Vincent Price and Roger Corman made one hell of a team: Price was a skilled actor who could keep up with Corman’s breakneck schedules and Corman could make slick, tightly-paced low-budget fare that gave Price plenty of room to show off his formidable acting chops.
Tower Of London is a film they knocked out together between Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, tackling a different kind of horror via the tale of Richard III, the same tale that inspired the classic Shakespeare play of the same name. Though it was not adapted from the Bard’s work, the resulting film nonetheless play like Shakespeare for the drive-ins, with the soliloquies downplayed in favor of the killings and ghosts.
The plot of Tower Of London focuses on Richard III (Price), an infamous English nobleman. When he is passed over by the dying King Edward IV (Justice Watson), in favor of his brother Clarence (Charles Macaulay) and his young nephews, Richard begins assassinating and torturing his way to the Throne. However, he finds himself haunted by the ghost of each victim and he struggles to keep his wicked plans together as the ever-growing Greek chorus of ghosts tell him that his ambition to be king will ultimately end with doom and death.
Simply put, Tower Of London is a historical drama rebuilt to suit the needs of the b-movie audience: Richard has claimed his first victim by the eight minute mark and that victim returns as a ghost a few minutes later. The script, penned by a team including veteran b-movie writer Leo Gordon, strips the characterizations and the dialogue to the bone to transform the tale into a rollercoaster of palace intrigue, killings and hauntings.
This approach works for two reasons. The first is Corman’s tidy and economical direction: he keeps the pacing as taut as the dialogue-driven script will allow and frequently digs into the bag of atmospheric tricks he was developing on his concurrent Poe film series to give the film a creepy, haunted atmosphere. His craftiness is at a high pitch here: he achieves the illusion of a huge battle scene near the film’s end by optically imposing footage of Price over smartly-chosen stock footage from the ’30s era version of Tower Of London.
The second reason is Price’s performance. He gets to call on his stage training for the barrage of Shakespearean theatrics his role demands and he clearly is having a ball doing so. It’s one of his hammiest performances – but that is a compliment and not a criticism because the film’s “all killer, no filler” approach demands the kind of full-tilt villainy he brings here. Whether he’s tormenting a victim or alternately raging at and cowering from ghosts, he’s a bombastic delight to watch.
In short, Tower Of London is proof that even highbrow historical material can be made accessible for a drive-in audience if you have the right talent handling it – and the team of Price and Corman make this a fast, gleefully nasty romp through history’s dark backpages.