1963 - dir. Roger CormanA personal favorite and Halloween perennial. The early stretch of the film, at Price's castle might give you the impression the colors here are still a rusty brown as in past editions, but once the gang (including Jack Nicholson as Peter Lorre's son, Rexford) venture out to Boris Karloff's castle in search of the lost Lenore (Hazel Court), the HD transfer begins to shimmer and glow in a new hauntingly lovely greenish gold reflective light, creating a great sense of inward depth of the vast castle. As we learn in the extras, Corman kept all the sets from past Poe films and would just add them onto the next, and by the time of The Raven he'd assembled a vast sprawling Gothic maze, which gets full glorious use here. The Les Baxter score at times errs on the side of the smugness, but this is pure uncut Halloween delight, so might as well bring the kiddos.
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA
1964 - Dir Roger Corman
***1/2Definitely one of the better and more unnerving (and last) in the cycle thanks largely to a ripping script by Robert Towne, who captures the horrified eloquence of Poe, which Price then rolls through like a velvet serpent, waxing about how he wishes his head could be wrest open as easily as the cabbage thrown at Ligeia's trickster spirit animal cat. "What else is madness but belief that inwards does not exist?" No offense to Richard Matheson's earlier scripts, but Poe never had it so good. Matheson's adaptations were solid, but tended towards repetitive arguments between someone wanting the truth and Price withholding it. Towne lets the rich existential poetry flow freely, trusting the audience to get the metaphors, which is good, because it offsets the things that don't work, like the shock of seeing Price outdoors and sans mustache. Maybe it's me. I find his naked upper lip upsetting and exterior shots, dreary. Poe should never see daylight--especially not England's, but Corman wanted to switch up his game, find some real castle ruins to shoot in, and also to have Price play it complete straight, as a lover, but he comes off as hostile and aloof rather than the desired Byronic and enigmatic; we can't fathom why the piercingly self-confident English Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) would want to marry such a sullen, naked-lipped poseur.
The image on the Blu-ray isn't as resonantly color-touched as I was hoping either -- it still looks pale and thrift shop-pish around the gills--which I blame more on the 'realistic' settings rather than the digital color restorers, though when color does come in, it's stunning. And in a way, the ghost of Ligeia is a great metaphor for drug addiction and alcoholism, so the dourness works. I relate to the whole 'having a will beyond death' with Lady Whiskey as my Ligeia, feeling her call every time you walk past a liquor store window display, especially if I'm hungry, angry, lonely, or tired--and Price seems all four. And between the crazy cat attacks and Price's sleepwalking, it's deliberately open ended whether Price is just insane or there really is a spirit of a willful real life woman floating around, possessing him, the cat, and her own corpse. Kudos to Price, Corman, and Towne for getting us to the point where we understand there is no difference, that reality is subjective. The tree falls in the woods, but we hear it like a tolling bell.
COMEDY OF TERRORS
1963 - Dir Jacques Tourneur
***This film used to give me a massive headache, the forced comic bounciness of Ronald Stein-wannabe score, the unnerving sight of three of my favorite stars decaying into elderly humans; And I found Price's character awful, especially in his abusive relationship to his hot buxom terrible singer wife (Joyce Jameson). Luckily the Blu-ray makes every image gorgeous, the deep red throb and creep darker than that Stygian shore, so now Price's evil funeral director seems to have more of a right to be luxuriating in his own evil, and Lorre looks like he's been partying too hard, but his drunken leering affection for the buxom Jameson is touching, and Price is, after all, killing to support them, even if he regularly tries to poison his father-in-law (Boris Karloff). Sure it's not The Raven, or even Spider Baby, but it's better than The Trouble with Harry or Arsenic and Old Lace. But Price and Lorre make a great team, somewhere between Burke and Hare and Abbot and Costello, and better than both put together, even if Les Baxter's score can still give me a pain in the Gulliver.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
1959 - Dir William Castle
***A perennial public domain favorite, the HD here creates a dark rich sense of inner space, which Castle's spare sets don't necessarily require or benefit from. It almost works better on a blurry VHS so you could imagine there was more than was meeting the eye. That said, it's the perfect Halloween party all-ages show and Price is on full throttle, carrying the whole show as far as ghoulishness, and the deep shadows now go wayy back. All that's missing is the skeleton on the string!
LAST MAN ON EARTH
1963 - Dir Ubaldo B. Ragona
**1/2The widescreen photography is gorgeous, the script intelligent and faithful to Richard Matheson's novel; and it's interesting seeing the connection (admitted by Romero) to the first NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with the hands coming through the boarded windows, the underground verite surrealism of shambling black and white bodies in the glare of headlights, though Romero wisely got rid of their monotone echo-drenched drunken slur, "Vargas, come out, Vargas..." (one guy even looks like the mangy Italian cousin of the very first zombie we see in NOTLD- the one who palms Barbara's car backwards down the hill.) But personally, I find a lot of this dispiriting, much of it is just pantomime to a Price voiceover; it's just isn't the same as seeing his lips move along with his voice; Price seems to feel it, too. The weight of the world seems on him, and while he never loses our sympathy, the flashback-heavy structure seems alternately rushed and tedious. The Blu-ray quality is outstanding though, and you can see some of the same retro-futuristic architecture that was alienating Monica Vitti in Antonioni movies around the same time. Imagine what a pairing that would be!
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN
1972 - Dir Robert Quarry
**Like some weird gay horror burlesque, the Blu-ray quality of this titles is perhaps the most stunning of the lot, with eerie array of purple and pink a-glowing in a 3-D depth of space. The problem is that this that this lovely clarity reveals a very cheap clapboard TV-show-style sets that were made with the not unreasonable assumption most people would be seeing this on TV or at a drive-in or at any rate nowhere near as pristine clearly and in perfect anamorphic beauty as this. We were never meant to see so much grain and flaking on Price's whiteface make-up and powdery Beatle wig; he seems like some sad gay diva wafting through a later Fellini movie. I don't mind the near total absence of exteriors or connecting or establishing shots, but this is almost like a play --even when the whole shebang allegedly moves onto a yacht or then onto the deserts of Egypt, there's never any doubt they're on sets, which I love, usually, and I like the giant stone feet, but with the Blu-ray clarity you can practically see the stress creases on the sky backdrop. That said, composition and blocking are sublime, like Kubrick on too many poppers at a gay ball in 60s London. It would be great with the sound off at a party, or projected behind my old acid rock band if we played Abba covers and had a bubble machine. As a narrative, though, it's infuriating. Phibes and his Vulnavia's self-congratulatory champagne toasting and dancing seems the height of self-aware camp, which, like so many lesser British horror movies, means it's not buying its own fantastical premise. And don't believe Peter Cushing has anything more than the teensiest cameo as a yacht captain, as if he's there just so they could add his name to the marquee.
One thing I never understood about the Dr. Phibes films is why they waste Price's beautiful voice with pre-recorded monologues that seem like something Criswell would read for an Ed Wood movie, a cheap way to patch up loose ends and never have to sync sound, so Vulnavia (Vali Kemp) and Price can just waft around the sets in mock solemnity, pantomiming to his pre-recorded monologue like he's interpretive dancing at a beatnik poetry reading.
RETURN OF THE FLY
1959 - Dir Edward Bernds
Released in 1959, capitalizing on its predecessor’s runaway success. Price reprises his role from the original, and finally gets to catch a human headed fly and undo the damage wrought by the teleportation chamber, but otherwise he has little to sink his teeth into and the whole middle stretch involves Phillipe (just a boy in the first film) tracking and killing the pair of industrial spies who've made off with his patents after purposely giving him a giant bulbous fly head. As monster on a vengeance trail films go, it's okay, but goddamn it's familiar, an old saw that kept Karloff in mad scientist smocks and gangster burial clothes all through the lean 40s, and when Price restores Phillipe to his former peevish self, we're left with the odd feeling that he's going to get off scot free for his two murders. Must be nice to be so damn rich...