Lo! 'tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.
-"The Conquerer Worm"
John Cusack's "The Raven"--which has already made an ignominious retreat from public view--is merely the latest in an astonishingly long line of films that have sought to bask in the reflected glory of Poe's name. My indispensable friend Pauline recently made the inspired suggestion that I should devote a post to these often imbecile, usually bizarre, but rarely boring productions.
Accordingly, I present the Inaugural World of Poe Film Festival. (Our motto: "We're Cannes, just without the beaches, the celebrities, the money, the prestige, and the audience.") It would be impossible to discuss all of the literally hundreds of films Poe unwittingly birthed, but here is a selection of some of the most notable efforts.
Did you know Poe was the subject of the first biopic? In 1909, D.W. Griffith (who idolized him) created "Edgar Allen [sic] Poe." Our hero composes and tries to sell "The Raven" in a frantic effort to obtain money to buy food, medicine, and blankets for the dying Virginia. Alas, at the end, when he triumphantly returns to their pitiful garret--"My God! She's dead!" For all the dated hamminess, the seven-minute film is curiously moving. (There was a remake called "The Raven" in 1912, with, believe it or not, a happy ending. Unfortunately, all copies of this film are believed to be lost.)
Griffith also created 1914's "The Avenging Conscience," one of the earliest horror movies. It is a loose--very loose indeed--homage to "The Tell-Tale Heart," where a young Poe admirer is gradually driven to murder his uncle...or does he? Yes, the "it was all a dream" cop-out ending is that ancient.
In 1915, Charles J. Brabin directed "The Raven," based upon George Hazelton's inexplicably popular play (and later novel) which was ostensibly about Poe's life. As is usual with Poe biopics, the results had little resemblance to the real man other than the (mis)use of his name. The main plot revolved around a love triangle involving Poe, Virginia, and a Snidely Whiplash-style villain. At the end, Virginia dies, a grief-stricken, hallucinating Poe writes his famous poem--with a real raven flying around the set--and promptly drops down dead. Oh, and Sarah Helen Whitman--played by the same actress who portrayed Virginia--flits about for no reason that I can see. The failure of this movie is a particular waste, as Henry B. Walthall (who also starred in "Avenging Conscience") made a terrific Poe.
In 1928, Jean Epstein made an impressionistic, and grandly incomprehensible, French interpretation of "The Fall of the House of Usher" (which wound up having a good deal of "The Oval Portrait" thrown in for good measure.) Although, as usual, Poe's original tale gets lost in the shuffle, the film is well-crafted and visually striking, if you don't mind your movies a bit on the slow and pretentious side.
A shorter, but even more avant-garde version of the same story was made in America that same year.
Here's Bela Lugosi in 1932's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Like virtually all films discussed here, it has little connection with anything Poe ever wrote, but these earlier films were, in their own way, effective tributes, although this is one of the lesser examples. Lugosi plays a mad scientist who kidnaps nubile young women and injects them with blood from his prized caged ape. I gather it all has something to do with evolution.
A personal favorite of mine: Lugosi and Boris Karloff chew scenery like no one else in 1934's "The Black Cat." Although it is supposedly "suggested" by Poe's story, the resulting film wound up having absolutely nothing to do with the alleged source material. In truth, it wound up having absolutely nothing to do with anything you have ever seen on this earth. To quote film historian Danny Peary, "'The Black Cat' is only a couple of whiskers away from the movie loony bin." Personally, I think that comment fails to do this amazing film justice. Don't ask me to tell you what it is about, as I am not at all certain it was even meant to be about anything in particular. There's an insipid couple honeymooning in Hungary, embalmed wives, black cats popping up here and there, Satanic rituals, and a feel-good conclusion where Lugosi skins Karloff alive. Plus a mansion that is rigged with dynamite and collapses at the end, a la "The Fall of the House of Usher." All accompanied by an excellent classical soundtrack. This is what David Lynch wants to be when he grows up.
The following year, Lugosi and Karloff reunited to make--inevitably--"The Raven." It is not generally as well-regarded as "The Black Cat," but it is still light-years ahead of that pathetic mess Cusack and Co. foisted on the public earlier this year.
What is the plot of "The Raven," you ask? Really now, does it matter? The title poem is recited like you've never heard it recited before. Lugosi has a Poe-inspired torture chamber in his basement that he proudly calls "more than a hobby." And when Karloff is forced to discuss an uncomfortable episode from his past where he stuck a flaming torch into a man's eyes, he mutters peevishly, "Well, sometimes you can't help things like that." This movie is a joy.
In 1942, Hollywood made another effort to capitalize on Poe's legend with "The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe." The film followed Poe's biography a bit more faithfully than Hazelton did, but it's gratingly trite and overromanticized twaddle nonetheless. Give me Boris and Bela any day.
In that same year appeared "The Mystery of Marie Roget," starring Maria Montez as a black-hearted music-hall entertainer in 1880s Paris. The film makes some vague attempt to follow Poe's story (which was, of course, based on an actual murder mystery,) but winds up clumsily complicated and illogical. It's one of those movies where, if you allow yourself to think for one second about what you're watching, it completely falls apart. However, it is a stylish, fast-paced film with a definite goofy charm.
What is perhaps the best Poe film to date is also one of the shortest. This animated version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” has the curious honor of being Britain’s first X-rated cartoon. (For the violence, I hasten to say. I’d hate to think what sort of sex scene anybody could add to this one.) James Mason’s narration is perfect, and the animation darkly creative without veering into absurdity. This has become a classic, and for good reason.
It probably goes without saying that the most famous film adaptations of Poe are the 1960s Roger Corman productions: "House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Tales of Terror," "The Raven," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Tomb of Ligeia," "The Haunted Palace," and "The Premature Burial." They have all become practically legendary among horror fans, although for me, the immortal Vincent Price was what made them worth watching.
1968's "Spirits of the Dead" (or "Histoires Extraordinaires,") presents Roger Vadim, Federico Fellini, and Louis Malle directing (respectively) versions of "Metzengerstein," "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," and "William Wilson." It's all light on Poe, heavy on late-60s arty decadence. The Fellini segment is usually considered the most successful of the trilogy, but you have to admire any film ("William Wilson") lunatic enough to pair Poe with Brigitte Bardot.
Price also starred (with Christopher Lee) in the 1969 British production “The Oblong Box.” Although Poe’s name was generously splashed across the ad campaign, the movie has—all together, now!—nothing to do with the story by that name. It was even billed as his “Classic Tale of The Living Dead!” which only proves no one involved had ever so much as glanced at his “classic tale.” (I presume there is a special course in film schools: “Taking Poe’s Name in Vain; Or How to Acquire Instant Intellectuality.”) Price and Lee are, as usual, much better than their script, which is in this case a very silly, and not at all scary, tale involving voodoo curses and revenge killings.
One of the more recent Poe films is "The Black Cat," starring Jeffrey Combs. Combs' Poe has, for whatever reason, developed a minor cult following. The film, which places Poe in the middle of his own stories, is entertaining, in an unsubtle fashion, and certainly better than Combs' one-man show, "Nevermore." I realize that play has gotten near-universal raves, but I found the script childishly clichéd, and--at least on the night I saw the show--Combs' cartoonish histrionics had the audience frequently laughing--at all the wrong moments. "Nevermore" did something far worse than making Poe villainous--it made him ridiculous. As another theatergoer put it, "If you hated Poe, this is the show you would write about him."
Also worth mentioning is “The Death of Poe,” from 2006. This independent film directed and co-written by Mark Redfield (who also stars) is part docudrama, part fantasy that attempts to recreate Poe’s last days. The “solution” to his mysterious demise (Poe--obviously already in poor shape--is robbed and beaten, after which he falls into the fatal hands of a cooping ring) is not as outlandish as some theories (which says a lot.)
I had mixed emotions about “Death of Poe.” Unlike many films about his life, it was obviously done in a spirit of genuine devotion, which deserves applause. However, the acting is generally of a community theater level (although Redfield gives a decent performance,) and the production itself is equally amateurish. The fantasy sequences had a stagy, awkward, and rambling quality that made it impossible for me to truly get into the film. And, like almost everything that has ever been written or filmed about the man, it overplayed the "descent into madness" angle. (I suppose the insta-drama of that concept is too much for anyone to resist.) Still, it was considerably more sincere and historically faithful than the usual run of Poe biopics, and some scenes--such as in the early part of the film, where Poe is trying to woo backers for “The Stylus”--are nicely done. (I also liked how Dr. Moran was depicted as being considerably more concerned about his own welfare than he was for Poe's.) I doubt general audiences would respond, (if you're not already familiar with Poe's biography, the film is fairly senseless,) but Poe enthusiasts may find it worth a look.
Well, it's showtime, cinematistes. Pass the popcorn.
That motley drama--oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore,
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.