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TALES OF TERROR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Maggie Pierce, Joyce Jameson
Director:  Roger Corman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  September 19, 2000

Film ***

I can remember getting my first small collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories when I was a kid, and how much I loved and feared them.  With a few simple strokes of his pen, Poe was able to create landscapes and settings of cold morbidity, of sickness and death, and of unspeakable terrors.  He created environments that reflected the mental states of his protagonists, who were usually mad or physically ill, and destined to live in a claustrophobic world that seemed to ever close in on them with an almost relentless sense of justice or vengeance…or both.  To this day, Poe still costs me more nights’ sleep than just about any artist I can imagine.

Pairing the works of Poe with legendary horror director and producer Roger Corman is perhaps a perfect match.  Before Tales of Terror, Corman had brought versions of The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum to the big screen, and he would later follow with movies of The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven.  For Tales of Terror, he realized a script from Richard Matheson that combined four of Poe’s tales into three distinct stories, each starring Vincent Price, and each with its own delightful and unsettling twists and surprises.  The resulting film is highly entertaining, and successful in capturing the mood and atmosphere of Poe.  It also marks a trio of Mr. Price’s finest performances.

The first tale is based on “Morella” and features for a setting a decrepit, decaying mansion that hints at its one-time splendor, but is now overrun with cobwebs and in ruin from neglect.  It is into this setting that young Lenora (Pierce) returns to her estranged, possibly mad father Locke (Price).  Locke had always blamed Lenora for the childbirth death of his wife, Morella, whose rotting corpse has rested unburied in her bedroom for all the years since her passing.  What begins as a tale of forgiveness and reconciliation soon takes a dastardly turn.

The second tale, “The Black Cat”, combines that Poe story with “The Cask of Amontillado”.  It features Montresor (Lorre) as a hopeless drunk with an unnatural fear of a black cat, and a developing infidelity problem as the rich and flamboyant Fortunato (Price again) begins to woo his wife, Annabel (Jameson) behind his back.  Vengeance will soon be his, but madness begins to take its toll on him (displayed in a wonderful montage of exaggerated camera angles and distortions), until the cat he loathed eventually proves to be his undoing.

The final story, which is the best and the creepiest, is “The Case of M. Valdemar”.  In his third role, Price plays the title character, a terminally ill man who gets respite from his pain with the help of a sinister hypnotist, Carmichael (Rathbone).  Carmichael, in return, asks for the chance to conduct an experiment:  he wants to hypnotize Valdemar at the moment of his death.  He agrees, but the result is horrifying:  Valdemar ends up trapped in some kind of frightening limbo.  His body deteriorates while his voice (with very spooky effects) emanates from the beyond.  The mad Carmichael refuses to let him go, but Valdemar will have the final word…and his revenge.

As mentioned, Vincent Price really gets to show off his acting chops in this film.  I don’t think he’s ever gotten true credit for his talents, being such an icon of the horror genre, but here, he plays three distinct characters with equal ability.  His comical Fortunato is like nothing I’d really seen from him before, and his tragic Valdemar is both sympathetic and unsettling.  But credit must also be given to co-stars Lorre and Rathbone, both capable horror stars in their own right, and both bringing to their characters just the right amount of menace and madness.

Overall, Corman succeeds in bringing the feel of Poe to life on the big screen, carefully creating realized images with the care the author showed in using his pen.  Both men instinctively knew that in horror, the environment was of equal importance to the character, and neither men shied away from vividly creating worlds of gloom and despair for their doomed souls to lose themselves in.

Video **1/2

I only watched the widescreen version of the film, which is thankfully anamorphically enhanced, and I found the experience satisfactory overall, if a little inconsistent.  To be sure, many shots in the picture look gorgeous, with beautiful natural coloring and tremendous detail, and remarkably clean.  These look as good as any restored classic might hope to look for DVD.  Other stretches, however, show a bit more deterioration in the source material.  There are marks, scratches and dirt, and varying consistency as far as coloring.  Sometimes, within a scene that cuts back and forth between two characters talking, you can tell that certain shots are much darker and murkier than others, and suffer a bit more from the artifacts of aging.  It looks as though the film was pieced together from different sources.  Compression is virtually a non issue, but shows itself slightly in the form of some undue grain and chroma noise in a couple of the darker scenes, as well as occasional moments of shimmer around the edges.  Certain scenes also look a little softer than others, but in a way that seemed purposeful and helped to add to the dreamy like quality of certain interior locations.  Overall, though, the video quality is more good than poor, and the flaws, though noteworthy, aren’t nearly enough to discourage a fan from picking up this disc.

Audio ***

The two-channel digital mono soundtrack fares much better, however, with a much fuller range than you might expect from mono, or from a film this old.  Dialogue and music both come across beautifully and clearly, with no noticeable noise or distractions and a fair amount of dynamic range.  The sound effects, though, really help make the audio stand out.  As mentioned, Vincent Price’s voice from the world of the dead is masterfully rendered, and will fill your room with sound even without the use of rear channels or subwoofer.  High marks.

Features *

Only the trailer, nothing more.  Not even the little booklet that MGM often labels a “feature”.

Summary: 

Tales of Terror is both effective and entertaining, and certainly makes a choice addition to any good night’s fright film fest.  Though the disc itself isn’t perfect, it’s still a pleasantly above average presentation for a classic picture.  If you’re a fan of either Poe, Corman or Price, you should treat yourself to a look at this DVD.  If you’re a fan of all three, then there’s no way you should pass it up.