Movies: Twice Told Tales (1963)

Like most horror fans worth their salt, I’m a big fan of Vincent Price, and will watch absolutely anything he’s in. The man was simply a legend, he never phoned in a performance, and he always classed up the joint. I’m also somewhat familiar with the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, having read a couple of his novels and several of his short stories over the years. Oh, and I love love love horror anthologies. So you know that I had to eventually get around to watching and reviewing a movie that ticks all three boxes: 1963’s Twice Told Tales.

The film was produced by Admiral Pictures, a short-lived company that looks like they mostly produced westerns, though they had released a psychological horror movie called Diary of a Madman, also starring Vincent Price, in 1962. Twice Told Tales was directed by Sidney Salkow, whose résumé extended all the way back to the mid-1930s; he would go on to work with Vincent Price again in 1964 with The Last Man on Earth, an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic horror novel I Am Legend.

It seems that the idea to do an anthology film based on classic stories came mostly from the success of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, such as The House of Usher from 1960, The Pit and the Pendulum from 1961, and Tales of Terror from 1962. Since American International Pictures seemed to have a corner on the market of Poe tales, Admiral chose to do something a bit different, by mining the works of another American dark romantic writer of the 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose best known work nowadays is probably his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne did publish a short story collection called Twice Told Tales in 1837, though only one of the stories adapted for the movie—”Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”­—appeared therein. The second story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” was collected in the 1846 book Mosses from an Old Manse, and the third one, “The House of the Seven Gables,” was a very loose adaptation of the stand-alone 1851 novel.

Though Twice Told Tales suffers a bit from its low budget, slightly too-long runtime, and the liberties taken with the source material, it’s still a solid watch, featuring the great Vincent Price in three different, villainous roles, and welcome appearances by Sebastian Cabot and Beverly Garland. Also turning up in a significant role is Brett Halsey, who I immediately recognized as Bix Dugan (aka “Big Stupid”) from 1960’s The Girl in Lover’s Lane, one of the more decent films to appear on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Halsey was also in several later Lucio Fulci films, like Demonia and A Cat in the Brain, so it really is a small world after all, isn’t it?

The first story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,”­ sees two old coots, Carl (the Dr. Heidegger of the title, played by Sebastian Cabot) and Alex (played by Price) meeting at Carl’s home during a thunderstorm to celebrate Carl’s 79th birthday. We learn that 38 years before, Carl’s fiancée Sylvia died on the eve of their wedding, and Carl has never gotten over it; he keeps a portrait of her above his fireplace, and has never even touched another woman in all the years since. Even creepier, he has a crypt right outside the house that has her body in it, as well as an empty coffin all ready for him when he inevitably pops his clogs.

The storm (or some supernatural force, perhaps) causes the crypt door to be blown off, and Carl goes over to investigate the damage, taking a very reluctant Alex with him. In the crypt, they discover that Sylvia’s coffin has slid off its platform, but as they’re trying to right it, the lid slips off and there’s Sylvia’s dead body, looking fresh as a daisy even though she should be nothing but hoary old bones by now.

Carl deduces that the water that’s been dripping down into the coffin from the spring above the vault has restorative powers, and tests this by bringing a squished old pressed rose back to vibrant life. After that, he excitedly drinks some of the magical elixir himself, and becomes young(ish) again, overjoyed that now he and Alex will be able to have another entire lifetime of their awesome friendship. Alex also drinks some of the water, and turns into foxy, younger Vincent Price. They’re both pretty jazzed, but then Carl remembers that even if he gets to live another lifetime, he still doesn’t have his true love Sylvia by his side. But what if the water could do more than just restore youth?

So yeah, you know how this is going to go down; they (spoiler alert) resurrect Sylvia after 38 years in her grave, and she surprisingly takes the whole thing in stride, even though the last thing she remembers was feeling a little bit ill and lying down on the night before her wedding nearly four decades ago. Anyone with any knowledge at all of horror tropes will see where this story is going from a mile away, but that didn’t dampen my enjoyment of it, and I think it was my favorite of the three adapted tales.

I will note, however, that it is very different from the original Hawthorne story, in which old Dr. Heidegger has received some magical fountain of youth water from Florida (or so he says) and gives it to three of his friends—two men and a woman—as an experiment. The trio become young again, but then a bunch of long-forgotten jealousy and resentment concerning an old love triangle between them rears its head, and during the ensuing brawl, the flask holding the last of the water is broken, and the three revert back to their original elderly selves. It’s been a while since I read it, but I was of the impression that the water never really made the three people young; I interpreted it as Dr. Heidegger’s “experiment” being maybe testing whether he could make them think they had grown young through the power of suggestion. I could be completely pulling that out of my ass, though. Anyway, in the original story, no one got brought back from the dead and no one got killed, so I sort of appreciate that the movie took the germ of the source story and managed to horror it up effectively.

The second story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” is the most faithful to the original tale. Set sometime in the 16th century in Padua, Italy, a sinister Vincent Price plays Giacomo Rappaccini, a scientist of some sort who has a lush garden outside his villa which contains one weird-looking and super poisonous plant with spiky purple blooms that seems to kill any critter or person who touches it. Giacomo has a beautiful but mysterious daughter named Beatrice, who never leaves the confines of the villa or its grounds and has never been seen by the townsfolk.

Next door to the Rappaccinis, however, a young student named Giovanni is renting a room, and his window overlooks the garden. He happens to see Beatrice one day and is immediately smitten, but she seems reluctant to get to know him, and warns him that he must never come down into the garden. They carry on a bit of a friendship, her down in the garden and him up at the window, but Giovanni is starting to get curious as to why she’s keeping him at arm’s length, so he essentially muscles his way into the garden one day, much to Beatrice’s horror.

Giovanni is trying to ask her what gives, and she tries to explain to him that her nutty professor father has been harvesting the deadly radioactive toxin from the weird purple plant for decades and infusing her blood with it, basically making her touch poisonous to any living thing. He began doing this, she says, after her mother ran off with another man when Beatrice was just a baby, hoping that by making her unable to ever touch a man without killing him, he could “save” her from ever sinning like her mother had and keep her eternally pure.

Giovanni obviously doesn’t believe this, but Beatrice demonstrates by touching a lizard and cooking it alive right in front of his eyes. She begs Giovanni to forget her because they can never be together, but Giovanni consults another scientist at the university to see if he can come up with an antidote. Meanwhile, Giacomo, while at first predictably discouraging the relationship between Giovanni and his daughter, later seems to have a change of heart, claiming he has a way for them to be together. Uh oh.

This story was pretty good too, although I wish the filmmakers had made it a bit creepier; I love the idea of the affinity between the poisonous plant and the poisonous woman, but some of the horror was undercut by having almost all of the action take place in the daytime. The garden set would have looked much eerier in the dark, so I wish there had been more night action, but oh well. As I mentioned, this segment is an almost exact retelling of the original story, so if you’ve read that, you’ll know how it ends up (badly, in case you couldn’t guess).

The third segment deviated the most from its source material. I read The House of the Seven Gables novel many years ago, and while I liked it, it wasn’t as horror-y as this adaptation made it seem. While the movie kept the core elements of the book intact—the long rivalry between the Pyncheon and Maule families, the search for the missing land deed, the accusation of witchcraft and the subsequent curse placed on the males of the Pyncheon line by Matthew Maule—the rest of it was rather different and exaggerated, with most of the characters and plot threads from the novel removed or changed around. I suppose that was the best route to go, as the novel is quite long and complex, while this segment of the film only ran about 45 minutes. Fun fact: Vincent Price also starred in another adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables back in 1940, which was much more faithful to the source material, though still took a lot of liberties.

In this truncated version for Twice Told Tales, Vincent plays Gerald Pyncheon (who is not a character in the original novel), a scheming a-hole returning to the titular house after 17 years away. His sister Hannah (also not in the novel) has lived in the house the entire time, and isn’t too happy that her conniving brother has come back to the homestead, especially after he mostly bankrupted the family. The house supposedly contains a vault which hides a valuable property deed that will make Gerald and Hannah (the only two remaining Pyncheons) rich again, but generations of Pyncheons have been looking for the damn thing and haven’t been able to find it.

By the way, 150 years ago, the Pyncheon family fucked over the Maule family, accusing a man named Matthew Maule of witchcraft and getting him executed so they could take his land; the very land, in fact, where the House of the Seven Gables now stands. Matthew placed a curse on all the male descendants of the Pyncheons, ensuring they will all die “with blood on their lips” in a particular chair in the house (I think in the book the curse was, “God will give them blood to drink”). This curse has been 100% effective so far, but Gerald, the last male Pyncheon, is certain he can buck the trend, and what’s more, he thinks he has an angle on how he can locate the vault at long last.

In the course of this plan, he contacts Jonathan Maule, a descendant of the hated family, trying to make peace and hoping he can trade the house for knowledge of the vault’s whereabouts. See, the house itself was actually built by the brother of the executed Matthew Maule, who was the only architect in town, and because he was justifiably pissed off at the Pyncheon family, he was like, “Yeah, I’ll built your house, but I’m gonna hide this vault where you shitheels will never find it.”

Gerald’s plan seems to be moving along, but difficulties soon appear. I neglected to mention that Gerald has brought along his wife Alice (played by the lovely Beverly Garland; Alice is also not a character in the novel), who starts experiencing paranormal phenomena the minute she sets foot in the house, including doors opening by themselves, cold spots, and knowing things about the past she has no way of knowing. When Jonathan Maule arrives at the house, she seems to already know him, even though she’s never met him before, and it’s implied that the long-dead Matthew Maule is trying to communicate with her through Jonathan. It’s been a long time since I read the novel, but I don’t think any of that was in the book, and the resolution of the story in the movie is a lot different than the somewhat happy ending of the novel.

This was an entertaining story too, although as I said, it’s wildly different than the source material, and like “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” the changes made were almost all in service of making the stories more horrific, which I can’t really complain about. Some of Hawthorne’s stories were ghost stories, but most of them weren’t really all-out horror in the way that Edgar Allan Poe’s were, so you can see why the filmmakers wanted to try to increase the scare factor in this anthology by adding a bunch of elements that weren’t in the original tales. I didn’t mind that, but just a pro-tip: don’t watch this movie instead of reading the stories so you can write an essay for your English class; you’ll totally get an F.

Anyway, if you’re into Vincent Price (and who isn’t?), classic American literature, and anthology horror movies, you might dig this one, though it’s not as good as Corman’s Poe cycle. It’s a bit slow in places, but all in all, I found it pretty engaging and fun, and Price is always a joy to watch, especially when he’s playing bad guys.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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