(US - 1989)
Directed by Larry Brand. Written by Daryl Haney and Larry Brand. Cast: Patrick Macnee, Adrian Paul, Clare Hoak, Jeff Osterhage, Tracy Reiner, Kelly Ann Sabatasso, Maria Ford, Daryl Haney, George Derby. (R, 82 mins)
One of the strangest, most ill-conceived, and universally rejected fads in the history of horror cinema took place from 1989 to 1991. To honor the 140th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), veteran exploitation producers Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers separately initiated a competing series of Poe remakes and adaptations that were supposed to be released throughout 1989. This Poesploitation explosion probably seemed like a good idea, especially since some of Corman's best films as a director were his numerous 1960s Poe adaptations for AIP (THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE RAVEN, etc) that usually starred Vincent Price, and those were classic films still revered by critics and audiences. On the other hand, it was a fool's mission: there was little chance of these remakes doing anything but paling in comparison to respected adaptations that came before them and they were often beset by so much financial and behind-the-scenes turmoil that the majority of them never even made it to theaters. What was meant to celebrate the legacy of one of America's most influential writers ended up being the most ill-fated 1989 cinematic resurrection this side of EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES. Corman produced some occasionally worthwhile films under his then-current Concorde banner (STRIPPED TO KILL, CRIME ZONE, EYE OF THE EAGLE 3) and had a few minor hits that stayed in theaters for two weeks instead of just one (BLOODFIST, TWICE DEAD, CARNOSAUR), but typically, Concorde product was shot fast and cheap and vacated multiplexes quickly on their way to America's video stores. Unlike his days running New World in the 1970s, Corman didn't have much in the way of breakout directors during the Concorde era. Corman's proteges at New World included the likes of Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, and James Cameron. At Concorde, Corman was focused more on turning a quick profit than shepherding talent, though guys like Carl Franklin (EYE OF THE EAGLE 2) and Luis Llosa (CRIME ZONE) would find some A-list success at the big studios (Franklin with the Denzel Washington vehicles DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS and OUT OF TIME, and Llosa with SNIPER and THE SPECIALIST), and both Franklin and Rodman Flender (IN THE HEAT OF PASSION) are still busy with steady TV directing gigs. Both Corman and Towers (who bankrolled many a Jess Franco film in the 1960s) were past the point of caring about quality, but they got movies made, knew how to turn a profit, and had been in the game long enough to woo recognizable names who were not exactly at their career pinnacle and were cool with whatever as long as the check cleared.
"Now...the magic of the master of horror and suspense
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THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) is regarded as one of his best films as a director and arguably the artistic pinnacle of his 1960s AIP Poe cycle. The remake again utilizes the same essential story of Prince Prospero (Adrian Paul) barricading himself in his castle along with the elite nobleman who suck up to him while a plague decimates the peasants in the surrounding countryside. All the while, a mysterious red-cloaked figure on horseback makes his way to the castle for the Masque, a grand ball where Prospero and his ilk finally get their comeuppance. Corman's 1960s Poe films were known for their sometimes campy elements and Vincent Price's hammy acting, but as the series went on, things generally got more serious, especially by the time of the 1964 MASQUE and the next year's THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Price's Prospero was a smiling, gleeful sadist reveling in his power over those beneath him. As played by Paul, Prospero is gloomy and depressed, and the mood is much more bleak and funereal. Director/co-writer Larry Brand is hindered by an obviously low budget that causes some interiors to resemble a community theater production, but he uses that to his advantage: in the 1964 MASQUE, the opulent, brightly-colored look of Prospero's castle helped sell the Prince and his fellow debauched hedonists on the notion that they were immune from the Red Death and that they'd be safe among their wealth and privilege. In Brand's MASQUE, the flimsy sets and gray, decrepit decor only convey the idea that the sense of security is an illusion, and while the oblivious sycophants overindulge, a somber, morose Prospero knows that judgment day is coming.
THE DRIFTER, a FATAL ATTRACTION knockoff with Kim Delaney being stalked by psycho hitchhiker Miles O'Keeffe after a one-night stand at a cheap motel (the trailer declared "Love can be deadly, when the attraction is fatal!" just in case you weren't sure what blockbuster movie it was ripping off). Corman was pleased enough with the results of THE DRIFTER to offer Brand his choice between this or BLOODFIST (Brand on turning down BLOODFIST: "I wasn't really interested in kickboxing or working in the Philippines"), and he would go on to make the 1990 Catherine Oxenberg erotic thriller OVEREXPOSED before leaving the Corman stable, where he's generally worked in DTV thrillers except for scoring a co-writing credit on 2002's HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION.
THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA. MORELLA opened in February 1990 and traveled the same regional route for one-week stands across the US. It bore little resemblance to Poe or to the "Morella" segment in TALES OF TERROR as Wynorski took the core concept of the dead Morella taking over the soul of her grown daughter Lenora and added splatter, gratuitous nudity, and lesbian sex scenes to fashion the kind of T&A-filled romp that Brand showed little interest in making with MASQUE. A post-CHARLES IN CHARGE and pre-BAYWATCH Nicole Eggert (her last name misspelled on the poster) plays Morella/Lenora, with David McCallum, years before his NCIS-abetted resurgence, is Lenora's father/Morella's widower husband, with the main cast rounded out by the inevitable Maria Ford and BARBARIAN QUEEN's Lana Clarkson, a Corman veteran by this point, but tragically best known today for accepting an invitation back to Phil Spector's mansion one fateful night in 2003.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (also for 21st Century, and the doomed company's only nationwide release), yet another remake of TEN LITTLE INDIANS for Cannon, and the spectacularly sleazy Jekyll & Hyde/Jack the Ripper hybrid EDGE OF SANITY for Miramax offshoot Millimeter Films (a sort-of B-movie predecessor to the later, more successful Dimension Films) with Anthony Perkins as the high society Dr. Jekyll turning into a coke-addled, masturbating Mr. Hyde on a serial-killing spree of lascivious Whitechapel streetwalkers. While PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and EDGE OF SANITY were shot on the same sets in Budapest, Towers' other films of this period were shot in Apartheid-era South Africa at a time when it was cost-effective but politically and socially frowned upon to do so. While PHANTOM, SANITY, and TEN LITTLE INDIANS made it into theaters, 21st Century was in immediate financial trouble and after MACK THE KNIFE tanked in limited release and THE FORBIDDEN DANCE (aka "the other Lambada movie") had to be distributed by Columbia, the money was gone and all of the company's titles (including Albert Pyun's CAPTAIN AMERICA, which was supposed to be 21st Century's meal ticket) were left in limbo on the shelf, only to trickle out on VHS courtesy of RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video over the next few years.
TWO EVIL EYES, an Italian production shot in Pittsburgh in 1989 but unreleased in the US until late 1991. Romero's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" was a remake of the concluding story in Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962), where the dying, comatose Valdemar (Vincent Price) is under the influence of a conniving hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) who's after his fortune and his wife (Debra Paget). In Romero's version, the hypnotist (Ramy Zada) and the wife (Adrienne Barbeau) are in cahoots in their plot to get Valdemar's (Bingo O'Malley) money. Argento's "The Black Cat" is a mash-up of Poe stories with crime-scene photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel), his girlfriend Annabel Lee (Madeliene Potter), their black cat, their neighbors the Pyms (Martin Balsam, Kim Hunter), a sultry bartender named Eleonora (Sally Kirkland), and a body walled-up Amontillado-style. Despite its pedigree, neither director is at the top of their game with TWO EVIL EYES, and though this catches Argento in the infant stages of a several-decade career nosedive that shows no signs of stopping, he does manage a couple of memorable sequences and a committed, if a bit mannered, performance by Keitel, and while Romero's more or less resembles an R-rated episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, it's fairly entertaining and slightly better than its reputation.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991) is probably the best film from the Poesploitation movement. It has the same dark, dour mood as MASQUE but benefits from a bigger budget, much better production design, and an absolutely riveting performance by Lance Henriksen. Released by Full Moon in the wake of the collapse of Empire Pictures, Gordon's PIT doesn't really follow Poe or Corman's 1961 film, instead telling a WITCHFINDER GENERAL-type story with witch-hunting inquisitor Torquemada (Henriksen) and his rabid, self-loathing sexual obsession with an accused spellcaster (Rona De Ricci). Shot in Italy, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM has a distinct European flavor to it and, despite its requisite amounts of gore and T&A, has a certain element of class to it, with Henriksen, in one of his best roles, bringing much legitimacy to the film's more lurid elements. Gordon was planning this PIT remake since the late '80s and actually had Peter O'Toole signed on to play Torquemada at one point until the project fell apart. Also featuring cult actors Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Stephen Lee, and Mark Margolis, and a cameo by Oliver Reed in a nice nod to Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is one of the best and most serious films to come from the studio best known for its PUPPET MASTER and DOLLMAN franchises. Even Troma got into the act with Fred Olen Ray's HAUNTING FEAR (1991), an alleged adaptation of The Premature Burial (previously made into a 1962 film by Corman, with Ray Milland stepping in for the director's lone '60s Poe movie without Vincent Price) with a cast of straight-to-video erotic thriller regulars like Brinke Stevens and Delia Sheppard mixing it up with fallen A-listers Jan-Michael Vincent and Karen Black as well as cult figures like Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and Robert Quarry (COUNT YORGA: VAMPIRE).
SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1990) began life in 1986 as a miniseries for Italian TV starring Lou Ferrigno and directed by Luigi Cozzi. Cannon fired Cozzi during pre-production and replaced him with Enzo G. Castellari. The project was shelved after Cannon deemed Castellari's six hours of footage unusable, but three years later, the cash-strapped company rehired Cozzi to piece together 80 minutes of salvageable footage from the rubble and shoot new wraparound sequences with Daria Nicolodi as a mom reading a bedtime story to her daughter, played by Cozzi's daughter Giada. The bedtime story was Poe's Arabian Nights parody "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade," which of course had little, if anything to do with the movie other than give Cannon an excuse to open the film with a crawl about Poe. SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS is a dumpster fire of a movie that's still worth seeing for an incredibly entertaining performance by John Steiner as the evil wizard Jaffar, but the whole thing is a badly stitched-together disaster, perfectly summed up by an amazing moment where Ferrigno's clean-shaven Sinbad dives into the sea and either Castellari or Cozzi cuts to a stock footage underwater shot of a bearded Ferrigno swimming, clumsily cribbed from 1983's HERCULES. Around the time he was trying to piece together something resembling a watchable SINBAD, Cozzi also found time to direct DE PROFUNDIS, featuring cult actors such as Caroline Munro and Brett Halsey, a film intended to be an unofficial third chapter to Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, which to that point consisted of SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980). Argento eventually officially completed that trilogy himself with 2008's MOTHER OF TEARS, while Cozzi's DE PROFUNDIS was attempting--and failing--to be meta before meta was cool. It's largely nonsense, with a director played by Urbano Barberini planning a sequel to SUSPIRIA about a witch named Levana, who keeps appearing as an apparition to vomit green goo on everyone. 21st Century acquired the film for the US and retitled it THE BLACK CAT with the cynical intention of selling it as another Poe title. Of course, it was shelved like all the others, debuting on US cable and promptly vanishing shortly after without even getting a VHS release. It was available to stream on Netflix Instant for a while and can easily be found online, but despite some nice Argento-inspired color schemes and approximately 17 opportunities to hear Bang Tango's lone hit "Someone Like You," it's a mind-boggling, incoherent mess that's really only for the most devout Italian horror obsessives, and certainly not for anyone looking for anything even remotely related to Edgar Allan Poe.