Monday, October 12, 2020

Twice-Told Tales, Starring Vincent Price

Hawthorne and Poe were both born in Massachusetts, but the former was widely seen as an upright New Englander of letters, while Poe was the disreputable Southerner, who dropped out of UVA and drunk himself to death in Baltimore. Yet, Poe inspired all the good horror movies, even though Hawthorne penned plenty of Gothic tales ripe with Puritanical hypocrisy. While Vincent Price was starring in Roger Corman’s classic Poe films, he also helped give Hawthorne similar treatment in Sidney Salkow’s under-appreciated anthology, Twice Told Tales, which airs this Friday on TCM.

Yes, these are stories of the macabre, but they are directly address the power of love, both to save and to destroy. For the opener, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” it will definitely be the latter case. The elderly scientist is enjoying a bittersweet birthday dinner with his old friend Alex Medbourne. Decades have passed since Heidegger’s fiancée Sylvia Ward tragically died on their wedding day, leaving him so heartbroken, he never loved again. In contrast, Medbourne romanced every woman he could—of course he would be the one played by Price (who appears in all three stories).

Heidegger expects to soon reunite with his beloved in death, but fate seems to present a tantalizing alternative. A freak storm releases a mysterious stream of water that apparently offers the power to restore youth and even renew life itself. Naturally, Heidegger duly revives Ward’s desiccated body, after rejuvenating himself and Medbourne, but the darkly O.Henry-esque reunion is not what he expects.

The “Heidegger” twist is very much akin to what you might expect from a
Twilight Zone episode, but the anguished emotion is quite surprising. Both Price and Sebastian Cabot (in the sub-titular role) are genuinely heart-breaking, offering proof that you really can find excellent dramatic work in these great old films that never got the critical love they deserve.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a weirdly sunny story, largely taking place in a Padua garden, but what a garden it is. Giovanni Guasconti falls in love with the beautiful Beatrice Rappaccini from his garret window, but her mad scientist father Giacomo has taken extreme measures to protect her from the advances of adventurers. Yes, that would be Price again. Brett Halsey is a bit too shallow and bow-dried for the Old World setting, but Abraham Sofaer sounds convincingly wise and humanistic as Guasconti’s mentor, Prof. Baglioni.

Somewhat ironically, the concluding adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel,
The House of the Seven Gables could be considered more faithful than the previous feature-length take, which also starred Price, if you disregard the way producer-screenwriter Robert E. Kent pumped-up and augmented the supernatural elements. Regardless, the original Pycheon patriarch definitely did wrong by Matthew Maulle, well-earning the curse the condemned man allegedly leveled on him. Generations later, the Pyncheon’s are still haunted by the curse, as well as the legend that old man Maulle secretly stashed a great fortune in the grand house he was gallingly commissioned to build for his enemies.

In a way, this
Seven Gables is like a precursor to Branagh’s Dead Again, wherein Jonathan Maulle, the descendant of old Matthew, falls in love with rapacious fortune-hunting Gerald Pycheon’s naïve wife Alice. As they come to terms with their ardor, they start to realize their love maybe spans years and past lifetimes. This time around, Price goes all in chewing scenery and embracing Gerald’s villainy. This is some classic Price, but Beverly Garland and Richard Denning hold up the romantic end, in a breathlessly gothic kind of way.

Salkow and the first-rate cast really bring out the humanity in these morbid morality tales.
Twice-Told is not as famous as the Poe films, but it deserves to rank beside them. In fact, they are arguably more faithful to the source material. Highly recommended, Twice-Told Tales airs Friday night (10/16), on TCM.