Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Review: 'Corman/Poe: Interviews and Essays Exploring the Making of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe Films, 1960-1964'

In the late fifties, Hammer Film Productions struck a blow for Gothic horror just when it seemed as though bulb-headed martians and giant bugs had banished vampires, Frankensteins, and spooky cobwebs for good. That was great for UK, birthplace of Gothic horror, but what of the U.S.? Without having even seen Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, all-American Roger Corman came to the stateside rescue with a series of horrors based on stories by America's premiere Gothicist, Edgar Allan Poe. With more than a little help from screenwriters like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (both veterans of the Twilight Zone writers' room, not incidentally), producer/director Corman managed to inflate Poe's exceedingly short, not-exactly-action-packed tales of mystery and imagination into crowd-pleasing features. The guy who gave the world highly enjoyable but undeniably schlocky fare like A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors suddenly displayed a true artist's eye, with his rainbow palette, brilliant use of foreground set dressing, and zeal for psychedelic dream sequences. With a stock team of iconic actors such as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, and Hazel Court, Roger Corman had found the formula for iconic, unforgettable, enduring films. 

Chris Alexander, a friend of Corman's, wrangled the director to chat about each of the eight Poe pictures for a new book called Corman/Poe: Interviews and Essays Exploring the Making of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe Films, 1960-1964. Each chapter focusing on a particular film begins with a synopsis before moving on to the interview segment and finishing with a critique. The book comes to a close with a gallery of poster and comic book art and a short appendix on the Catholic Legion of Decency's mission to bowdlerize Masque of the Red Death. Why those ding-dongs were allowed to wield such power is beyond me. 

The synopses are mostly filler since anyone who'd read this book is likely familiar with the movies, and this is no small deal since Corman/Poe is a pretty slim 125 pages without its appendix. But the interviews are terrific, as the low-key charming and humble Corman talks about working with his colorful casts, clears up some weird statements actor Mark Damon made about directing Pit and the Pendulum, explains why Barbara Steele is dubbed in that movie, and chuckles over the dynamic between Nicholson and Lorre on the set of The Raven

In his critiques, Alexander is mostly laudatory, but that's because most of these movies are really good. When there's something worth criticizing, such as the unsubtle storytelling of The Haunted Palace or the dreariness of Tomb of Ligeia, he makes strong points. Corman/Poe is also illustrated with a cavalcade of color and B&W photos, which is a must for any discussion of movies that look as great as Corman's Poes. 

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