January 19, 2009 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of American author, poet and journalist Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in The Raven
When the organisers of Alt.Fiction invited me to select a double-bill of movies to show at the event, it made
sense—given the literary nature of the programming—to choose two films based on Poe's work.
Poe's own story is a tragic one: Following the death of his mother and the desertion of his father when he
was just three years old, Poe was made the ward of Virginia merchant John Allan, who later disowned
him. After being expelled from the University of Virginia for not paying his gambling debts and being
dismissed from West Point military academy for deliberately neglecting his duty, Poe embarked upon his
career as a writer, publishing Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827.
His first short story, 'Metzengerstein', appeared in 1832, and although his poems and tales of murder,
madness and premature burial were admired, they failed to gain him any wealth or recognition during his lifetime.
In 1836 Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, but a burst blood vessel six years
later left her a virtual invalid until she died of tuberculosis in 1847. Suffering from depression
and bouts of madness, Poe sank deeper into alcoholism and attempted suicide in 1848.
In September the following year, on his way to visit his new fiancée in Richmond, he vanished for three
days before inexplicably turning up in a delirious condition in Baltimore, where he died a few days later.
Despite never finding success while he was alive, Poe's seminal stories such as 'The Fall of the House of
Usher', 'William Wilson', 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', 'The Pit and the Pendulum', 'The Masque of the
Red Death', 'The Black Cat', 'The Gold Bug', 'The Tell-Tale Heart', 'The Premature Burial' and 'The
Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' led to the author being widely regarded as "the father of modern
horror" and his works are amongst the most admired and influential in the genre.
It was therefore no surprise that the emerging moving picture industry of the early 1900s was quick to
turn his stories (and poems) into films. Although the first adaptation of his work was apparently an
American Sherlock Holmes silent short based on 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', it was not long before
film-makers all over the world were turning to his work for inspiration.
It was Universal Studios—who had already kicked off the first
great horror movie cycle with Dracula
and Frankenstein in 1931—who popularised the author's work with a string of (often very loose)
adaptations in the 1930s and '40s: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934 and 1941),
The Raven (1935) and Mystery of Mary Roget (1942). The fact that most of these films featured the
studio's two biggest horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, didn't do any harm either.
Although there were a number of low budget films based around Poe's stories, it was not until 1954,
when Warner Bros. released Phantom of the Rue Morgue in the then-popular 3-D process, that the
author's work was once again released by a major Hollywood studio.
No doubt taking note of this development were canny West Coast producers James H. Nicholson (the
creative one) and Samuel Z. Arkoff (the money one) who, under their American Releasing
Corporation (later American International Pictures) had been turning out a string of low budget
science fiction, horror, Westerns, auto racing and rock 'n' roll pictures aimed squarely at the
youth market. Many of these were directed by the equally canny Roger Corman, who worked quickly
Inspired by the success of British horror movie factory Hammer Films, in 1960 Nicholson, Arkoff
and Corman embarked upon series of higher-budgeted horror movies, shot in widescreen and colour
over a slightly longer schedule. Having decided to base these films on Poe's work (his stories
were in the public domain, so would cost AIP nothing to acquire), acclaimed genre
novelist/screenwriter Richard Matheson and actor Vincent Price were added to the contingent.
The result was The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), which became a huge hit for the studio,
catapulting the AIP into the big time and firmly establishing Price as an icon of the horror genre.
Usher was quickly followed by the Poe-inspired Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature
Burial (1962) and the four-story portmanteau Tales of Terror (1962), all basically involving
the same creative team.
Despite the huge success of these films, Corman and Matheson quickly began to grow tired of
their Gothic trappings: "I had just about had it up to my eyeballs with all the heavy
torture and burial stuff," recalled the writer. As a result, the studio's next Poe
adaptation, The Raven (1963), was a comedy that had almost no connection with the 1845 poem
of the same name.
Shot in just fifteen days, Price was joined by genre veterans Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff
in a knockabout farce involving rival sorcerers and the "Lost Lenore" (Hazel Court). Further
support was provided by a youthful Jack Nicholson as the dim-witted hero.
"This proved to be the biggest of all the Poe films to that date," explained Corman. "It
also had the biggest look of any of the Poe films."
After The Raven, Matheson felt that he had done all he could with the Poe films, and the
job of screenwriter passed to his friend and fellow author Charles Beaumont for The Haunted
Palace (1964), with additional dialogue supplied by an uncredited Francis Ford Coppola.
This time Vincent Price was supported by another horror movie veteran, Lon Chaney, Jr.,
along with experienced character actors Elisha Cook, Jr., John Dierkes, Milton Parsons,
Harry Ellerbe, I. Stanford Jolley and Bruno Ve Sota. This tale of New England witchcraft
and reincarnation not only had nothing to do with Poe beyond its poetic title, but was
in fact based on H.P. Lovecraft's posthumously-published novella 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward'.
"I fought against calling it a Poe film," claimed Corman, "but AIP had made so much money
with Poe films that they just stuck his name on it for box-office appeal."
Although Corman himself would leave the series after just two more pictures, AIP continued
its series of Poe films into the early 1970s with such titles as The Masque of the Red
Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), The City Under the Sea (aka War-Gods of the
Deep, 1965), The Oblong Box (1969) and Murder in the Rue Morgue (1971). Even the
magnificent Witchfinder General (1968), based on the novel by Ronald Bassett, was released
in the US as a Poe film, The Conqueror Worm, after the addition of Price reading the
poem of the same name!
Although the series began to run out of steam after Corman's departure, the later Poe
films still had much to recommend them, not least Vincent Price at the centre of all
but the last one.
"My greatest respect for Roger was for his wisdom in choosing the best people in various
fields of the art to launch his career," said Price. "Roger had a feel for the subject
matter, a point of view that subsequent directors seemed to lack."
So sit back and enjoy a double-bill of two of the best—and very different—films
in the AIP/Corman/Poe/Price series, getting a rare 35mm big-screen outing here tonight.
Intelligently scripted, beautifully crafted and memorably acted, these films reveal
everyone involved at the height of their creative powers. Yet despite having his name
predominantly featured on both of them, one can only wonder just what poor Edgar Allan
Poe would have made of it all . . .
Originally published as an insert booklet for Alt.Fiction, June 2010. All rights reserved.
Copyright © Stephen Jones 2010. All rights reserved.