Roger Corman, directed, Morella. In Tales of Terror, directed by Corman. USA: AIP, 1962.
What happens after death to someone who does not choose to stay dead--someone like Morella? —Vincent Price in voiceover as the general narrator of Tales of Terror
Itself by Itself, ONE everlastingly, and single. —Plato's Symposium, quoted and translated by Poe as the epigraph to "Morella"
I This ghost of flesh, sighs Vincent Price (as though we could tell which flesh from which ghost), about himself, it seems, or rather, the role he’s playing, that of Locke, boozy widower and child abandoner, in a lilac dressing gown on which large paisleys chase one another like sportive fetuses in an aquarium of the unborn, and the collar of which (ah, occult ministrations of production design!) seems of the same fabric as the hat and dress, of velvet electrically blue, that his daughter, Lenora, the child abandoned, appears in, to tell Locke he’s been an awful father and that she’s dying at twenty-six, but there’s more than a hint of reconciliation, or so says the close-up that closes the scene, with electric blue velvet and lilac dressing gown embracing with lingering focus on the glossy tangerine that is Lenora’s (or rather Maggie Pierce’s) lipstick, this ghost of flesh, this ghost of flesh, this flesh of ghost.
II This flesh of ghost gets a look in, too, because what I haven’t mentioned yet: the reason why Price is boozy and Pierce abandoned (and fails with men, as she tells Daddy Locke, since she cannot give) is because of Morella, the mother who died four months after Lenora’s birth and whose portrait in movie oils (painted flesh) dominates the father’s room, and who blamed Lenora for killing her and seems to have vowed revenge, and who now says in voiceover (a ghost of flesh), I’ll be revenged, and who then shows up as a black-and-white superimposition (a device almost Méliès-like in its simplicity, as though we were travelling back to the birth of cinema as silent black-and-white special effect, ghost of a ghost, flesh of the ghost of that ghost, re-birth of a now-dead cinema, slain by Technicolor and synchronous sound, everywhere on display here, not least in Morella’s VO and Les Baxter’s soundtrack ) tracking its way to Lenora’s room, re-tracking along its way, the trajectory Lenora follows at the beginning in her electric blue velvet with a tippet of movie--one hopes--ermine, through what at first appears an artfully all-beige interior but which turns out to be gilt covered in cobwebs (Price is bad housekeeper to boot, who keeps one room a Miss Havisham- like wedding feast replete with more cobwebs, spiders, and rotting wedding cake), a cobweb -beige setting that nicely offsets the electric blues, lime greens, tangerines and lilacs (one of these colors we are still about to see), where she precipitates Lenora’s death and who then, for Morella is sultry brunette (Leona Gage) as we know from the portrait, and Lenora (presumably by way of binary opposition), is a blonde, once Price has covered dead Lenora with a sheet, performs the hair trick: the flesh of ghosts.
III The ghost of flesh: it’s only a matter of time, we know, before blonde Lenora turns into brunette Morella, with the hair trick, the one Poe does in “Ligeia,” which means Richard Matheson, the screen- writer, is thinking of Ligeia, a screenplay he’ll write for Roger Corman four years later (but I digress); in addition to being a bad father and sloppy drunk, Daddy Locke has kept Morella’s body in her bedroom (he couldn’t put that beauty in a box, he explains), surrounded by cobwebby beige bed curtains, and that she (Morella) is partly decayed, but mainly electric blue and lilac, which means that she does the body switch in addition to the hair trick: as Daddy Locke gingerly peels back the sheet, we see luscious brunette hair instead of Lenora’s bland blonde--frantic, he checks Morella’s bedroom-tomb, and finds Lenora decaying blue and lilac in her (Morella’s, mother’s) bed (which really means the bed is a tomb), which makes Locke then yank back the whole sheet to reveal, fleshiest ghost of all! not just a living Morella in dead Lenora’s place but a Lenora or Morella with a makeover moreover (the ghosts keep getting fleshier, the flesh ghostlier): while Lenora died in her nightdress (white of course), Morella makes her postmortem comeback, a lamia in lime green lamé (in a regency cut) with very spangly earrings and a bouffant rococo hairdo (even Lenora had some demure bouffants), so she now laughs mockingly, green glittering siren, femme fatale, as it seems Morella was wont to do, because Daddy Locke had earlier explained to Lenora that Morella had vowed revenge because the baby had interrupted her party life and had died only because she had disobeyed her doctor’s orders (dressed up and laughed and danced and sang: is she simply a frustrated performer?), and all of this laughing and partying puts her in the movie tradition of Evil Party People (inevitably women) like Rebecca, the first Mrs. De Winter, who laughed at Max as she laid out her party plans—which made him kill her (and made it okay for the jury and viewers that he did), only Morella unlike Rebecca, is a mother, a Totmom after the fact and before the letter, and at her mocking laughter Locke drops a candle that makes the bed curtains catch fire (a common movie Gothic dénouement) and Morella strangles him gleefully as burning beams collapse around them, for strangulation during conflagration is a theme we have seen not only in House of Usher but will see, too, in Tomb of Ligeia, and the section ends as all the sections of Tales of Terror do with a citation from Poe (to show it’s really POE): the winds of the firmament breathed but one sound within my ears and the ripples upon the sea murmured evermore—Morella, which oddly points up the very difference between the film and the story, since in the story everything hinges on the name—which of course encodes death, MOR), and the nameless father’s inability to name his daughter until she’s ten or so, when he finds himself irresistibly tempted to give in to the only proper personal name in the text and he calls the daughter MORELLA at which point she dies, thus the story is in some way about naming and death or naming as death or naming of death, which is what Giorgio Agamben says when he writes that the message the angel we struggle with all our lives brings us is but one message, that we are dead, and that this struggle is nothing other than language, that it takes us all our lives to read that we are; the film is not about words, so we have the hairdo trick, the swapped bodies: Lenora is back on top of dead Locke while a gleefully smiling Morella, blue and purple, is back in the burning bed-tomb in the final shots: the ghost of flesh, the flesh of ghosts, cinema.
Morella Locke Lenora Leona Maggie
Lo, cameraman, a line, look. Glee, ogler, onlooker, erelong a camellia gleam, a maniac green eel, lo, a gem. Look, roll,-- glee, camera, a man. I look, loge, enroll, gone roll, a megalomaniac role.