The Haunting of Morella (1990): Clarkson Wynorski Corman, Evermore

Matty looks back at this excellent Edgar Allan Poe-based shocker and declares it a highlight for its three principals.

David McCallum might get star billing, and a seventeen year-old Nicole Eggert might do a fine job in her dual roles as the eponymous undead witch and her daughter, Lenora, the ingenue Morella’s vexed spirit slowly possesses, but make no mistake: THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA (1990) is Lana Clarkson’s show through and through.

Though nowadays reduced to a footnote in the bizarre life of music svengali Phil Spector — the Wall of Sound innovator-cum-murderer having callously, needlessly, taken her life at the age of forty on 3rd February 2003 — back in the ‘80s, the late, great Clarkson was a B-movie goddess. A hot commodity for producer Roger Corman, Clarkson had earned a boatload of admirers for her titular turn in Corman’s 1985 Conan/Red Sonja cash-in, Barbarian Queen. Noting how she continually received far more fan mail than the other starlets of his production line, Corman insisted director Jim Wynorski cast Clarkson in The Haunting of Morella. And what a choice she was. Exuding authority, brimming with danger, and oozing sex appeal, the leggy Clarkson is stupendous as the wicked Coel Devereux — the lover/minion of the executed Morella, who masquerades as Lenora’s governess in order to facilitate her beau’s vengeful resurrection.  

Like Clarkson, come The Haunting of Morella, Wynorski’s tent was firmly pitched in the Corman camp. Wynorski began his career in the advertising department of Corman’s New World Pictures and had went on to script Sorceress (1982) and Forbidden World (1982) for Corman before crafting his sophomore directorial venture, Chopping Mall (1986), under the wily exploitation maven’s tutelage [1]. In quick succession, Wynorski spearheaded the Corman-produced Deathstalker II (1987), Big Bad Mama II (1987), Not of This Earth (1988) and Transylvania Twist (1989), and built enough cache within ol’ Roger’s ranks to convince the maverick genre-meister to bankroll something of a passion project: a fresh, Wynorski-helmed addition to Corman’s iconic Poe cycle. 

Despite a few unsubstantiated murmurs suggesting that Corman was initially wary of Wynorki’s proposed Poe-pourri, The Haunting of Morella was given the green light. In hindsight, you can pinpoint a couple of reasons for that. First, horror flicks were still doing healthy business, particularly in the video arena. And second, Edgar Allan Poe-based movies were a bit of a ‘thing’ again. Harry Alan Towers had belted out The House of Usher (1989), Buried Alive (1989), and The Masque of the Red Death (1989), and Corman himself was already in the process of reimagining his own 1964 version of Masque, replacing the mighty Vincent Price with the significantly less mighty Adrian Paul for a serviceable 1989 update shepherded by Larry Brand. Ultimately, following what Variety described as a “weak” domestic theatrical run (it opened in sixty cinemas in the Midwest on 13th February 1990), The Haunting of Morella would share shelf space with those entertaining, if slight, titles in U.S. video stores (maddeningly, it remains unreleased here in the U.K.). But in terms of style and quality, The Haunting of Morella is streets ahead; a pinnacle of this brief Poe revival [2], of Corman’s early ‘90s slate, and of Wynorski’s career.

Poe’s 1835 short story Morella had, of course, been tackled by Corman in his classic portmanteau Tales of Terror (1962) — a superlative fright compendium that also featured segments inspired by Poe’s The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. While Corman and Tales of Terror’s scripter, the legendary Richard Matheson, played fast and loose with Poe’s source material, they held true to Morella’s central themes of identity, death, and supernatural revenge. Wynorski’s adaptation, penned with longtime writing partner R.J. Robertson [3], follows suit and his accomplished shocker, which is both literate and cine-literate, cribs as much from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) as it does Poe’s original text and Corman and Matheson’s interpretation [4].      

Gorgeously shot with a soft, dreamy sheen by his go-to DoP Zoran Hochstatter, and backed by a stunning orchestral score by Frederic Teetsel and Chuck Cirino, The Haunting of Morella represents a rare excursion into more serious-minded horror fare for Wynorski. Eschewing the tongue-in-cheek humour that typifies his most famous genre work, it’s no coincidence that two of Wynorski’s finest subsequent jolters, 976-EVIL II (1991) and Sorceress (1995), repurpose several of The Haunting of Morella’s ideas and scenes — specifically those that involve the blurred lines between fantasy and reality. Wynorski’s never-ending onslaught of macabre visuals are astounding. Measured, creepy, and crafted with tremendous flair and command, the gruesome, Barker-esque moment where Morella’s decomposed corpse (designed and fabricated by Dean and Star Jones) hisses that “[she]… Still… Lives!” is beautifully icky, and the sequence in which Lenora navigates a crimson-soaked hellscape is a marvellous, chunky blast of phantasmagoria [5]. As stated, Eggert is of decent value as Morella/Lenora — roles initially offered to Wynorski’s Not of This Earth lead Traci Lords — but it’s Wynorski’s swirling tech credentials that sell her predicament and ensuing existential crisis as she gets to grips with her tainted lineage.

“It’s the first out and out horror film I’ve done,” the director explained to Toxic Horror during The Haunting of Morella’s post production. “I wanted to combine the atmosphere of a French film and a Hammer horror movie, maybe Terence Fisher with Roger Vadim… We found locations which had, especially at sundown, a H.P. Lovecraft look to them. I used gradation lenses for mood, and soft lenses to give the film the impression of looking through smoky glass.” [6]           

Set in Colonial America, The Haunting of Morella’s period dressings are superb — and those that aren’t quite as stellar (ie. those which snark-bores usually cite as anachronisms: the oh-so-’80s bouffant hairstyles and the skimpy bikini bottom underwear sported by Clarkson and fellow Corman starlet Maria Ford) feed into Wynorski’s stylised world-building. True historical accuracy is irrelevant. Instead, The Haunting of Morella is positioned in an alternative past where ghoulish elegance, anxiety-inducing superstition, and crotch-quivering beauty go hand in hand in a slightly exaggerated fashion, Wynorski’s painterly focus on Gary Randall’s robust production design and Sandra Arya Jensen’s saucy costuming heightening the film’s gothic poise, nightmarish ambience, and sizzling sense of bodice-ripping eroticism.

“We put a lot of sensuality into a very explicit story,” said Wynorski of The Haunting of Morella’s blend of chills and carnality. “We added some terrifying elements to create a film that, hopefully, will arouse and shock… There’s nothing more exciting than seeing sensuality on screen. And when I say that, I don’t just mean a pair of forty foot breasts; I’m talking about something as subtle as a look, a kiss, or water on a naked back.” [7] 

[1] As Wynorski told Bill George in the pages of Horrorfan, Vol. 1, No. 1, December 1988: “I became involved with Roger in 1979 when I had come out to see his wife, Julie Corman, about doing a film based on a script entitled Mutant [which became Forbidden World]. Julie wasn’t interested in the project, but she saw some potential in the writing and spoke to Roger about it. Roger called me into his office and, fifteen minutes later, I was his advertising director, a position formerly occupied by Joe Dante and Allan Arkush. I then started designing New World’s posters, press-books, newspaper ads, and radio and television spots. That led to some film editing, and finally I started writing, directing and line-producing.”
[2] Other Poe-sploiters of the era: Luigi Cozzi’s The Black Cat (1990), George A. Romero and Dario Argento’s Two Evil Eyes (1990), Fred Olen Ray’s Haunting Fear (1990), and Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1991).
[3] Prior to his death in 1994, the sorely missed Robertson co-authored fourteen films with Wynorski, including Little Miss Millions (1993) and Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (1991), and the aforementioned Forbidden World, Not of This Earth, and Transylvania Twist.
[4] Further nods to other media and figures include: Lenora’s suitor, Brewster Gold’s Miles Archer, being named after a character in crime author Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon (Archer was the partner of hard-boiled ‘tec poster boy Sam Spade), and the multitude of references attached to McCallum’s Gideon Locke. Character-wise, Locke is Morella’s widowed husband/Lenora’s spooked-out Dad, and his surname tips its hat to eighteenth century philosopher John Locke, whose philosophies influenced Poe. McCallum’s casting, meanwhile, is pure fanboyism on Wynorski’s part: Wynorski is a Man From U.N.C.L.E. anorak and had previously cast McCallum’s U.N.C.L.E. co-star, Robert Vaughn, in Transylvania Twist. When Wynorski learnt that McCallum was available for The Haunting of Morella, well, the decision was a no-brainer.
[5] In fact, this passage is so good that Corman would use clips from it and copy it nearly beat-for-beat in his later period scare romp, the Moscow-lensed Haunted Symphony (1995).  
[6], [7] Spiralling into Hell by David Lyle Almquest, Toxic Horror #5, August 1990

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