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Corman’s Poe and Male Hysteria in 60s Horror: A Revaluation




By Christopher Sharrett.

This is an attempt at a brief revaluation of Roger Corman’s cycle of adaptations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, which strike me as among the most significant contributions to the psychological turn of the horror film, equaling in intelligence and ambition, if not realized achievement, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960)—it seems to me not incidental that shortly after its release, Corman’s House of Usher (1960) was featured on twin bills with Psycho, so concerned are the two films with the roots of psychopathology in the repression imposed by the family. While there is no shortage of material on Corman, much of it has appeared in fanzines, coffee table books, or widely-scattered articles. The only scholarly monograph on Corman was published by the Edinburgh Film Festival almost 40 years ago.[1] More recently, Rick Worland has analyzed Corman’s Poe films within the context of “drive-in culture,” focusing mainly on The Pit and the Pendulum.[2] It is my purpose to reexamine Corman’s use of psychology in the Poe films by commenting briefly on several of them, chiefly House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and Premature Burial (1961), using a version of Freud foregrounding radical feminist theory[3] and the Freudian Left (by this I mean primarily the young Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse).

The tendency to see Corman chiefly as the “king of the B’s,” an on-the-cheap producer of poverty row sci-fi quickies, is one longstanding and very blinkered rationale not to evaluate Corman seriously. The assumption here is that the rest of Hollywood is somehow not as mercilessly involved in commerce, or that Corman’s mastery of quickly-made productions precludes taking him seriously. The reasons why we should indeed take him seriously seem to me to be manifest.

The Tomb of Ligeia

Corman’s work shows a sophisticated erudition. In his earlier career at least, he was a devout Freudian, if of a rather vulgar sort (tending to associate tunnels with the female genitals, etc.). It isn’t ironic that in the scant scholarly work on Corman’s Poe films, Marie Bonaparte, that most vulgar of vulgar Freudian scholars of Poe, is marshaled insistently.[4] While the vulgar use of Freud is noticeable, there is a well-conceived aesthetic to Corman’s Poe films that makes supple use of Freud; Corman spoke of these films (up to Tomb of Ligeia [1964]) as emphasizing artifice so as to suggest an “interior” world, that of the unconscious mind. The garish color, matte paintings, and florid directorial style emphasize each film’s departure from conventional representational practices. More crucially, the films are insistently concerned with the failure of male authority and the normative heterosexual relationship; these failures ignite crises in the protagonist. The Corman Poe films are especially insistent in their exploration of the male psyche as it becomes disempowered and threatened. Nearly all of the Poe films feature a male protagonist, played by Vincent Price with one exception (Ray Milland in Premature Burial), who is a hypersensitive aesthete with a “morbid acuteness of the senses” (a phrase from House of Usher) who lives in isolated, often degraded circumstances (a decaying mansion, castle, or abbey, structures which also suggest the decay of aristocracy). This asocial figure is focused almost entirely on controlling the female, a wife or sibling, who may actually be dead but whose ongoing influence over his life obsesses him.

As portrayed by Price, the male patriarchal characters have distinct feminine qualities. One could say the characters are coded as gay, especially given Price’s well-known posturing and over-the-top performances. He has long been referred to as among those closeted Hollywood actors constituting either a caricature of gay sexuality or, more positively, a form of resistance to normative heterosexuality. The latter helps provide the best way of understanding the lead males in the Poe films. They embody forms of hysteria as alternative sexuality is strangled by patriarchy. Price’s performances emphasize not so much a “swishing” manner (and certainly not the mincing Evil Faggot of so many Hollywood films) but rage and aggression against normative culture, a rebellion that is always misdirected in its attempt to stop repression.

House on Haunted Hill

It is notable that Price preceded his work in the Corman films with performances in two films by William Castle, House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). Both of these films are about the horrors of marriage. In House on Haunted Hill, smarmy playboy Frederick Loren (Price) is tormented by his “tramp” wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). Loren holds a “haunted house party” suggested to him by his wife. It seems, based on his sinister remarks at the outset, that Loren wants to kill the wife, but then the wife tries to kill her husband during the party. As the film concludes, Frederick has indeed staged the affair as a backdrop for his revenge murder of his wife, a murder that the film wants to excuse, based on Frederick’s argument that he was acting in self-defense. In The Tingler, Price is Dr. Chapin, a local coroner whose oddball experiments to discover the “source of fear” become a dramatic conceit, a backdrop for the film’s exploration of the awfulness of marriage. Chapin married his “loose” wife for her money, and would be happy to see her dead (in one scene he threatens to kill her, then fires a blank cartridge at her, making her scream and faint, all for his “experiments”). Later, the wife actually tries to kill Chapin with his own discovery, the phallic-fecal Tingler. Chapin also becomes involved in the disastrous marriage of Ollie, a local theater owner, whose deaf-mute wife is obsessed with money. Ollie’s attempt to kill her seems inspired (and aided?—the issue is unclear) by Chapin. Like the best melodramas of the era, The Tingler is preoccupied with postwar suburbia and the sexual and financial struggles of the families within. The Tingler, since it is a horror film, can go a step further than the melodrama by suggesting that couples are fixated on murder. As important, the couples of The Tingler are childless, pointing to the sexless frustration of monogamous married life, inevitably leading to a dessicated, repugnant condition (best represented in the repressed, eerie, shriveled appearance of Ollie and his wife).

The Tingler

Chapin much prefers the company of his young beefcake assistant (Darryl Hickman) to the women of the film. The Castle films lack the morbid tone of Corman’s (and anything like a coherent narrative) but they share in common the use of Price as a sexually ambivalent figure tormented by the married state. The Tingler introduces a young male who is a companion to the Price character rather than an interloper, as we see consistently in Corman. This young male becomes a focus of audience empathy, and at times (House of Usher) tries to make a connection with the Price character who is otherwise an adversary (reversing the role of such characters in Poe, certainly in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the narrator is an old friend of Usher). In the Corman/Poe films, the young traveler is on a quest involving the rescue/recovery of a woman. As such he creates a disturbance, threatening to restore a heterosexual equilibrium even as the focus and audience sympathy is pulled toward the “abnormal” Price character.

One might insist that the real male protagonists of the Poe films are the young travelers/interlopers who seem to anchor audience point of view. But these characters (e.g., Mark Damon in House of Usher, John Kerr in Pit and the Pendulum) are colorless figures who become fairly negligible, especially in their role of signifying the normal—here the cycle shares much in common with the most progressive impulses of the horror film, which draw all interest toward the Other. Their real importance, however, seems to be in their unintentional provocation, their representation of a sexual alternative to the neurotic Price characters—it is significant that in House of Usher, Philip Winthrop is asked to leave as soon as he arrives.

The Tomb of Ligeia

Corman’s authorial focus in rendering the Poe stories is crucial to understanding his films’ politics. As has been long noted, the Corman Poe films bear little resemblance to the Poe short stories (the exception may be House of Usher, which sticks to the broad contours and even plot details of “The Fall of the House of Usher”). Corman overturns the view of most Poe critics to establish his own agenda. For example, Poe’s “Ligeia,” and “Morella” have been understood, by Freudians such as Bonaparte at any rate, as a search for the “lost mother.” More standard forms of literary criticism interpret them as dark fables of “lost love.” In Corman’s hands, neither of these interpretations have much relevance. The films The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) and the “Morella” segment of Tales of Terror (1962) are variations on a theme consistent throughout the Corman Poe films, specifically the attempt by a tormented male to dominate the female body, at the same time striking at patriarchy in an assault resulting in the protagonist’s own demise. Within the ideological morass of the films’ Oedipal struggles, the female tries to annihilate the controlling male, but the feminist gestures in the films are frustrated, the female either murdered or already dead and “preserved” (this is true even in the relatively optimistic ending of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”—the decaying body of the kindly Valdemar reminds us of patriarchy itself and its alternatives in the demonic rapist Carmichael on the one hand and the colorless young rescuer on the other). The attempted killing of the male is defeated not because of incipient nihilism in Corman, but the films’ sense that women, in the context of the early 60s at least, are strangled by patriarchy’s hegemony (more or less the thesis of the far more conservative text of the times, The Feminine Mystique). The notion is inflected in films like The Tomb of Ligeia and “Morella,” with their idea of female solidarity across generations, with a young woman striking out as a proxy for a dead woman.

Andrew Britton has noted that Poe was preoccupied with “the morbid, incestuous family, the male’s unending battle against burial, suffocation, and appropriation of the body.”[5] These notions, I think, are rendered in Corman’s Poe so as to suggest male hysteria as a key symptom of threats to patriarchy, with the male protagonist trapped by the patriarchal order, frustrated by very ill-conceived, unconscious forms of resistance. An adjacent, consistent theme in the Corman Poe films is the bankruptcy of the family, the male’s suicidal attempt to strike at it, and the female’s efforts at striking at her male partner or overseer, rendered as supporter of the patriarchal order.

House of Usher

We see this in House of Usher, where Roderick Usher, an authoritarian, patriarchal figure, is himself burdened by the family legacy, which he reads as a legacy of “evil,” but which can be seen, as we watch Roderick’s conduct, as simply the enacting of patriarchal law. This is most explicit in Roderick’s attempt to suffocate female sexuality, resulting in its explosive destruction of the physical house and the remains of the Usher line. This idea reappears throughout the Poe cycle: Locke is killed by his late wife, who uses their daughter as a proxy in the “Morella” episode of Tales of Terror and the dead wife kills Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia, stopping Fell’s attempt at reconstituting romantic love. In these works the female is an agent of destruction, although the male patriarch’s pathology plays an obvious role in igniting the crisis.

In House of Usher, the reconstitution of the heteronormative romantic couple is stopped, thus preventing the consoling happy ending essential in classical Hollywood. But Roderick’s triumph over Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) is hardly “progressive,” and suggests the victory of the past and the demands of an antiquated system simultaneous with its physical annihilation. The idea of the past bearing down on the present is a major theme of Hitchcock, with the legacy of the patriarchal past destroying progressive potentials. But in House of Usher, the potentials of the future, although represented by two attractive young actors, are concerned with no more than reproducing the old order by legitimating the bourgeois couple. In a sense then, Roderick’s argument against the marriage of his sister to Philip seems logical, despite Roderick’s obsessive nature and apparent dementia caused by his insistent deterministic fears about “evil in the blood.”

House of Usher

Like Nicholas Medina in Pit and the Pendulum, Guy Carrell in Premature Burial, and Verden Fell in The Tomb of Ligeia, Roderick Usher is, as noted, a hypersensitive aesthete; this suggests the decadence of an inbred aristocracy, but one can also read these characters as feminine men who struggle with androgynous qualities, troubled by their inability to fit the norm (making them “monstrous” yet sympathetic), as they inevitably succumb to the truly monstrous obsessions engendered by the masculinist patriarchal civilization they finally cannot defy (Dr. Leon, the “macho” opposition to Nicholas in Pit and the Pendulum, is almost as much the villain as Elizabeth, although Leon is partially castrated by her, then killed by Nicholas before he is also killed). While Roderick is tormented by the crimes of the Usher dynasty, he is fixated on reenacting its key crime, specifically the destruction of Eros by Thanatos. The crimes of the Usher ancestors (detailed in the tour of the Usher family portrait gallery) might be seen as the norm of patriarchy within the American and European expansionist projects (slave trading, mass murder, etc.), not the “evil” that Roderick misperceives. Roderick’s incestuous fixation on his sister Madeleine (Myrna Fahey) is emblematic not only of the inbreeding of aristocracy and the preservation of lineage and male property rights, but Roderick’s desire to foreclose the future, enacting a reactionary radical gesture by denying the recreation of the bourgeois couple as Philip leaves the remains of the Usher ruins, alone and utterly defeated. But Roderick’s project is not radical in any progressive sense; it is instead apocalyptic, unable to break with the assumptions of patriarchal authority, instead insisting, unconsciously, on the total destruction of the old order as this same destruction forecloses the future.

Pit and the Pendulum

Nicholas Medina in Pit and the Pendulum is something of the inverse of Roderick Usher, a passive, feminine man (he spends much of the film in a dressing gown), who cries in an early scene and suffers regular breakdowns. He might be said to be castrated, less by the plot of his devious wife than, again, by the legacy of patriarchy in Corman’s most Oedipal narrative. As a child he witnesses the “primal scene” in the most horrific variant, going beyond the one argued by Freud; for young Nicholas the witnessed sex act literally becomes the torture and murder of his mother by his father for “adultery,” that is, for the violation of male property rights. Whether Sebastian Medina actually did this (we have only Nicholas’s account told to his sister) is less relevant than the account itself, especially the backstory of Sebastian as an executioner for the key institutions of patriarchal will (church and state), a man who savagely exults over his control of the female body, and his corresponding destruction of competing men, even when the violence involves fratricide. The vulgar Freudian interpretation of the title works well enough here: Nicholas is caught between the penis (“the razor edge of destiny”—or the triumph of the Oedipal construct) and the vagina, constructed here, as stated by the demented Nicholas, as “Naraka, Gehenna, the pit!”—the female genitals as hell. Heterosexual relations are axiomatically condemned in the world of Pit and the Pendulum precisely because of the doctrines of the father.

Pit and the Pendulum

The plot of Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) and Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) may be read as a projection of Nicholas’s notion of romantic love and his preoccupation with “adultery,” that is, sex unsanctioned by patriarchal law. Nicholas’s narrative of his early life with Elizabeth seems idealized in the extreme; her “revenge” against Nicholas may be read as a repudiation of romantic love. The notion of the conspiracy of Elizabeth and Dr. Leon as projection of the deranged Nicholas makes sense when we confront certain questions—what is Elizabeth’s motive? Her passion for Dr. Leon seems undeveloped, as is her seething contempt for Nicholas in the scene where she torments him just before he snaps to and takes his revenge. There is no indication that she wants Nicholas’s fortune. One can intuit the idea that she scoffs at Nicholas’s naiveté, feeling him foolish for believing in marriage and the sanctioned couple. There is also a hint that she views Nicholas as sexually unexciting, especially given his fragile, feminine personality. If one worries about the plot the film, it, like Vertigo, may become dismissible. Nicholas is trapped in a spiral of madness that is offered to the spectator as metaphor for the consequences of the Oedipal construct, the role of family in shaping personality, and the terrible consequences enacted on the male who does not “fit the mold.” Nicholas, after all, becomes monstrous when he becomes his tyrannical father Sebastian. His death carries enormous pathos, not in its specific detail, but through one’s realization that Nicholas was not able to escape the law of the father and the assumptions that flow from it concerning gender relations. Pit and the Pendulum works as a study of male dementia provoked by family history and notions of romantic love upon which bourgeois society depends.

Premature Burial

Premature Burial reduces its concerns about male hysteria to a sharper focus, as Guy Carrell obsesses over being interred alive, a theme of the previous two films that is here associated with anxiety over family history and personal weakness. In House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, being buried alive is associated chiefly with “shutting up” the female, as it simultaneously reminds the male authority figure of his ultimate impotence. Premature Burial fixates on the latter, with Carrell going to extreme lengths to ensure his survival in case of being interred alive (the lengthy scene at his custom-made mausoleum). His need for total control is almost textbook (if someone clichéd) anality and castration anxiety. More crucially, Carrell’s obsessions point to an extreme narcissism that makes him both asocial (and sociopathic) and willing to involve himself with the female only insofar as he can control her. Carrell gives Emily and Miles (Richard Ney) a “tour” of his custom-made mausoleum much in the way that Roderick gave Philip a tour of the gallery, or Nicholas gave a tour of the torture chamber to the young people in Pit and the Pendulum. But while Roderick and Nicholas seem unhinged or depressed, there is a strong sense of gloating to Carrell’s demeanor, as much involved in displaying contempt for the normative world of heterosexual relations (represented in the two people with him) as in showing off his technical genius, as if this form of phallic authority gives him a way out of the Oedipal construct. The manifest reason for the tour is Guy’s demonstration that he has found an “answer” to his pathological fear of being buried alive—which is to say he has accomplished a form of self-diagnosis and therapy. Of course what he has accomplished is no therapy at all, since his very expression as he shows off his tomb emphasizes his mental disintegration. That Emily and Miles are the audience for the tour is especially provocative: Guy is rebuking the heterosexual norm (although Emily and Miles are not having a relationship). No other film of the Corman/Poe cycle associates burial with “loss of breath” as insistently as this film, with Carrell’s anxieties closely associated with castration and impotence (a variety of characters of modern cinema contain the signifier, such as Frank in Blue Velvet (1986), whose mask of oxygen or nitrous oxide must be used before the character can enact his phallic monstrousness).

Premature Burial

When Carrell falls into the predictable cataleptic trance and is indeed buried alive, he “resurrects” himself to take revenge on his household, including the aging mentor/father figure Dr. Gault (Alan Napier) whose science is associated with repression/oppression. The male hysteric is here played by Ray Milland rather than Vincent Price, a somewhat more dissipated figure, lacking Price’s physical size and patrician bearing, suggestive of a bourgeoisie threatened by aristocracy, especially notable when as Guy interacts with his circle of friends. Guy Carrell’s every expression is simultaneously paranoid and aggressive. Much of the narrative is centered not only on the male’s impotence anxieties, but an alternating hatred of the female and his attempt to remake her as totally maternal, adjacent to the female’s attempt to destroy him out of sheer disgust. The plot of Emily (Hazel Court) is even less developed than Elizabeth’s in the Pit and the Pendulum; she is not involved in an adulterous relationship—its potential seems to be looming, although the rival male, Archer, is totally colorless—and her interest in Guy’s estate is not well sketched. She enacts the role of the male traveler/interloper basic to the first two Poe films; here the female intrudes on the privacy of the ineffectual male, who is traumatized by the discovery that the patriarchal body has been interred alive.

Premature Burial

Like Roderick Usher, Carrell is obsessed with disease as a curse, and the notion that the ills (read: sins) of the father will be passed on to him. Interestingly, his first revenge after escaping premature internment by Emily is on the father-in-law Dr. Gault, who was in part Carrell’s mentor in scientific quackery. Carrell’s murder of this rather undeveloped character seems based principally on his hatred of the older man as father of his wife and overseer of the family structure that has betrayed him, and plotted to drive him over the edge through a series of tricks that exploit his neurosis. Carrell’s madness is also rooted in the rejection of the perverse cynical pragmatism of scientific reason of the patriarch (the experiments with electroshock of animals), whose assumptions he accepted. More specifically, his acts of revenge are centered on the female, viewed as duplicitous (she is) but also simply a slap in the face, as it were, to his impotence; Emily’s actions seem in part warranted by Guy’s aloofness, his morbid fascination with his own body, and a corresponding disdain for the female. Interestingly, this film reverses the incest theme, with the sister insistent on protecting the male and keeping him away from the female intruder—the film insistently codes the sister as a villainous suspect primarily by depicting her as an “old maid.” Her perfect harmlessness and genuine concern for her brother’s afflictions overturn audience expectations of the ostensibly shrewish and opportunistic older sister. The film’s last moment foregrounds the stricken, aging sister sitting by Guy’s dead body, a perverse reworking of the reconstitution of the bourgeois couple that is the most insistent violation of the incest taboo in the Poe cycle. Such violation is somewhat anticipated in the ending to Pit and the Pendulum, where the rather sexless Francis Barnard (John Kerr) leaves the torture chamber accompanied by Nicholas’s sister (Luana Anders)—there seems no erotic potential to this relationship. The suggestion here is that the couple not only cannot be reconstructed due to the damage done by the patriarch, but such a reconstruction is not desireable, given its logical consequences under patriarchal sexuality.

The Masque of the Red Death

The only outright aggressive male protagonist of the Corman Poe cycle is Prince Prospero (again, Price) of The Masque of the Red Death (1964), a film that merges the artifice in the mise-en-scene of the earlier films with the more naturalistic visual style of the two films made in Britain. As such, this is a more “liminal” film, on the cusp between a study of the male unconscious and a casebook playing out in the “real” world. The “evil” of the devil-worshipping Prospero is focused solely on the entrapment of the young Francesca (Jane Asher), his attempt to “convert” her to devil worship (read: adherence to Prospero’s rule) and the destruction of the peasant population, as well as the key figures of Prospero’s own class in grisly acts of internecine conflict (the sadistic immolation of the Patrick Magee figure at the masked ball in the “Hop Frog” sequence) as Prospero asserts his primacy. There is nothing of wounded esthete son here: Prospero is the incarnation of the monstrous patriarch and aristocratic tyrant from the first scene in which he commands the burning of a peasant village since it carries the Red Death (an emblem of his paranoid fear and hatred of the peasants and all that does not acknowledge patriarchal law—this is the Corman/Poe film most explicitly involved in the issue of oppression by the ruling class). In retrospect, the early sequence seems to reference with a vengeance the destruction of Vietnam, a point surely not lost on the liberal Corman. The ending of this film is both political and apocalyptic—in the latter it has a strong dose of fatalism. The peasants (the few remaining) triumph over Prospero, and the triumph includes the reunion of the young heteronomative couple. But the final scene of the “death figures” on the hillside (making critics constantly—and inaccurately—compare the film to The Seventh Seal), suggest that no effort, neither peasant struggle nor spiritual quest, can overcome Death, taking the film a bit too close to the banal. It is redeemed by the narrative’s destruction of the patriarch and the entirety of the order he represents.

The Masque of the Red Death

Verden Fell (Price) in Tomb of Ligeia might be said to amount to a summing-up of the psychological concerns centered on the male in the Corman Poe cycle. The conditions for this summing-up are notable in their difference from the rest of the Poe cycle, beginning with a radically different approach to mise-en-scene. Tomb of Ligeia is one of two Poe films (the other is The Masque of the Red Death, which immediately preceded Tomb of Ligeia) shot in Britain in natural locations (at least in the first reel), breaking with the deliberate artifice of the rest of the cycle, meant to suggest the unconscious mind, particularly in the garish nightmare sequences of the earlier films. By shooting some of this film in the natural terrain of the Norfolk countryside, Corman seems to make the spectator into a clinician, viewing psychopathology as it plays out in the “real world,” although the studio-based sequences representing the interior of Fell’s abbey return us somewhat to the suffocating interior world of the early films, especially in the apocalyptic conclusion.

What is most fascinating about this film is the decayed circumstances in which Fell lives. The early Poe films, especially House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, show the gloomy nightmare residences of the male protagonist, depicted in striking matte paintings foregrounding the artifice that was central to Corman’s design concept. The obvious artifice of these designs was effective in emphasizing the enclosed universe of psychopathology. The ruined abbey of Tomb of Ligeia takes us to very different physical and psychological terrain. The abbey, a found location in Britain, is indeed thoroughly ruined, a series of broken walls and archways without any trace of roof, suggesting the damaged past of western imperialism. The film’s prologue shows Verden Fell at the funeral of his wife Ligeia, the narrative thus beginning with and predicated on the female’s entombment, the “shutting up,” of the female. Fell is the archetypal reclusive male of the Poe cycle; he goes outside, mainly, it seems, to patrol the tomb of his dead wife, but he wears sunglasses, another indicator of “morbid acuteness of the senses.” The focus on the vulnerability of Fell’s eyes makes very handy Freud’s notion of the equivalency of body parts, with the eyes associated with the testicles, and an attack on the eyes symbolic of an attack on the genitals. This is especially crucial to the apocalyptic ending, when the cat-familiar that embodies Ligeia’s spirit claws Fell’s eyes, symbolically castrating him. The cat as feminine figure has a strong element of cliché, but here is forceful in suggesting the female’s impending revenge on the male.

Tales of Terror: "Morella"

Tomb of Ligeia shares with the “Morella” sequence of Tales of Terror the idea of the dead wife returning to take vengeance on the male, through the daughter Leonora in “Morella,” through the new wife Rowena (Elizabeth Shepard) in Tomb of Ligeia. Verden Fell’s obsessions and self-absorption in Tomb of Ligeia are notable (even considering the role of narcissism and the male in the earlier Poe films), the film compared by a few critics to Vertigo, especially for its bell tower sequence during which Fell rescue Rowena. The huge, chiming bell, which terrorizes and torments Rowena, is an adequate enough symbol of the marriage state into which she is about to enter. That she would marry Fell, a morbid, significantly older man, is explained not only by his property but his mystique as a collector of art (here the aesthete is given certain admirable qualities not unlike those associated with the contemporary art dealer, who has significant influence over the haut monde), and by a sensitivity that here masks an element antithetical to the female.

Tomb of Ligeia

What is most compelling about both Ligeia and “Morella” is the motive for the female to take revenge on the male. Neither Locke in “Morella” nor Fell in Tomb of Ligeia appear to be monstrous figures despite the threatening demeanors Price always brings to these roles. Indeed, one asks why Ligeia and Morella want to kill their husbands. Locke has created a shrine to his dead wife in the crumbling house untouched since the dinner party Morella insisted upon. Fell speaks of the dead Ligeia in adoring terms, although always with a sense of dread (guilt?). The return of the daughter Leonora to Locke and Fell’s marriage to Rowena would suggest that the dead wives are acting out of jealous revenge, although this seems bizarre since the male characters spend their lives in homage to them. But the point becomes clear: Locke and Fell are figures associated with the past and with repression. The function of the decaying mansions of the earlier films is explicit in Tomb of Ligeia and the earlier “Morella”; the male is simply associated with decay and dissolution, they being the key emblems of the calcified male order. It is the very fact that Locke and Fell are dominating males preoccupied indeed with enshrining (that is, entombing) the female that makes them monstrous. Fell collects figures from Egypt and the rest of the ancient world, although he claims they are merely wax replicas, since he dislikes disturbing the treasures of other cultures. Even if we take this seriously (that he is not at heart an imperialist), there are implications to Fell’s philosophy. He prefers simulations, suggesting the bowdlerized depiction of antiquity by the west; it also points to the need to preserve for his own fetishistic gratification, a point made explicit when we see the wax effigy of Ligeia, posed with her arms outstretched as if to embrace Fell. That Ligeia works through the agency of Rowena, as Morella works through her daughter to kill Locke, contains a political element, the notion of the solidarity of the female line in the destruction of patriarchal civilization.

I prefer for the moment to omit comment on The Oblong Box and The Haunted Palace, works which have a few things to recommend them but on the whole seem misconceived. The two tales that complement “Morella” in Tales of Terror, “The Black Cat” and “The Fact in the Case of M. Valdemar” likewise have some compelling moments (the comic turns by Price and Peter Lorre in “The Black Cat,” which is also centered on marriage, and the malevolent Carmichael (the always dazzling Basil Rathbone) in “Valdemar,” whose sainted, decaying patriarch is kept alive, even in death, only to dissolve into a blob of “putrescence”).

The Wild Angels

The Corman of the mid- to late-60s took on other genres, but the concerns of the Poe cycle remain intact. His two youth counterculture films, The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967) are especially instructive in their attempt to dismiss the old patriarchal order once and for all. The anarchical violence carried out by motorcycle gang leader Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) in The Wild Angels speaks to what earlier Corman criticism termed an “inability to break with the eternal cycle.”[6] I prefer to replace this mythographic, mystical approach with a sexual-political one: Blues cannot break free of his role of leader of the male group, abandoned by his girlfriend (Nancy Sinatra), obliged to give a “decent burial” to the mostly reprehensible Loser (Bruce Dern). The contradictions of the gang’s violence are central to understanding Blues. The destruction of the church, a key symbol of bourgeois civilization, would have positive connotations were the violence not tied up in a mindless assertion of machismo, from which Blues becomes increasingly distant as he broods on the sidelines. Blues’s actions (his staying behind with Loser’s body even as the cops arrive) are driven less by a sense of civility (although his conscience bothers him as he sees a way beyond the nihilistic group) than by adherence to a male code of honor (the point of reference here is certainly the films of Howard Hawks).

The Trip

The Trip shows a marked break in the Corman films of the 60s, since here Corman offers a vision of an alternative society via the youth culture of the period. The studio interfered in this attempt, imposing a “shattered glass” image on the final shot of Paul (Peter Fonda), who has just emerged from an LSD trip in a happy frame of mind (Corman was himself positive about LSD, his own experiences with the drug liberating[7]). It is clear that Paul’s LSD trip has liberated him not only from the stultifying world of TV advertising (with public relations, the key symbol of alienated work, often used as such in postwar melodrama), but from the anxiety and entrapment of heterosexual monogamous relations (his tiff with his wife forms a significant part of the prologue), as well as from the entire legacy of the patriarchal past (Corman make canny use of footage from his Poe films to suggest that the “bad trip” portion of the film is centered on Paul’s suffocation by the legacy of the still-extant Victorian morality represented by the Poe cycle).

Later Corman continue the filmmaker’s progressive impulses until he quit directing to focus on producing. His film Gassss (1970) seems very close to an attempt to offer a Godard-style, non-representational image of youth culture. Death Race 2000 (1975) is perhaps the cinema’s finest satire of America in the post-Vietnam/Watergate era, a vision of an irredeemable dystopia that isn’t surpassed by similar, far more self-important films such as Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1987). Corman’s presence was significant, a mark of a moment when low-budget cinema supported the sly entry of a radical vision lost on the corporate mainstream and its censors precisely because the low budget axiomatically made Corman’s films dismissible. It is unlikely that we will enjoy a similar moment given the deplorable direction of film culture.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He contributes frequently to Film International. He is once again listening obsessively to the Goldberg Variations, especially as performed by Rosalyn Tureck, Angela Hewitt, and Minsoo Sohn. As remarkable as these performances are, he has found nothing that surpasses the 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Variations by Glenn Gould, surely the most intelligent interpreter of the classics of the twentieth century.

Note: A briefer version of this essay was published in France in Gothic N.E.W.S (Editions Michel Houdiard, 2010).

 

[1] Paul Willemen and David Will, Roger Corman: The Millennic Vision (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1970).

[2] Rick Worland, “AIP’s Pit and the Pendulum: Poe as Drive-In Gothic,” in Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett, eds. Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (New York: Scarecrow Press, 2004).

[3] For all the controversy over its recent translation, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) continues to strike me as a pivotal, indispensable work central to radical feminist theory in its conjunction of the sexual with political economy. I would also argue the continued importance, for the same reasons, of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1969).

[4] See Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (London: The Hogarth Press, 1971).

[5] Andrew Britton, Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), p.177.

[6] See Willemen and Will, Roger Corman: The Millenic Vision, p. 29.

[7] Corman’s DVD commentary on The Trip, MGM Home Video, 2001.


1 Comment for “Corman’s Poe and Male Hysteria in 60s Horror: A Revaluation”

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Great piece — a solid evaluation of Corman’s work during this period, before he descended — as a producer, not a director — into sheer exploitation. Informed, well-argued, and deeply thoughtful.

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