Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ten Mysterious and Imaginative Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations

According to imdb, Edgar Allan Poe’s works have been adapted 287 times as of this writing. With eight of those not even seeing release yet, the penner of weird and gloomy tales hasn’t fallen off the radar of film and TV creators one iota. That’s a lot of stuff to sift through, and I won’t pretend I’ve seen all of those adaptations. I have seen enough to put together a short list of unmissable realizations of Poe stories, the faithful and the far out, the straight and the surreal, the subtle, the hilarious, the animated, and the bloody. Here are ten great Edgar Allan Poe adaptations you might want to cram in today in honor of his 205th birthday.

1. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928- dir. Jean Epstein)

Edgar Allan Poe is unquestionably among the most popular writer’s in history, which accounts for why he’s been adapted so many times. However, his work usually doesn’t lend itself to faithful adaptation. He’s often a lot more interested in piling on the words to fashion a mood than he is in telling a story. Perhaps this too is a reason for his popularity among filmmakers. An oft-adapted story such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” is so lacking in plot that it allows an interpreter to take it in any number of interesting directions. French filmmaker Jean Epstein did that in his silent adaptation from 1928, using spare surreal imagery to convey the dread Poe labors to conjure in his story. With assistance from co-writer Luis Buñuel, then making “Un Chien Andalou” with Salvador Dali, Epstein welds together an assortment of fantastical, unforgettable images. The odd ones—disorienting pov shots, nightmarish sets, screwing frogs—pack as much power as the ones that are now regarded as spooky movie clichés—mysteriously extinguishing candles, billowing curtains, reanimated corpses. Even as the story takes its liberties with the source material, the presentation conveys the atmosphere of a Poe story uncannily, which is really the most important thing.

2. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932- dir. Robert Florey)

After reworking Dracula and Frankenstein into films that don’t rely too heavily on Stoker or Shelley in 1931, Universal treated Poe with a similar lack of respect with its adaptation of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” the following year. The film works mainly as a vehicle for Karl Freund’s expressionistic cinematography, Bela Lugosi’s sinister mugging and line readings, and Robert Florey’s totally wacko plot developments, such as Lugosi’s plot to prove the theory of evolution by shooting up women with gorilla blood. That twist surely would have tickled Poe, whose macabre sense of humor is lost on all those readers who just think of him as a purveyor of opium-spiked horror. Despite the fact that it didn’t quake box offices, Murders in the Rue Morgue set off a mini cycle of Poe movies for Universal. Ironically, this unfaithful adaptation was the closest thing to a faithful adaptation the studio produced…

3. The Black Cat (1934- dir. Edgar G. Ulmer)

…and for proof of that, check out The Black Cat. The story is actually one of Poe’s clearest, and more faithful adaptations would come in later years (and later on this list too), but Universal was always pretty revision happy, and writer Peter Ruric and director Edgar G. Ulmer get downright slap-happy with “The Black Cat”. So long to the simple plot of marital mania and revenge. Hello to a psycho chess match between Satanic war criminal Boris Karloff and sadistic “hero” Bela Lugosi. Karloff’s ailurophobia allows the film to very, very, very tangentially relate to Poe, but his story has no bearing on Ulmer’s masterpiece otherwise. Karloff and Lugosi have never been better matched, both relishing every line of peculiar dialogue, and with its art deco style and insane brew of Satanism, torture, and head games, The Black Cat may be the best film on this list even if its pretty spurious as an adaptation.

4. “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1953- dir. Ted Parmelee)

The first animated film to allegedly be rated X by British censors doesn’t do anything to earn that rating aside from its absolute refusal to kiddie-up Poe’s tale of obsession, madness, and murder. One would be hard pressed to recognize any of the signatures director Ted Parmelee later brought to his work on “Bullwinkle” in “The Tell-Tale Heart” aside from its stationary characters. While that was probably done on the classic sixties cartoon about moose and squirrel to save some bread, Parmelee kept the old man with the “vulture-like” eye, the crazed narrator, and the authorities to whom he confesses his crime from moving for artistic purposes in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Largely limiting movement to a roving camera, stretching shadows, and fluttering abstract figures in this seven-minute short makes it feel like an after-hours walk through an expressionistic art exhibit. James Mason maintains the plot’s shape with his whisper-to-a-scream narration. Rightfully recognized as one of the best animated shorts ever made.

5. Tales of Terror (1962- dir. Roger Corman)

Universal dabbled in Poe in the thirties. Thirty years later, Roger Corman turned Poe adaptations into a full-blown mission. The low-budget tycoon always suffused his B-horrors with enough wit and style to make them rise above the other schlock. His Poe adaptations were more like “real” movies made with true care, innovative flair, and relative respect for the source material. Starting his cycle with the fine House of Usher in 1960 and continuing the following year with the even better Pit and the Pendulum and The Premature Burial, Corman hit his first significant peak in 1962 with Tales of Terror. The portmanteau gave him the opportunity to tackle four different Poe stories across three segments, and the abbreviated running times made those concise stories feel more faithfully adapted even when Corman was taking liberties. Case in point, “The Black Cat”, which mingles that story with “The Cask of Amontillado” and spins both into a more slapstick sphere (Price and Joyce Jameson playing catch with Lorre’s head, for example) than Poe ever dreamed. With ace interplay between Peter Lorre and Vincent Price, and lots of proto-psychedelic camerawork from Corman, this is the best episode of “Tales of Terror”, but the more sincerely grim “Morella” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” are strong and pleasingly to-the-point too.

6. Masque of the Red Death (1964- dir. Roger Corman)

Because he adapted Poe so many times—and because so many of those adaptations were really good—it would have been easy to load this list with Roger Corman movies. But I decided to not get greedy and limited him to just two movies. Of all his Poe films, the biggest “must include” is Masque of the Red Death. Here is the culmination of all we’d seen in his earlier adaptations: the phantasmagoria, eyeball-blasting color, style, humor, and horror. And let’s not forget the presence of Vincent Price, perhaps the most essential ingredient in a Roger Corman Poe picture. Price is the embodiment of the director’s penchant for the funny, grim, and strange. Corman also gets big boosts from writer Charles Beaumont, who weaves together the Poe stories “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Hop Frog” together as ingeniously as his fellow “Twilight Zone” scribe Richard Matheson did with “The Black Cat” and “Amontillado” in Tales of Terror, and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who’d also become a director of no small surrealistic skills soon enough. The Masque of the Red Death isn’t quite as great a film as Epstein’s House of Usher or Ulmer’s The Black Cat, but as far as Edgar Allan Poe adaptations go, this must be the definitive one.

7. Histoires extraordinaires (1968- dir. Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini)

The great novelty of the portmanteau Histoires extraordinaires is that it bypasses “The Black Cat”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Raven”, and all of the other over-adapted Poe stories to dig a lot deeper. It also scores three dissimilar filmmakers to bring this trio of obscure tales into being. Roger Vadim’s stamp is clearly on “Metzengerstein”, from his then wife Jane Fonda taking the lead role as a crazed lady Caligula to her peek-a-boo Barbarella wardrobe to the especially perverse touch of casting her brother Peter to play the object of her obsession. Louis Malle handles “William Wilson”, the most faithful of the stories, though like Vadim, he ups the level of the title character’s sadism, having him dangle a kid over a well of rats, attempt to vivisect a woman, and whip black-wigged Brigitte Bardot. Fellini veers so way, way off his source material that he changed the title of “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” to “Toby Dammit”. Set in contemporary Rome and rich in Fellini’s carnivalisms, the piece is more similar to 8 ½ than anything Poe ever wrote. The climax seems designed to mirror Jayne Mansfield’s recent death. This final episode is usually held up as the best, though there’s a bit too much of Terrence Stamp driving around in a noisy sports car. Vadim’s piece actually sets the best balance between story and style, though all three episodes are distinctive interpretations of Poe stories you probably won’t see interpreted much elsewhere.

8. “The Raven” from “The Simpsons” (1990- dir. David Silverman)

Matt Groening was apprehensive about the segment that capped the very first “Treehouse of Horror”. He was afraid “The Raven” would be “the worst, most pretentious” thing “The Simpsons” had pulled yet (and it hadn’t even been around that long). True, this is not your usual “Simpsons” avalanche of hilarity. James Earl Jones narrates directly from Poe’s poem. The segment is not humorless (the Bart-faced Raven’s high jinks owe a lot to Woody Woodpecker and Dan Castellaneta delivers Homer’s lines with trademark dopey intensity), but the images are more often surreal, distorted, almost painterly. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of animation to ever appear on “The Simpsons”, and since it follows the laugh-packed “Bad Dream House” (based on The Amityville Horror) and “Hungry are the Damned” (based on “To Serve Man”), one doesn’t really mind that “The Raven” isn’t that funny. Even as a stand-alone short (and at about five minutes, a very short short indeed—listen to how fast Jones raps in order to get in as much of Poe’s words as possible!) it is a superbly evocative and artful adaptation.

9. “Pit and the Pendulum” (1995- dir. Jan Švankmajer)

Jan Švankmajer is the master of creepy stop-motion, but this adaptation takes advantage of his editing and photography skills more than his animation mastery (which he only puts to use halfway through the fifteen minute short when some mechanical figures shudder to life). “Pit and the Pendulum” plays out as a series of p.o.v. shots, each one suitable for framing in a black & white photo exhibit. The giant pendulum descends from the mouth of a skull. A pit yawns into black nothingness below. Wrists fight against restraints. Rats skitter and gnaw. The pendulum drops closer. With such stark images so nerve-wrackingly cut together, “Pit and the Pendulum” conveys the suspense and Gothic dread of the story perfectly without a murmur of dialogue.

10. “The Black Cat” from “Masters of Horror” (2007- dir. Stuart Gordon)

For his two installments of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series, Stuart Gordon revisited his favorite author, H.P. Lovecraft, to adapt “Dreams in the Witch-House”, and one he’d only adapted once before with 1991’s The Pit and the Pendulum. His version of “The Black Cat” strikes an ingenious balance between faithfulness and postmodern revisionism, inserting Poe, himself, into the tale. Gordon’s mash of fiction and history casts the writer as the narrator of his own tale and his beloved and sickly wife/cousin Virginia “Sissy” Poe as the narrator’s doomed wife. Elyse Levesque is beautiful but a bit wooden as Sissy. This piece really belongs to Gordon-mainstay Jeffrey Combs, whose sensitive psycho portrayal of Poe is brilliant. Gordon scales back some of the more cartoonish aspects of his filmmaking, though the gore is distractingly excessive for such an otherwise witty and stylish film. My fellow cat lovers will find a couple of scenes really hard to watch. Combs is impossible to take your eyes off, his work making “The Black Cat” one of the very best adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s very, very, very adapted body of work.  

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