In honor of Roger Corman’s 94th birthday, we’re counting down the films of his famous Poe cycle — 8 features inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Roger Corman is one of the most prolific filmmakers of genre cinema. Known as the “King of B Movies,” his career spans over sixty years and is full of independent films that cover everything from horror to westerns and exploitation to creature features.
Corman was one of the key players in the formation of American International Pictures in 1955. Founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, AIP’s focus was on low-budget black and white films that were marketed toward teenagers and packaged as double features. Corman got his start with AIP and directed some of the company’s most popular films.
Perhaps Corman’s best work with American International — his best work period, if you ask me — is the “Poe cycle,” eight horror films he directed in the early 1960s loosely inspired by stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe. With these films, Corman perfected his iconic Gothic aesthetic and gave Vincent Price, who starred in all but one of the films, some of the best roles of his career.
In honor of Corman’s 94th birthday, I’m counting down the eight films of the Poe cycle. I wouldn’t say this is a “worst” to “best” list, because that implies that some of these films are “bad” and I’d have to disagree. Some are certainly better than others. The formula that recurs throughout many of the films works better for some than for others, but they are each enjoyable on their own merits.
So instead of a “worst” to “best” ranking, I consider these films to be ranked from “good” to “better” to “best.” And if you’re thinking of watching the entire series (which you absolutely should), consider this my recommended viewing order.
8. The Haunted Palace (1963)
I said none of these films are “bad” and I stand by that, but The Haunted Palace sure is messy. The plot isn’t actually based on Poe at all, but on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; the title was taken from a Poe poem in order to fit it into the series.
Vincent Price plays Joseph Curwen, a warlock who was burned at the stake, and his descendant, Charles Dexter Ward, who comes to claim his inheritance and ends up becoming possessed by Curwen. The Lovecraftian mythos are present — the Elder Gods are name-dropped, the Necronomicon makes an appearance — but they are underexplored. Once revived, Curwen is less concerned with the Elder Gods and more interested in resurrecting his old girlfriend and getting revenge on the descendants of the villagers who burned him alive.
Featuring familiar faces like Lon Chaney Jr. and Elisha Cook Jr. (who joined Vincent Price a few years earlier for a party at the House on Haunted Hill), The Haunted Palace tries to do everything right but somehow manages to miss the mark. It’s entertaining — it’s good — but it’s not up to par.
7. The Premature Burial (1962)
If I’m being honest, The Premature Burial’s biggest fault is that it doesn’t have Vincent Price. Ray Milland (Grace Kelly’s conspiring husband in Dial M for Murder) is a less compelling leading man; he doesn’t have the same intensity as Price, taking a subtler approach to his character’s descent into madness.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, who is consumed by his phobia of being buried alive. Corman regular Hazel Court plays his wife Emily, and if you’ve ever seen Court in a horror movie, you know she’s up to no good. Still, she lights up the screen in each scene, carrying the film with a presence stronger than any of the other players.
If I had to guess, I’d say at least 80% of this film’s budget went to fog machines. There’s a truly distracting amount of fog, but it’s really lovely and adds a lot of ambience to the film. Milland and Court spend a lot of time wandering around a foggy cemetery talking about being buried alive. That’s pretty much the whole movie, and I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse by saying that it would have been better with Vincent Price — but it really would have. (Fun fact: one of Corman’s protégés, Francis Ford Coppola, acted as assistant director for this film.)
6. The Raven (1963)
After toying with comedy in his previous installment to the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, Corman decided to dive in head first with The Raven, a farce that allows both Corman and Price to truly make fun of themselves.
Price plays a mild-mannered wizard who gets dragged into a rivalry between Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. This trio would reunite a year later in Jacques Tourneur’s Comedy of Terrors, also produced by American International. Price and Lorre make a fabulous comedic duo, and their banter (sometimes improvised) is the centerpiece of The Raven. Alongside these heavyweights, Hazel Court returns as the not-so-“lost” Lenore, and a very young Jack Nicholson appears as Lorre’s long-suffering son. (Like Coppola, Nicholson is one of many future stars to cut their teeth under Corman’s tutelage; he also starred in The Terror and Little Shop of Horrors).
The film culminates in a flashy duel, full of special effects and physical stunts that were often uncomfortable for the aging Karloff. Despite this, everyone seems to be having a grand old time. The Raven is a ridiculous delight that shows that, in spite of the dark subject matter that most of these films deal with, Corman has never taken himself too seriously.
5. The Tomb of Ligeia
Originally, both Corman and writer Robert Towne didn’t want Vincent Price as the lead in The Tomb of Ligeia. They pictured someone younger, someone with a less sinister reputation preceding him. As Towne put it, they wanted someone the audience wouldn’t actually expect to be a necrophiliac: “I love Vincent. He’s very sweet. But… you just feel that necrophilia might be one of his Basic Things.”
While that’s a very valid point, nobody does broody Gothic anti-hero like Price and the film is certainly better for his presence (see: The Premature Burial). He plays Verden Fell, a widower haunted by his late wife, Ligeia, who may have cheated death by sheer force of will alone. When Verden remarries, Ligeia’s presence grows stronger.
The Tomb of Ligeia was the last and least successful of the Poe films. Corman suggested that the series was simply “running out of steam,” but Ligeia ends the cycle on a high note. The film expands on Poe’s recurring themes of mesmerism and necrophilia, and builds a solid tension that eventually spirals out of control. It’s also visually stunning; many scenes were filmed on location in the remains of a medieval abbey in Norfolk, which enhances Corman’s patented Gothic aesthetic.
4. Tales of Terror (1962)
For this film, Corman decided to spice things up a bit with a completely different format. Tales of Terror is an anthology that includes three short films: Morella, The Black Cat, and The Case of M. Valdemar. The three segments are tied neatly together by a narration of Vincent Price talking about (what else) death, but each one is individually strong and carries its own unique narrative.
Morella is essentially a condensed version of The Tomb of Ligeia, with a daughter instead of a new wife. The Black Cat is a combination of the title story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” all rolled into one; it’s Corman’s first foray into horror-comedy and the first comedic combination of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
The final tale, The Case of M. Valdemar, features what is probably the most frightening moment of any of these films. Though physically dead, Valdemar’s (Price) consciousness lives on, and he soon rises to attack the nefarious hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) who trapped his spirit in limbo. I’m a little biased towards Tales of Terror because this scene caused me many a childhood nightmare, but it is truly one of the best climaxes of any of Corman’s films — and, admittedly, one of my favorite climaxes of any horror film.
3. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The Masque of the Red Death probably features the richest color palette of Corman’s entire catalogue, but don’t let that fool you — thematically, this film is easily the darkest of the entire Poe series.
Vincent Price plays the most sadistic and irredeemable character of his career (secondly only to Witchfinder General’s Matthew Hopkins — maybe), Prince Prospero, a Satanist who gathers all the nobility of the realm to his castle to drown themselves in decadence while the villages outside succumb to plague. The film is theatrical, but I’d hesitate to call it campy; there’s very little humor to be found. And while you can tell that Price delights in his sinister role, he’s playing it straight.
American International co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff called The Masque of the Red Death “too arty farty,” claiming that it was less successful than its predecessors because it wasn’t scary enough. While Corman was certainly exploring a more “artsy” style, Masque is a remarkable film. It’s bleak and truly disturbing, and the “masque” itself is one of the greatest scenes in horror history.
2. House of Usher (1960)
Dubbed upon release as American International’s “most ambitious film to date,” House of Usher laid the foundation that the Poe cycle would be built on. Corman convinced the studio to give him a bigger budget so he could shoot in color and create the lavish sets that would become a staple of his films. It paid off: the film was a hit, and both the studio and the audiences wanted more.
Roderick and Madeline Usher live (if you can call it living) in their crumbling ancestral home. When Madeline’s fiancé comes to bring her home, he discovers that the Usher family history is very much alive and threatening to destroy Madeline and Roderick. All of the signature themes that Corman would carry with him through the rest of Poe films originated here: the psychedelic dream sequences, the ever-present fear of being buried alive, the fucked up family dynamics. He may not have known it at the time, but he had truly struck gold.
House of Usher was also Corman’s first time working Vincent Price, an experience that he enjoyed so much that the lead roles of the subsequent films were written specifically for Price (with the notable exception of The Premature Burial, which Corman originally started filming for a different production company before it was purchased by AIP).
1. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
This is it, the pièce de résistance. Everything about this film is immaculate: the sets, the costumes, the climax, Vincent Price’s performance. It’s also the only time anyone had the good sense to cast Price alongside Barbara Steele, the queen of Italian horror, hot off her breakthrough role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Granted, Corman’s decision to use another actress to dub Steele’s lines because he felt her accent didn’t “blend” well was a terrible one, but that’s literally my only quarrel with this film.
Price plays Nicholas Medina, a man haunted by the death of his wife, Elizabeth (Steele), and his own cursed lineage as the son of one of the Spanish Inquisition’s most notorious masters of torture. As the layers are slowly peeled away to reveal what really happened to Elizabeth, Nicholas becomes more and more unhinged until he finally snaps — and leads us all to the pit.
There are so many memorable scenes in The Pit and the Pendulum that I don’t have room to talk about them all. Corman pulled out all the stops for his sophomore entry to the Poe cycle, more than living up to the success of House of Usher. Pit sparked a bit of a Gothic revival, particularly in Italy; films like Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood and The Long Hair of Death (which both star Barbara Steele) were influenced by Corman’s film.
The Pit and the Pendulum is Corman’s best work — that’s a subjective statement, sure, but one I’m willing to fight over. It’s his Citizen Kane. It’s the closest he ever came to making a perfect film.