Creature Double Feature 5: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (AIP 1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (AIP 1965)

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 –

THE BLACK SCORPION and THE KILLER SHREWS

IT CAME FROM BENEATHE THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD and THE GIANT CLAW

RODAN and MOTHRA

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE RAVEN (AIP 1963)

Let’s kick off the third annual “Halloween Havoc” with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, young Jack Nicholson , director Roger Corman , screenwriter Richard Matheson , and an “idea” by Edgar Allan Poe. How’s that for an all-star horror crew? The film is THE RAVEN, Corman’s spoof of all those Price/Poe movies he was famous for, a go-for-the-throat comedy guaranteed to make you spill your guts with laughter!

Sorcerer Erasmus Craven (Price ), still pining for his late, lost Lenore, hears someone gently rapping on his chamber door… er, window. It’s a raven, a talking raven, in reality Adolpho Bedlo (Lorre ), who’s been put under a spell by the Grand Master of magicians, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff ), who like Craven is adept at “magic by gesture”. After Craven mixes up a potion to reverse the spell, Bedlo tells him he’s seen Lenore alive at Scarabus’s castle.

The two wizards decided to make the trek to Castle Scarabus so Craven can learn the truth. Daughter Estelle Craven (Olive Sturgess) insists on accompanying them, as does Bedlo’s inept son Rexford (Nicholson). The Grand Master, a former rival of Craven’s father, greets them warmly at the door, a seemingly kindly old gent who clears up the matter by introducing his servant, who’s pretty but not Lenore. Scarabus invites the entourage to a convivial dinner, where Bedlo drunkenly challenges him to a duel of magic. The soused mage’s magic backfires, and he’s turned into a pool of raspberry jam!

A storm is brewing outside (because of course it is!), and Scarabus invites them to spend the night. Rexford suspects foul play, telling Estelle he saw Scarabus use his hand gestures during the duel to put the kibosh on his dad. During the storm, Craven sees what he thinks is Lenore looking in his window. He’s right… Lenore (Court )is alive and well, deviously plotting with Scarabus to learn the secrets of Craven’s powerful magic! Soon we discover Bedlo’s alive too; the treacherous wizard has been in on it all along!

All four (including the duplicitous Bedlo) are captured by the evil Scarabus, and Bedllo, begging to be freed for his loyalty, is turned back into a raven. Grand Master Scarabus threatens Estelle, forcing Craven to engage in a magical “duel to the death”, a comical, special effects-gimmicked battle of prestidigitation. The younger sorcerer is ultimately victorious, and they escape as Castle Scarabus is consumed by flames.

Price gets to show off his slapstick skills, continually walking headlong into his large telescope, and his acting opposite the bird is, well, Priceless! Lorre is just naturally funny, whether taking a pratfall, going off-script with some ad-libbing, or exclaiming as the raven in his accented voice, “Ooo, these feathers itch!” Karloff, as the villain of the piece, doesn’t get much in the comedy department, but manages to get off some good one-liners, calling Lenore “my little viper”, for example. Young Jack isn’t as bad here as some critics have pointed out, and he and Lorre are a funny father/son act. Les Baxter’s score, complete with whimsical music cues, adds to the fun, as does Pat Dinga’s special effects bag of tricks.

There are plenty of film references and in-jokes crammed in by Corman and Matheson. The name on Craven’s dad’s coffin is Roderick, Price’s character name in FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER . That film’s ending is also referenced in the final destruction of Castle Scarabus. And when Craven defeats Scarabus, it’s the symbolic passing of the terror torch from Grand Master Karloff to the new King Price. The raven itself was trained by Mo Disesso, who later provided the trained rats for both WILLARD and BEN. THE RAVEN is more fun than a barrel of spiders, a creepy and kooky Gothic send-up with the Three Titans of Terror in rare form, and will delight genre fans of all ages. Except for maybe poor Poe, who’s probably still spinning in his grave!!

Gods of the Hammer Films: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

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When Britain’s Hammer Films began in the early 1930’s they were just another movie production company. After finding some success with the 1955 sci-fi adaptation THE QUARTERMASS EXPERIMENT, they chose to make a Gothic horror based on Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel about a man obsessed with creating artificial life. FRANKENSTEIN had been filmed many times before, most notably Universal’s 1931 version that brought eternal fame to Boris Karloff. This time however, the producers shot in vibrant color, with blood and body parts on gory display. Tame stuff compared to today’s anything goes horrors, but in the fifties it was considered quite shocking.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in two films before, Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 HAMLET and John Huston’s 1952 MOULIN ROUGE, though not as a team. Once CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was unleashed upon the public, they were paired another nineteen times, making Cushing and Lee terror’s all-time tandem. HORROR OF DRACULA came next, with Lee as the Immortal Count and Cushing his nemesis, Van Helsing. There followed THE MUMMY, THE GORGON, DR TEROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, HORROR EXPRESS, and their final film together, 1983’s HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, with fellow horror icons Vincent Price and John Carradine. But it was THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN that started it all off, one of the best fright films of all time.

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