Weekend Film Recommendation: Tales of Terror

Tales_of_Terror_1962_posterAs Halloween approaches, it seems a good time to recommend one of the many Edgar Allen Poe films of low budget whiz Roger Corman: Tales of Terror.

This 1962 film is a trilogy of stories based on four different Poe stories: Morella, a pastiche of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The stories are well-employed in the script of the late, great Richard Matheson, whose ability to infuse new, um, blood, into hoary tales I have praised here at RBC before. Vincent Price anchors the film with three lead performances, which vary in tone from lugubrious to frothy to sepulchral.

Price is joined by two aging stars who still know how to deliver the goods. Peter Lorre makes a fine boozy bully in The Black Cat and Basil Rathbone lends gravitas to the role of Carmichael, the hypnotist who tries to hold Valdemar at the point of death in the final story. The roles of the women characters however are comparatively flat, with the female performers cast mainly for their looks.

vincentprice1Many horror films, including some of the most famous, include some element of camp, and Tales of Terror is very much in that tradition. Price and Lorre enjoy themselves enormously in The Black Cat, inviting the audience to laugh at them as much as be frightened by the murderous proceedings. As a viewer, you should bring eggs for this part of the film, because these guys are bringing the ham.

In addition to the tension and fear generated by the three stories, the film makes for good horror viewing because Corman, as always, was experimenting as he went along. Some novel special effects are on display, all of which work pretty well. On the small screen, some of the Cinemascope trickery at the screen edges will be lost, so see this one on the big screen or in letterbox format if you can.

In some people’s minds, Corman is nothing but a schlock merchant, but that’s not fair to him. Like Richard Rodriguez, he has a genius for improvising in a low-budget environment. He shot movies on the sets of other movies while they were being torn down, writing a script each night to take advantage of whichever set would be gone by the end of the next day. He told Peter Bogdanovich that “Boris Karloff owes me a few days of filming, let’s make something out of that”, which became the nail-biting Targets. And he also helped launch many future superstars, including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Francis Ford Coppola. I was absolutely delighted when Hollywood finally woke up and gave the 83-year old Corman an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, because he’s long been the kind of disruptive, creative force that the film industry needs to maintain its vitality.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.


  1. Fred says

    I remember seeing this one and a sequal, “The Raven” featuring Boris Karloff and a young Jack Nocholson. These were cheesey fare but played wonderfully to the ratty (literally) theater packed with cheering kids who came out for saturday tripple features. The shows on those saturdays included “Hang ‘Em High” (Clint Eastwood’s original spagetti western), Jack Pallance as Attila the Hun (desperately trying to keep his chest stuck out), “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love”.
    I remember how outraged we all were when they raised the admission price from 10 cents to 15 cents soon to be followed by a quarter. It was really hard to scrounge enough soda bottles to cover the tab with inflationary prices like that.

    • Fred says

      I just recalled the third in the trilogy: “Masque of the Red Death” staring (of course) Vincent Price as Prince Prospero. It was a tale of an arougant aristocrat and his elite guests who believed they could hide inside a fortress to avoid the predations that were befalling the wider world outside. While the plague raged outside they celebrated behind their walls in an extatic orgy. But in the end the Red Death held sway over all. A morality tale for our time.