in Prospero and Juliana’s ritual chamber as they are performing their Satanic ceremonies.
The addition of the dancers Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw) and Hop-Toad (Skip Martin), and the sadistic infatuation Prospero’s noble guest Alfredo (Patrick Magee) develops for Esmeralda allows scriptwriter Charles Beaumont – who had also contributed scripts for The Premature Burial and The Haunted Palace – to work in the plot of Hop-Frog, an embellishment which actually fits quite well in the wider structure here. The sequence is made all the more dubious by the fact that whilst both dancers are meant to be adults with dwarfism, and Skip Martin was just that – but Verina Greenlaw was an 8 year old child at the time (with her dialogue dubbed by an adult).
This makes Alfredo’s leering at her even creepier than intended, and ran the risk of making Hop-Toad’s interactions with her cross the line too, but Skip Martin plays this one just about right, portraying Hop-Toad’s affection for and protectiveness of Esmeralda as more paternal than anything else. Still, were there no adult actresses with dwarfism who could have taken the role?
The Satanic philosophy espoused by Prospero here is an interesting one: in his cosmology, Satan is the ultimate power, maybe because of usurping the original God or maybe because that’s what he always was, and it is only through the work of the elite nobility that the world is held together at all – without them, all would be chaos. In short, it’s a line of thinking which just uses Satanic imagery as an excuse to reinforce the status quo, exactly as he accuses Christianity of being.
Is it Christ or Satan who prevails here, though? Whilst some innocents do survive the night and escape, the survivors also include Hop-Toad, who we have seen exact a horrid and ostentatious revenge on Alfredo. The entity seems to represent not a salvific Christ or a partisan Satan, but merely Death – entropy, mortality, and the demise of all, caring not for station or morality, a force which can be at most delayed but not prevented.
The Tomb of Ligeia
This was Robert Towne’s sole script for the Poe cycle, which partly but not wholly accounts for the way it feels like an odd one out; it’s distinguished from the rest of the Poe cycle by being filmed in actual locations in England, rather than all being done in a studio. Price is cast as Victorian gentleman Verden Fell, whose deceased wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) impressed upon him an anti-Christian philosophy in which she intended to overcome death herself through sheer force of will.
After some time, he remarries Rowena (also Shepherd), but their marital home – the same mostly-ruined medieval abbey where Verden lifed with Ligeia – seems infused with Ligeia’s influence, with a black cat that appeared at her funeral taking a dislike to Rowena. Fell himself has become peculiar, wearing dark glasses all the time and claiming that he is driven to do so by an eye condition, and he seems to dread Ligeia as much as yearn for her.
Towne’s original idea for the movie was to blur the lines between supernatural and psychological horror, by implying that Ligeia had hypnotised Verden whilst still alive. Verden would have this necrophiliac infatuation for Ligeia which might be due to the actions of her ghost, or may simply be the old hypnotic suggestions she’d implanted him with continuing to hold sway over him despite her death.
The difficulty here is that the hypnotism angle isn’t really brought in until halfway through the movie, and it ends up muddling the original intention, with Fell acting as the hypnotist in a hypnotic demonstration on Rowena, which tends to frame Fell as the master hypnotist, not Ligeia. That’s saved for the final twist, but it seems to still go unambiguously supernatural for the sequence where Rowena hypnotises Fell under Ligeia’s possession and then spontaneously dies, because the movie doesn’t quite do enough legwork to convince us that Rowena is identifying closely enough with Ligeia to get us to buy a “she got subsumed in Ligeia’s role” reading.
In short, the psychological horror aspects of the story come too hard and too fast at the end to overcome the supernatural legwork preceding them. Moreover, this sort of thing had already largely been covered more adequately in the Poe cycle by Richard Matheson in House of Usher. Similarly, the intensity of Fell’s reaction to daylight is reminiscent of Roderick Usher’s oversensitivity to sound in House of Usher, which is kind of the problem – yes, Townes is doing a good job of hitting a lot of especially Poe-esque tropes, but we’ve seen a lot of those used over the span of the cycle and they’re beginning to get repetitive, right down to the whole edifice burning to the ground at the end (an ending we’ve seen seriously in House of Usher and then played for laughs in The Raven – hell, Corman even recycles some of the same footage for this purpose).
It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not an especially impressive one in the context of the wider Poe cycle either, and it’s no surprise that Corman and AIP decided to give the Poe schtick a rest after this rather than plunge further into diminishing returns. It does benefit from some deliciously ominous moments, like Rowena falling off her horse and onto Ligeia’s grave when she first encounters it, though other parts, like the final inferno, seem annoyingly padded-out, like the movie is stalling for time.
The movie culminates with Price having an epic fight with a housecat, which he ends up winning in the final round but losing most of the first few rounds, so if you badly wanted to see Vincent Price throttling an unconvincing fake cat, there’s that.
2 thoughts on “What Price Poe?”
Terrific writing; I’m a Poe fan, but this makes me want to revisit works like Ligiea, even despite the flaws described. I reviewed Masque earlier this year and that one has a real edge in 2020. And I’m delighted to see reference to the chess-player, quite an amazing real-life story too. Great work!
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