Thursday, October 14, 2010

Culture Shock 10.14.10: Corman's Poe films continue to haunt audiences

With films like "It Conquered the World," "Gunslinger" and "Teenage Caveman" to his credit, Roger Corman established himself in the 1950s as a reliable director of low-budget movies aimed at drive-in audiences.

But by 1960, he was ready for something more ambitious.

In his memoir "How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime," Corman writes that he was ready to make "bigger, better movies on longer schedules and to direct more experienced actors from better scripts. The chance to do all of those things came in the visually and thematically rich gothic horror genre."

Gothic horror ruled the cinema in the 1930s and '40s, when Universal Studios and its imitators released films like "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" and made unlikely stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But gothic horror fell from favor in the '50s, when horror movies shifted toward atom-age monsters and extraterrestrial invaders.

But in 1958, Britain's Hammer Films found success with "Horror of Dracula," starring Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker's bloodthirsty count. "Horror of Dracula" revived the gothic horror film and drenched it in vibrant, Technicolor blood.

After 10 years of bug-eyed monsters, audiences seemed ready for the movies Corman wanted to make.

So, Corman convinced his producers at American International Pictures, James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, to give him larger budgets that would allow him to shoot on color film and construct more elaborate sets.

The resulting films became classics of the horror genre and, along with Hammer's films, defined cinematic horror for the next decade.

From 1960 to 1964, Corman directed eight movies based, more or less, on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Corman had read Poe as a youth, and Poe's poems and stories had the virtue of being in the public domain, meaning Corman didn't have to pay for them.

With Vincent Price as his leading man and a team of skilled writers and technicians behind the camera, Corman made what would become known as his "Poe cycle." The series started with "House of Usher" in 1960 and continued with "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "The Premature Burial" (1962), "Tales of Terror" (1962), "The Raven" (1963), "The Haunted Palace" (1963), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964) and "The Tomb of Ligeia" (1964).

Technically, however, "The Haunted Palace" is a Poe film in name only. It's based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft, making it, as far as I can tell, the first film based on Lovecraft's stories.

Three of Corman's Poe films will screen this month at Decatur's Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts as part of this year's Big Read program focusing on Poe's works. First up is "The Raven" on Friday night at 7. It will be followed by "House of Usher" on Monday and "The Pit and the Pendulum" on Oct. 22. Tickets are $5.

Price starred in all but one of Corman's Poe movies; the exception is "The Premature Burial" with Ray Miland. By 1960, Price already had established himself as a bankable horror-movie star in "House of Wax" and William Castle's "The House on Haunted Hill." Before that, he was a charismatic villain in the 1949 film noir "The Bribe." But the Poe films are what cemented Price's reputation as a horror icon — the Lugosi or Karloff of his generation.

Working alongside Price in the Poe movies were veterans like Karloff and Peter Lorre and newcomers like Jack Nicholson.

Meanwhile, the screenwriters who adapted Poe's tales were top notch. Richard Matheson ("I Am Legend") and Charles Beaumont, both "Twilight Zone" veterans, wrote seven of the films, while future Oscar winner Robert Towne ("Chinatown") scripted "The Tomb of Ligeia."

Corman's Poe films are undeniably B movies, but they're also classics. And as fast and loose as they play with Poe's words, they're still worthy and lasting tributes to America's master of the macabre.

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