Roger Corman | Vincent Price’s Vincentennial

Of the eight films of the Poe/Price cycle Vincentennial is screening five, and Corman is speaking after two of them: The Tomb of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death.

 

 

A lot of special guests are coming at various times during Vincentennial, the 10-day retrospective of Vincent Price films put on by Cinema St. Louis. Perhaps the biggest draw of them all is 85-year old Roger Corman, who directed Price in eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations between 1960 (starting with House of Usher) and 1964 (ending with The Tomb of Ligeia). I had the opportunity to speak with Corman over the phone a few weeks ago in anticipation of his appearance, which was quite a delight—if you read his 1990 autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (written with Jim Jerome) you know he’s full of great stories from his life.

You probably know Corman for one of three things: as a director (of the original Little Shop of Horrors, among some 50-odd other films), as a producer (including Death Race 2000, the original Piranha, or literally hundreds of other films), or as a guy who gave many of the most important people in the history of cinema their start—Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, James Cameron, Robert De Niro, and countless others. (Not Vincent Price though, of course.) One has to wonder, when associated with so many famous names, how Corman can possibly pick and choose which retrospectives he should agree to speak at. “[It was] simply my admiration for Vincent. We did a number of pictures together, and I thought it would be nice to be there. I wanted to pay him homage, as it were,” says Corman.

Roger Corman got hooked on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories in high school—he first read The Fall of the House of Usher, and then asked for and got the complete works of Poe for Christmas. Some decade and a half later he made his first Poe adaptation for the big screen (scripted by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the novel I Am Legend and the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” among other things), and it’s hard not to wonder how he was able to cast it, when he’d been reading these stories since such a young age and surely had a strong mental picture of what the characters should look like. “As we got into the development of the script I saw Roderick Usher, the lead, as an extremely intelligent, cultivated, and very sensitive man, and I started to think of who I might cast while finishing the script. And Vincent Price’s name came to me immediately. So by the time we had finished the script, I had already decided that I was going to send it to Vincent,” Corman explains.

Of the eight films of the Poe/Price cycle Vincentennial is screening five, and Corman is speaking after two of them: The Tomb of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death. Corman has said in the past that Masque is his favorite of the films that he made with Price (it’s mine, too), and for clarification regarding why that is the case he offers, “We were working at a bigger studio in England—it was the first of the ten pictures I did in England—and they had flats from Becket, plus some other big pictures. So Dan Haller, our art director, was able to take those flats, the sets themselves of course had been disassembled, he was able to take those flats and put them together in his own original design. He designed the palace and all the rest of it, but he was able to use more elaborate flats and we got a bigger look. Also, I thought it was a more complex story than some of the others.” Becket’s sets, Vincent Price, Edgar Allen Poe, and the successfully complex story aside, there are other good reasons to see The Masque of the Red Death. One is that it was shot by a young Nicolas Roeg, who later went on to direct such films as Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Don’t Look Now. Also its female lead is the very pretty (and then 17… eek) Jane Asher. Corman’s got a doozy from his days on the Masque of the Red Death set: “I remember on a Thursday [Jane] told me that a friend of hers from Liverpool would be traveling through the next day on the way to London, and could he come visit the set and eat lunch with us? And I said, ‘Certainly.’ So, this young guy came through and she introduced us and he spent an hour or so on the set just watching and seeing what was going on, and then the three of us had lunch together, and I asked him why he was going to London. He said he was with a group, a music group, from Liverpool, and they were going to make their debut in London that night. So I wished him well and said, ‘I hope your debut goes well tonight, Paul;’ it was Paul McCartney.”

There always seem to be reasons like this to see Corman’s movies, and this is aside from the obvious reason to see them—because they’re a heck of a lot of fun. Take The Raven, for example, another of the Poe/Price cycle that is screening at Vincentennial (but that Corman won’t be on hand for)—it not only features Vincent Price, but also Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, not to mention a very young Jack Nicholson. It’s mind-blowing to consider working with these greats all at once, and the reality of what it must have been like doesn’t always sink in right away. In the specific case of The Raven, there was some discrepancy in the acting styles between the three leads, given that they came from different backgrounds and generations. “On the second day of shooting Boris came to me and said, ‘Roger, I learn my lines, I come in, I prepare to deliver the lines and give the performance I’ve prepared.’ Peter, who had worked with Bertold Brecht in Berlin, did a lot of improvisations and was playing it for a little bit of humor in The Raven. I thought these improvisations were really funny, but Boris said, ‘He never gives me the cue line; I don’t have anything to reply to.’ So I called everybody together, and what it was is that Vincent could understand what Peter was doing and also had been trained the same way as Boris, so Vincent could work both ways, but Boris could not. So, I explained the situation to everybody. I said, ‘Peter, you’re doing wonderful improvisations here, but we have to stay a little bit closer to the script,’ and then I sort of said as discreetly as I could to Boris, to loosen up a little bit, and reply a little bit to some of the improvisations. And Vincent was the one who pulled them all together, because he could go both ways.”

The reason Vincentennial is being held in the first place is because Vincent Price is originally from St. Louis, and this year (May 27th, to be exact) would have been his 100th birthday. But Corman has his own connections to our town, aside from that one of his favorite leading men is from here. His wife, Julie Corman (also a film producer, and also in attendance at Vincentennial) is also originally from St. Louis, as is his father. Roger doesn’t make it to town too often, though; "My wife and I came through St. Louis maybe 20 years ago just to stop by and look at her old neighborhood and see some friends and so forth, but that’s my only trip to St. Louis,” he says, and I wonder if that might has something to do with the fact that he shot his 1962 William Shatner vehicle The Intruder down in Sikeston, which was a very hard shoot (“We were thrown out of three towns, we had death threats; it was pretty interesting.”). Did this experience sour Corman on Missouri? “Oh no, not in any way. As a matter of fact, Julie and I went to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game here some time ago; she still roots for the Cardinals.” | Pete Timmermann

Vincentennial runs from May 19th until May 28th at multiple venues. Roger Corman is speaking after The Tomb of Ligeia at the Hi-Pointe on Saturday, May 21 at 8 PM, as well as after The Masque of the Red Death, also at the Hi-Pointe, on Sunday, May 22 at 8 PM. For a full schedule of films playing, guests coming, to buy advance tickets, or to take a look at the super-cool official Vincentennial t-shirt, go to cinemastlouis.org/vincentennial.

 

 

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