6WH: Week 4 – Corman, Poe, Price, and Arrow!

The Six Weeks of Halloween reaches week 4, where we will watch 4 movies that serve 4 different themes. After weeks focusing on releases from The Criterion Collection and Scream Factory, the original impetus for this week was to highlight yet another purveyor of high quality physical media, Arrow Films. A British company established in 1991, they are an independent distributor of world cinema, arthouse, horror, and classic films. They didn’t make much of a splash, however, until 2012, when they revamped the brand to focus on “high-quality presentations of classic and cult cinema” in the manner we are now accustomed to with Criterion (i.e. new transfers, oodles of special features, great looking packaging and artwork, etc…) Among their imprints are Arrow Video, which specialized in the video nasties, and Arrow Video USA, which, you guessed it, brought many of their region-locked UK releases to the US. Longtime readers may remember a pair of Giallo movies I covered a couple years ago that were released as a handsome two movie set that Arrow put out (this was, more or less, my first exposure to Arrow. Also of note, the third movie I covered that week? Also available on an Arrow disc).

Whilst perusing Arrow’s catalog, I came across a few films that I always thought would make a great theme week. In the early sixties, AIP hired Roger Corman to make some low budget quickies, and Corman proposed an adaptation of House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a phenomenal success (critically and commercially), and Corman followed it up with a series of additional Poe adaptations, thus creating what has become known as the “Poe Cycle”. Not all of these films starred Vincent Price, but all of the ones I watched this weekend did, so there’s the fourth them of the week.

Caveat Emptor: These particular movies are region locked to B, so unless you have a region-free BD player, they won’t work on your region A player. I was able to rig something up to make it all work, but it was a bit of a pain.

  • House of Usher – Philip arrives at Usher mansion looking for his love, Madeline. Unfortunately, both Madeline and her brother are suffering from your standard, run-of-the-mill family curse. Corman’s first Poe adaptation has a lot going for it, starting with the source material. Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is emblematic of everything that makes Poe special, and Corman, with the help of screenwriter Richard Matheson (of I am Legend fame), takes full advantage. In particular, he makes great use of atmosphere, with the creeky old mansion and wonderful gothic production design. Costumes and makeup are nice too, but it helps that the three major parts are well performed, led of course, by Vincent Price, looking a bit unconventional with his fabulous blonde locks and lack of facial hair.
    Behold Vincent Price and his fabulous blonde hair

    His performance is great, full of melancholy and subtle menace. Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey are an attractive couple and hold their own. Unfortunately, the story does drag a bit at times. Even at just 79 minutes, it feels a bit padded out and the mysteriousness that works well in a short story doesn’t entirely translate to the screen. Then again, this is probably as good as you could get in filmic form without entirely transforming the story, and this is actually a fairly faithful adaptation. Some of the sequences are particularly great, such as when Price recounts the exploits of more nefarious members of the Usher clan, each illustrated by an evocative painting. Overall, while a bit stilted to modern eyes, I can still see why this kicked off a whole series of successful flicks. The Arrow disc has lots of special features, including a commentary from Roger Corman (I didn’t listen to the whole thing, but it seemed informative enough, and Corman is generally pretty compelling), interviews with Joe Dante (a former Corman apprentice) and a gothic horror expert, a video essay comparing the film to the original story, and some archival Vincent Price footage. As usual, great packaging with new artwork (and a reversible sleeve featuring the original artwork) and a booklet with essays and excerpts from Price’s autobiography. **1/2

  • Shining (Fake Trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
  • Black Sunday (trailer)
  • Pit and the Pendulum – A man goes to investigate his sister’s death. Her husband, the son of an infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, is less than forthcoming about the circumstances surrounding her death. The second of the Poe films and probably my favorite of the weekend. It features the same great Gothic atmosphere, costumes, and production design. I particularly enjoyed the matte shots in this one (though all of these films make good use of them).
    Beautiful matte shot

    The plot is similar at first, but a bit twistier as the film progresses. As expected, the performances are fantastic. Price projects a grief-stricken timidity (eventually leavened with madness!) and John Kerr’s incredulous hunt for the truth works well (for instance, he gets a good monologue debunking a seemingly supernatural occurrence). Barbara Steele shows up too, fresh off her performance in Mario Bava’s Gothic classic Black Sunday; perhaps not as iconic a role, but she does well given limited screentime. Returning screenwriter Richard Matheson strays from the original story considerably, but did an admirable job with the dialog and plotting while returning to the source material in finale, a sequence that sets this movie apart from its contemporaries. The visual of the torture device put into action is memorable, and the final shot prefigures the horror genre’s tendency for a stinger at the end. It’s quite fitting.

    Look at that pendulum go!

    It still suffers a bit from the padding issues of Usher, but it comports itself better on that front, and again, the climax leaves you on a high note. The Arrow BD comes in a handsome steelbook with great art (there’s also a regular BD with different new art). Extras include two commentaries, one with Corman, one with a film critic, a new documentary about the making of the movie, and archival footage of Vincent Price reading Edgar Allen Poe stories to a live audience. It’s a great little package. ***

  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror: Bad Dream House
  • The Raven, read by Vincent Price
  • Vincent Price Wine Cooler Commercial
  • The Tomb of Ligeia – At this point, I’m beginning to wonder if watching all of these movies back to back was the best idea. It might also be that this one is not quite as good as the previous two (this was Corman’s last Poe Cycle movie), but there’s so much similarity between each installment that I probably should have spread these out a bit. Another Gothic tale of lost love and grief, this one seems to be just sort of going through the motions. I mean, they’re good motions, and this still works reasonably well, but after watching two superior takes on similar material, this one suffers a bit.
    Behold my fabulous sunglasses

    The performances are still good, Price is excellent as always, and Corman was trying to imbue the production with some differences in terms of setting the film largely outdoors or during the light of day. There’s even one sequence at Stonehenge! And the flame soaked finale works pretty well (these big stone castle certainly seem more flammable than you’d expect). Worth a look for fans of Gothic horror, but not quite the standout that the previous two films were. The Arrow release has lots of extras, two commentaries, new interviews with cast and crew, and the usual new artwork with reversible sleeve. **

  • In the Mouth of Madness (trailer)
  • Fishmen (short)
  • The Call of Cthulu (trailer)
  • The Haunted Palace – After six installments of the Poe Cycle, Corman tried to stray a bit from the formula and adapt an H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. These days, Lovecraft is well known name, having influenced all manner of books, games, toys, movies, and TV shows, but at the time, Lovecraft was considered too obscure. So they grabbed one of Poe’s poems with an evocative title (“The Haunted Palace”) and had Vincent Price read a few lines at the end of the film and presto! A new Poe Cycle entry. But the story is still Lovecraft inspired and I believe it’s the first cinematic adaptation of his work to reach the screen (even if it’s marketed as Poe). Like the other entries in this post, there’s a lot of Gothic imagery and great atmosphere and some similar plot elements, but the Lovecraftian bits do add some variety to the mix. It droops a little in the middle act, but the opening is great and the climax has its moments too. I was particularly taken by the cursed, eyeless people in the town, and while this doesn’t have great special effects, the indirect invoking of the Old Ones is reasonably effective. After having watched three Poe adaptations, it was nice to get a little Lovecraft injected into the mix.
    Artwork for the The Haunted Palace BD release

    The Arrow disc again features lots of good extras, including a commentary track from Vincent Price’s biogrophers, an interview with Kim Newman, who covers Lovecraft on screen, and an interview with Corman, plus the usual reversible sleeve featuring both new and classic artwork. **1/2

So there you have it. Arrow video does it right, but make sure you get the proper Blu-Ray region! At least some of these films are available (sometimes with similar or even the same special features) in the US.

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