2017 Film Essays

Low-Budget and Lurid: Inside the Macabre Cinematic Universe of Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle

Director and producer Roger Corman is renowned for his prolific output of B-movies and exploitation flicks, which spanned the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Since then, he has mainly worked as a producer, but the impact he made behind the camera is undeniable. A close look at his oeuvre reveals many subtle gems that show just how much these smaller pictures had and continue to offer audiences. The Poe Cycle, Corman’s masterwork of campy gothic horror, perhaps best exemplifies the brilliance and staying power of his low-budget cinema. For these films, Corman adapted the stories, poems and themes of Edgar Allan Poe to the screen — sometimes faithfully, more often loosely, but always provocatively. Starting with House of Usher, he created a total of eight films, released between 1960 and 1964 by American International Pictures. When Usher proved to be a success, AIP asked for more, and Corman delivered.

For Corman, filmmaking was always a delicate balance between profitability and vision. Tight budgets made it easier for a film to recoup its costs in box office sales. Yet in the end, many of his frugal choices led to serendipity on the screen. Through his aesthetic and practical decisions as a director, Corman created his own brand of cinematic universe in the Poe films, a place of lurid color, fog-enveloped castles and labyrinthian dungeons. With a limited budget and boundless imagination, Corman masterfully evoked Poe’s themes of metaphysical angst: the creeping dread as the boundaries between life and death, sanity and psychosis, self and other begin to erode. It’s a gothic landscape where supernatural and human horrors are never far removed from one another.

Set in a bleak, mythical past, Corman’s Poe adaptations create a fertile environment to explore the darkest questions of humanity. A quote from Poe’s story “The Premature Burial” used as a postscript in Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia might as well be the epigraph for the entire cycle: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one ends, and where the other begins?” The films vary in plot and tone, but each one somehow navigates this indeterminate place between life and death.

The basic narratives of the films are as follows: In House of Usher (1960), Roderick Usher becomes convinced his sister must be buried alive to prevent the spread of the family madness. In The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), a doctor mourns his late wife and is helplessly drawn to his father’s torture chamber. The more lighthearted anthology, Tales of Terror (1962), adapts three different Poe stories dealing with rotting corpses and live entombment. The Premature Burial (1962) documents a man’s obsessive fear of being buried alive and the lengths he will go to to prevent it. Two men confront a dangerous sorcerer in the comedic The Raven (1963), which also stars Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson. In The Haunted Palace (1963), technically based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, a man becomes possessed by his ancestor, an evil warlock who cursed the town before being burned to death. A dark spirit visits a castle of revelling devil-worshippers in Masque of the Red Death (1964). Finally, in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), a woman refuses to die, and her spirit haunts her former husband and his new lover.

It’s impossible to write about the Poe Cycle without mentioning the ubiquitous presence of actor Vincent Price, who helms nearly all of the films. (He did not appear in The Premature Burial due to a contract issue.) Price pivots easily from diabolically wicked to tormented and vulnerable, from levity to despair. His characters throughout the cycle are tragic, conflicted figures. They are possessed by madness and by spirits from the past. With his aristocratic looks, cocked eyebrow and pursed lips, Price is a denizen of dark corners and long hallways, haunting these grotesque interiors even as they torment him in return.

Corman understood the settings to be a key psychological element of the films, which revel in gothic environments dominated by dim rooms. Even in external scenes, it feels as though the darkness is closing in. Of Usher’s production, Corman noted in his autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, “I told my cast and crew: I never wanted to see ‘reality’ in any of these scenes… I shot the exteriors of the house on a soundstage and it, indeed, looked unreal, just a little bit off.”

This uncanny visual quality carries through the series of films, in particular with the help of elaborate sets designed by Art Director Dan Haller, Corman’s frequent collaborator. The unsettling environment — replete with shadowy palaces, fog-enveloped woods, and corridors lined with ornate candelabras — straddles the familiar and the alien. These images are all hallmarks of the gothic, but Corman does little to mask the artificiality of the sets. The wooded exteriors appear to be cut out of cardboard, and castles look as though they could be painted on canvas. Interiors simultaneously appear ancient and barely lived in, quickly constructed set pieces. Colors are a bit too saturated.

In this artificial environment, characters are adrift, able to explore the porous divisions between this world and the next. Consequently, the living and the dead cross paths in odd places. Living humans are enclosed in walls while corpses repose in bedrooms. The living become trapped in tombs, wrongfully imprisoned on the opposite side of this tenuous boundary.

Throughout the cycle, people are intimately connected to settings like houses and castles, haunted by their abject histories. There is often something terribly amiss in these homes, where secret passageways give way to dungeons and clandestine chambers. People who are unlucky enough to reside within these spaces absorb their evil histories. In Masque of the Red Death, Prospero’s castle, sealed off to victims of a plague sweeping the country, becomes his final resting place when death comes, unannounced. In The Haunted Palace, Charles Dexter Ward becomes possessed by his ancestor after moving into his old home.

In House of Usher, Roderick tells his visitor, Winthrop, about his great sensitivity to sound in the house, as though each creak of the foundations reverberates through him, down to the rats in the walls. “This house is centuries old,” he says. “It was brought here from England, and with it every evil rooted in its stones.” As Roderick’s psychosis grows, odd occurrences in the house increase. Soon enough, he and the house perish together.

The Pit and the Pendulum’s Nicolas Medina is driven mad by the evil history of his father’s castle, a place where he saw his mother tortured to death by the grotesque instruments in the dungeon. He describes how his deceased wife could not help “absorbing the miasmas of barbarity” in the house. As it soon becomes clear, he is the one truly affected by the place’s dark past. After attempting to use the titular device on his brother in law, he falls into the pit and dies.

In these and other examples, dwellings become tombs for their residents when the walls come crumbling down around them — in many cases, consumed by fire. If such sequences seems uncannily familiar as they reappear throughout the cycle, it’s because they are. As Corman was shooting House of Usher, he learned of a barn nearby that was set to be demolished. He offered the owners a small sum if they would burn the building instead and let him film it. They agreed, and Corman got the shots he needed. For the purposes of thrift, this hard-won footage made its way into Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligeia and The Raven, among others.

Corman noted in his biography that, in reusing the sequences, it never dawned on him that viewers might someday be able to watch all of the films back to back through home video rentals, and later through streaming services. In our present moment, noting the repeated collapse of a wooden structure engulfed in flames is a charming idiosyncrasy for those in the know, but there is something ominous about it as well. The footage returns time and time again, like a recurring nightmare, a burning edifice suddenly falling, over and over, trapping viewers at that nightmare moment when house becomes tomb.

Each of these eight films is unique and filled with lush details, great performances, and distinctive atmospheres. To watch Roger Corman’s Poe movies is to visit a mythic dreamscape where the boundaries between life and death are permeable. But there remains a haunted place between these stages. Like Poe’s stories, which have unending resonance, the dark world of Corman’s Poe Cycle continues to provoke dread and unease in a world where life and death can never truly be reconciled. And inescapably, each generation must discover this truth anew.

Kate Blair (@Selective_Kate) enjoys writing about all things film. Her previous work can be seen at Film Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Bitch Flicks, among others. She currently resides in Chicago with her wife, cat and dog.