From the start of his career, Roger Corman never operated under the assumption that he was making anything approaching the level of art. Filmmaking was a business, pure and simple, and one he wedged his way into by producing low-budget exploitation pictures with a built-in market. In this, he had simpatico partners in James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, founders of American Releasing Corporation, which got into gear with the Corman-produced Monster from the Ocean Floor and The Fast and the Furious (both 1954). Within two years, the company was rechristened American International Pictures and Corman moved into the director’s chair, cranking out 23 features between 1955 and 1959, the majority of them for AIP.
As the ’60s dawned, Corman was ready for a different challenge: He wanted to tackle Edgar Allan Poe, and he wanted more money and time than Arkoff and Nicholson generally gave him. Through perseverance, he convinced the pair to finance AIP’s first single feature at a cost of $270,000, giving him a 15-day shooting schedule (expanded from the usual ten) and the ability to work in CinemaScope and color. The gamble paid off handsomely when the resulting film, 1960’s House of Usher, scored at the box office, inspiring Corman and AIP to make six more Poe films over the next four years, all but one of them starring their new leading man of choice, Vincent Price.
In 1960, Price wasn’t yet synonymous with horror, but he was well on his way. Throughout the previous decade, when he wasn’t appearing in such star-studded extravaganzas as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind and The Big Circus (or making inroads on television), Price was starring in the likes of House of Wax, The Fly and its sequel, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler. The last two were made by Corman’s closest contemporary, independent producer/director William Castle, who believed Price would class up his black-and-white, low-budget shockers. To Corman, the urbane, classically trained actor was the ideal choice for the tortured, reclusive Roderick Usher, a role to which Price fully committed by bleaching his hair white.
“Tortured” is the operative word, since Corman used Freudian psychology to explore his characters’ fractured mental states. Coupled with his interest in the Method, Corman’s Poe pictures allowed him to stretch as a filmmaker while keeping an eye on the bottom line. Working with a regular crew of technicians, including cinematographer Floyd Crosby and art director/production designer Daniel Haller, he was able to give each successive entry a more expansive look, thanks to the judicious reuse of sets and props and highly effective matte paintings.
Other mainstays of the series were the eye-popping fantasy/dream sequences. Shot with distorting lenses, colored gels and filters, and making extensive use of the optical printer, these moody, dialogue-free passages also gave Corman a taste for the kind of psychedelic imagery he would revisit in 1963’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and 1967’s The Trip.
The sets and props weren’t the only things he reused. Eager to get the most bang for his buck, footage Corman shot of the interior of a burning barn for House of Usher’s fiery climax found its way into the “Morella” segment of 1962’s Tales of Terror, 1963’s The Raven, and 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia, the last film in the series. As he wrote in his 1990 autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, “It certainly never occurred to me back in 1960 that people someday would rent these films on cassettes, watch them at home back-to-back, and notice the same flaming rafters crashing down in different movies.” (Emphasis Corman’s.) Then again, as he notes on the commentary for Usher, he never intended to do a series in the first place. The $1 million-plus in rentals the film took in on its initial release demanded a follow-up, though, and this came in the form of 1961’s Pit and the Pendulum.
As he had on Usher, Corman called on screenwriter Richard Matheson to flesh out Poe’s story, essentially using it as the third act and inventing characters and a plot that would logically lead into it. In addition to Price, who returned to play the dual roles of Nicholas Medina and (in flashback) his father Sebastian, a particularly sadistic Spanish Inquisitor, Pit’s cast also included horror icon Barbara Steele (late of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) as Nicholas’s supposedly dead wife and Corman regular Antony Carbone as the doctor she schemes with to drive him mad – something they succeed at all too well.
With an even bigger hit on his hands, Corman decided to strike out on his own, since he felt Arkoff and Nicholson weren’t sharing enough of the profits with him. Price was under contract to AIP, however, so he cast Ray Millard in 1962’s Premature Burial, which was all set to be financed by Pathé until Arkoff and Nicholson got wind of the project and bought the company out. Subsequent entries remained firmly in-house, with Matheson taking the series in a comedic direction with “The Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror and The Raven, both of which paired Price with Peter Lorre, whose reliance on improvisation threw off their Raven co-star Boris Karloff. (Also in the cast: Jack Nicholson as Lorre’s dimwitted son.)
By far the highest grossing of all the Poe films, The Raven’s parodic nature signaled to Corman they were nearing the end of their life cycle, a process hastened by AIP releasing his 1963 adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as The Haunted Palace by having Price recite a few lines from Poe’s poem of the same name over the opening and closing. In response, Corman took up the long-gestating The Masque of the Red Death, going to England to film it at Shepperton Studios on a 25-day schedule with sets left over from Paramount’s Becket and Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer. With its bold colors, lavish costumes and sets, a literate script (credited to Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell), and a career-best performance by Price as haughty Satan-worshiper Prince Prospero, who mistakenly believes his dark master will protect him from the plague ravaging the countryside, Masque is Corman’s most visually stunning film and his undisputed masterpiece.
Coming on its heels, The Tomb of Ligeia (also made in England) can’t help feeling like an afterthought, but Corman changed things up by filming much of Robert Towne’s script (only his second produced) on location, emphasizing the real exteriors in deliberate contrast with the studio-bound unreality of the other films. This counteracted his concern that he was repeating himself too much, but the high quality and consistency across all of his Poe films demonstrates that while Corman may not have set out to make art, for five glorious years in the early ’60s he did just that.
“House of Usher,” “Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Masque of the Red Death” are included in Scream Factory’s “The Vincent Price Collection,” recently reissued on Blu-ray, with “Masque” also available as a standalone release. “Usher,” “Masque,” and “The Tomb of Ligeia” are streaming on Shudder. “Pit,” “Premature Burial,” and “Tales of Terror” are streaming on Amazon Prime.