AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 13th February, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 79 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
England, 1483. Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of Gloucester and brother of King Edward IV, is shocked when – just before he dies – Edward appoints his other brother George, the ineffectual Duke of Clarence, as Protector of his two young sons Edward and Richard, Edward being the heir to the throne. Richard then stabs and drowns Clarence in a barrel of wine and, backed by his wife, sets out to kill all those who question or stand in the way to his becoming the king. However, his mind begins to give as he starts to see the ghosts of those he has killed….
Historians still debate as to whether King Richard III was as horrendous a villain as William Shakespeare and others portrayed him, and the unearthing of his skeleton beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 revealed that, while he had scoliosis, he wasn’t quite the grotesque hunchback of legend. But it’s often more fun to keep on printing the legend. The idea of Vincent Price essaying a role pretty much defined on screen by those two acting luminaries Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen may initially seem odd, but Price was trained in classical theatre and, as every horror fan will know, later played a whole load of Shakespeare characters in Theatre Of Blood. The idea of Roger Corman making an adaptation of a Shakespeare play may also seem odd, but much of Shakespeare’s work contains what could be called exploitative ingredients [it’s easy to forget whilst having to analyse every word in school that his plays were primarily intended as commercial, even low-brow, entertainment]. And of course you wouldn’t expect a Corman version of Richard III to be a particularly faithful version. Tower Of London also borrows a little from Macbeth and Hamlet, and you can tell that it was made by Corman in the midst of his Edgar Allan Poe phase as it’s very much like them in some ways. But – perhaps oddly – the mix of Corman/Poe/Price and Shakespeare works rather well. Tower Of London isn’t really an unsung classic, but it is quite well pulled off considering the meagre budget allotted to its production.
It’s actually a partial remake of a 1939 film of the same name starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and none other than Price himself as the Duke of Clarence. It even uses a few shots from it, notably towards the end where there was obviously no money to stage a half-decent Battle of Bosworth. Producer Gene Corman and writer Leo Gordon thought that the public was wearying of Edgar Allan Poe and tried to get away from the iconic author. They discussed doing one of the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne before settling on Shakespeare, considering Macbeth before settling on Richard III. Some sources including Gene Corman himself say that the idea originated with Edward Small, an independent producer working within United Artists, who, impressed with Corman’s Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, approached Gene with the idea of doing a Shakespeare adaptation. In any case, the film, at first called A Dream Of Kings, was intended to be in colour until Small decided that it would actually be in black and white just a few days before shooting, which was done in 15 days using much of the crew from the Poe pictures. Small’s cost cutting methods [which must have been really drastic if you think of Corman’s propensity for penny pinching] continually annoyed both producer and director and nearly caused them to walk several times. Box office take for the film was initially pretty good, but when word-of-mouth got out that it was in black-and-white, business quickly dropped off. Price later said he was disappointed with his performance.
After we’ve panned around some candelabra during the opening credit sequence, we get a pan past some pretty unconvincing model houses partly shrouded in fog to a not-very-impressive looking castle, a shot which may have been taken from the 1939 film but I’m not sure. In any case, I’ve seen much better model work from the 1930’s. A narrator kind of gives the basic plot away before we cut to the main room of the castle, and throughout this film it’s obvious to anyone who hasn’t long seen The Pit And The Pendulum that it’s re-using the sets from that movie with just a bit of alteration, but then part of the fun of the Poe pictures is the familiarity of these sets so it’s not exactly a problem. This is after all a film which is almost as much a Corman/Poe film as it is a Shakespeare one or a historical drama. Within minutes Richard, who by the way actually seems to live in the Tower, has stabbed George the Duke of Clarence with a dagger belonging to the Woodville family which frames the dying king’s in-laws, and dumped the body into a wine vat. After the death of King Edward, Richard tries to achieve his ends by intimidating the widowed queen’s lady-in-waiting Mistress Shore into claiming that the dead king’s two children are illegitimate. She refuses and is tortured. First Richard holds her hand in candle flames then, after she’s obviously been heavily whipped, stretches her on the rack in a surprisingly sadistic scene for an American horror movie [well, it is really a horror film too isn’t it?] of the time, Shore screaming and screaming until she dies from the pressure. Later on Richard orders a cage put over somebody’s head and a hungry rat then dropped into the cage!
Richard, whose wife backs him up and even encourages him a la Lady Macbeth, soon finds himself unable to stop killing as he can gets closer to the throne, even polishing off one victim by accident. Shakespeare had the ghosts of all his Richard’s victims all appear just before the Battle of Bosworth near the end, all recounting what he did to them and telling him to despair and die. Tower Of London has the ghost of each victim appear just after Richard’s killed them and demand an explanation for their deaths, which Richard then provides in a somewhat half hearted fashion. This helps make Tower Of London into quite a fast paced 79 minutes [though the poster for the film asks: “Do you have the courage to spend 83 minutes in the tower of london?”, which isn’t quite accurate], which is one way in which it differs from the languid, dreamy approach of films like The Fall Of The House Of Usher. You’re never more than ten minutes away from a spirit or a murder, the most shocking of which involves two young boys being dispatched on screen, with only the last few seconds of the event shown in shadow. This is still something you don’t see very often even in today’s cinema, and especially when the children are likeable characters. There’s a fearlessness to some parts of the film that help to make it hold up fairly well, though it’s never especially convincing [but then how could it be?], and the ‘climactic’ battle can’t help but be a letdown – a few shots of battling soldiers from 1939 with either a map or Richard superimposed over them don’t really do it, but never mind, we’ve had a lot of fun getting to this point.
A female ghost luring Richard into a crypt where a hand comes out of a coffin is a decent horror moment and, while the movie certainly loses something for being in black and white, Corman gives us plenty of his usual effective character placements giving an illusion of depth, and cinematographer Archie R. Dalzell still lenses the picture with some style and gives us some good shots. I especially liked one when Richard is on the battlements and you can see the shadow of his head, looking evil as hell, peeping out from the side of a wall. In a screenplay which sometimes provides variations on familiar Shakespeare dialogue, this Richard is still given to some brief soliloquys [or maybe they aren’t brief – the film never tells us if the ghosts are a figment of his guilt-ridden imagination or actually real] where the camera keeps its distance to show how well Price can dominate his surroundings, and there’s one moment where we feel sorry for him when he says how other children wouldn’t let him play with them when he was small. Otherwise though, he’s a really loathsome character, perhaps his most hateful moment verbally being when he blames his mother for his ‘deformities’. Price, who’s in nearly every shot, looks he’s really bulked himself up for the part and is on top hammy, leering, scenery-chewing form playing a character who isn’t really much different from some of his other roles for Corman. Maybe his performance doesn’t quite have the depth of some of the better known screen Richards, but it’s not required to be because the film isn’t intended to have much in the way of depth either, and you can’t say that is performance here isn’t appropriate. He’s just wonderfully entertaining to watch and can play emotional torment so well. In one bit, his barnstorming seems to even cause the screen to go blurry.
Out of the rest of the cast only Michael Pate really stands out as Richard’s loyal helper Sir Ratcliffe. It’s quite funny [which is appropriate – after all there’s something blackly comedic about the whole exercise] watching him rush around doing his master’s bidding with no questions however nasty it may be. A Micheal Anderson is credited as ‘music director’, which means that the score is probably all stock music. It’s reasonably well chosen and parts of it sound like Miklos Rozsa. In the special features on the Blu-ray, Roger Corman reckons that Tower Of London is pretty good, but that it really needed a bigger budget to fully work, and I entirely agree with him. It can’t help but seem a bit slapdash in places and it sometimes feels like pages of the script have been ripped out [perhaps Small also did this in the pursuit of saving money?], but for something that some Shakespeare purists would probably [in my view wrongly] consider dumbs down the Bard, it’s pretty well executed within its limits. Not high-brow in any shape or form, this lively, lurid and funny slice of historical horror is well worth checking out!
Tower Of London looks very sharp and detailed on Arrow’s Blu-ray, though of course the downside of this is that some of the artifice is even more obvious [some of those walls looks highly unconvincing]. Arrow’s release loses two Price-starring episodes from the 1950’s TV series Science Fiction Theatre which were on Shout Factory’s Region ‘A’ release [included in The Vincent Price Collection 3], but retains the interviews with Roger and Gene and adds an audio commentary. Director Corman seems as nice as always and seems reasonably pleased with the movie, though his chat only lasts for seven minutes, and it’s producer Corman’s interview that is more informative, telling how the project came together. Gene sound just like his brother. The main idea I got from these two interviews is that Tower Of London should have really been made by AIP, who may have provided just enough money for it to really work. The commentary is a delight to hear. Tara Gordon, daughter of screenwriter Leo Gordon who was also an actor, struggles to get a word in edgeways and often just agrees with critic and Price biographer David Del Valle who doesn’t stop talking, but the track covers a great deal and is never less than interesting. We here about the production of Tower Of London, the Corman brothers, and Gordon’s career but of course Del Valle finds it hard to stop talking about Price and who can blame him? He even tells us a funny story about him and a fart machine, as well as giving a passionate defence of the actor and his acting style which will be loved by fans of Price. The two are clearly aware of the film’s shortcomings but are obviously very fond of it nonetheless….much like myself. Kudos to Arrow for another fine release of a minor, somewhat neglected but underrated little film.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
*Original 1.0 mono audio (uncompressed on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*Brand-new audio commentary by Vincent Price’s biographer David Del Valle and Tara Gordon, daughter of actor-screenwriter Leo Gordon
*Interview with director Roger Corman
*Producing Tower of London, an archive interview with producer Gene Corman
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford
First pressing only: Fully illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by Julian Upton