Boston’s WLVI-TV 56 ran it’s ‘Creature Double Feature’ series from 1972 to 1983. Though fans remember it mostly for those fabulous giant monster movies starring Godzilla and friends, CDF occasionally featured some monsters of a different kind…
Roger Corman and Vincent Price had teamed to make five successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, beginning with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER (there was a sixth, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, that starred Ray Milland rather than Price). Studio execs James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, joined forces with Britain’s Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (makers of the CARRY ON comedies) and shipped Corman and company to jolly ol’ England for the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Both turned out to be high points in the Corman/Price/Poe series.
1964’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is a sadistic, psychedelic nightmare of a film, with Corman ably assisted by ace cinematographer and future director Nicholas Roeg. Price plays Italian nobleman Prince Prospero, a Satan worshipper and dabbler in the black arts, who locks the lords and ladies of his decadent court in his castle while the plague of the Red Death ravages the villagers. He’s kidnapped local beauty Francesca, her lover Gino, and her father to amuse himself and his guests, trying to force the two men to battle to the death while also attempting to seduce the innocent Francesca. Prospero’s lady Julianna is scheming to make herself the bride of Satan, while guest Alfredo humiliates the diminutive paramour of dwarf Hop-Toad.
Julianna, jealous of Prospero’s fondness for Francesca, gives her the key to the dungeon to free Gino and her dad, only to be stopped by Prospero. This ends badly, as the men are made to slice their arms with daggers, one of which is poisoned, then Father is killed by Prospero’s hand, sending Gino out to face the Red Death. Julianna pays for her treachery against Prospero (following a weird sequence of her in a dreamlike state, surrounded by dancing demons and giving herself to Satan) by being pecked to death by a raven. Hop-Toad gets revenge of his own by giving Alfredo an ape costume to wear to the Masquerade, then tying him to a chandelier, hoisting him up, and burning him alive! The Masquerade itself is a bacchanalian orgy of decadence, interrupted by an uninvited guest… the Red Death personified!
Price is a malevolent force of evil, a sadist who degrades the members of his court and delights in his devilish cruelty. He also gives a powerful soliloquy on the nature of terror: “Terror? What do you know of Terror, Alfredo?… (a clock ticks in the background) Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few”. Jane Asher (then-girlfriend of Beatle Paul McCartney ) is good as the peasant Francesca, as are horror vets Hazel Court as Julianna and Patrick Magee as Alfredo. The wildly vivid color scheme, shocking debauchery, and pervasive aura of death and decay make THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH a horror classic, and a fan favorite.
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last in the Corman/Price/Poe cycle, and in my opinion the best in the series. It’s a melancholy mood piece with supernatural and psychological overtones, and an overwhelmingly gloomy sense of dread. Beautiful Rowena Trevanian (Elizabeth Shepherd), out on a fox hunt, is thrown off her horse, landing at the gravesite of Ligeia Fell. She’s startled by Ligeia’s widowed husband Verden (Price), a sinister sort decked out in dark glasses (“I live at night, my vision is painfully acute”). He takes her to his neglected, cobwebbed abbey home to nurse her wounds, where his only companion is ancient servant Kendrick (Oliver Johnston) and a mysterious black cat.
Rowena’s boyfriend Christopher (John Westbrook) and father Lord Trevanian (Derek Francis) come calling to retrieve her, but Rowena feels strangely attracted to the sorrowful Fell. The attraction is mutual… Rowena is a dead ringer for the deceased Ligeia. Soon the two are married, the abbey is spruced up, and the happy (?) couple give a dinner party, at which Fell gives a demonstration in hypnotism. The results are terrifying, as Ligeia’s spirit temporarily possesses the body of Rowena. The wedded bliss is short-lived, as Rowena is locked away in her room, and Verden is prone to taking long midnight walks. Rowena confides to Christopher she believes Ligeia is still alive, and he unearths her body, only to discover a wax effigy….
Price is appropriately moody, and his slow descent into madness is glorious to behold. The ending features a battle between Price and that darn black cat ending in one of Corman’s patented frightening, flaming finales. The Vaseline-lensed, slow-motion nightmare sequence with Rowena chased through the abbey by her feline foe is Roger at his trippiest! The whole production looks more expensive than it was, and takes Poe’s story outdoors for the first time in the series. The screenplay by (all in one breath) future-Oscar-winner-for-CHINATOWN-Robert-Towne is dead on point (no pun intended!), and the movie’s score by Kenneth V. Jones is what I consider the best in the series. After THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, Corman grew tired of the horror genre in general, and the Poe pictures in particular, and moved on to more contemporary films. AIP wasn’t quite ready to give up on their cash cow however, and produced a handful of other, lesser Price/Poe outings. With the exception of THE CONQUEROR WORM (which really has nothing to do with Poe), none of them matched the dark, disturbing tales of terror concocted by Roger Corman from 1960 to 1965. Edgar Allan Poe may not have recognized some of them, but I’m sure America’s original Master of the Macabre would approve.
More “Creature Double Feature” posts –