In 1962, Roger Corman was riding high with his glossy, sumptuous Poe films, and so he was the obvious choice for his brother Gene to hire as director for a gothic, Shakespeare-inspired tale that headlined his Poe star Vincent Price. The opportunity to make a period horror film for a major studio instead of AIP should have been just the break he was looking for, taking him into the cinematic mainstream. Unfortunately, United Artists seemed more impressed with his ability to crank films out on a low budget than in his artistry, and insisted that Tower of London (not a remake of the 1939 film of the same name) was shot in black and white, a baffling bit of false economy that effectively doomed the film.
It’s not that Corman’s film lacks atmosphere – he does a fine job of making the monochrome as visually striking as he can. But nothing can disguise the fact that this has been made as a throwaway effort, and inevitably, the film has suffered critically ever since. A pity, because there is much to enjoy here, even if Corman and screenwriter Leo Gordon essentially take Shakespeare’s Richard III and radically rework the idea into a tale of torture and vengeful ghosts. There is, of course, no reason why Shakespeare should be any more slavishly adhered to in adaptations than other authors are, and the film – a tight 80 minutes – is unquestionably fun.
Price is the hunchbacked and ambitious Richard, murdering his way to the English crown, yet tormented by the ghosts of his victims – how real these are is left for the viewer to decide. Gleefully chewing the scenery in the way that only he could get away with, Price is great fun here, engagingly theatrical and obviously enjoying doing a bit of bastardised Shakespeare.
The film has some unusually strong torture scenes – shot in colour, it might well have matched the likes of Mark of the Devil in some scenes – and some impressively brutal killing, and although the accents of most of the cast slip and slide across the Atlantic, it has a reasonably authentic period feel.
In the end, Tower of London does feel like a missed opportunity – if the financiers had shown a bit more confidence in the project, it could have been a minor classic, but the limitations placed on the film are noticeable. But Corman could make a lot out of nothing- I’m not sure he ever made a boring film – and although this pales when compared to his Poe films, it is a rather better movie than its reputation suggests. Fans of Shakespearean horror – or just those curious about what a B-movie Richard III might look like – are advised to give this one a look.