Twice-Told Tales (Sidney Salkow, 1963)

by Douglas Buck May 13, 2020 5 minutes (1032 words) 16mm (technicolor) chez Phil

It could only have been the box office success of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations (namely, the lush and lurid House of Usher and the maniacally perverse The Pit and the Pendulum) that led the opportunistic producers of Twice-Told Tales to nab horror star Vincent Price temporarily off of the AIP set (with the star returning a mere year later to the Corman fold for the greatest artistic achievement of all the Poe efforts, the hypnotic evocation known as The Masque of the Red Death) and put together their own cinematic take based upon theworks of another darkly romantic, quasi-supernatural-minded American literary figure from the mid-19th century, this time Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I admit I don’t really have much experience with Hawthorne (with the extent of my readings being two of the short stories – “Dr Heidegger’s Experiment” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” – and that was only after seeing them as two of the three tales in this anthology, in which I decided to forego the far more daunting task of delving into the last one, the full novel “House of Seven Gables”), and have to say, because the Poe comparison becomes inevitable under the circumstances, while the two Hawthorne tales hold a clear classic and iconic stature and are, in many ways, simmering with the same kind of sexual tensions and underlying perversities that make the Poe tales so charmingly timeless, I found them nowhere near as feverishly gripping, while being at the same time far more overtly moralistic; in the Poe tales, for instance, where a comeuppance occurs, such as the tortured cat exacting its vengeance by exposing the murderous deeds of his tormentor in “The Black Cat”, it plays as blackly ironic, grotesquely humorous, while Hawthorne’s conclusions are much more straight-forward in their lessons. Again, I’m only talking the two tales, and the guy certainly is considered an important literary figure, so what do I know? Just riffing on the tales of “Twice-told” in our little cinematic adaption herein that I’ve read.

Bruce Cabot w/ Price

“Heidegger’s Experiment” veers quite a bit from the Hawthorne tale, making the fountain of youth discovery something the titular Doctor from the cinematic version (played by none other than Sebastian Cabot, a roly-poly dervish of a man who for whatever reason, similar to any Burl Ives appearance, makes me smile to see him) stumbles (far too conveniently) across and, with the help of his slightly devious friend (our Mr Price, thank you very much), decides to use to raise his long deceased wife from the dead, rather than – in the short tale — something he spend years seeking out to then experiment with upon a small coterie of lecherous old acquaintances, turning them young and – he discovers – right back to their small-minded and greedy ways (with, strangely, the short story mentioning Heidegger’s long dead bride but never taking the obvious opportunity to have him try and bring her back). Neither story ends well (though only the cinematic version punishes Heidegger, as it’s also the only version where he brings his great love back… only to discover some terrible truths about her that he regrets learning), with the overall moral being leave well enough alone.

Brett Halsey w/ B. Garland

On the other hand, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is much more faithful to the Hawthorne original (other than changing up who dies at the end of it), following a bright, young and handsome med student as he falls madly in lust (or love, whatever… come on, is there really a difference when you add ‘madly’ into the equation?) with the brilliant scientist Rappaccini’s mysterious daughter. Drawn to watch the gorgeous wisp of a figure each day below his window, as she lives a captive amongst the beautiful garden which he comes to learn are filled with hidden poisons and death — experiments of imprisonment created by the cold and sociopathic Rappaccini (Price again, naturally) expressly to keep his daughter to himself – the eager man grows determined to save her from her prison.

While “Heidegger’’s” got its necrophilia undertones going on and “Rappaccini’s” has the barely-controlled daddy-daughter incest (as overt as anything in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, which it resembles a lot), “Gables” has all of it and then some (with the haunted Price character at the center of it), with its “Usher”-like tale of a house filled with greed, hidden secrets, entombed lovers and a destined tragic fate (ending up with the house – done in miniature, which I love – crashing in upon itself, reminiscent again of the final fate of the Usher’s foreboding abode), with my favorite part of the episode being the very ceiling itself reigning blood itself from its bleeding cracks down upon the guilty below.

Twice-told Tales is gorgeous to look at (with the fairly well-preserved 16mm print we viewed it off of really bringing out the startling depth and texture with its vibrant, lush qualities – as my viewing mate Phil, he of the long-running film series The Film Society/Le Cinéclub noted, technicolor could have been called 3D-color it looks so good, and without the need for the annoying glasses!), with Price doing his best at the center of each tale. It’s filled with lots of welcome familiar faces – including the aforementioned Cabot, eventual Fulci-fave Brett Halsey, Richard “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” Denning and even early Corman reg Beverly Garland – with cleverly-constructed sets that, while clearly limited by budget, remain nicely haunting and evocative (ie, the cave-like tomb of Heidegger’s dead love in “Heidegger’s”, to the beautiful yet somehow dying garden in “Rappaccini’s” and on to the castle’s rooms in “Gables”)… and yet… it all feels second-tier and far more tame to the wildly feverish and hypnotic cinematic dreams and nightmares that Corman was conjuring up, from the mad tales of perversity and decay of the raving Poe.

Twice-Told Tales is worth a look. It’s quite good even (if a little too reliant on some cheesy optical ‘transformation’ shots). And director Salkow seemed to have quite a respectable journey-man like filmmaking career. But the Salkow/Hawthorne team? Nah. Nowhere close to the sickness Corman/Poe spread across the land.

Twice-Told Tales (Sidney Salkow, 1963)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   anthology horror   nathaniel hawthorne   vincent price