[Read Part 1 of “The Poe Years”]
Matheson and Vincent Price were reunited on Roger Corman’s Poe series after an interregnum resulting from a dispute between Corman and American International Pictures over the profits from Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Corman decided to make his own Poe film and arranged for backing from Pathé Lab, which did AIP’s print work, but when the studio later got wind of this, they strong-armed Pathé into selling their position. As Price was under contract to AIP, he had cast Ray Milland as his star and hired Matheson’s colleagues Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell to script Premature Burial (1962), which bore a suspicious resemblance to Pit, with Hazel Court and her lover coming to grief after conspiring to drive her cataleptic husband (Milland) insane.
Corman reassembled his “dream team” on Tales of Terror (1962), for which Matheson adapted four Poe stories into three segments, each starring Vincent Price, prefiguring the Matheson-based Trilogy of Terror (1975). Although Corman attributed a slight dip in box-office to the anthology format, it was well suited to Poe’s stories, which were usually light on plot and thus would not need to be padded out to feature length. The first segment, “Morella,” seems in some ways like a dry run for Corman’s eighth and final Poe film, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); after Price reconciles himself with the estranged daughter he blamed for his wife’s death, it also ends with the female protagonist repeatedly switching places with a vengeful corpse and the joint going up in flames.
The second segment, “The Black Cat,” incorporated Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and by pairing Price with Peter Lorre, Corman began his practice of utilizing aging horror stars whose careers had fallen into the doldrums during the SF-oriented ’50s, and whose services could thus be had cheaply. Released just five months after Tales, Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) brought about a distaff revival for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, kicking off an entire subgenre of which Matheson would be a beneficiary three years later. “Cat” also introduced humor to the Poe series, as Montresor (Lorre) engages in a hilarious wine-tasting contest with Fortunato (Price) before walling him up with his adulterous wife (Joyce Jameson).
“The Case of M. Valdemar” threw genre veteran Basil Rathbone into the mix as Carmichael, who hypnotizes Valdemar (Price) at the point of death and then keeps him there long past his appointed time, refusing to release him until his young wife, Helene (Debra Paget), agrees to marry the mesmerist. Valdemar’s soul languishes in Hades in a sequence that Corman cut due to its budgetary shortcomings; finally, to protect Helene from his unwelcome attentions, Valdemar rises and putrefies all over Carmichael, scaring him to death. Despite this memorable ending, the antics of “The Black Cat” —which included the ghostly Price and Jameson playing catch with Lorre’s head in a nightmare—made the greatest impression and charted Corman’s future course.
Unable to take the films seriously any longer, Matheson (who later compared turning them out to making shoes) wrought Poe’s best-known poem into The Raven (1963), an all-out horror comedy pitting Price and Lorre against Boris Karloff as rival 16th century magicians. Court returned as the beautiful but treacherous Lenore Craven, having faked her own demise in order to leave her husband Erasmus (Price) for the evil Dr. Scarabus (Karloff), who now seeks Craven’s sorcerous secrets. Scarabus repeatedly turns the side-switching Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre)—whose son Rexford is played by a young Jack Nicholson—into the titular bird before engaging in a duel to the finish with Craven, imaginatively staged by Corman with whatever effects he could afford.
The onscreen comedy was reportedly matched by drama off the screen as the acting styles of the leads clashed, with the stage-trained and word-perfect Karloff bemused by Lorre’s frequent ad-libs, and Price (who had both classical and Method training) acting as a kind of balance between them. In one of his most notorious examples of cinematic chutzpah, Corman discovered he had two days’ worth of shooting left on the magnificent sets of The Raven, and had scenarists Jack Hill and Leo Gordon quickly concoct The Terror (1963). Price was unavailable, so Karloff re-upped while uncredited Corman protégés Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Hill, and fledgling leading man Nicholson each later directed additional scenes, resulting in a spectacularly incoherent mishmash.
Corman and Beamount soldiered on with The Haunted Palace (1963), an in-name-only adaptation of another Poe poem that was really based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), a series highlight that shoehorned in “Hop-Frog” and was co-written by R. Wright Campbell. In between, Matheson wrote The Comedy of Terrors (1963), which teamed the stars of his last two Poe films and was directed by Val Lewton alumnus Jacques Tourneur, who had helmed his classic Twilight Zone episode “Night Call” just eight weeks earlier. Price and Lorre played unscrupulous undertakers who are not above drumming up business the hard way, with Karloff as Price’s senile father-in-law and Rathbone as his landlord and intended victim.
Matheson scripted a proposed follow-up, Sweethearts and Horrors (found in his collection Visions Deferred), which was to have reunited that quartet with Tallulah Bankhead, but the actors began to die off one by one, and it was never shot. Meanwhile, AIP half-heartedly continued the Poe series with such nominal entries as Tourneur’s last film, City under the Sea (aka War-Gods of the Deep, 1965), and Gordon Hessler’s The Oblong Box (1969) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971). Corman himself later produced two remakes of his Poe entries, Jim Wynorski’s The Haunting of Morella (1989) and Larry Brand’s Masque of the Red Death (1989), for his own Concorde Pictures; as for Matheson, his career path soon crossed that of Bankhead after all, with felicitous results…
Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now on sale from McFarland, and the co-editor—with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve—of The Richard Matheson Companion (Gauntlet, 2008), revised and updated as The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson (Citadel, 2009). Check out his blog, Bradley on Film.