You gotta love the 1960s and 1970s and their adoration of anthology horror. As with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Tales From the Crypt (1972), and Black Sabbath (1963), Twice-Told Tales borrows from popular culture to craft a series of macabre tales based on the works of Nathaniel Hawthorn. Usually receiving the full-feature treatment Twice-Told Tales takes a trio of Hawthorne’s best known stories most commonly identified as being mired in the supernatural to create chills despite giving little validation for its existence.
“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” sees Dr. Carl Heidegger (Sebastian Cabot) discover a potion to resurrect his deceased fiancee. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” involves a young woman named Beatrice (Joyce Taylor) unable to leave her garden due to her father’s (Vincent Price) experiments. And in “The House of the Seven Gables” the Pyncheon family has suffered from a curse for over 100 years due to a lost inheritance.
Liberally borrowing short stories is nothing new for the anthology films; jut look at how many movies have lifted W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” At least one of these works, “House of the Seven Gables,” is presented in a highly truncated format with much of the symbolism lost, leaving one wondering why all three are shoehorned in all – the interest of round numbers? There are also questions about why tell these stories are in the omnibus format. A skeleton hand turns book pages in a literal evocation of these stories’ origins, and outside of the obvious authorial connection and Vincent Price’s performance there’s no attempt to connect the various threads, unlike works like Dead of Night (1945) or Dr. Terror’s.
Produced by Admiral Pictures and theatrically released by United Artists, there’s no low-budget horror film aesthetic you’d find produced by a studio like AIP. The aging effects in “Heidegger’s Experiment” are rendered well, even if they’re just various shots layered on top of one another. The use of a standing skeleton also looks great. The various English manor houses look sufficiently opulent and grand, particularly the Pyncheon estate. And Kino’s recent Blu-ray of this sparkles with a bright, bold transfer best displayed in the opening credits.
“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” starts the film strong, resting on the talents of Sebastian Cabot and Vincent Price as old friends reminiscing about life and loss, specifically Heidegger’s loss of his fiancée, Sylvia (Mari Blanchard). Through a silly bit of plot that only Hawthorne could think of and Hollywood would follow, the water from Sylvia’s crypt has kept her preserved, leading to Heidegger’s discovery of its youthful properties. Reliant on special effects – those overlapped process shots – the two men become young and resurrect Sylvia. The exposition-heavy dialogue gets in the way, right down to Heidegger telling the audience exactly what they’re watching – “she’s breathing…she’s opening her eyes.” and Blanchard does little more than sit in a bosom-baring gown borrowed from the Hammer studio.
All is not as it appears, with the discovery of double-crossing and forbidden love, giving the short story its narrative thrust, literally. Price plays second banana to Cabot, whose sensitive portrayal of a man pining over a corpse for the last 30-odd years is as sad and pathetic as it is creepy. Driven mad by a love that can never be and was never as it appeared turns into a final morality play the Twilight Zone would utilize. Never overstaying its welcome, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” stands out as the best of the trio.
One of Hawthorne’s more anthologized stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a fun tale of science and body horror, with young Beatrice an 1800s take on Poison Ivy. Leading into this story we get narration from Price that wasn’t present in the first story and doesn’t arrive in the third. There’s no need for it and it distracts from the story. Best described as a romance between a man and a girl with acid hands, this version of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” loses all the original story’s nuance, emphasizing the literal. A tale of perception and adoration soon becomes something in the vein of The Fly (1958), with Price’s Rappaccini a mad scientist trying to give his daughter what she wants through scientific experimentation. The story takes on a devil’s threesome tale of father, daughter, and daughter’s intended with all the men fighting over Beatrice body and soul. The heart of the story is missed and becomes a generic monster tale; King Kong embodied as a poisonous young woman, falling prey to the love of a good man who ultimately saves her.
Previously adapted in 1940, with Price starring as a character excised from this iteration, “The House of the Seven Gables” is the loosest adaptation in the bunch with much of the characterization condensed to the bare essentials. The story shifts to a married couple – Price and Beverly Garland’s Alice Pyncheon, returning to the ancestral estate with Price’s Gerald Pychneon looking for a lost inheritance.The entire thing plays like a hokey mash-up of The Mummy (1932) and The Canterville Ghost (1944) with so much time devoted to flashbacks, reincarnation, and a curse. Unlike “Rappaccini’s Daaughter” the love story is the main focus, although the aforementioned flashbacks and reincarnation sound silly.
Failing to explicate the source material Twice-Told Tale’s interest in the supernatural are overt, romances are ill-conceived, and everything feels aged. “Heidegger’s Experiment” is worth a watch, but the latter two fail to live up to the Hawthorne originals.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.