Diary of a Madman and Twice Told Tales Good and Spooky
By Kristin Battestella
I know I know. Spring blooms fresh fragrances and gentle breezes carry the promise of summer barbecues and crispy delectables galore. And what am I doing? Indulging away from the sunshine with some more spooky Vincent Price treats like Diary of a Madman and Twice Told Tales. Sue me.
In Diary of a Madman, Magistrate Simon Cordier (Price) leaves a fantastical diary account to be read upon his funeral. After sentencing a prisoner to death for murder, the mysterious and non-corporeal but clearly evil Horla that haunted the prisoner attaches itself to Cordier with invisible tricks, corrupt ideas, and deadly possessions. In an attempt to curb the Horla’s preying on his mind, Cordier returns to his art and sculpting work. He hires model Odette Mallotte (Nancy Kovack) to pose for him, but the Horla (voiced by Joseph Ruskin) insists she is not as charming as she seems. The malevolent entity works to ruin the romance, and Cordier vows resistance as the Horla’s crimes increase.
Loosely adapted from several short stories by Guy de Maupassant, director Reginald Le Borg (Voodoo Island, Joe Palooka) and screenwriter Robert E. Kent (Rock Around the Clock, Tower of London) craft this 1963 film with a frame of mystery, mind control, and an early air of science fiction horror. Truly, the only thing that hinders Diary of a Madman is the obvious Anglo takeover of what is clearly a French tale. The costuming, styles, and set design look more like Victorian New York thanks to the standard, bebustled fashions and reusable stock buildings. The fact that there are also no European accents to go along with names like Odette and Cordier doesn’t help, either. There are a few bad effects and some over the top if atmospheric music- but those are part of the old-fashioned sixties horror charm. Though familiar, the spooky house sets have plenty of great staircases and appropriately cobwebbed attics, too.
Vincent Price (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) begins Diary of a Madman as a reputable judge. Thanks to his mellow delivery, strong stature, and proud presence, we believe his good guy origins despite our built-in over the top bad guy viewer meter. Unfortunately, that same meter just knows things are going to get creepy! He’s charming to those around him, but Cordier slowly unravels in private thanks to his lone witness of the Horla’s trauma. Price shows both the strength needed to combat the invisible entity and the cracked weakness as the Horla takes over. Although I must again ask- why are the women in these films always so much younger than Big V? Nancy Kovack (Jason and the Argonauts, Bewitched) is the pretty face, yes, but Odette has a fast look and somewhat husky style that seduces Cordier. Though abstract, long time television actor Joseph Ruskin’s vocals carry plenty of evil onscreen weight and conversational foil with Price as well. Through his dialogue and the invisible hijinks, the audience can indeed believe in this deadly malignance. Yes of course, it can be somewhat silly. Diary of a Madman, after all, is in its simplicity ninety minutes of Vincent Price shouting at thin air! Despite the leap of faith for some contemporary viewers, the cast, suspense, and a scare or two win.
Though not often considered a literary horror grandfather like frequent Price film adaptee Edgar Allan Poe, 1963’s Twice Told Tales takes its cue from the dark and thought provoking stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (oh but I do despise The Scarlett Letter!). Also written for the screen by Robert E. Kent, director Sidney Salkow (The Last Man on Earth) clearly has a small budget with which to work. Some of the transformation effects hold up very well, but the photography is dark or somehow drab with a plain palette and ill-lit scheme. The sound is also quite poor. Fortunately, even with these technical quibbles, the cast and drama deliver spooky and ironic entertainment nonetheless.
In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Big V helps a wonderfully bittersweet Sebastian Cabot (Family Affair) get over the death of his tragically long deceased wife Sylvia (Mari Blanchard, McLintock!) – with drastic measures of course. Again, some of the crypt sequence is a little too dark. However, the Victorian fashion and decor fits the period bill; spooky lightning and depressing portraits add to the lost youth and desperate desires. Yes, this debut segment is a little mellow to start, but it’s nice to see Price as the disbelieving friend rather than the over the top madman we expect. Of course, all is not what it seems, either, and the juicy twists are, well, juicy.
As the possessive father in “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” Price is again on form, as are Brett Halsey (Return to Peyton Place, The Godfather Part III) and Joyce Taylor (Atlantis: The Lost Continent). Again, the Venetian setting is a little plastic in its stage like scheme. However, the period setting with foul things afoot comes across just fine. There’s just something about dramatis personae and a spooky tale to tell that trumps minimal design- and most certainly bests recent horror slice and dice remakes that place visual shock over performance substance.
Beverly Garland (My Three Sons, Scarecrow and Mrs. King) joins Price and Jacqueline de Wit (Tea and Sympathy) for a touch of Salem in this third and final segment based on the famed “House of the Seven Gables.” It’s a bit more romantically over the top than I usually prefer, but the family secrets, ongoing witchy, and accursed houses make for a stylized mix of classic dramatic piece with a hint of gothic flair. Though contemporary audiences may dismiss these shorts from an obscure sixties horror anthology film, or at the least desire feature length, full blown gothic treatment; Twice Told Tales is a fine piece of Twilight Zone- esque bizarrity, performance, and moral examination.
But of course, Diary of a Madman has only recently become available on DVD, and is not currently available with online rental or streaming services. Twice Told Tales also suffers from elusive DVD prints and variously affordable editions, usually double billed with Tales of Terror. The occasional late night television airing can be good for a fun family scare, but the editing and cut material can hamper the viewing for a super enthusiast. Yes, the overly comical, too brief, and of the time low budget horror sixties glory may be too much for today’s younger audiences. Fans of Price and this particular genre, however, will find Diary of a Madman and Twice Told Tales fine, entertaining fair for an indulgent, stormy spring evening.