Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: Tales of Terror

As documented previously, Tuesday Night is Movie Night with several friends, and this time we chose Tales of Terror, making this my third Roger Corman movie in a row. Not my choice -- I'm not complaining, I'm just pointing out that it wasn't intentional.

Last year the Tuesday Night group watched The Comedy of Terrors, and this one comes from pretty much the same people: Corman directed it for American International Pictures, and the screenplay was written by Richard "I Am Legend" Matheson. Tales of Terror was made about a year earlier and the two films share the same principal players.

Essentially, this is an anthology of three stories written by Edgar Allan Poe and adapted by Matheson, though in practice, it's three stories written by Matheson that share their titles with stories by Poe. Not a problem, really. The first chapter is "Morella", in which a young woman travels from Boston to see her estranged father (Vincent Price). She was given in infancy to a foster home after the death of her mother, and is back to affect a reunion with her disinterested father. However, Mama's ghost has other plans... I was unimpressed, but Price does a nice job as a drunkard wracked with grief. The original story is much darker and weirder, and I'm not sure why they chose not to do a more faithful adaptation.

The third chapter, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", fares a little better, both in the adaptation (which still veers wildly from Poe's original) and in the execution. M. Valdemar (Price, again) agrees to be mesmerized at the exact moment of death by Dr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone). After Valdemar's body expires, his spirit narrates its progress through the afterlife. And there's a love-triangle (well, more of an unwelcome interest-triangle) which isn't part of the original story, but gives this version a narrative center.

Anyway, in spite of the fact that Price and Rathbone put in good performances, I can take or leave the bookending stories. The second chapter is where this film really shines. It's called "The Black Cat", but it's really based more heavily on "The Cask of Amontillado". The set-up for the story is new.

As you may recall from middle school English class, "The Cask of Amontillado" begins at the carnival where Montresor meets his old enemy, Fortunado. However, as "The Black Cat" begins, the two have not been introduced. Montresor (Peter Lorre) is a boorish, penniless, alcoholic slob who mistreats his wife Annabelle (Corman favorite Joyce Jameson) and constantly berates her for money. They are broke, so Montresor stumbles into the street and harasses passersby: "Pardon me, ladies, but could you spare a coin for a moral cripple?"

Eventually he crashes a wine merchants' convention where Fortunado (Price, again) is about to demonstrate his talent as a wine taster. Montresor insists that he can out-taste the professional, and there doesn't seem to be any discouraging him, so Fortunado shrugs, pulls up a second chair, and the taste-off begins. Fortunado sips, swishes, and daintily inhales before naming his wines. On the other side of the table, Montresor crassly chugs from his goblet, and effortlessly identifies every vintage, always ending with a slurred "'s very good."

The contest ends in a draw, which is an embarrassment to everyone in the room who's sober, but Montresor is too drunk to gloat. Fortunado gets the unpleasant task of helping him home to his wife who is immediately taken with the Fortunado's eloquence and manners. And not to spoil things, but they start having an affair, Montresor finds out, gets Fortunado slobbering drunk, and seals them both behind a brick wall, which you should know because I already told you that this is essentially "The Cask of Amontillado".

"The Black Cat" is easily the best of the three vignettes, and was a wise choice for the centerpiece of the film. Quoteable one-liners abound, mostly from Peter Lorre who, though we mostly remember him from mainstream film noir, displays great comedic timing. It's really the proto-version of the aforementioned The Comedy of Terrors; this movie assembles most of the same cast and runs them through the motions before making a real black comedy in earnest. Talking of the movie's performances, all of the principals are wonderful. Rathbone is -- as (almost) always -- the consummate villain, and Price gets to show off his range. Legend has it that Price's Fortunado was based on the Percy Dovetonsils character created by Ernie Kovacs. Those who don't know what that means can click here.

At any rate, I recommend the film, or the middle of it, anyway. Wikipedia sez that The New York Times called it "dull, absurd and trashy", but it's at least as good as its competition from the major studios, and the talent behind it is formidable. It may be a lesser classic, but it's still very much a classic.

No one will click them, but I've assembled links to the original stories, "Morella", "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", "The Black Cat", and "The Cask of Amontillado".

It's on Netflix, but you can watch the trailer here.
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