Tower of London (1962) Tower of London (1962) **˝

     There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio— for example, this Roger Corman-Vincent Price take on Shakespeare’s Richard III. Oh, yes, you read that right. Roger Corman doing Shakespeare... more or less. As you might imagine, Richard III looks a hell of a lot like The Masque of the Red Death in Corman’s hands. Tower of London plays up the horrific aspects of the story, laying great emphasis on the evil king’s cruel deeds, and upon his perception that he is haunted and hounded by the angry ghosts of the people he slays on his way to the top.

     In point of fact, this isn’t the first time the story has received such treatment. Way back in 1939, Universal produced a very similar movie, also called Tower of London, in which Basil Rathbone played the megalomaniacal hunchback who tortured and murdered and double-crossed his way to the throne of England. And interestingly enough, Vincent Price appeared in that version as well, playing one of Richard’s numerous victims. This time around, however, Price has been promoted to the central role, as befits his stature in the B-horror world during the 1960’s.

     We join the story while King Edward IV (Justice Watson) is on his deathbed. The ailing king summons his brothers, Richard Plantagenet (Price) and Duke George of Clarence (Charles MacCaulay, from The Twilight People and The House of Seven Corpses), to instruct them in how he wants his young sons, Edward (Eugene Martin) and Richard (Donald Losby), cared for after his death. The duke is appointed Protector of the Realm— regent for the pre-teen king— while Richard is assigned a more informal role. In essence, George of Clarence is to be the brains of the outfit, while Richard is to be on hand for whatever ass-kicking might prove necessary before Edward V comes of age. Though he puts on a big and impressive show of approving of the arrangement, it’s quite obvious that Richard believes he has been cheated. Furthermore, his wife, Anne (Joan Camden), clearly has plans for herself and her husband, plans that involve crowns and thrones and scepters. So we are less than totally surprised when Richard takes the earliest opportunity to murder his brother, literally stabbing him in the back when he and Duke George are alone in the castle wine cellar, and then stashing the Protector of the Realm’s body in one of the hogsheads.

     Richard naturally comes under some suspicion when the duke’s body is discovered, but the scheming hunchback was clever enough to commit his crime with a dagger marked with the arms of a different noble family— specifically, the arms of the queen (Sara Selby, from The Seventh Victim and The Curse of the Cat People) herself! King Edward thus goes to his grave believing his own in-laws are trying to seize power, while the queen— now the only person who could reasonably stand as a rival to Richard— finds herself at least partially discredited at court.

     The queen does have a few friends, though. Her biggest supporters are Sir Justin (The Flame Barrier’s Robert Brown) and his wife, Lady Margaret (Joan Freeman, from Teenage Rebel and Panic in the Year Zero!), whose father, Lord Stanley, is one of the most powerful men in Scotland. The Earl of Buckingham (Bruce Gordon, of Piranha and Curse of the Undead) is in her camp, too, though his support is rather less firm. But the queen’s ace in the hole is Tyrus, the court physician (Richard Hale, from A Thousand and One Nights). Given his position, he is able to keep a much closer watch on Richard than anyone else at court, and he represents the queen’s best hope of sniffing out evidence against the regent before he has a chance to harm the legitimate heirs.

     Richard, for his part, knows only too well how conditional his power really is. If he can be said to rule England, it is only in the name of young King Edward, and he will be forced to surrender his authority upon Edward’s coming of age. The obvious solution— to have the boy and his brother murdered— would be a little too obvious, and would surely cast suspicion on the ambitious regent. Richard has a much better and much subtler idea in mind. He summons Mistress Shore (Sandra Knight, from Frankenstein’s Daughter and Blood Bath), who was present at Edward’s birth, and attempts to pressure her into claiming that Edward is a bastard, the queen’s son by a secret lover rather than the dead king. Shore will have none of it, though. She has always been a loyal member of the royal household, and she isn’t about to breach that loyalty now, solely for the sake of Richard’s ambition. Even under torture, Mistress Shore refuses to betray the king, but her eventual death on the rack (I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever hearing of the rack as a potentially lethal instrument in and of itself— beastly and crippling, yes, but not lethal) allows Richard to paint her as just such a traitor posthumously. At a court banquet, the Protector of the Realm announces that Mistress Shore has been executed for spreading rumors questioning the legitimacy of the king.

     It’s a funny thing about Richard, though— he may be evil down to his marrow, but the man does have a conscience. And that conscience has been bothering him ever since he killed his brother and usurped the regency. No sooner was George of Clarence bottled up in that wine cask than his ghost seemed to appear to Richard, promising dire consequences for his malfeasance. According to this specter/vision/hallucination, Richard will die by a dead man’s hand at a place called Bosworth. And as the roster of Richard’s victims grows longer, so too does the list of accusing spirits that come to visit him when he is alone. Mistress Shore’s visitation has especially nasty consequences for the would-be king, in that Richard ends up strangling Anne to death on the mistaken impression that it is Shore’s throat his hands are gripping.

     With his one source of human affection now lying cold in her crypt, Richard begins to spiral ever further out of control. More and more of his courtiers fall victim to his mad ambitions, until finally little Edward and his brother get their turns. Richard and his henchman, Sir Ratcliffe (Michael Pate, another Curse of the Undead alumnus, who showed up many years later in The Howling III: The Marsupials), sneak into the boys’ bedchamber one night and smother them to death with their pillows. Richard’s subsequent coronation as king of England is the final straw for his enemies, who, rallying around the former queen and under the banner of Lord Stanley, prepare at last to make open war against him. The scene of the final conflict: an obscure woodland hamlet by the name of Bosworth. And don’t let the seeming impossibility of dying by a dead man’s hand fool you; MacBeth didn’t believe a forest could ever march against his castle, either...

     Really, I suppose Tower of London’s main attraction is the sheer implausibility of a Roger Corman Richard III. What’s most surprising is that a director better known for movies like Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Little Shop of Horrors actually does a pretty good job with this lowbrow reinterpretation. It shouldn’t really be a surprise, though, when you think about it. Seriously, if you strip away the blank verse and the Elizabethan grammar, England’s most famous playwright has more in common with a B-movie shlockmeister than your high school English teacher would care to admit. Sex, suicide, Satanism, child murder, torture, toilet humor... am I talking about William Shakespeare, or am I talking about Joe D’Amato? And let’s face it, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Brannagh have been known to ham it up every bit as outrageously as Vincent Price does here. So why not have Roger Corman’s Richard III? And while we’re at it, maybe somebody can talk Jesus Franco into doing Romeo and Juliet... But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? ‘Tis the east, and Lina Romay is the sun...

 

 

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