The fourth in producer/director Roger Corman’s numerous Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures (AIP), the handsomely produced TALES OF TERROR is an anthology of three short pieces starring Vincent Price in very different roles as well as narrator: “Morella”, “The Black Cat” and “The Case of M. Valdemar”. The film is now available from Kino Lorber (who are doing absolute wonders with MGM’s AIP properties) and comes as the first Corman Poe title to get a singular Blu-ray release in the U.S. (most of the others are spread across two great Vincent Price box sets released by Scream Factory/Shout! Factory).
In the first tale, “Morella”, Price plays an embittered widower and shell of a man who has lived alone in his gloomy cobweb-filled mansion since the death of his wife Morella (Leona Gage, SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY) who died shortly after giving birth to their daughter (and only child) some 26 years earlier. One day after not seeing him for ages, daughter Lenora (Maggie Pierce, THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE) comes to pay a visit to her father, learning that he loathes her, blaming her for the death of his wife, and he keeps her mummified corpse in the bedroom, not bearing to have her beauty buried in the grounds. Lenora has some bad news of her own: she is very sickly and only has months to live, and now the father (who has considered himself dead for years) and daughter finally seem to reconcile. But the spirit of Morella is a vengeful one, and that night she will have revenge from beyond the grave!
In “The Black Cat”, Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre, MAD LOVE) is an obnoxious, hopeless drunk who hasn’t worked in 17 years, and mistreats his poor young wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson, DEATH RACE 2000) as well as her pet cat. Tossed out of the local tavern without a cent to spend on libations, Montresor stumbles upon a “Wine Merchants Convention” where the guest of honor is Fortunato Luchresi (Price) “the foremost wine taster in the civilized world today” and he challenges him to a wine-tasting competition. The dandy connoisseur Fortunato proves to be no match for Montresor who really knows his wines, even though his tasting methods are crude and his critique is limited to commenting, “It’s very good”. Stumbling and fully inebriated as usual, Montresor is escorted home by Fortunato, who is welcomed inside and instantly takes a liking to the sweet and ill-treated Annabel (as well as the cat, having two of his own at home). Later, when Montresor learns that his wife is having an affair with Fortunato, he plans out his own revenge on the two sweethearts, and anyone familiar with Poe’s story (which has been adapted numerous times on-screen) will know what to expect.
In the final tale, “The Case of M. Valdemar” has the dying Ernest Valdemar (Price) confiding in mesmerist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone, QUEEN OF BLOOD) to free him of pain despite the ethical efforts and disapproval of his young physician Dr. James (David Frankham, MASTER OF THE WORLD). James is in love with Valdemar’s young wife Helene (Debra Paget, THE HAUNTED PALACE), and the feeling is mutual, but she will not let things go any further out of respect for her suffering groom (who actually requests she wed James after he’s gone). Carmichael's experiment on Valdemar will have him under hypnosis at the moment of his death, and perhaps even prevent his death. The plan works, but the evil Carmichael plans to use it to his advantage, attempting to gain Valdemar’s estate and his wife who he continuously lusts after. But Valdemar, the flesh now melting off of his face (in a make-up base apparently consisting of caramel apple sauce!), is able to snap out of the spell and attack the evil hypnotist.
At the time of its release, TALES OF TERROR was a return to portmanteau horror films, established in the 1940s with the British-made DEAD OF NIGHT but most popular in the 1960s with Amicus Films’’ cycle, starting with 1964’s DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS. After TALES OF TERROR, AIP released Mario Bava’s classic trilogy of horrors BLACK SABBATH, and another company (Admiral Pictures) copied AIP’s TALES formula with TWICE-TOLD TALES, featuring stories based on Nathaniel Hawthorne and showcasing Price in three different roles. With Price absent from Corman’s previous Poe adaptation (1962’s THE PREMATURE BURIAL), TALES OF TERROR represents a quintessential midway point in the series, re-establishing Price as the focal point while adding legendary co-stars and injecting humor (mainly in the second story), a trait which would be carried over to the next entry, THE RAVEN, in a big way. Although Price is often criticized for his hammy performances in these films, he perfectly portrays the three literary characters and their various states of torment, devotion, lust and bravery in the face of death.
Bringing back talent employed on previous AIP Poe efforts, TALES OF TERROR has dependable screenwriter Richard Matheson (also the scenarist on HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) concocting the three stories, as well as production designer and art director Daniel Haller, cinematographer Floyd Crosby and composer Les Baxter. “Morella” recalls the disturbed, castle-bound patriarch characters Price played in HOUSE and PIT, and the segment plays like a precursor to Corman’s grand achievement TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). The second story, and arguably the best, is not only based on “The Black Cat” but also on Poe’s "The Cask of Amontillado" and is probably Lorre’s finest hour at AIP (though he’s also unforgettable in Corman’s Poe-based THE RAVEN, made the following year). For a yarn that ends on such a morbid note, Corman slyly adds satire to the proceedings as well as a bizarre dream sequence where the passed-out Montresor envisions his wife and his lover throwing around his living, severed head like it was a beach ball, highlighted by an optical effect which distorts the antics much like a funhouse mirror. The final segment, “The Case of M. Valdemar”, which is played for shocks, gives Price less to do as his character is bed-ridden for most of it, but it’s not only great to see him sharing screen time with past TOWER OF LONDON and future COMEDY OF TERRORS co-star Rathbone and future THE HAUNTED PALACE co-star Paget, but to see the actor in a very “monstrous” state, very rare for him in the Corman/Poe cycle.
TALES OF TERROR may not be the finest of the AIP/Poe/Price/Corman films, but it’s beautifully produced on the usual allotted shoestring budget, and it’s a frolicking good time due to Price and a fine cast interacting in the trio of individual, intimate scenarios, while retaining that pure gothic aura. As with the other films in the Poe series, Corman and his crew are imaginative in the use of optical special effects to illustrate Poe’s nightmarish world while delivering unusual visual treats. In his autobiography, How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, Corman says about the film, “With TALES OF TERROR, I went back with Richard Matheson and Vincent Price but tried something different. The middle one [story] was actually based on ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and, while all were quite well-acted, “Cat” was the most interesting because it blended humor with the macabre. It also matched Vincent with Peter Lorre. Vincent and Peter proved to be two truly classy and versatile actors, especially in their delightfully humorous wine-tasting contest”.
MGM first issued TALES OF TERROR on DVD in 2000, and then a few years later as a “Midnite Movies” double feature with TWICE-TOLD TALES. More recently, TGG Direct issued several different budget DVDs of the film, bundling it as double, even triple features with other Price titles, but this Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics makes all those standard releases obsolete. TALES is presented here in a 1080p transfer in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors are well-replicated, especially looking vibrant in the third segment, and the original elements are largely in very good condition, with only occasional dust and debris to be seen. Grain appears natural when it’s on display, detail is sharp and black levels are also solid. The intensified resolution does tend to single out such things as optical effects and matte paintings, as expected, but all in all this is an excellent transfer to behold. Audio is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, nicely supporting for the film's dialogue and Baxter's lively score, with no signs of hiss or distortion.
As for extras, author, film historian, and Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas is in hand for a solid solo commentary, initiating it with a childhood anecdote concerning his 1963 introduction to monster magazines, eyeing Famous Monsters #19, which featured TALES OF TERROR on its cover. Lucas points out how mild Price is in the first story (when compared to his first couple of Poe outings) and that the second story gives us one his “finest comic performances”. The commentary is chock full of info on the main cast (at one point recounting Lorre’s final acting days) as well as the supporting players, and other topics touched upon include Matheson wanting the order of the stories changed after seeing a rough cut of the film, items in the script which didn’t appear in the final film, the matte paintings and special effects, the shooting schedule. etc. Lucas also reveals more obscure facts (including background on the song that the drunken Montresor sings while walking the streets) and makes a great point about the film’s strong resemblance to the 1960 Argentine production “Obras maestras del terror” which was re-edited and released here in 1965 as MASTER OF HORROR, the same year Corman announced he was quitting AIP’s Poe series. A second audio commentary has film historian and author David Del Valle and British-born actor David Frankham, who have an absolute ball. Del Valle starts off by talking about how the film did lesser at the box office than its two predecessors, and soon gets Frankham to discuss his working relationship with Price (as he did three films with the legend) and the actor exclaims he was a fan long before he ever met him. Before his segment comes on, Frankham gets to talk about how he replaced Mark Damon on MASTER OF THE WORLD and describes working with director William Witney and the happy experience that the film was, and later gets into working with Boris Karloff on “Thriller” and how he got his two-picture deal with AIP. Del Valle, who never runs out of things to say knowing so much about old Hollywood and those involved with this film, also recollects his meetings and conversations with Joyce Jameson in her final years, which gets quite interesting. Once the “Valdemar” segment comes on, Frankham has a jovial time with his on-set descriptions of working with Price, Rathbone, Paget and director Corman.
There’s an “Interview with Producer and Director Roger Corman” (10:43) as Corman describes how he and Matheson attempted to differentiate this film from the previous Poe movies, and that the wine-tasting scene was one of his favorites (and that “The Black Cat” was his favorite segment). He talks about the publicity stunt of auditioning black cats (they actually used one trained feline), working with the cast, and how later, as a producer, he decided to turn “Morella” into a full length movie. Corman is also on hand for a “Trailers From Hell” segment, talking briefly over the original TALES trailer (basically saying much of the same stuff as he does in the video interview) and the original theatrical trailer (2:22) by itself rounds out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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