Can there be a true film fan anywhere who doesn't have a soft spot for Roger Corman? Even if you're not keen on the films he directed (leave the room, now) then you have to credit his prolific and tireless work as a distributor and producer, not least for the number of prestigious careers that he was instrumental in launching. I'm not going to start listing all the names here because I've already done so in my coverage of Alex Stapleton's highly engaging documentary, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. You can click on the title to read the review, which will also save me outlining again what makes Corman such an important and intensely likeable film industry figure.
Between 1959 and 1964 Corman hit something of a critical high when he directed a series of eight feature film adaptations of short stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe, one of only a handful of authors whose name could be used to sell movie versions of his work. It used to irk me a little that these films were so often cited as the high point of Corman's career, as if it was with them that he stopped messing around with silly exploitation movies and, for a few years at least, did something more respectable, a slightly snooty viewpoint that diminishes his other films by association. And I like those other films a lot. But I also love the Poe adaptations. And I'm not alone here, as you will discover over the next few days. Does that seem cryptic? All will become clear.
Six Gothic Tales, a luxurious, limited edition Blu-ray box set being released by Arrow films in just under a week's time, is in many respects a Corman Poe fan's wet dream. Included in the set are six of the eight films in the series, all of them gloriously restored and remastered and each accompanied by a treasure trove of excellent special features. And then there's the booklet. What am I saying? Like the ones that accompanied Arrow's Borowczyk Short Films and Animation and Withnail & I box sets, this is not a booklet but a fully fledged book. I'll expand on that statement a little later in this overview.
Before I go any further I should perhaps touch on the one thing that prevents me from labelling this set as definitive, and that's what's not included. As you may have picked up in the previous paragraph, two of the Corman Poe adaptations are not in this set, namely the 1962 Premature Burial and the 1964 The Masque of the Red Death. I'm assuming that this is either down to a rights issue, or that MGM – from whom these new HD transfers have been sourced – have yet to restore these two titles to their former glory. This is a bit of a shame, given that The Masque of the Red Death is probably the most visually striking of all the Corman Poe films, thanks in no small part to Daniel Haller's richly colourful production design and some gorgeous scope cinematography by a certain Nicolas Roeg. Premature Burial, meanwhile, was the only one of Corman's Poe adaptations not to star Vincent Price, instead being headlined by Ray Milland, who also starred in one of my very favourite Roger Corman directed films, X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, which was shot and released in 1963 in the midst of the Poe cycle. As far as I know, Premature Burial has yet to receive a Blu-ray release, and if you want an HD version of The Masque of the Red Death, then your only option at the present is the German release from KOCH Media, which goes under the slightly unfortunate sounding title of Die Maske des Roten Todes.
But never mind what's missing, just look at what's here. Six utterly splendid horror tales, all looking lovelier than I've ever seen them (and I've seen five of them on a cinema screen) and swathed in the sort of carefully chosen and lovingly produced extra features that have made Arrow the genre fan's best friend in recent years. The titles are listed below, but are not going to be covered in any detail here, as despite being part of a single box set, each of the included films sits on its own disc and has its own special features, and each thus deserves a separate review. Indeed, two of the included films, The Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, have already been released by Arrow as stand-alone products, and the presentation and extras are the same on those discs as on the ones in this set. A further two titles in the package – The Haunted Palace and The Tomb of Ligeia – are to be released as stand-alone discs by Arrow in February with the same transfers and extras. Whether the other two films – The Raven and Tales of Terror – will also be released individually at a later date only time and Arrow announcements will tell.
Having posted this overview, the aim now is to then post individual reviews of all six films in this set over the next few days, which will include coverage of the films, the transfers and the extra features in our usual manner, though time and work constraints may encourage us to reign in the length a little on these. I make no promises. This overview will eventually include a summary of the entire box set, but this will not be added until all of the individual disc reviews have been posted. Similarly, the links to the titles listed below will only become active when the reviews in question are published. [Both of these have now been added.]
Watching all of the films in sequence over so short a space of time reinforces the consistency of quality that runs through all aspects of the productions, visible in Corman's fluid direction, the handsome scope cinematography (how many of you saw some of these for the first time in a cropped TV version?), the sumptuous-looking but economic production design, the smartness of the screenplays (largely the work of the great Richard Matheson) and the strength of the performances. Price is certainly showcased handsomely here, shining both as a tortured isolationist and the potentially threatening villain he becomes when possessed or falls victim to paranoia. He also demonstrates a delightful gift for comedy in both The Raven and The Black Cat segment of Tales of Terror, though is almost outshone in both by the marvellous Peter Lorre, some of whose most enjoyable later work can be seen here.
But watching all the films together also highlights their sometimes striking similarity to each other, from the recycling of sets, costumes and props (those goblets are nice) to story motifs that appear frequently enough to almost count as signature elements. The old and remotely located house with its big halls and corridors makes many appearances, and check how often Price is cast as a man who has withdrawn from the world to mourn the loss or impending death of a woman close to his heart. And without wishing to throw out a multiple spoiler (I'm going to anyway, so if you don't know the films you might want to skip a paragraph), even I didn't realise how many of the stories here conclude with the central location burning to the ground. Almost none of the tales are completely faithful to their source material, but then again how could they be? It doesn't matter a jot. Matheson and his fellow screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Robert Towne have inventively expanded on the stories and poems from which the films take their titles, and together with their director have created a series of fascinating variations on common themes. And it's easy to forget to mention when analysing these films how enjoyable they are as entertainment. Corman was an entertainer first, but one whose artistic sensibilities and love of international cinema infuses and enlivens every frame of the films in this wonderful sextet.
As stated above, each of the discs in this set will be covered individually, and those reviews will also apply to the stand-alone editions of the titles in question. Simply click on the title to access the review. The links will become active as the reviews are posted, which will not be in chronological order but the order in which they are completed. I have already covered Pit and the Pendulum, and the rest of the titles have been divvied up between myself, Gort and Camus, who is having to squeeze his reviews into the few precious minutes of spare time he manages to steal on his current editing assignment in one of the nicer corners of the European mainland.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Pit and the Pendulum
Tales of Terror
The Haunted Palace
The Tomb of Ligeia
The extra features for each title will be covered in the individual disc reviews, but there is one inclusion that is specific to this limited edition box set and just has to be mentioned here, and that's the 200 page book that will doubtless sit snugly alongside the discs themselves in the final release. Produced by Anthony Nield (also the producer of the discs themselves) and co-produced by Michael Brooke (whose name also appears on some of the extras in this set), this is a fabulous read and contains a fine collection of material on the films themselves and something rather special in its second half.
There's an essay on The Fall of the House of Usher by Tim Lucas entitled The House is a Monster; one on Pit and the Pendulum by Jonathan Rigby evocatively labelled The Waiting Pit of Hell; a piece titled Three Down, Five to Go on Tales of Terror by Roger Clarke; a look at The Raven that focuses on Karloff's performance, written by Vic Pratt and wearing the straightforward moniker Comedy and Karloff; the rather nicely titled Strange Echoes and Fevered Repetitions by Roger Luckhurst, which looks at The Haunted Palace and highlights the H.P. Lovecraft elements of the story; The Last of the Corman Poes: Excavating ‘The Tomb of Ligeia' by Julian Upton; an excerpt from Vincent Price's autobiography Vincent Price: His Movies, His Plays, His Life; an enjoyable interview with Corman by David De Valle conducted in 1984; pieces on the short films The Black Cat (which is included on the Tales of Terror disc) and The Trick (which accompanies The Raven) by their director Rob Green; info on the transfers and production credits.
But wait, there's more! Oh boy, is there more. The entire second half of the book (and more) is taken up by complete reprints of comic book adaptations of the film versions of Tales of Terror, The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia. These are a joy to breeze through – I'm working from a low resolution copy of the booklet so reading the text is a bit of a strain – and more than any other feature makes this box set a collectors' must-have.
OK, this was a little late coming as we wanted to cover all of the discs in this set individually and in our usual detail before passing judgement on the box set as a whole. It's been an intense week of viewing that has pushed every other film we intended to cover in that time temporarily to the sidelines. But oh, what pleasures it brought and what an absolutely marvellous box set this it. Six terrific and seriously classy horror movies, all linked by a common theme, director, leading man and key crew members, and all beautiffuly restored and laden with superb extra features. If you're a true horror fan, one who can look back beyond the past ten years and appreciate the films that shaped the genre, then you should already own this or have it on order. If you don't then get your credit card ready before supplies of this glorious limited edition runs dry. If you've time off over the Christmas period then the content of this set will fill it and then some. Seriously, I can't recommend this box set highly enough.