Six Gothic Tales collects six of the eight films from Roger Corman’s 1960-1965 flowering of gothic horror, a Technicolor Renaissance where the past and future king of the B-movie teamed up with sardonic horror icon Vincent Price in order to bound gleefully through the back catalogue of 19th Century literary giant Edgar Allan Poe, with varying degrees of fidelity and an uncompromising visual flourish.
Compared to later efforts, 1960’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher is an intimate and interior affair. It has all soon-to-be Corman/Poe Cycle staples – a brooding, melancholy (albeit disquietingly blonde) Vincent Price, a family mystery and a perplexed outsider, a screeching sense of melodrama and overbearing doom, and a willingness to break with the source in the name of cinema.
If Usher was the most influential within the canon, it’s 1961’s The Pit And The Pendulum that stands as the most influential within the genre. Barbara Steele brings an idiosyncratic, wild-eyed glamour, while that knuckle-whitening set piece sowed dark seeds in Stephen King’s imagination and – as a far-flung example of its influence – prefigured Saw’s art installation grottiness by close to half a century.
1962’s three-part anthology Tales Of Terror breaks with tone, even if it doesn’t quite break with tradition. Both ‘Morella and ‘The Facts In The Case Of M Valdemar’ deal with vengeance from beyond the grave – although the latter inducts 14-time Sherlock Holmes star Basil Rathbone as a worthy foil for Price – but ‘The Black Cat’, starring the uneasy Peter Lorre (The Man Who Knew Too Much) takes a swerve into comedy with Price playing a nostril-flaring wine expert.
The tonal silliness and the peevish Peter Lorre return for 1963’s slapstick knockabout The Raven, which uses Poe’s best known prose as a springboard for a tedious wizard-off between Price and the titanic Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) vaguely reminiscent of Disney’s The Sword In The Stone. A baby-faced Jack Nicholson pops up though, briefly treating the world to the wide-eyed ‘Crazy Jack’ face that’ll make his career.
Though taking its name (and closing line) from Poe’s poem of the same name, The Haunted Palace is instead a crypto-adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward and is all the more affecting for it.
Almost alone in the Corman/Poe Cycle for being genuinely horrific (the Vaseline-screen frog demon aside) throughout, where this franchise began with shiny tunics and psychedelic colour palettes, it draws to a close with eyeless villagers converging on our heroes in a fog-enshrouded town square like the very best that Hammer, Amicus or Tigon could offer.
Though 1965’s Tomb Of Ligeia sees the series burst from its crypt of fibreglass stonework and incongruous snatches of California coastline and into the cold morning light of a ruined abbey somewhere in England, the party is well and truly over.
Price is rocking some stylish beatnik shades and there’s novelty value of seeing him in natural light, but we’ve seen rather a lot of grieving noblemen and lost loves at this point. In the UK, Ligeia was released as part of a double bill with Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and it’s all-to-easy to imagine how tired the former and how vital the latter must have seemed.
Six Gothic Tales can scarcely claim to be comprehensive, curiously omitting 1964’s much-recalled The Masque Of The Red Death and the sole Price-less offering in 1962’s The Premature Burial, but no-so-curiously omitting 1963’s The Terror, a broken mess that passed through the bowels of a possible five directors (including Francis Ford Coppola) without picking up a single nugget of narrative sense on the way.
Luckily it’s not actually based – even in the tenuous way in which The Haunted Palace claimed to be – on anything Poe put his quill to. We all dodged a raven there, frankly.