Tuesday 9 December 2014

Six Gothic Tales (1960 - 1964)

Christmas has come (slightly) early for fans of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the form of this gorgeous box set that contains six of the movies he made that starred Vincent Price. We’re missing MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (because Arrow don’t have the rights to that one) and THE PREMATURE BURIAL (presumably because it starred Ray Milland instead) but otherwise the gang’s all here - a splendid smorgasbord of crumbling castles, eerie matte paintings, Daniel Haller’s elegantly creepy production design, Floyd Crosby’s smooth, economical camera setups, music that varies from adequate to absolutely marvellous, and of course the unsurpassed and unsurpassable Vincent Price, without whose central performance to anchor these pictures they would be simply be elegant exercises in low budget gothic. With him, however, they are so much more.
As I’ve said above, Arrow’s box set gives us six films, all on Blu-ray. Two of these have been released previously in separate standard and steelbook editions. The transfers and extras here are all the same so if you want to read what I thought of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and PIT AND THE PENDULUM then click on the titles and you’ll be whisked away to my reviews. Remember to come back here when you’ve finished, however, so we can talk about the others. 
All done? Ok. Let’s start with


        Before Amicus resurrected the DEAD OF NIGHT-style anthology film (several short stories plus a framework), Roger Corman put together three Poe shorts without a linking sequence under the above title. We open with Morella, which is a bit like an entire Corman Poe film condensed into twenty minutes. Vincent Price is still mourning the passing of long-dead wife Morella in his crumbling castle when his daughter Lenora (Maggie Pearce) calls on him. Morella died in childbirth and, perhaps understandably, wants to be reborn in her daughter's body. It all ends predictably in flames, but this is one of the very best bits of Poe Corman ever made, and it’s a shame it’s not longer. Everyone seems to like the second story, The Black Cat, even though it’s actually The Cask of Amontillado with a cat in it and played for laughs. I have to say it’s the one I always skip over, but Peter Lorre and Vincent Price do have a whale of a time as rival drinkers. The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar finishes the film with Price, kept alive at the moment of death by hypnotist Basil Rathbone, liquifying all over him when Rathbone’s control fails. 
       Arrow’s transfer carries over a few scratches but otherwise is pristine and clean. Extras include a quite charming featurette by Anne Billson on cats in horror films, an hour long documentary on Roger Corman, Kim Newman talking about Poe, a short film of The Black Cat from 1993, a trailer and a reversible sleeve.

THE RAVEN (1963)

        Using Poe’s poem as a springboard, THE RAVEN immediately turns into a comedy in which magicians Vincent Price and Boris Karloff wage war while Peter Lorre watches from the wings (sorry). Hazel Court is there to egg them on. Arrow gives us another excellent transfer, and the extras here include a 1984 documentary on Peter Lorre (Harun Farocki’s The Double Face), a featurette on Richard Matheson, the short film The Trick (from the director of The Black Cat short), the promotional record that was released at the time (featuring voices of the actors, including Lorre reading the poem), a trailer, still and poster galleries, and another reversible sleeve.


       Quite often this is my favourite of the “Poe” pictures, even if it is adapted from an H P Lovecraft story. And what a fine adaptation it is. Corman’s Arkham is suitably decaying and filled with the mutated results of experiments from the palace on the hill, as well as plenty of suspicious locals with a terrible secret and monsters of their own in the attic. Possibly Vincent Price’s finest acting moment in the entire cycle occurs when he transforms from innocent Charles Dexter Ward into his evil ancestor Joseph Curwen. Sets and photography are as top notch as usual, but where THE HAUNTED PALACE goes one better is in having Ronald Stein do the music. Les Baxter is the composer most commonly associated with these films and I’ve always found his music passable, if not exactly inspiring. Stein’s score for HAUNTED PALACE, however, is a masterpiece, with the opening titles a waltz of sheer gothic perfection. 
Arrow’s transfer is, like the other films in this set, most likely the best this film is ever going to look. For extras we get a superbly chatty commentary track from David Del Valle and Derek Botelho. Kim Newman talks about H P Lovecraft in cinema, there’s an interview with Roger Corman, still and poster galleries, a trailer, and a reversible sleeve.


        The last of the Corman Poes and pretty much the least. Whether it’s the slight script, Elizabeth Shepherd’s aristocratic air of disbelief that she’s even in one of these, or the opportunity for location shooting that seems to have so overwhelmed Corman that many of the set-ups distract massively from what is actually going on, TOMB OF LIGEIA really isn’t the best by a long way. Still, it's fun to see British character actors like Frank Thornton, Richard Vernon and PSYCHOMANIA’s Denis Gilmore in one of these but otherwise it’s a pretty lame affair.
It looks lovely here, though, and the extras we get this time include two commentaries (by Corman and Elizabeth Shepherd), and a set of new interviews with composer Kenneth V Jones, co-writer Paul Mayersberg, 1st AD David Tringham and camera assistant Bob Jordan. Most of these run for around ten minutes each except for the Mayersberg which last for about half an hour. 

       As well as the six films (and the lovely box they come in) you also get a 200 page book with writing on the Poe cycle as well as three comic books published to tie in with TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN and TOMB OF LIGEIA. Arrow will be releasing the Blu-rays separately for those of us who already have USHER and PIT. If you haven’t, however, then grab this set now - it’s a beautifully presented example of 1960s gothic cinema at its best. 

Arrow Films released SIX GOTHIC TALES as a Region B Blu-ray set on 8th December 2014


  1. I'm still stuck in the dvd stage, sadly. I'm resisting the evolution to Blu-Ray for as long as my old dvd player lasts - just because I own so many dvd's that I am afraid might not be compatible with a new Blu-Ray machine.


    This does look like an awfully tempting set. Nice review, as always, John. :)