Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle (1960-1964)

Corman was fond of literary adaptations – especially if the original was in the public domain – and he mined Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories for some of his most memorable work between 1960 and 1964.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Corman was fond of literary adaptations – especially if the original was in the public domain – and he mined Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories for some of his most memorable work between 1960 and 1964.

  • House of Usher (1960)
  • The Pit and The Pendulum (1961)
  • Tales of Terror (1962)
  • Premature Burial (1962)
  • The Raven (1963)
  • The Haunted Palace (1963)
  • The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
  • Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
House of Usher (1960)

In 1960, when AIP execs Arkoff and Nicholson asked Corman to make yet another pair of low-budget black and white horror films, he told them he had a better idea, a movie adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Nicholson and Arkoff initially balked at the concept, which differed wildly from their then-staple trade in monster B-pics aimed at drive-in adolescent audiences. “Where’s the monster?” asked Arkoff.

Corman reassured them the house was the monster (“The house lives. The house breathes”). He was becoming more and more interested in Freudian theory and wanted the adaptation to reference psychoanalytic theory – for him, the dark corridors and gaping portals of the decaying mansion were unmistakably female. He was fascinated by the concept that buildings (or at least movie sets) can reflect the ego and the id: daily activities happen as normal in the sunlit upper rooms of a mansion even though unimaginable terrors are contained within the oozing gloom of the basement .

If a yonicentric set wasn’t enough to draw the crowds (at least subconsciously), he insisted Poe stories had built-in teen appeal thanks to the efforts of English Literature teachers everywhere (“He’s read in every high school”). Corman wanted to tap into widespread familiarity with the tales and the ongoing love affair with gothic horror fuelled by television reruns of Universal movies from the 1930s. He also wanted to make more lavish movies instead of perpetually budgeting on a shoestring. Always mindful of the market, he believed a classic literary adaptation could give AIP productions more mainstream (and adult) appeal and compete with the technicolor horror films being produced by Hammer in the United Kingdom and as part of the nascent Giallo movement in Italy. Arkoff and Nicholson, fully aware of Corman’s proven ability to deliver low budget quality in a timely fashion, agreed to the experiment.

Vincent Price as Roderick Usher in House of Usher (1960)
Vincent Price as Roderick Usher in House of Usher (1960)

For House of Usher (1960), Corman teamed up with actor Vincent Price, whose sonorous cod-Shakespearean vowels became synonymous with the storybook theater narration that would become emblematic of this cycle. Price had supposedly sworn off making horror movies after The Fly (1958) because he claimed he couldn’t keep a straight face on set. Corman lured him back to the genre with the prospect of playing Roderick Usher, a meaty, actorly role – and the rest is history. Corman tapped screenwriter Richard Matheson, (who was doggedly building his reputation as a master of the genre) for the script, which stuck quite closely to the original, adding a romance between Philip and Madeline. House of Usher was Corman’s first foray into color movies and cost a luxurious $270,000 ($50,000 of which reportedly went to Price). The production schedule was still tight (15 days) and Corman made the most of his expensive star by framing him against production designer Daniel Haller’s skilfully scavenged yet sumptuous looking sets. The result was a commercial and critical hit, grossing $2 million that summer and elevating American International Pictures’ aesthetic beyond Poverty Row. Arkoff and Nicholson, naturally, wanted more of the same.

The Pit and The Pendulum (1961)
A Trade ad for The Pit and The Pendulum (1961)

Between the House of Usher (1960) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), Corman made seven Poe-related movies for AIP. Premature Burial in 1962 featured Ray Milland in the lead role but all the others starred Vincent Price (who would go on to make The Oblong Box in 1969, for AIP but without Corman). Matheson supplied scripts for The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), while his friend Charles Beaumont wrote The Premature Burial, The Haunted Palace (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Future Academy Award winner Robert Towne (Chinatown) penned the final entry, Tomb of Ligeia.

Tales of Terror (1962)

While he relied heavily on tried-and-trusted AIP personnel, Corman tried to switch things around with each new movie, ensuring a different experience for the audience each time rather than simply replicating what had gone before. Tales of Terror is quite cynical, even humorous in tone and The Raven is outright comedy-horror. The Haunted Palace isn’t even based on a Poe story – it’s actually an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. AIP wanted to market it as part of the cycle, so they gave it the title of one of Poe’s poems, and bookended the action with narrated lines.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Vincent Price as Prince Prospero in
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The seventh film, The Masque of the Red Death is the most ambitious in the cycle and it cements Corman’s status as an auteur, not just a schlockmeister. It was originally proposed as the second movie in the cycle but in 1960 Corman felt it was too close to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1958), which makes conscious references to the Poe story in its representation of Death. By 1964, Corman felt enough time had passed for a new, American Gothic version to stand alone.

Corman was deeply invested in a Freudian reading of Poe’s stories by the time he came to Masque of the Red Death and wanted to explore the guilt and repression from a psychoanalytical perspective. The script is actually the combination of two Poe short stories, the well-known Masque and the odd fable of Hop-frog, or the Eight Chained Orang-outangs. Charles Beaumont adapted Masque while R. Wright Campbell contributed the Hop-Frog plotline as the Hop Toad, Esmeralda, and Alfredo plotline.

Ever anxious to save money and maximize distribution, it was shot in England to take advantage of tax breaks. Corman had an unheard of five weeks for shooting (which he later said was more like four weeks as the British crew was slower than their American counterpart). The tax regulations meant that the movie could only employ an American director and star, so Corman hired local talent to fill out his cast and crew, including a young Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer, scream queen Hazel Court in the role of Juliana, and a teenage Jane Asher as the pious, virginal Francesca.

All kinds of psychological ills and moral questions lurk beneath Masque of the Red Death’s gaudy Technicolor surface. The script grapples with some of the thorny philosophical dilemmas facing those who are tempted to sell their soul to the Devil – or indeed opt for any short-term pleasure that leads to long-term pain. Prince Prospero (Price) stalks his castle as the embodiment of pure evil. Unencumbered by guilt or regret, the tyrant serves his own whims first and only. The needs of others, even when they’re as primal as the food and shelter his serfs seek within his castle walls, mean nothing.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Juliana (Hazel Court) brands herself Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Many of Prospero’s guests aspire to be him, but they lack self-understanding. When their host urges them to give in to themselves, they revert to animal, not evil behavior. Even loyal Juliana (Hazel Court), who believes she is one of Prospero’s best students, can’t make the psychological leap to his level. Chafing against the restrictions placed on 12th-century women, she builds up the confidence to brand herself a handmaid of Satan in one garish ritual, rather than waiting for Prospero to initiate her. When she wakes from a deeply masochistic nightmare sequence (in which she’s penetrated by many daggers) she believes she is born again (“I’ve survived my own sacrifice”). She declares herself Prospero’s superior (“I’m stronger in the devil’s favor than you are!”) and demands that he take her as a bride. He responds coldly, commanding his falcon to kill her. Her grab for Satanic power and status ends in ignominy as she is clawed to death by a bird a fraction of her size.

Despite his posturing, Prospero’s deal with the devil proves just as fragile as Juliana’s when he comes face to face with the Red Death. His arrogance melts as he realizes that he didn’t quite register the small print – far from being the sole ruler of the Universe, his Lord of the Flies is just another member of the committee. Prospero, like every other mortal, is subject to the overarching moral order: his sins condemn him to Hell and his master cannot protect him from this inevitablity.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Death becomes… The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Masque of the Red Death was another hit for Corman and AIP, proving that audiences were more than ready for horror movies that went beyond the superficial. Drenched in symbolism and driven by subtext, Masque established Corman as a sophisticated and eloquent filmmaker, on a par with any of the genre avant-garde emerging in Europe.

Corman’s instincts about teens and Poe were proved correct by the success of this cycle of movies. This is partly because Corman wasn’t simply retelling the 19th-century stories on film, although Poe’s preoccupations with premature death, being buried alive, incest, and things hidden in the cellar are timeless. Each of Corman’s Poe movies is startlingly contemporary – despite the period sets and costumes and the self-consciously archaic dialogue they’re very much of their time. The early 1960s saw continued social upheaval as the Civil Rights struggle intensified and the generation gap grew. Films about the collapse of ancient, incestuous, closed orders, like the Usher family, or the punishment of aristocratic old men who considered themselves above the law like Prince Prospero, couldn’t fail to chime with a young audience, especially if they were framed by druggy nightmare sequences, depicted beautiful women in filmy costumes conducting Satanic rites, and oozed barely-repressed sexual desire.

Further Reading

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Author: Karina

Writer. Historian. Teacher. Story Consultant. Twitter @medkno