Halloween is merely a week away, so of course TV and the Cineplex are inundated with all kinds of delights for boys and ghouls. Movies like “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” and “The Last Witch Hunter” are not doing as well as expected this weekend drawing in the All Hallowed Eve audience. Actually, the best frightener premiering did so on VOD this weekend. It’s an animated version of five Edgar Allan Poe stories called “Extraordinary Tales.” And like Poe’s work, it is eerie, beautiful and indeed, extraordinary.
Adapting Poe to the screen is challenging for filmmakers, and their work has always been very hit or miss. Roger Corman did an admirable job putting “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” up on the big screen in the 1960’s, but his version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” is best forgotten. Few have tried to adapt Poe since, most likely due to the difficulty of making his dreamlike narratives and metaphorical characters seem three-dimensional onscreen. But animation doesn’t need to stay tethered to any form of reality, and that gives the medium plenty of license to play with Poe via scale, composition and extravagance.
For example, the first extraordinary tale is “The Fall of the House of the Usher” and the animators render it with designs that could never be achieved in reality. Creating hallways as wide and long as football fields would look well, cartoonish in reality, but here such exaggeration plays sublimely. The illustrations turn the house into one ginormous tomb.
Indeed, the house of the twins Roderick and Madeline Usher is a character in the story, and its arc is the most dramatic. Thus, the animators have a field day rendering each crack, creak and crumble of the décor. The sound design complements it thoroughly and even the whistles of wind surging through the halls in the evening suggest mourning. Yet, despite such caricaturing, it plays fantastically. Who hasn’t read the story and envisioned a mansion as foreboding as this? It’s the perfect marriage of style and substance with Poe. Add into the mix, the droll and devilish narration of the late, great Sir Christopher Lee, and you’ve got the best short right at the start.
Some other celebrities pop up contributing voice narration throughout the remaining four. “The Tell Tale Heart” uses an old radio recording of Bela Lugosi enacting the piece. It was recorded well over half a century ago, but Lugosi’s cryptic take on the young man’s story of murder and madness fits Poe’s words like a hand in a bloody glove. The animation here is sparse, drawn only in black and white. It may remind you some of Frank Miller’s drawings for Sin City. It gives this episode an appropriately nourish feel too.
The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro performs the vocals for the Spanish prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” If you think his inclusion is a bit of stunt casting, you’re correct. However, he’s actually a very good actor and gives the role a fitting machismo and urgency.
The look of “The Pit and the Pendulum” has a computer game feel to it and one would think animating rats and that horrible blade would have inspired the animators to go big and fantastical, but they don’t. Instead, they keep it real. In fact, the only visual gimmick they employ is a split screen effect to create urgency as time is running out for the man pinned under the pendulum. It will remind viewers of the TV series “24”, and that was indeed the likely intent of the cheeky animators working on this one.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” isn’t quite the grabber that those other Poe stories are, but here it’s done deftly and is the film’s shortest entry. Narrated intensely by Julian Sands, the look here vamps the EC comics of the 1950’s, and one of this segment’s charms is that the character of the mesmerist is drawn to look exactly like Vincent Price. Price, as you’ll recall, starred in most of Corman’s big screen Poe adaptations in the sixties.
Corman’s best film was certainly “The Masque of the Red Death” and to honor him, he’s been cast here as the voice of Prince Prospero, the story’s main character. This short is short on narration, and it’s the only quibble you might have with it. The visuals are trying to speak a thousand words, but it could use some of Poe’s sinister editorializing on the upper class ignoring the plague consuming the Medieval countryside in his story.
Still, the visuals do speak volumes as they are the most stunning of any in this film. The character animation is quite an achievement. They are all tall, thin and move slowly, as if they don’t have a care in the world. Moving from one scene of debauchery to the next, we see gamblers, fornicators, and drunkards partying like time is on their side. It isn’t, especially when the Red Death shows up uninvited as proceeds to roam the hallways. It’s a fantastically fiendish visual joke that he moves at the same speed as all those clueless aristocrats. He’s just like them, you see. And soon, they’ll have the pox too and be just like him.
The framing device that holds the five stories together is that of a talking raven visiting a grave site where he discusses Poe’s work with one of the stone figures. The statue is the Angel of Death actually, and she and the bird discuss Poe’s legacy as a writer, as well as the impact that the deaths of his mother and his wife had on Poe’s life. It adds some smart context to Poe beyond what his stories say about the author. And the scenes are beautifully rendered by animated paper cut-outs that play like pages of Poe come to physical life.
Triple threat Raul Garcia wrote, directed and co-produced this enchanting Halloween treat. And if his take on Poe doesn’t quite chill the blood as much as the author’s original prose did, well, that was probably a given going in. What wasn’t is how spectacularly successful this outing would be at bringing the lauded author’s stories to visual life. It stands as one of cinema’s best Poe adaptations. Five of them, actually. And in this season, that’s quite a trick.