Tales of Terror Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Following years of modest success with ultra cheap B-movies, Roger Corman garnered critical attention with a series of movies based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. All but one of these eight loose adaptations (The Premature Burial, 1962) featured Vincent Price in a lead role and five were written by Richard Matheson. The fourth film in the series, Tales of Terror (1962), included all the vital ingredients, but its anthology approach offered a different flavor of Poe on film. It was far from the first horror anthology, but it played an important role as one the first big hits (due in part to its Corman/Poe association) in a ‘golden era’ of anthologies released during the 1960s. It was followed by Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), Sidney Salkow’s Twice-Told Tales (also starring Price and often coupled with Tales of Terror on double-feature home video releases, 1963), Masaki Kobayashi’s Oscar-nominated Kwaidan (1964), and Freddie Francis’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) – the first of a steady stream of popular anthologies released by the UK’s Amicus Studios.
In first of the three episodes, Morella, Price plays Locke (he is given no first name), a melancholic lord who is visited by his grown daughter Lenora (Maggie Pierce), who he blames for her mother Morella’s (Leona Gage) death, which occurred only months after childbirth. His resentment is abated when Lenora tells him that she is terminally ill. But Morella’s ghost has other plans. Morella is the most gothic of the entries and the one that best fits the other Corman/Poe films. But it’s also the least fun and frightening, which makes it a good first episode – it sets the stage by introducing the audience gently to the wackier entries. Matheson’s script changes quite a few incidental elements from Poe’s existentially frightening story to ensure that Morella fits the tones of the other AIP gothic horror movies, but the important themes are left intact. Price’s tortured and sometimes angry presence ranks among his more nuanced performances for Corman, though his crazy eyes betray the wild scenery-chewer that lurks beneath. Pierce holds her own against the master with similar theatrical fury (according to both of the commentary tracks, Price and Corman disagrees with me here), while Gage does her best Barbara Steele impression during the episode’s final fiery moments.
The second episode is The Black Cat, based on what must be Poe’s most commonly adapted stories, including Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 film, Albert S. Rogell’s 1941 film, Lucio Fulci’s 1981 film, Dario Argento’s half of Two Evil Eyes (a 1990 anthology co-directed by George Romero), and Stuart Gordon’s second episode of Masters of Horror (2007). For whatever reason, the majority of the movies that use the title have very little, if anything, in common with the original short. Corman/Matheson’s version changes the outset of the story and lightens the tone considerably, while still following the basics of Poe’s blueprint. Price plays a famous wine taster named Fortunato, who has affair with town drunk Montresor Herringbone’s (Peter Lorre) wife, Annabelle (Joyce Jameson). When Herringbone discovers the truth, he entombs them in a basement wall. The authorities discover his crime when Annabelle’s black cat cries out in hunger from behind the wall. Though obviously directed by Corman, The Black Cat is sort of a harbinger of things to come in Jacques Tourneur’s Comedy of Terrors (1963), which reused some sets, as well as actors, Price, Lorre, and Jameson. The farcical sense of humour is delightfully amped by Price’s dandy and silly-faced depiction of Fortunato and his chemistry with Lorre, whose sarcastic quips are delectable. The two would be re-teamed in both Comedy of Terrors and Corman’s next Poe adaptation, The Raven (also 1963).
The final episode is The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, which was adapted by George Romero for his half of Two Evil Eyes (1990). Price plays the title character, who hires an unscrupulous hypnotist, Mr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone), to help him alleviate the pains of a terminal illness. Valdemar’s body dies while under the influence a trance (by design) and his consciousness is trapped between life and death. He pleads for Carmichael to release him, but the hypnotist is too invested in continuing the experiment and using his influence to convince Valdemar’s widow, Helene (Debra Paget), to marry him. In the great tradition of horror anthologies (a tradition that was partially developed by Tales of Terror), The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar is the most outrageous and entertaining episode in the collection. Its vibrant colors and ostentatious set design represent a logical step in the escalating stylistic extremes of the Corman/Poe movies. Price plays Valdemar with genuine pathos and sweetness, while Rathbone creates a fully despicable villain worthy of the horrible fate bestowed on him when he attacks Helene.
It’s starting to look like Kino secured the Blu-ray rights to the rest of Vincent Price’s most popular horror movies from MGM, which means that Scream Factory won’t be releasing anymore Vincent Price Collections. I lament the loss of a space and money-saving collection, but Scream Factory wasn’t exactly remastering any of MGM’s HD transfers and had even been borrowing extras from other companies, so there’s no reason to think Kino would drop the quality standard significantly. Tales of Terror is the last Corman/Poe movie starring Price to not make a Blu-ray appearance in the states yet, so this 1080p, 2.35:1 release is most welcome. The image quality more than meets the standards of the Scream Factory discs, especially in terms of overall clarity, which remains strong, even during the heavy fog effects that make some of these Corman/Poe films appear particularly grainy. Grain does play a role throughout, of course, as do a handful of print artifacts (mostly white spots and a couple of rough splices), but it is rarely clumped or ‘pulsy.’ Textures and patterns are tight from front to back and only occasionally hampered during the darkest sequences. The palette is often subdued throughout the first two episodes, but is consistent in the lead up to The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, where garish decors and the Technicolor hypnotism machine punch up the imagery with vivid reds, greens, blues, and yellows.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound is about as clean and clear as can be expected from the material. The tracks seem to have been slightly damaged, because a few scenes sound more muffled and distorted than others. Still, dialogue is understandable and its volume levels are persistent and consistent on the whole. The punchier sound effects are minimalized and a tad scratchy, but the rarely utilized environmental ambience features more depth and layering than expected. Les Baxter’s musical score is the standout element, especially those very dramatic, full orchestra cues, some of which (coincidentally?) share themes with John Williams’ main Jaws theme and parts of Elmer Bernstein’s Ghostbusters score (take a listen to the scene where Lorre searches for money after entombing his victims).
Tales of Terror gets a new batch of extras, most of which do not seem to be available anywhere else, including Arrow’s UK Blu-ray (which has its own collection of exclusives).
Commentary with film historian/critic Tim Lucas – Lucas, the co-editor/publisher of Video Watchdog, is mostly known for his commentaries on Mario Bava and Jesus Franco releases, but does just as commendable a job talking about Corman and Price. This track covers all of the bases, including descriptions of Poe’s original stories and oodles of behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Commentary with Vincent Price historian David Del Valle and actor David Frankham – The second commentary is also very informative, but focuses more directly on Price’s career with a particularly jovial tone. Del Valle (who likes dropping names and doing impressions) is very much in charge of the discussion and sometimes talks over Frankham, who happily responds to any interview-like questions and clearly enjoys talking about the segment in which he appears. There is surprisingly little overlap between the two tracks, despite the wall of information.
On-camera interview with producer/director Roger Corman (10:40, HD) – A typically warm and courteous chat with the man himself.
Trailers From Hell episode with Roger Corman (2:30, SD)
Original theatrical trailer
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