Oh, the years of enjoyment I wasted not realizing how good a movie Tales of Terror (1962) really is! I have a love/hate relationship with horror comedies and had always pushed it to the bottom of my watch list (as well as 1963's The Comedy of Terrors), because I just didn't think I'd like it, even though I'm a huge Vincent Price fan. I should have known better and consider this one of the biggest oversights in my movie-watching career. The ironic thing is, my favorite of the three stories in Tales of Terror is the one that's the most humorous.
It's the second one, The Black Cat, in which Price shines as brightly as I've ever seen, demonstrating a real flair for comedy. He plays Fortunato Luchresi, an expert wine taster who accepts the challenge of amateur sommelier, but perhaps professional alcoholic, Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre), at a wine merchant's convention in the local tavern. The expressions Price makes while contorting his face during tasting are hilarious. Lorre responds in kind with some great one-liners. When Price criticizes Lorre's technique, Lorre slurs, "You do it your way… I'll do it mine."
The two characters subsequently begin spending time together, but when Luchresi meets Herringbone's wife, Annabelle (Joyce Jameson), friendship turns to jealousy, especially when Luchresi and Annabelle embark on an affair. The Edgar Allan Poe source material ("The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado") moves to the forefront when Herringbone entombs them behind a brick wall. Although the subject matter becomes darker, the dialogue continues to be humorous. When Luchresi notices Annabelle's dead body hanging beside him, he says, "You killed her!" Herringbone responds, "You notice everything, don't you?"
My only complaint about the segment is the 1960s-style used for some of the cinematography. Director Roger Corman, and/or cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and/or editor Anthony Carras overuse a technique whereby the frame freezes, then the camera zooms in or out. Likewise, the picture is distorted to represent when Herringbone is drunk or is dreaming. I'll balance my criticism of those filmmakers by praising screenwriter Richard Matheson. I have no doubt the dialogue comes from his script and with any other writer, it may not have been as sharp.
When I said Tales of Terror is a good movie, it's largely because of this second segment. The first, Morella, is not nearly as memorable. Locke (Price) lives alone in a dilapidated mansion, distraught for years over the death of his wife, Morella (Leona Gage), for which he blames his daughter, Lenora (Maggie Pierce). When she arrives to take care of him and discovers her mother's decaying body in bed, Morella rises from the dead to exact her revenge. It all ends with the familiar Corman/Poe conflagration first used in House of Usher.
I enjoyed the final segment, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, more than the first, but less than the second. In it, Ernest Valdemar (Price) lies dying in bed and hires a hypnotist, Carmichael (Basil Rathbone), to help ease the pain. Carmichael is a real piece of work, though, keeping Valdemar alive while his body literally rots. It's all very ugly, but Deborah Paget is absolutely beautiful as Helene, Valdemar's wife, whom, of course, Carmichael wants to have for himself. Price supposedly endured some painful makeup effects for the finale, but his dedication results in a terrific climax, for both this segment and the entire movie.
Unlike some anthologies, there's no wraparound story in Tales of Terror. However, it does provide a consistent theme that's maintained by a line at the beginning of each segment: death. Before Morella, "This is the beat of a human heart. What happens at the point of death? What happens after?" Before The Black Cat, "What happens just before death?" And before The Case of M. Valdemar, "What exactly occurs at the moment of death?" I hope my death doesn't arrive the way it does any of the three times for Vincent Price, but I'm perfectly entertained watching it arrive for him.
Written by Richard Matheson
Based on the stories by Edgar Allan Poe
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Maggie Pierce, Leona Gage, Joyce Jameson, Debra Paget
Released July 4, 1962 (New York City)
RT 89 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber (Blu-ray)