The Students of Poe | The Corman-Poe Cycle
By Sara Century
The Corman-Poe Cycle covered eight different Poe-themed releases from 1960–1964, all featuring Roger Corman as director or producer. These entries are all similar enough that parts of them can blend together somewhat, but they remain different enough in direction that, despite sharing a producer, an aesthetic, and several recurring cast and crew members, each manages to have its own distinct flavor.
Not all of these films starred Vincent Price and the ones that do are not the only Poe-themed movies Price would ever star in, but they remain some of his best-loved roles and include major career highlights for Price and producer/director Roger Corman both. Still, they were far from the only people involved, and industry greats like Jack Nicholson, Peter Lorre, Richard Matheson, Jane Asher, Hazel Court, Ray Milland, and Les Baxter contributed to this distinct run of films. Known for their over-the-top farce and madcap humor, but often teetering into genuinely disturbing territory, there was always a bit more than meets the eye with the Corman-Poe Cycle.
Produced through American International Pictures (AIP), these films came about when Corman wanted to move beyond the standard low-budget black and white horror pictures from which much of his early success came. Though it was considered a bit risky to go larger budget and film in color, the addition of color to this era of horror films had an undeniable effect. Indeed, each of the eight Corman-Poe Cycle films is marked by inventive use of color, with compelling opening credits that utilize swirling smoke, crawling insects, and flowing ink to set the mood.
Color is indeed one of the most noticeable things throughout, with The House of Usher’s clouds of green fog, The Haunted Palace’s extravagant set, and The Mask of the Red Death’s many-colored suits and rooms. The aesthetic of this series is an important unifying factor.
In one scene in House of Usher, the doomed Roderick takes a particularly obstinate guest through a lengthy hall where morbid, ghastly paintings of his ancestors line the walls. These were created by a staple of the early psychedelic movement, Burt Shonberg, mostly forgotten today but whose paintings seem perfectly matched with the vibe of these films.
Despite their differences, these films are all visually captivating from the jump, which makes it easy to overlook their more hackneyed moments. Even when the plots or dialogue don’t quite hold up, the incredible cinematography, bright colors, and stunning set design make it impossible to fully dismiss them as the campy low-grade B-movie fare they’re often classified as.
The first Poe-themed film for Corman was House of Usher, scripted by horror giant Richard Matheson with music by famed composer Les Baxter. Though there is an added romantic element to the film, it more or less follows a lot of the story queues of the original short, fleshing out moments here and there for a fuller plot. A morbid, isolated brother and sister are consumed by the wicked house of their ancestors while a gentleman caller barely escapes with his life. This is a formula that is more or less repeated in The Pit and the Pendulum, though small details change between takes. Themes of being buried alive and new generations suffering for the sins of their ancestors exist through most of these films, but perhaps most successfully with these two.
For Tales of Terror and The Raven, Peter Lorre joined the crew. Both of these entries read much more easily as horror-comedy than straight horror, and much of the patently ridiculous farce that this series is known for can be found in these two entries. Lorre was nearing the end of his life, making these some of his final performances on film. In both, he plays a cantankerous man who treats his immediate friends and family terribly. In The Raven, some of the best moments of the film come from his disputes with his son, played by a very young Jack Nicholson. The son tries to convince his father that he should care about others while he himself chooses self-preservation above all at every turn. Another highlight is the late-career appearance from Boris Karloff, who is delightful as the evil wizard who engages in a full-out magic fight with Price’s character. These two movies are absolutely ridiculous, but they are both incredibly fun horror-comedy classics.
Meanwhile, Premature Burial is perhaps the least fun of all these entries, in no small part due to Ray Milland playing the title character with classic Hollywood straightforwardness after watching Vincent Price give his absolute all for several films in a row by this point. It’s no insult to Milland that he doesn’t achieve the same heights; Price notably played each of his roles in these films with absolute abandon. Milland is a great actor, and it’s not on him that it comes across as simply not understanding the assignment after a series of wildly successful performances from Price. Combined with the plot similarities to previous entries, Premature Burial is a low point in the series, but it still makes for a suitable late-night watch.
In contrast to Premature Burial, the follow-up The Haunted Palace might be the hidden gem of the franchise. Generally forgotten in comparison to the other films, this shows an affable couple who quickly grow estranged when they move into a gloomy castle and the husband begins to exhibit violent sadistic tendencies towards his wife. Scenes in which Price helplessly wanders through a dense fog, and moments in which his cruelty turns fully onto his wife, create an atmospheric horror story. Though it is overloaded by tropes of the genre, it still manages some genuinely chilling moments.
The Masque of the Red Death is exactly the spectacle one might wish it to be, with the larger commentary on class that very much exists in the original story fleshed out to the extreme. Combining elements of Poe’s original story and Poe’s equally disturbing “Hop-Frog” to create something of its own, this is a film that Corman is said to have avoided making due to hesitancy around the similarities between it and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). The similarities are there, but much of the strength of Death is its visual appeal. The ongoing aesthetic choices of these films culminate here, with an elaborate set enhanced via brightly colored costumes and the distinctly colored rooms that the original story could only describe and not show.
The cycle wrapped with The Tomb of Ligeia, another less-discussed entry that creates a creepy villain out of the deceased Ligeia and the hold she has over her former husband Verdan Fell. Throwing in elements of Poe’s short “The Black Cat,” this film succeeds in being particularly moody and ambient, but with the heavily recycled themes at hand and the increasing inability to find another lead actor with the charisma of Price, it makes sense for this to have been the final round. Yet, the things that make these movies as fun and as scary as they are, exist very much here with a haunted Verdan waxing philosophic about the nature of life and death as he mourns his indisputably demonic wife, forcing a new romantic interest to deal with the ghost of his wife like a slightly more horror-inclined Second Mrs. DeWinter from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Vincent Price is an undeniable asset to the series, and though he is occasionally miscast (for instance the “young, ethereally handsome” protagonist of The Tomb of Ligeia), his presence is grievously missed in Premature Burial, the one film where he is absent. While other actors play these roles with alternating sincerity, parody, dreaminess, and sternness, Price throws himself into the vibe of each scene and rides the wave regardless of where it takes him. Without him, it’s unlikely the franchise would be anywhere nearly as memorable as it is. Whether it’s in the role of the gloomy and severe Roderick Usher, the vindictive and cruel Prospero, the hysterical and apologetic Nicolas Medina, or the haunted Verden Fell, Price is the master of turning out character-specific performances while remaining unmistakably himself. Today, these are the roles he remains known for, and there’s a reason for that.
In the end, the Corman-Poe Cycle gave us eight surprisingly disparate takes on Poe’s legacy. They don’t always succeed as individual works, but there’s something for everyone along the way, from the ancestral miasma of House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum to the horror comedy of The Raven and Tales to Terrify to the class commentary of The Masque of the Red Death and the gloominess and conflicted identity of The Haunted Palace and The Tomb of Ligeia. Though these films are anything but direct adaptations and often only prove the futility of a truly “accurate” Poe adaptation due to the difference in pacing from a short story to a feature-length film, they are still essential early ’60s horror film that can tell you a lot about the landscape of the genre at the time. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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