Posts Tagged ‘Roger Corman’

The Haunted Palace (1963)

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The Haunted Palace combines four – FOUR! – of my favorite things: Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Roger Corman, and Vincent Price. As such, there’s almost no place that this film can go wrong.

With a title and epigraph lifted from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Haunted Palace is actually based on the Lovecraft story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, about a man possessed by the evil spirit of his long-dead relative (a gross oversimplification of the story, but bear with me). Roger Corman’s adaptation takes a remarkably faithful approach to that story; which, given the serious problems with adapting Lovecraft, is quite impressive for a 1963 film. Vincent Price opens the film as Joseph Curwen, a suspected warlock living in a massive palace above the village of Arkham. Young girls begin vanishing during the night, only to reappear again the next day with no memory of where they’d been. The latest abduction results in the town rising up against Curwen and his unnatural necromantic tendencies. They burn him in his own front yard, but not before he’s placed a curse upon their children and their children’s children, promising to return to wreak terrible vengeance.

Moving forward about a hundred years and Charles Dexter Ward, Curwen’s great-great-grandson, reappears in Arkham to take over the lease on his relative’s estate. Along with his wife Anne (Debra Paget, Ward is met with violent hostility from the townsfolk, all of whom bear remarkable resemblances to their great-great-grandfathers. As explained by the kindly Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell), Curwen’s curse and Ward’s uncanny resemblance to his forebear is just the tip of the eldritch iceberg. Curwen was apparently trying to summon the Elder Gods, his activity taking the form of drawing creatures out of the abyss and mating them with the local girls, resulting in children with bizarre deformities (whose descendants at one point menace Ward and Anne). Now the town fear that Curwen has returned in the form of Ward to take vengeance and begin his work again – a fear eventually realized when Ward moves into the palace and Curwen begins taking over the body of his relative.

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The Haunted Palace follows at least some of the plot of Lovecraft’s novella fairly closely, albeit with some notable changes. The action centers on Curwen’s slow possession of Ward, with the help of his partner-in-necromancy Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.). The film introduces the very Lovecraftian themes of violation, degeneracy, family curses and, of course, the Elder Gods, all mixed together in a hodge-podge of lurid detail. The only truly sympathetic characters in the film are Ward, Anne, and Dr. Willet; the townspeople are venal and cruel, though they might not deserve the fate that Curwen eventually dishes out to them. Under Corman’s direction, The Haunted Palace draws out the sexual underpinnings of the story without veering into exploitation. In a movie that includes roasting people alive and offering women up to creatures from the abyss, the most disturbing scene is Curwen’s attempted rape of Anne while in the body of Ward.

Supported by a uniformly excellent cast, Vincent Price is of course the star of the show – and how he seems to enjoy it! His transformation between Ward and Curwen is effected with minimal make-up, instead relying on Price’s remarkable expressiveness of face and voice. Though Price has often been maligned as a ham actor, his ability to summon sympathy for villains and horror for heroes is a talent that Corman honed in the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Here it is on full display, to excellent and chilling effect.

The other actors are almost as enjoyable as Price, although they have considerably less to do. Paget deserves her share of the accolades, playing Anne as a damsel in distress still able to operate on some of her own initiative. There’s a wonderful and heart-breaking pathos to Ward and Anne’s relationship, as Anne is forced to deal with a husband who looks like himself and demonstrably is not. Then there’s Lon Chaney Jr. (here billed just as Lon Chaney), whose sad-eyes and sympathetic face conceal a true monster this time around.

The Haunted Palace does exactly what it sets out to do, and is successful as far it goes. While some of the opening sequences drag a little, particularly Ward and Anne’s arrival in the village, the narrative bounces along at a good pace, with little additional flourishes to distract from the central thrust of the story. It’s an early Lovecraft adaptation, but a remarkably successful one. Besides, how often do you get to see Vincent Price psychologically torturing Vincent Price?

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The Dunwich Horror (1970)

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Adapting the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is a challenge for any screenwriter, or director. Like Poe, much of Lovecraft’s power lies in his verbiage. His horrors are the concealed, obscure terrors of dreams, and his writing chock full of purple prose invoking nameless fears and indescribable stenches from dark Cyclopean caverns. Moving that kind of writing to the big screen is nearly impossible, because Lovecraft trades on things that cannot be seen or, once seen, cannot be described.

The Dunwich Horror makes a good attempt at adapting one of Lovecraft’s better known stories to a visual medium. The film was directed by Daniel Haller from a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, who would go on to direct L.A. Confidential and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. It was produced for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, which immediately indicates what we can expect from the production.

Following a bizarre birth sequence and some truly epic opening credits, the film properly begins with the introduction of Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell, looking more 70s than I thought was humanly possible). Whateley wants access to the dangerous and forbidden book of black magic, the Necronomicon, stored in the library of Miskatonic University and owned by Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley, in his final film role). To this end, Wilbur hypnotizes one of Armitage’s students Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) into furnishing him with the book. When Armitage appears and refuses to allow Whateley to take the Necronomicon away with him, Whateley puts another plan into action: he has Nancy drive him home to Dunwich, where he lives in a ramshackle old house with his grandfather (Sam Jaffe, having the time of his life) and something vague and rumbly in the attic. It soon becomes clear that the Whateleys are a weird and creepy family (if we didn’t know that already), and Nancy will be their next victim in an arcane ritual designed, as most things are, to bring about the end of the world.Dunwich 05

Anyone who has read the original Lovecraft story will recognize the initial plot about the Whateleys, and also that the whole “sacrifice a virgin to the Old Ones” is nowhere close to that story. The Lovecraft narrative deals more with the birth of Wilbur, his upbringing, and the fear he inspires in the townspeople of Dunwich prior to the arrival of “the horror” in the title. The narrative then shifts to the “Dunwich horror” and how the townspeople discover it and defeat it with the help of Armitage and the local doctor.

The film of The Dunwich Horror ignores most of the first part of the original story and focuses on the underlying theme of sexuality, present in much of Lovecraft’s work. Wilbur’s seduction of Nancy is accomplished through drugging her drink, hypnotizing her, and finally having sex with her on a stone altar – the entire sequence, though not explicit, plays like a soft core porn film that pretty much kills Sandra Dee’s virginal teenage image for good. The point of this part of the plot is unclear, save that the opportunity to show Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee having kinky altar sex was too good to pass up.

Dean Stockwell takes the lead in this film, his fabulous mustache and 70s perm really hammering home the change of time period from Lovecraft’s – although it does match the “decadence” that Lovecraft finds so horrifying. But he’s also that combination of creepy and charming that makes his eventual seduction of Nancy believable, even if we wonder why any sane young woman would agree to get in the same car with a man who looks and talks like a pimp. Sandra Dee gives a perfectly serviceable performance as Nancy, although not much is demanded of her beyond being innocent and then writhing around on an altar. The elder actors are having a lot of fun with their respective roles, especially Sam Jaffe, who wanders around the house making arcane pronouncements and shouting in the face of his grandson.dunwich-1970-2

The problem with The Dunwich Horror is that there’s not much horror to go around. The film spends more time on the inevitable seduction of Nancy than it does on building up the terror surrounding the thing that rattles the attic door. However, I will give the film praise for creating an invisible “lurking terror” which, when it finally breaks loose, does its evil very effectively. The climax of the film does not quite work, however, as we’ve spent far too much watching Nancy become the vessel of the Old Ones and far too little time with reasons why that is a bad thing. I never thought I’d say this, but they needed to inject a little less attempted subtlety and a little more Lovecraft.

At the end of the day, The Dunwich Horror is a good, but not great, B-level Corman production. It’s never dull, and is actually far better than I expected it to be. Still, I wanted a bit more horror to go with my Dunwich.

The Tomb of Ligeia

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“I just tried to kill a cat with a head of cabbage!” – Verden Fell (Vincent Price)

Vincent Price and director/producer Roger Corman made eight films based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, all of them in bright Technicolor with overwrought scripts and hammy performances from a central cast of talented B-movie stars. The Tomb of Ligeia is the last of the cycle and in some ways the best, featuring one of Price’s most effective and pathetic performances.

The story centers around Verden Fell (Price), who opens the film by burying his wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd). We’re told that Ligeia was a woman of great will and passions, who promises her husband on her death-bed that she will not stay buried. This being an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, we can expect her to keep that promise. Fast forward several years and Verden is still living at the abbey he shared with his wife (she’s buried in the neighboring churchyard). The arrival of his beautiful neighbor Rowena (also Shepherd) prompts Verden to reevaluate his priorities. He falls for Rowena and the pair embark upon a marriage that everyone pretty much knows is doomed. Ligeia might be dead and buried, but she’s not going to let her husband go that easily.

Like most Corman/Poe stories, The Tomb of Ligeia is less about its plot and more about its aesthetics. The abbey that Verden and his wives inhabit is run-down, strewn with cobwebs, and haunted by a black cat that quickly become a central character to the story. Secret passages, haunted ruins, a bell-tower, winding staircases leading to hidden secrets – it’s all beautifully predictable for this type of film, and we know that before long family secrets will be revealed and some hideous discoveries made.

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At the center of the film is the excellent cast, not the least of them being Price and Shepherd. Price is a tad old for the part he plays, but he goes into it with gusto, his sad, haunted expression making the audience feel for a man who might very well have been made out to be a monster. Verden fights desperately to free himself from the morbid obsession with his dead wife, who swore to him on her death-bed that he would always be her husband. In this case, he’s as much a victim of Ligeia’s indomitable will as everyone else, and Price plays him with pathetic beauty.

Elizabeth Shepherd, meanwhile, takes on the dual role of the Lady Rowena and Ligeia herself. Both are headstrong, powerful women, unwilling to sacrifice the man that they love – or, rather, the man that they want. There’s a certain element of power play going on here, and in some way the film is more about the battle between Rowena and Ligeia than it is about Verden. (I can also never pass up an Avengers connection: Shepherd was the first actress cast as Mrs. Emma Peel on The Avengers, and even filmed 1.5 episodes before being dismissed from the production under rather vague circumstances. Watching her here, I couldn’t help but wonder how she might have compared to Diana Rigg).

Where The Tomb of Ligeia fails is in its conclusion. The final sequence, once we get there, is very effective, but the plot feels confused, with much of the exposition packed into the last ten minutes. There we discover the “truth” about Ligeia and Verden’s obsession with her and are subjected to several short climaxes before we get to the real ending. As such, the film feels curiously weighted at the conclusion, as though Corman and scriptwriter Robert Towne (of later Chinatown fame) realized that they didn’t have an ending to the story and so tacked on three. That being said, however, it does provide one of the more epic final battles in any of Corman’s films, vastly outstripping The Pit and the Pendulum for sheer madness.

No one watches a Corman/Poe film for excellent storytelling; we watch it for the crazed camp, the wild-eyed villains and tortured heroes, the heroines bathed in fire and blood. Corman was the King of B-Movies, one of the best directors to tap into Price’s intensity and make even his villains fascinating and sympathetic. The Tomb of Ligeia is not a great film, but it is great fun.

If, like me, you are a cinephile, then I wish for you to take a brief moment to imagine the following film.  Imagine that Luis Bunuel around about his Mexican time period (when he was making a lot of films in the desert) suddenly came across a young producer by the name of Roger Corman.  Imagine that Corman asked Bunuel if he would be interested in writing a movie with a promising young man named Pynchon.  Imagine finally, that Bunuel and Pynchon wrote that movie for Corman, that Bunuel directed it, and that David Lynch supervised the editing process.  You might very well come out with Quentin Dupieux’s flawed but immensely entertaining ‘Rubber‘.

As everyone who has heard of ‘Rubber’ is well aware, the film centers around a psychopathic tire named Robert with telekinetic abilities.  That in itself was enough to make me want to see it.  What is pleasantly surprising about the film is that the psychopathic tire is only the beginning.  The film opens with a character addressing an on-screen audience, touting the need for a factor of ‘no reason’ in the greatest of films.  The lack of reason for Robert to become ambulatory, much less murderous, is what drives the plot.  Why does Robert wake up, shake off the sand that has covered him, and begin rolling across the desert? No reason.  Why does he suddenly discover a destructive ability to explode things (bottles, bunnies, people’s heads) just by … well, shaking a lot, but the implication is that he does it with his mind? No reason.  If the lack of reason in the film is meant to comment on the malaise of modern filmgoing, then there’s a problem.  But if, as I suspect, it is meant to be exactly what it says it is (an homage to No Reason), then it is remarkably successful.

That on-screen audience provides the highest dosage of meta commentary, as audience members (standing in the desert watching Robert’s progress) comment on the action.  And here the movie lags, then threatens to disappear up its own tail-pipe.  On-screen audiences show up far too much in cinema to be unique, although handing them binoculars and then torturing them in various way is a nice conceit.  Their comments neither move the action along, nor contribute to the enjoyment of the off-screen audience.  They are too self-conscious to be interesting, and the scenes centred around them become increasingly wooden and dull.  And about mid-point through, the entire film becomes derailed to concentrate on this audience in an overlong scene of metafiction.  The fact is, we really want to see what Robert will do next, not what the audience members think he will do next, nor how aware the characters are that they’re in a movie.

Robert is the most developed character, as we watch him come to life, discover his powers, discover sex, discover death and destruction, suffering and excitement.  Without speaking a word, without having a face or eyes or being anything other than a tire, he manages to evoke sympathy, terror, humor, and a good amount of self-awareness.  One gets the sense that Dupieux’s interests lie in the same place and that he was suffering from too much cleverness when he added in the running commentary.  If only he let Robert do the talking, the film would have rolled along much better.  As it is, though, I cannot resist the sheer enjoyment of watching a tire best humanity, without speech and finally without reason.

I’m assuming that ‘Rubber’ can be viewed in theatres, but it can also be downloaded from iTunes.  Really, it is well worth it.