When it comes to classic horror, the Universal and Hammer monster movies come immediately to mind. Next, perhaps the Amicus anthologies or the films Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s. But there is another great classic franchise worth consideration. The series of films directed by Roger Corman in the early 60s that have become known collectively as The Poe Cycle are a truly unique series of films. Though period films, absolutely dripping with gothic atmosphere, most utilize modern, experimental film techniques. Though they never explicitly reference the fall festival, these films are filled with cobwebs, coffins, and dungeons. They are preoccupied with the thin veil separating life and death, making them perfect fall viewing.
Beginning in the mid-50s, Roger Corman became a B-movie making machine, churning out as many as nine films in a single year. His primary partner in these ventures was American International Pictures (AIP) under the leadership of James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. Nicholson and Arkoff’s business model at the time was to make two black and white quickies, shot in ten days, and sell them together for the price of one. Corman, feeling that this method had begun to lose its luster, suggested combining the cost of the two films into one larger budget film, in color and widescreen, shot in 15 days. For the first of these, he pitched making a film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Corman chose Poe for three main reasons. First, he had been a lifelong fan of the writer. Second, Poe’s material had long since fallen into the public domain and was therefore free, which greatly pleased his producers. And finally, Poe’s work was being taught in most American high schools and would be familiar to AIP’s target audience.
Anyone who has ever had even a cursory reading of Poe will instantly recognize that these films are extremely loose adaptations of his stories. They do, however, adhere closely to the recurring themes of his work. The pain of the loss of a spouse, the mysterious nature of death, fear of being buried alive, guilt to the point of madness over wrongdoing, and more appear throughout the cycle. That said, they are a surprisingly diverse group of films. Corman was always concerned about becoming repetitive and tried multiple techniques throughout the series to make them unique from film to film while remaining unified in overall look and style.
These are also the films that cemented Vincent Price as one of the monumental figures of horror. Though known as one of the greatest of all horror icons today, Price had only made a few movies in the genre prior to signing on with AIP. He had appeared in Tower of London (1939) and The Invisible Man Returns (1940) during his Universal days, both of which only barely qualify as horror; House of Wax in 1953, The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959) as the heroic police inspector; and two William Castle films: The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill (both 1959). This may seem like a lot but keep in mind that he had racked up dozens of credits by 1960, and these seven films are the only ones that even remotely qualify as horror. The Corman films changed all of that. From then on, he made horror almost exclusively, with only a few notable exceptions, until his final feature film appearance in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) sets something of a template for the series, as well as establishing the creative personnel that would collaborate with Corman on many of the films. Richard Matheson, one of the legendary horror writers of his generation, was brought on to write the script. Floyd Crosby set the look of the films with his work as director of photography on House of Usher and would continue as cinematographer on all six films that were shot in the United States. Corman mainstay Les Baxter composed the music, some of the great unsung genre music ever written. All eight films feature production design by Daniel Haller who reused, redressed, rearranged, and built upon sets from the previous film. Because of this, the sets for The Fall of the House of Usher, though reasonably impressive considering the budget, are dwarfed by the massive, cavernous halls and passageways of the later films, particularly The Haunted Palace.
House of Usher stars Vincent Price as Roderick Usher, a man with a peculiar ailment that heightens his senses to the point of torture. In structure, it sets up many elements that would echo into other entries, coming both from Poe’s work and from Matheson and Corman. As with many films in the series, it begins with a character riding to a large house and ends in the conflagration of the estate. It involves the illness and apparent death of a spouse or lover and the possibility of premature burial. It is the first to feature a surreal dream or hallucinatory sequence that involves experimental film techniques and visuals. Though these themes and images return again and again, they remain engaging because of the variants in tone and character across the cycle. House of Usher was a great success, partially due to the fact that it was played on double bills throughout the summer of 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock’s massive hit Psycho. Corman did not intend to make another Poe picture, but Nicholson and Arkoff were keen on capitalizing on the success of the film. As a lifelong admirer of Poe, Corman was happy to oblige, but also hoped to offer some variation to the series.
1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum is the most financially successful film of the cycle. In it, Vincent Price plays the dual role of Nicholas Medina and his ancestor Sebastian, who was a ruthless inquisitor who reveled in torturing his victims during the Spanish Inquisition. The film also features Barbara Steele as Nicholas’s wife, whom he fears he has buried alive. Even more than House of Usher, Pendulum leans into the themes of Poe, particularly premature burial, and the death of a spouse. The film has a psychological depth rarely present in horror films of the era, and an almost Hitchcockian mystery at its heart. The final shot is disturbing and iconic and lingers on with the viewer long after the credits roll.
Tales of Terror (1962) is the one anthology film of the cycle, telling three Poe stories in one film. Again, these deal with life, death, loss, and guilt. “Morella” features Vincent Price as a man haunted by his dead wife. When viewed with the entirety of the cycle in mind, it plays much like a dry run from the final film of the series, The Tomb of Ligeia. The most famous segment, “The Black Cat,” is actually an amalgamation of three Poe stories: “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Here, humor is infused into the cycle for the first time, most memorably in a wine-tasting face off between a drunk played by Peter Lorre and a pretentious wine connoisseur played by Vincent Price. The final story, “Mr. Valdimar” brings another horror icon, Basil Rathbone, into the mix along with a climax that resembles something out of Creepshow.
After some financial disputes between Corman and AIP, the director decided to make The Premature Burial (1962) independently. Pathé, the film lab that Corman had worked with previously, wanted to start a distribution department and agreed to partially finance the film with the rest of the money being put up by Corman himself. Because Vincent Price was under exclusive contract with AIP, Corman approached Ray Milland, the Oscar winning actor of Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend (1945). On the first day of shooting, Nicholson and Arkoff showed up on the set to let Corman know that they had bought out Pathé and he was making the film for AIP. Fortunately, the working relationship was positive and continued to be for some time.
The Premature Burial is the first of the films to be written by Charles Beaumont, well known for some of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone along with dozens of short stories, novels, and screenplays. Beaumont’s sensibilities are quite different from Matheson’s and the film has a more somber tone while remaining very engaging. Milland plays Guy Carrell, a man obsessed with the idea of being buried alive. British actress Hazel Court makes her first appearance in the series as his long-suffering wife. New to the series composer Ronald Stein cleverly weaves the refrain of “Molly Malloy,” the famous Irish folk tune, into his score as a repeated theme and harbinger of death. Filled with misty graveyards, crypts, and mystery, The Premature Burial is one of the most unique and atmospheric films of the cycle.
Feeling that it would be nearly impossible to turn Poe’s poem “The Raven” into a serious film, Richard Matheson suggested making it into a comedy. Corman, always concerned with the series becoming too repetitive, agreed. Corman was no stranger to horror-comedy. A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960) were revolutionary in the ways they melded the two. The Raven (1963) would take it to the next level. It doesn’t exactly mock the previous Poe films, nor the gothic horror subgenre, but it certainly knows just the right amount of fun to poke at it. The film expands on its star power by featuring horror greats Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff in addition to Vincent Price, all playing rival wizards and culminating in a “duel to the death” between Karloff’s Dr. Scarabus and Price’s Dr. Erasmus Craven. Rounding out the cast are Hazel Court, returning to the cycle for a second time, and a very young (and probably miscast) Jack Nicholson as the unappreciated son of Lorre’s Dr. Bedlo.
The Haunted Palace (1963) is an unusual entry in the series. First, it is not based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe of its title, but on the novella “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” by H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Beaumont returned to the series to write the screenplay. At Corman’s suggestion, Beaumont brought in elements from other Lovecraft stories to “give it more depth,” in Corman’s words. Beaumont delivered a good script before moving on to other work, but Corman wanted a few changes, which he handed off to his assistant at the time Francis Ford Coppola, who did an uncredited dialogue polish. Here, the horror cache in the supporting cast is supplied by Lon Chaney, Jr. as the caretaker, Simon. Additionally, Milton Parsons as Jabez, Elisha Cook, Jr., John Dierkes, and Leo Gordon are all familiar faces from 40s and 50s Hollywood.
As in The Pit and the Pendulum, Price plays a dual role as an ancestor and a descendant. In this case, Charles Dexter Ward is gradually taken over by the soul of his evil great-great grandfather, Joseph Kerwin, who was burned to death by the villagers of Arkham 110 years before. The film ultimately becomes a revenge movie as Ward, overtaken by Kerwin, dispatches the descendants of those who killed him one by one. The look of the film is darker and more realistic to match the tone of its story, making it a standout in the series. It was also the final film of the cycle to be shot in the United States.
For many, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is the apex of the series. It is certainly one of the most visually stunning horror films ever made, thanks in large part to the extraordinary cinematography by Nicolas Roeg. Originally planned as the follow up to House of Usher, Corman became concerned that it was too similar in theme and story to Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on religion, plague, and death The Seventh Seal (1957), so he opted for The Pit and the Pendulum instead. As the series continued to be successful, Corman felt it was time to take on Masque, which he felt was the best of Poe’s stories, comparisons to Bergman be damned. After reviewing Charles Beaumont’s original script, Corman felt it needed a little more complexity and asked R. Wright Campbell to do a rewrite. Corman and Campbell agreed to add elements of another Poe story, “Hop Frog,” to achieve this added depth. The film was shot in London in five weeks, though Corman considers it more like four as British crews tended to work much more slowly than he was used to. Still, the extra time benefits the picture greatly.
Vincent Price revels in his role as the only completely irredeemable villain of the cycle, Prince Prospero, who humiliates members of his court and terrorizes his subjects for his own entertainment. Francesca, a peasant that Prospero brings into his court in an attempt to corrupt and dissuade from her heartfelt Christian beliefs, is played by English actress Jane Asher. The strong supporting cast is led by Patrick McGee as Alfredo, a member of Prospero’s court but also a rival to him, and Hazel Court, returning to the series for a third time as Juliana, a devotee of Prospero and his dark allegiances. This film holds particular relevance to today as we are again faced with plague and the indiscriminate nature of death. It is a powerful reminder of imminent mortality and the fact that death will eventually come for us all.
Though neither Masque of the Red Death nor its follow-up The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) were as financially successful as earlier entries, these remain the artistic high points of the series. Ligeia is a particularly unique entry in the series for two main reasons. First, it is the only entry not written by Matheson or Beaumont, but by Robert Towne, who would go on to write the classics The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974), among others. Second, it was photographed by Hammer mainstay Arthur Grant, who brings a naturalistic look and a fluidity of camera to the film.
Of all the Poe films, Ligeia also spends the most time outdoors, taking advantage of the sunlit English countryside where it was shot, rather than in misty graveyards and behind castle walls. The film draws more from Hitchcock than the other Poe films, particularly Rebecca (1940) in which a deceased spouse haunts her former husband and his new wife, Vertigo (1958), and even a touch of Psycho (1960). Vincent Price as Verden Fell has similarities to his role of Roderick Usher, who also has great sensitivities to light. Stephanie Shepherd beautifully and subtlety plays the dual role of Ligeia and Lady Rowena, perhaps the most complex heroine of the Poe cycle, and indeed all of horror cinema up until that time. The quotation from Poe at the end of Ligeia sums up the thematic thrust of the entire cycle perfectly: “The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and the other begins?” It is a fitting ending to this remarkable series of films.
These eight films combined form one of the most consistently strong series in all of horror history. They are similar enough to hang together as a cohesive whole, but different enough to remain engaging. The series may not have changed the face of horror the way that Frankenstein, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Scream did, but it did influence a generation of filmmakers and writers along the way. Stephen King, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, John Landis, and many others all count themselves as great admirers of the cycle and saw that Corman was doing much more than meets the eye in creating them. There is an elegance, sophistication, and undercurrent of political and psychological astuteness in The Poe Cycle that is rarely found in the so-called exploitation cinema or B-pictures of the era. If you haven’t yet seen these classics, I humbly suggest taking a step back in time to this quiet revolution in horror cinema.