Hessler and Price are together again (for the first time) for a Poe adaptation that actually has a little something to do with Poe, or at least as much as any AIP Poe film has to do with Poe. Poe’s short story, “The Oblong Box,” has to do with a man who witnesses the obsession of an artist friend on a ship with an oblong shipping crate. So committed is the man, seeming delirious and mad, to this box that when the ship is wrecked during a storm, he sinks to the bottom of the ocean with the box rather than abandon it. Not to spoil the surprise, but it was a coffin containing his dead wife, though no one knew of the contents lest they refuse to travel overseas with a corpse. Hessler’s film does indeed contain a coffin that is referred to as an oblong box. And there is an artist, though he himself has no coffin. Beyond that, this film has as much to do with Poe as does the average movie in which someone inherits a wily, diaper-wearing ape that solves a crime.
I’m guessing child protection agencies today would cringe at the thought of a wee sprout staying up until two or three in the morning just so he can thrill as Boris Karloff lurks in some shadows or Vincent Price bugs out his eyes at some fantastic and horrible sight. But for you Teleport City readers, such behavior should be par for the course, and I figure it’s healthier than watching realty television, where there is just as much family dysfunction but far fewer werewolves. The first AIP horror films I remember seeing were Cry of the Banshee and The Terror. I would see Cry of the Banshee pop up once every couple of years, and then when I got cable television, The Terror seemed to pop up every other night. Cry of the Banshee I first saw on a wildly enjoyable night that also boasted broadcast of the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, from back when children’s movies used to be fun and imaginative and sometimes even dark, scary, and not filled with sassy pre-teens driving go-carts and having sleepovers. instead, they had drunks dancing jigs and Sean Connery punching people in the face.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
Yes, it’s yet another review where I talk about a British movie company that isn’t Hammer wherein I mention Hammer every other word. Sorry about that, I’ll try and get it out of my system early on. Hammer Hammer Hammer. The problem is, most writing on the lower tier of British film companies in the 50s and 60s was on H*****, since they were the most successful both commercially and artistically. Other companies that made genre films, such as Amicus, have garnered critical interest by association through shared casts and crews. Part of this is because Hammer (and Amicus too on some occasions) could take a B-movie budget and create something that looked like an A-movie, um, movie. But beneath Hammer there were a whole strata of other companies that made real B-movies, the ones that were only ever destined to be second features or, with a bit of luck, entries in cheap TV anthology shows. It’s only recently that these films have gained any sort of academic and collector interest.
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
In 1960, American International Pictures – well-known for being a low-budget film production house possessed of some genuine talent – released The Fall of the House of Usher. It was something entirely new for the company: a color picture, released by itself instead of as part of a black and white double-feature package as was standard operating procedure for AIP. Director Roger Corman, one of the studio’s most valuable assets, had pushed for AIP to extend their usual shooting schedule (from ten days to fifteen!) and shoot the film in color. AIP was wary, but Corman had proven his ability to deliver profitable results for the company over and over, so after hearing his pitch, they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to his risky venture. With Corman as director, Vincent Price as the star, and Egdar Allan Poe as the source material, it seemed like it would be a decent enough success.
So this is the one that started it all, so to speak, so long as you consider “it all” to be the first cycle of films based, sometimes extremely loosely, on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and directed by low-budget legend Roger Corman. Prior to this film, Corman had made a name for himself slapping together drive-in quickies while Price had become a beloved horror film icon working with William Castle. Film production company AIP had specialized primarily in black-and-white genre pictures, made two at a time with ten-day shooting schedules. Everyone came together for this historic meeting of elements that remains, to this day, one of the best examples of American-made gothic horror films. Corman’s Poe films for American International Pictures became to the United States what Hammer films were in England: low budget, wonderfully acted, gorgeously designed horror films dripping with atmosphere and literary tradition. It was Corman’s first picture in scope, and one of AIP’s first color films to be sold as an individual movie rather than as part of a package. It also had an extended shooting schedule – a whopping fifteen days as opposed to ten.
Anyone claiming that Spirits of the Dead isn’t a good movie is probably only just saying that because Vadim’s contribution to this anthology of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations as conceived by three of Europe’s maverick directors is so sloppy and unengaging. Vadim’s contribution, “Metzengerstein,” is certainly not the way you’d want to start a film. As was par for the man, Vadim casts his current sexy main squeeze in the lead, which just happened at the time to be Jane Fonda. The duo were fresh off Barbarella, and this story was originally envisioned as a feature film follow-up to that piece of sci-fi pop art. How they could have every stretched this thing out to a full running time is beyond me, though it’s not as if Vadim wasn’t a pro at stretching out thin-to-nonexistent plots and pasting them together with eye-popping, mind blowing costume and set design. Fonda plays the Countess Metzengerstein, heir to a vast fortune she squanders by throwing lavish orgies and torturing the underlings. Actually, they’re rather dull and lifeless orgies. You know, orgies always seem like a good idea until you try and hammer out the logistics of the whole thing. As for me, I’d be too worried about people knocking stuff over. Anyway, she delights in hurling barbs over the fence at her more modest cousin, played by none other than Jane’s brother, Peter. Eventually, she becomes sexually obsessed with him — kind of, well, you know, but then this is Roger Vadim we’re talking about, and it was the sixties — until he rebuffs her advances. I mean, heck, Henry was probably already pretty steamed at the both of them for being a coupla hippies. Incest would have really set him off.
As revenge, the mad Ms. Metzengerstein burns down his stables, and he in turn dies in the fire trying to save his horses. Or so it would seem. A big black stallion bursts through the flames and gallops to safety, but there is no record of such a horse in the stable. Metzengerstein becomes convinced that the horse is the reincarnation of her beloved cousin, and her obsession with the horse crosses into madness and, frankly, borders on bestiality. Despite all the weird stuff thrown into the mix, this is a decidedly dull and uninspired way to kick off the film. The costuming, usually one of Vadim’s only strong points, is relatively without shock or beauty. Jane dons some navel-exposing Little Lord Fauntleroy type outfits, but everything else looks like it’s on loan from the local community theater. The cinematography is listless, and Vadim’s usually striking composition of scenes is non-existent. In addition, everything is shot in soft-focus “Playboy-o-vision.” The English speaking actors are dubbed into French in the currently available version, which means the only way we can judge their performances is through body language, most of which consists of them staring half-stoned at the camera.
The tone of the film is all wrong too, at least in my opinion. A tale of mystery and the bizarre, as this is meant to be, should have some sense of menace and the macabre, some sort of tension. There is none of that here, and the film instead unfolds like a languid, ethereal, and intensely boring dream. Fairy tales and Cocteau Twins songs conjure up more darkness and dread than this supposed Edgar Allen Poe tale. There are some nice crumbling castles and decaying seaside scenery, but Vadim doesn’t seem to understand how to take thematic advantage of it or relate it to the decaying morality and mental state of his central Nero/Caligula-like figure (though I must say I bet Jane Fonda’s figure is better than Nero or Caligula’s). When you fail to match even someone as hit-or-miss with similar atmosphere as, say, France’s Jean Rollin, you know you’re way off the mark. It’s like Vadim wasn’t even trying here. The hilariously silly ending was repeated in Vadim’s 1973 film Don Juan (Or if Don Juan Were a Woman), which we covered right up there at the very beginning of this journal.
Things pick up, but only just, for the second story in the trilogy. Luis Malle directs “William Wilson.” Malle is probably most infamous for flirting with child pornography when he introduced the world to Brooke Shields in his 1978 film Pretty Baby. Before that, he was a member of the French New Wave, which helped get him this gig. He’s pretty far off his game for this outing, though, turning in an entry that manages to be less ponderous and a little more tense and eerie than Vadim’s meandering hunk of nonsense, but it still just doesn’t play out the way it should, perhaps because the story itself has been done so many times and this one offers nothing new. French heartthrob Alain Delon stars as the titular Wilson, whom we meet as he stumbles into a confessional and claims to have killed a man. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the history of Wilson, who in every regard is a grade-a prick. As a young boy attending a military school where his classmate was no doubt Damien from The Omen II, he encounters a boy with the same name as he who seems dedicated to countering everything he does. He encounters this double, who even grows to look exactly like him, throughout various points in his life until, ultimately, they face one another in a fencing duel.
There’s very little to surprise here. The man fighting his doppleganger, and by killing it killing himself, is nothing new, and Malle’s approach is so straight-forward and by the books that the story, while decent for a single viewing, has nothing more to offer. Like Vadim, Malle seems to almost be phoning it in just to collect his paycheck. The primary difference is that the performers, native French speakers, are better and the story is, as I said, OK at least for the first go-round. Brigitte Bardot shows up briefly in a gambling scene. All in all, the segment isn’t bad. Direction is nice, acting is good, and it moves at a fair clip. There are also a few effective moments, chiefly the scene of a young Wilson lowering a new student into a barrel full of rats and a later scene in which Wilson, now a medical student, seeks to practice his dissection technique on a living subject. So OK, it’s not bad. It’s just not that interesting.
If you make it through the awful first story and middling second, they pay-off is Federico Fellini’s entry, the final piece in the trilogy and easily one of the most delirious, grotesque, and utterly insane forty minutes of film you’ll ever come across. Fellini was known for a lot of things, not the least of which was his fondness for the absurd. If you’re familiar with the director, and you should at least try to be, then try to imagine everything about him and his style distilled down and concentrated in one forty-minute sequence. Quite frankly, it’s almost too much, and that’s simply divine.
His story is “Toby Dammit,” based loosely on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” A wild-eyed, completely mad looking Terence Stamp stars as Dammit, a drunken, wild British film actor who seems to be hovering on the brink of a career collapse. He travels to Italy to star in a film in which Jesus is reincarnated as a pioneer in the American West, but nothing about his trip to Rome is the least bit ordinary. Fellini saturates his film in colors, and they’re all the wrong ones for what should be going on. Think of film that has been cross-processed. The world of Toby Dammit is awash in red and yellow, billowing orange clouds and dust, like driving through someone’s hallucination of the end of the world. Given the Biblical nature of the film Dammit is to be starring in, it wouldn’t surprise me if Fellini’s own inspiration for the look of the film came straight from the Book of Revelations.
Dammit’s biggest problem, besides his addiction to and disdain for fame, is that he is haunted by visions of a smiling young blonde girl (shades of Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill) who he believes to be The Devil himself. We follow Dammit onto a bizarre talk show, an even more bizarre awards show, and finally a manic, out of control car ride as he attempts to escape the increasingly bizarre and artificial landscape around him (people on the street are frozen in mid-motion, and eventually become mannequins).
The difference between the two French directors and the Italian Fellini couldn’t be more obvious. He seizes his story with gusto, indulging every bizarre notion that crosses his mind and throwing it all onto the screen with a madcap zeal totally lacking in Vadim’s entry and an absolute lack of predictability as seen in Malle’s. Nothing is the slightest bit real. It’s all highly stylized and has its grotesque alien factor cranked to the very top. Everyone is grossly overdone. Their make-up is outrageous; their movements are more the movements of stage props and puppets. Lights flash and glitter from every angle, and a non-stop of psychedelic detail and sheer lunacy require that you watch the segment several times just to catch everything that goes on in each scene.
And standing above this gaudy, gorgeous horror show, this gleeful dissection of fame and the film industry (or rather, the industries that affix themselves to the film industry) is Terence Stamp, white-faced and genuinely looking like he’s just come of a weeklong binge. He’s haggard and sweaty and pasty and looks utterly spent, while at the same time seeming completely and utterly hysterical. Although in the currently available version all his dialog has been dubbed into French, unlike the Fondas in the first segment, he gives you plenty more by which to judge his frenzied performance. He’s a whirlwind of agitated energy, and it’s one of the best performances in the career of one of England’s best actors. It’s impossible not to compare him here to Malcolm McDowell’s equally cracked performance in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange. I’m no expert on the film, but I’m willing to bet Stamp’s turn as Dammit (right down to the wild driving scene) was a major influence on both Kubrick as director and McDowell as actor. Spirits of the Dead is owned by Fellini’s segment, and Stamp owns that segment. It is sublime, and a must-see.
Where Vadim and Malle try, or we assume they try, to invoke dreamlike and Gothic horror atmospheres respectively, grounding themselves in historical settings and costumes, Fellini sets his film in a warped and twisted version of the present, a fever dream where the mood he goes for is more one of psychosis and hysteria than creeping dread (or oozing boredom, in Vadim’s case). “Toby Dammit” is as funny as it is warped. It is a celebration, in it’s own way, and by dispensing entirely with the “typical” Poe setting, Fellini seems to have achieved the only truly eerie Poe feeling in the entire anthology, though it might be Poe on one of his famous drug binges. Every scene drips with the promise of menace, albeit a completely absurd one, and his ending is as comical as it is spooky. And those images of the maniacally grinning little girl/Satan? Positively brilliant. The whole thing is an orgy of a psychotic, surreal Hell on Earth populated by annoying comedians and glittering women in gigantic false eyelashes.
So skip the first segment. Sit through Malle’s middle segment, but for the devil’s ball-bouncing sake, don’t miss Fellini’s finale. It’s the sort of lunatic filmmaking that makes you happy to be watching a movie. It’s a five-star segment trapped in an otherwise two-star film, but more than justifies the effort of getting through the film.