31 Days to Scare ~ House of Usher (1960)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Upon entering his fiancée’s family mansion, a man discovers a savage family curse and fears that his future brother-in-law has entombed his bride-to-be prematurely.

Stars: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe

Director: Roger Corman

Rated: Approved

Running Length: 79 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As a scary movie fan and critic, I have to admit to you that while I’ve covered many ghoulish galleries in the hellish haunted basements of the horror genre, there is a rather blatant blind spot that I’ve ignored for too long.  The fact that it’s taken me so long to come to terms with it is not so much owning up to my own failure as it is to just accepting how far behind I am and the enormity of ground I have to cover to catch up.  What’s more, there’s no reason I should have let it get this bad, this out of control, this widespread.  I should have dealt with it as a teen or consulted with friends as a young adult.  Surely, I could have sought assistance as I struck out on my own?

Here we are in 2020 and I’m just now beginning to deal with this problem.  I am sorrowfully, shamefully, inexcusably, late to the party on Vincent Price movies.  Oh, I’ve seen Price in his later pictures where he played pivotal roles as inspiration and so much more for Tim Burton’s early features and the snazzy first remake of House of Wax (in even snazzier 3D!) but it’s the films he became famous off of that have eluded me until recently.  These were the classic macabre flicks he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman and, to get even more specific, the films they made based off the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  Though Price has made a number of notable horror films throughout his career (some of them campy, some of them excellent) the Corman/Price/Poe treasures are the entries that seemed to come up the most in conversation.

That’s how it happened that I made my visit to the House of Usher, Corman’s 1960 collaboration with Price, the first of a number of films the duo would make together and by far their most successful financially and artistically.  Adapted by science fiction novelist Richard Matheson (JAWS 3-D) and released by independent production company American International Pictures who up until then had only produced black and white cheapies, House of Usher was a big color Cinemascope gamble that paid off in a lasting way.  It set off a wave of Poe adaptations, effectively changed the course of Price’s career, and gave some street cred to Corman who would also release the original Little Shop of Horrors that same year.

Tweaking Poe’s original dark tale slightly, Matheson injects some romanticism into the picture by filtering the events through the eyes of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) as he arrives at the decaying titular homestead seeking his fiancé, Madeline (Myrna Fahey) who hasn’t returned to Boston after a recent visit. Before he has the chance to see her, he meets her brother Roderick (Price, Michael Jackson: Thriller) who urges Philip to leave and forget about the woman he loves and Roderick appears to be protecting from a family sickness about to consume her.  A timid long-time family butler (Harry Ellerbe) provides little corroborating information or assistance, leaving Philip to fight for Madeline’s life on his own against her dangerous sibling…or has he been the one that needed protection from the moment he walked in the door?

For a movie with by and large four-people in the cast, it’s amazing how engaging it all is.  Numerous scenes are just two people talking, often the sign of amateur screenwriting, but Matheson’s take on Poe is quite thrilling and grabs you from the start.  Ditto the production design which is pretty spectacular considering the budget limitations and that the whole thing was shot in a little over two weeks.  Nothing looks like it’s going to fall apart if you sneezed nor do the costumes give off a chintzy vibe.  It’s all beamed in pulsating colors that merge well within the visuals, especially in a creepy dream sequence which helps explain the inky past of the Usher clan.

Performances are also highly entertaining for all the right reasons.  Price is so dramatically melodramatic, a perfect fit with his overly sensitive character that doesn’t like loud noises, or extremes of any kind for that matter.  It may not be saying an awful lot (for the award, not the actor), but his work earned Damon a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer and he’s a committed leading man who possesses the looks and the layers to make you want to cheer him on but still hate him a little bit for having such great hair.  The lovely Fahey is a mysterious beauty when we first meet her, standing in sharp contrast to her frightening transformation near the end.

Yes, back to the scares.  This one has them and not just in the extended finale that is downright spooky.  Several passages in this relatively short film will raise the hairs on your neck, often just hearing Price describe the actions of one of his ancestors.  When it comes to giving you major goosebumps, nothing much beats Fahey’s piercing scream, which is heard several times and what many scream queens clearly modeled their loud lungs after.  For a film that’s a solid 60 years old and has had a number of versions before and since, Corman’s House of Usher clearly was built with material strong enough to last the test of time because it still works today and is a justified classic in the genre.

31 Days to Scare ~ Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A night at the movies turns into a nightmare when Michael and his date are attacked by a hoard of bloodthirsty zombies – only a “Thriller” can save them now.

Stars: Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, Vincent Price

Director: John Landis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 13 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: To celebrate the 35 year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the folks over at IMAX did a pretty cool thing and re-released it in theaters for one week. Showing before The House with a Clock in Its Walls and looking scary good enhanced by 3D, it only hammered home again what a landmark achievement this was in the still-growing music video scene. All these years later, it stands as a high-water mark for the medium and is a pretty creepy mixture of horror and music.

Directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) who had shown an eye for horror and comedy, there’s a sizable portion of this without any music at all and it opens with Michael Jackson and his girlfriend Ola Ray running into car trouble in the woods. Aping I Was a Teenage Werewolf from 1957, Michael changes into a beast and just before he nabs his prey we see that we’re actually watching a movie…that’s also being watched by Jackson and Ray. The meta-ness of it all aside, Ray can’t take the scares and hightails it out of the theater. Reluctantly, Jackson follows her and that’s when Thriller takes control. As they walk home Jackson’s killer vocals and unimpeachable dancing give way to an ever expanding smorgasbord of all manners of ghouls and zombies that come out to play…and dance. It all culminates around the 8:25 mark when Jackson finds himself possessed by the dead. Will Ray be able to get away or will she succumb to the creatures of the night?

I can’t tell you what a joy it was to see this projected on the huge IMAX screen in 3D. It looked like a million bucks and by the time we get to the legendary dance break I had goosebumps all over. It’s such a masterful mix of music and story tightly packaged into 13 minutes. While this was only in theaters for a week, maybe we’ll all get lucky and they’ll bring it back around Halloween – it’s worth seeing whatever movie it is paired with.  Even if you can’t see it in a theater, watch it again above and relive how good this is!

31 Days to Scare ~ House of Wax 3D (1953)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An associate burns down a wax museum with the owner inside, but he survives only to become vengeful and murderous.

Stars: Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Frank Lovejoy, Charles Bronson, Paul Cavanagh

Director: André De Toth

Rated: Approved

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There are a lot of firsts that House of Wax can lay claim to. It was the first color 3-D feature from an American production company and the first 3-D film presented in a theater boasting the multi-dimensional stereophonic sound. We’re a bit too used to an enhanced movie-going experience now, but try to put yourself in the place of audience members back in 1953 when this horror classic was released. Before things got too bloody and gross, it didn’t take much for audiences to shriek in terror…now add in the new-fangled technology and the frights truly leaped off the screen. Not only does this make excellent use of the 3-D effects, it’s a way above average movie on the whole.

The prologue of the film takes place in a wax museum curated by Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a man possessing an eerie ability to construct life-like historical figures in wax. Though he’s looking to buy-out his ne’er-do-well business partner so he can make the masterpieces he wants, the partner has a quicker plan in mind and burns down the museum for the insurance money. All of Jarrod’s pieces are lost and though he’s severely disfigured, Jarrod survives and begins a plan of mysterious revenge.

For the remainder of the film, we watch as Jarrod emerges from the ashes with a brand new wax museum that becomes a hot ticket in town. Too bad not everyone that wronged him is around to see the fantastic displays of recognizable faces from history. Then again, underneath the costumes and adornments don’t those faces look sort of…familiar? Figuring out what’s really going on and who is truly behind it all is just part of the fun to be had here.

What sets the one apart from the bunch is not only its well-executed 3-D effects but its care for storytelling and characterizations. At 88 minutes, there’s a lot of ground to cover but everything feels nice and lean, with no extra fatty sections that drag the action to a halt. In addition to Price’s typically benevolent investment in a tragic character, there’s a lovely leading lady in Phyllis Kirk and even appearances from future Morticia Addams Carolyn Jones and a young Charles Bronson. The finale manages to stick its landing with two different race against time action sequences happening at once.

The history behind this one is interesting as well. Originally written as a play, it was first made into a movie back in 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum starring Fay Wray. This 1953 production is nearly a shot for shot remake of that movie, a very impressive feat. Some may recall this was remade in 2005 with the plot drastically altered and, Paris Hilton’s performance notwithstanding, it acquitted itself nicely if not overly memorably.

Unlike many 3-D movies released in the subsequent years, House of Wax is one that could still be enjoyed even without the added ‘oomph’ that the 3-D experience provided. While there are a few sequences where the filmmakers were clearly showboating, they aren’t as eye-rolling as the tired gags seen in Jaws 3-D or Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3-D. What ultimately makes the film worthy of its recent inclusion in the National Film Registry is that even taking away all of the 3-D hoopla there are numerous swell scares to be had. If you have the capability to watch this in 3-D, by all means, do so! If not, it’s still one to seek out for the classic that it is.