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Saturday, 8 November 2008

Twice-Told Tales (1963)

The sixties were a great time for classic American literary horror adaptations in the States: lots of Poe, some Lovecraft and here Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was most prolific as a short story writer and Twice-Told Tales appropriately contains adaptations of a trio of his stories. However only one came from the collection that gave its name to the title, that being Dr Heidegger's Experiment, Rappaccini's Daughter coming from Mosses from an Old Manse and The House of the Seven Gables was a standalone novel. Vincent Price is the link between three adaptations of Hawthorne stories, but he's far from the only name to watch for.

Dr Heidegger's Experiment is a story about the fight against age and death. Carl Heidegger is an old grey haired man played by Sebastian Cabot and Price plays his long term friend Alex Medbourne, similar old and grey. However the central character is really Sylvia, Carl's fiancee who died on the eve of their wedding 38 years earlier. In a storm, her crypt is broken open and when they investigate, they discover her in her coffin apparently unchanged from the day she died. It all seems to be tied to a mysterious dripping of water onto her coffin from a crack in the crypt roof.

Naturally you can see where the title comes in. Carl catches some of the water and tests it on a dead flower, watching it come back to life. Of course his next experiment is to try it on himself and he sheds years from his appearance. Anyone who's read any supernatural fiction must know that this sort of thing is against the laws of nature and so isn't going to last but the way in which the balance of nature is restored is always up for question. Price and Cabot are fine and Mari Blanchard plays Sylvia, the third character in the story. It's fun but it's just a warmup.

Rappaccini's Daughter is better, with Price as Rappaccini and Joyce Taylor as his delightful daughter Beatrice. Young Giovanni Guasconti falls in love with Beatrice Rappaccini from afar, looking down her daily walks from his window, but she's unapproachable. He asks for advice from his professor who gives him the background. Rappaccini was a great professor himself but chose to lock himself away twenty years ago with his daughter and it would seem that Giovanni is the only one to have seen her since. Apparently nobody else has entered the Rappaccini's house ever since.

The reason for all this is that the courtyard that Guasconti looks down upon is full of tremendously poisonous plants and Beatrice is as poisonous as any of them. One touch from her and anything living becomes very quickly dead, shrivelled and turned to purple. Rappaccini's love for her leads him to desperate measures. Price is decent here, as are Joyce Taylor and Brett Halsey as Guasconti, but it's the story that wins out here. The themes in Dr Heidegger's Experiment have been used and reused many times but this one still holds something of a unique place.

Last and best is The House of the Seven Gables, where Price is Gerald Pyncheon, who returns to the house of the title with his wife Alice, after seventeen years away. The house has been in his family for centuries, having been built on land stolen from someone else, thus prompting a long running and successful curse. Every male Pyncheon since the one that built the house has died with blood on his lips in a chair in the study, though naturally Gerald Pyncheon wants to break that trend. He also wants to find the vault, which no other Pyncheon has yet found and which contains riches and deeds and all sorts of goodies.

While his greed is the reason for his return to the house, Beverly Garland gets the best part as his wife Alice who begins to acquire strange psychic powers there. She enters trance states in which she talks with the dead, witnesses strange phenomena and knows or is aware of things that she has no logical reason to know. Garland is a decent actress and by all accounts an even better person to know, and I've never seen her better than here. She's never looked lovelier either in the various films I've seen her in. She should have played period horror more often, instead of B-movie sci-fi.

The story is probably Hawthorne's best known piece and it has resonance today. It also has some really impressive scenes to disturb and frighten, not least the house dripping blood from the walls and ceiling during some sort of psychic earthquake. OK, there's also one of the worst pick axe attacks I've ever seen but that's an aberration in this segment of the film. Again Price is decent, but then he always was, even when hamming it up which he does more than a little here, especially in Dr Heidegger's Experiment. The film is decent too but it's a more minor entry into his filmography.

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