In 1960, Roger Corman began an experiment that has never been replicated in quite the same way. By then, Corman already had a reputation as a director and producer of routinely profitable B-movie drive-in fare, like Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Wasp Woman, and many others. However, when the executives at American International Pictures—who had financed many of Corman’s previous successes—approached him to make yet another low-budget, black-and-white horror movie, he had another idea.
Corman wanted to try something more ambitious than the films he had done for AIP in the past, something that could compete with the Technicolor gothics that were coming out of Europe at the time. He even knew what story he wanted to adapt: Edgar Allan Poe’s classic “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It had the budget-friendly added benefit of already being in the public domain.
The AIP execs were not immediately sold on the idea, however. Samuel Z. Arkoff famously asked, “Where’s the monster?” Fortunately, Corman was an old hand at not only making movies, but selling them. He had a ready-made answer to Arkoff’s question: The house was the monster.
“The house lives!” star Vincent Price would be compelled to intone. “The house breathes!”
According to a behind-the-scenes anecdote, Price didn’t like the lines, and complained to Corman, “This doesn’t make sense. Why do I have to say this?” Once again, Corman already had his reply: “That’s the line that allows us to make the movie.”
The box office success of Roger Corman’s House of Usher
In this case, Corman’s instincts were right. House of Usher cost AIP a sum of around $270,000—a princely budget, compared to many of their black-and-white drive-in pictures—and pulled in star Vincent Price and screenwriter Richard Matheson. It was filmed on a tight 15-day shooting schedule and returned a massive commercial and critical success for AIP, raking in some $2 million when it was released in June of 1960. AIP knew when they had a good thing on their hands, and they demanded more of the same.
“When the first film was a hit, they still didn’t consider a Poe series,” Matheson later recalled. “They just wanted another movie with a Poe title affixed to it. When that made even more money than the first, they said, ‘Hey, let’s try one more.’ It went on like that for years.”
Roger Corman’s “Poe Cycle”
Between 1960 and 1964, Corman would direct eight films in what became known as his Poe Cycle—although one of them wasn’t actually adapted from a Poe story, bearing only a title in common. Even after Corman went on to other projects, AIP continued attempts to return to the well, with films like War-Gods of the Deep (also know as City in the Sea, from Poe’s poem), Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm), and The Oblong Box. Most of these borrowed title alone, sometimes incorporating a snippet of Poe’s poetry in voiceover at the beginning or end of the picture.
Of course, the eight films that make up the proper Poe Cycle aren’t always a whole lot more faithful to the source material. With screenplays by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell, and Robert Towne, Corman made each film different from the last, rather than reproducing the exact same formula time and again. Thus, Tales of Terror is an anthology film, while The Raven is outright comedy, and The Haunted Palace is the only one of the original eight Poe Cycle films not to be based on one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories at all. It is, instead, the first cinematic adaptation of the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
Besides making plenty of money for AIP, Corman, and company, these Poe films left an indelible impression on popular culture—one that can be seen in everything from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 classic Targets to John Langan’s short story “Technicolor.” Most recently, Headpress and author Chris Alexander have put together Corman/Poe, a collection of essays and interviews exploring both the making of and the impact of Corman’s Poe Cycle.
The House of Usher (1960)
The first film in what became Corman’s Poe Cycle, House of Usher established all the elements that would define this series of films: lush Technicolor photography, a screenplay by Richard Matheson, a starring turn from Vincent Price, and unforgettable (yet budget-friendly) set designs by Daniel Haller, who would go on to direct several adjacent films, including Die, Monster, Die! (the second H. P. Lovecraft adaptation) and The Dunwich Horror. House of Usher was a hit for Corman and AIP, guaranteeing a follow-up and ushering in the era of Technicolor Poe films.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The first follow-up to House of Usher came just a year later, re-teaming many of the same people behind the scenes, including screenwriter Richard Matheson and production designer Daniel Haller. This time, Price got a particularly meaty role, in which he was able to play both good guy and bad guy in one. He also got to star opposite the legendary Barbara Steele. While Pit and the Pendulum is neither the first nor the most ambitious of the Poe films, it is this writer’s personal favorite, perhaps in part because it was the first one I saw.
Tales of Terror (1962)
By 1962, films in Corman’s Poe Cycle would begin hitting screens at a rate of two per year. The first of these was also the first time that Corman really chose to mix up the formula that had made the previous films a success. Instead of adapting a single Poe story (however loosely), Tales of Terror is an anthology film featuring three different tales, one of which is a comedy and teams Price with Peter Lorre. This segment, titled “The Black Cat,” also does something that several other films in the cycle come to do—it jams together elements from more than one Poe story, in this case bringing in aspects of “The Cask of Amontillado.”
The Premature Burial (1962)
The other Poe film of 1962 bears the distinction of being the only film in Corman’s Poe Cycle to not star Vincent Price. The reason for this has to do with backroom dealings, as Corman was attempting to shoot this fourth Poe film as an independent feature, without AIP, who had Price under an exclusive contract. Ultimately, the attempt didn’t work out, and Premature Burial was released by AIP after all. However, the role that Price would normally have played still went to Ray Milland, instead.
This is also the first of the Poe Cycle films to not feature a screenplay by Richard Matheson. In his place are Charles Beaumont, perhaps best known for his classic Twilight Zone episodes, and Ray Russell, author of the story that Stephen King called “perhaps the finest example of the modern gothic ever written.”
The Raven (1963)
The comedic “Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror is what prompted Corman to try his hand at a full-length comedy for his next Edgar Allan Poe film. The Raven re-teams Price and Lorre, and adds in even more horror royalty in the form of Boris Karloff, all playing a trio of rival sorcerers. The three would go on to work together again in another macabre comedic outing from AIP, The Comedy of Terrors, directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by Richard Matheson, and released later the same year as The Raven.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
By the sixth film in the Poe Cycle, Corman was eager to try something different, but AIP didn’t want to mess with a formula that was working. The result is The Haunted Palace, an outlier in the series that has the distinction of being the first cinematic adaptation of famed weird fiction scribe H. P. Lovecraft. Rather than any of Poe’s stories, the film adapts Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward to the screen, with Price playing both Ward and his malevolent ancestor Joseph Curwen. The screenplay is once again by Beaumont, and the only nods to Poe that are included are a few lines from the poem from which the film borrows its title (at AIP’s insistence), read by Price in voiceover.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Arguably the most ambitious of all the Poe Cycle films—and often the best-regarded—The Masque of the Red Death was very nearly the second film in the series. Corman considered this story and “The Fall of the House of Usher” to be the two best that Poe ever wrote, but his hopes of making Masque after Usher didn’t come to fruition right away. This was in part because Corman was concerned that people would say he was “stealing from Bergman,” due to similarities between The Masque of the Red Death and Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal, which had been released in 1957. When Red Death finally did go in front of cameras, it was with a screenplay by Charles Beaumont and TV writer Robert Wright Campbell, which also borrowed heavily from other stories, including Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and a tale by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, author of the Contes Cruels.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
The final Poe film that Corman directed is also the only one in the cycle with a screenplay from future Oscar-winner Robert Towne (Chinatown). Towne saw the film’s lead as “an almost unnaturally handsome guy,” and opposed the casting of Price, who was, by then, already 53 years old. However, Price’s casting was a requirement for AIP, and so Tomb of Ligeia closes out a series in which Price has played the lead in all but one installment. While AIP continued to tack Poe titles onto movies with Price in lead roles for a few more years, however, Roger Corman’s Poe cycle drew to a close with this film, which he himself says is one of the best, even though it made less money than those that had come before.