Tower of London

Synopsis: Blind ambition meets bloody terror in famed director Roger Corman’s tale of royally bad behavior based on Shakespeare’s Richard III! Starring the king of creepiness, Vincent Price, as a demented despot who’s killing his way to England’s throne – only to be haunted by the spirits of his victims.

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Tower of London 7.0

eyelights: its brisk pace.
eyesores: its cheap-o maquettes.

“Who possesses the greater evil my mother? You who made me this way, or I who have to bare it!”

I’ve always liked Shakespeare; whenever we would read The Bard in school, I enjoyed the tales and the way they were told. I wasn’t a stellar literature student by any means, but there was just something about his works that I found compelling; their tales are universal.

But watching a movie based on Shakespeare? Now that’s another matter altogether. There are some terrific ones out there (in fact, my first ones, Zeffirelli’s ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ and Branagh’s ‘Henry V’ are stunning), but, for some reason, I’m rarely drawn to watching them.

1962’s ‘The Tower of London’ is a Roger Corman picture that he did with Vincent Price to change things up from the Edgar Allen Poe films they were making. Though they’d considered doing ‘Richard III’, they eventually decided to adapt the story of Richard III differently.

The story is simple and familiar: it finds Richard III conspiring and killing his way to the top, from the moment that Edward IV falls deathly ill. Eventually entrusted with the care of Edward’s sons and heirs, Richard finds ways for the crown to land on his head instead.

It’s quite literally a bloody coup.

There are forces working against him, of course, such as the coalition of the Queen, Lord Stanley and the Earl of Buckingham, but they are initially impotent, imprisoned or outwitted. However, Richard’s sanity is showing cracks and he grows more vulnerable to them by the day.

The picture finds Vincent Price slightly unhinged; though he plays Richard in only a mildly theatrical fashion at first, by the time that our villain accidentally gets rid of his closest ally, Price began to ham it up, unfortunately filling the screen with googly eyes and grimaces.

What could have been a guilty pleasure turns into irredeemable camp in such moments, partly because the rest of the picture was made on a visibly shoe-string budget – from the very beginning, it looks like a !@#$ television production, instead of a proper feature length picture.

The sad reality is that the producers saddled Corman with a budget that even he felt was inadequate (coming from the thriftiest filmmaker in the business, it’s quite telling!). The picture was shot in b&w at the last minute to cut costs, and the script kept changing.

The worst of it were some of the props: for instance, Price’s pageboy wig is the most frightful thing to ever disgrace the screen and the maquette passing of as a “castle” in the long shots looks like it was made in someone’s sandbox. It was hard not to cringe in horror.

For all the wrong reasons.

Then there are the scenes that should have had masses of extras, but don’t, like Richard’s coronation, which finds Price reacting for the audience, though we never see what he’s reacting to – we just hear the canned sounds of a crowd cheering. It’s truly a pathetic sight.

But the picture is enjoyable for its brisk pace and its unabashed illustration of evil at work: for a 1962 motion picture, it’s pretty unrestrained – and is nearly unbridled, with Richard unsentimentally killing off one person after the next or torturing them grotesquely.

I’m not saying that such horrible deeds are fun, but when you’re watching a late-night b-movie, one often finds that more stimulation is better. That’s why I was saying that ‘Tower of London’ could easily have been a guilty pleasure had it been a little bit more even at times.

Still, it’s not all bad, and Corman did what he could to salvage this production, using every trick in his filmmaker’s book to make it work. I was even impressed the execution of some parts, such as the apparition of “ghosts” who try to draw Richard over the castle’s rampart.

Unfortunately, by the time we get to the finale, which finds Price swinging wildly over stills of maps and stock footage of soldiers fighting (in lieu of staging an actual combat), and then falling on his own axe, one is left with the impression that Corman had been hobbled.

And no amount of masterful cobbling could fix this.

Nota bene: Vincent Price also played the Duke of Clarence in a 1939 Universal Pictures adaptation of the tale of Richard III – also called ‘Tower of London’. Though this isn’t officially a remake, interestingly, footage from the previous film was re-used in its final “battle scene”.

Story: 7.5
Acting: 7.0
Production: 5.0

Chills: 2.5
Gore: 1.0
Violence: 5.0

Date of viewing: April 3, 2017

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