This year marks the 170th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. He was a child the last time that the Americans and the British got into a fight; he lived, wrote, and died well before the American Civil War. His presence should feel a lot farther away than it does, especially in a world where going back even ten years feels alien and monumental. It doesn’t, however; a lot of Poe’s themes and ideas seem as embedded into modern culture as they ever have.
Part of that is, unlike a lot of other authors who wrote at the time, we still read Poe, and I mean that in a specific way. We still read him outside of the required reading list in high school, which is typically our only exposure to other science fiction and horror pioneers like Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He is inevitably baby’s first goth author, the gateway drug to the dark universe of delights beyond. Some well-meaning adult in our young lives saw that we were into scary books or movies and said “Hey, if you like scary stuff you should check this out,” and hand us a Poe collection. Unlike Lovecraft a century later, Poe was actually quite readable, and so when we cracked the book open we found that, unlike many classics, we could immediately tell why people have been raving about him for nearly two centuries.
Part of it, if you’re a writer, is that his life was extremely relatable, even today. Especially today. He’s thought of as the first American writer to make a living on the basis of his writing. Note that the word “successfully” is nowhere to be found in that sentence. Poe lived at a tumultuous time to be an American writer. Copyright was iffy at best, and a lot of American publishing houses found it cheaper to just straight-up pirate British literature instead of paying American writers. The ups and downs of capitalism – especially the depression resulting from the Panic of 1837 – made it so that a lot of publishing houses just didn’t have the cash on hand to pay anyway. The spread of cheap(er) printing options meant that publications were starting up constantly, and in great numbers, but would fold quickly and not have much money to pay out for writing in the first place. Publishers were late in paying, or just didn’t pay; Poe would often have to resort to pleading with them to just pay what was owed if they didn’t want to see him starve.
If that sounds familiar, then you may write fiction in 2019.
Despite his life of poverty, he was successful in one sense: people read his writing, voraciously, then just as much as now. His work revolutionized a lot of genres, including the detective story, the nascent genre of science fiction, and of course Gothic horror. Despite this literary advancement, there are precious few good adaptations of Poe’s work, especially in modern cinema. With a couple of exceptions, all of the best adaptations of Poe occurred before 1990. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that Roger Corman went through this period in the early 1960s where he adapted no less than eight Poe stories into films, seven of which starred Vincent Price. In the social sciences we call this “an outlier with undue influence.” It takes up a lot of oxygen in the room, and it doesn’t really leave modern producers with much to go on. Another problem is that there’s no “franchise monster” with Poe’s work. Shelley has Frankenstein(‘s monster), Stoker has Dracula, Romero has the collectivized horde of zombies. Poe has…unease, melancholy, despair, maybe a murderous gorilla. There are no mad slashers (although murders without end), no poltergeists, no showy set-pieces for stars to mug over. It is perhaps harder to sell producers in this age of sequels, reboots, and franchises on stories that are of necessity more tell than they are show.
With this in mind, I invite you to consider the ten best film adaptations of Poe’s work, only four of which were produced by Roger Corman.
10. The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928)
There were a lot of Poe adaptations in the silent movie era, and most of them are along the lines of plays that were staged for the camera. This includes Harry Piel’s 1914 film The Brown Beast and especially D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film The Sealed Room. Later, though, at the birth of the talkie, there was one final silent film that managed to do the horror master justice. Jean Epstein’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928) captures the pathos-laden creep of the source material through a surreal, avant-garde film style. The shots are distorted, dream-like; scenes are shot from the perspective of the floor at times, or immediately behind a rider, as though we are attached to the shoulder. Poe’s writing may have aimed for the broad masses, but Epstein here elevates the atmosphere to a level of fine art.
9. Manfish (1956)
W. Lee Wilder’s Manfish is pure fun, an adventure film that takes Poe’s The Gold-Bug and tacks a stark sketch of The Tell-Tale Heart on to the end of it. Fifties TV cowboy John Bromfield plays Brannigan, the slick-n-sleazy captain of a turtle fishing boat; Victor Jory (the field overseer from Gone With The Wind) plays a probably-insane Professor who knows where to find a vast pirate treasure. The monster man of Universal horror in the 1930s, Lon Chaney, Jr, plays the dumb-but-sympathetic first mate Swede. If you’ve ever read either story the movie is based on, you know how it turns out: madness, murder, and overwhelming guilt. Despite it’s obvious low-budget origins (it was filmed in the dead spot for United Artists in the Fifties after Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford sold their shares) it sells itself based on excellent casting choices and a rough but loving adaptation of its source material.
8. Tales Of Terror (1962)
A lot of Poe-adapters tend to turn in omnibus films, as it turns out. Roger Corman’s fourth Poe adaptation is one such example, presenting three short films that each star Vincent Price in some capacity. In Morella he plays a terminally depressed widow whose wife’s ghost rises up for revenge; in The Black Cat he (hilariously) plays a Lothario who ends up entombed along with his lover and the titular black cat; in The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar he plays a terminally ill man who is rendered into a zombie by a hypnotist. The film doesn’t have the thrumming rhythm that Corman’s best productions have, given the choppy amalgamation of three short films; it is one of the screenplays adapted by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, though, and his skill tends to carry the segments through any rough patches. This one is notable especially for the special effects in the final third, when Price’s face melts to horrifying effect.
7. Two Evil Eyes (1990)
By 1990 the team of Dario Argento and George Romero were famous in the horror community, having put together arguably the finest zombie film ever made, Dawn Of The Dead (1978). As a sort of reunion, the two made a split feature where each of them tackled a different Poe story. The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar is, at its heart, a zombie story, so it’s an obvious one for Romero to tackle. He does so with his usual wit and social commentary; the conflation of undeath and financial corruption can be easily read as the typical Romero critique of capitalism. Argento’s choice is The Black Cat, wherein he posits a Pittsburgh swarming with serial killers who stage elaborate crime scenes; the perpetrator here is framed as a crime scene photographer (Harvey Keitel) who succumbs to the insanity that he photographs on a daily basis. Tom Savini does the makeup and gore for both, and while neither feature is quite on the order of their well-known masterworks, they both make for excellent, contemporary adaptations of Poe’s source material.
6. The Pit And The Pendulum (1961)
The second Corman effort in the Poe cycle is another entry written by Richard Matheson and starring Vincent Price. Here, Price is a crazed Spanish lord with a penchant for elaborate (and probably extremely expensive) torture devices. Of course, the torture devices are leftovers from his father, a notorious agent of the Spanish Inquisition, and the craziness is due in large part to the fact that the wife he thinks dead is actually plotting elaborately to steal his fortune. Regardless of that, insanity and torture are the rule of the day here and Price puts in a yeoman’s work with both. Corman’s attention to atmosphere is the key feature here: the original explanation for the wife’s apparent death is that the atmosphere of the castle got to her, and it’s absolutely plausible. Very few locations seem as authentically haunted as this lonely Spanish fortress; loneliness and despair seem etched into the very walls.
5. Spirits Of The Dead (1968)
Another three-part omnibus, this one by some big names in European cinema. Roger Vadim (Barbarella) turns in a wild, suitably erotic take on Poe’s first horror story, a satire of the genre called Metzengerstein; Jane and Peter Fonda star, and Jane Fonda’s performance sells wild and debauched perfectly. Louis Malle (Le Monde du Silence) presents a steady if somewhat dull take on William Wilson; Bridgitte Bardot steals her scenes, if nothing else. The real treat, however, is the third feature, directed by Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2), who directs an earthy, gripping, stylish take on the melancholy Toby Dammit. Like Corman’s Tales Of Terror it’s a trio of Poe features that acquit themselves well; the difference, however, is that Spirits Of The Dead brings a level of style to the production that wins out over Corman’s singular take through sheer slick glee.
4. The Black Cat (1981)
Italian horror master Lucio Fulci also took on a Poe story. Despite his penchant for making films that somehow eventually involve the living dead, he did not in fact tackle The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar. Instead, he takes Poe’s other walling-people-up-while-still-alive story, The Black Cat, and plays with the concept in a number of grim, horrifying ways. While the titular cat is, as in the story, the beacon that brings investigators to where Jill Travers (giallo girl Mimsy Farmer) is walled in, said cat is also responsible for most of the murders that take place in the movie. It causes car crashes, locks horny teenagers into an airless boathouse, drops an unwitting villager onto sharp objects, and generally terrorizes the small English village where the film takes place. While it lacks the upper registers of Fulci’s famous over-the-top violence, there’s more than enough blood and nastiness to satisfy gore fans while still maintaining the creepy atmosphere necessary to any good Poe adaptation.
3. House Of Usher (1960)
The silent film version may have nailed the surreal nightmare quality of Poe’s prose, but Corman & Matheson’s version takes that nightmare and makes it watchable. A lot of the chatter at the time said it was good entertainment but didn’t quite hit the mark in terms of Poe’s work. Those critics missed the point entirely; a great film adaptation should either obscure the source material in an innovative and bizarre way or else it should make it easier for a complicated source to translate across to the broader masses (see No Country For Old Men or Inherent Vice). House Of Usher succeeds on the second prescription; it comes across as perhaps wordier than it might need to be, but a lot of those words are spoken by Vincent Price in full-on European noble mode, and he sets the tone perfectly. It also helps that the jump scares are visceral, the terror is palpable, and the gore is, especially for 1960, pretty bloody.
2. The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)
My two favorite Poe stories are The Masque Of The Red Death and Hop-Frog and in The Masque Of The Red Death Roger Corman smashes both of them together virtually seamlessly. Vincent Price is, of course, Prince Prospero, the ultimate in decadent Satan-worshiping dandies. When he realizes his serfs are stricken with the Red Death he invites the regional nobility to his castle to ride out the plague. His overarching goal is to break the spirit of a young innocent peasant girl and corrupt her soul to satisfy his dark master. Of course, there is a force more powerful than any god or devil, and it throws a wrench into all of Prospero’s plans. The film is a mixture of Vincent Price chewing scenery and moments of surreal horror; the masqued ball itself becomes a strange, lilting dance that ends in mass death. The Hop-Frog subplot serves to build the deranged Satanic bona fides of Prince Prospero, and provides one of the most genuinely disturbing death scenes in the pre-slasher era.
1. The Raven (1990)
Sure, the jump from everything else on this list to this entry is a little jarring, but consider this: this little segment from the first Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons sold an entire generation both on the viability of Treehouse of Horror episodes and on Edgar Allan Poe himself. I knew several people who memorized the poem specifically because of the segment, and this from a generation where poetry memorization was no longer an expected part of education.
Amusingly, Simpsons creator Matt Groening worried at the time that the segment would be perceived as pretentious; as it turns out, it was well-received both critically and popularly. James Earl Jones is the perfect voice for the poem’s narrator, and while Groening’s concern was the lack of gags, the use of Bart Simpson as the titular Raven was honestly pretty funny. It’s been since recognized as one of the finest moments in the show, and in televised literary adaptations in general. Prolific critic Doug Pratt called it a “perfect adaptation” and that’s honestly not far off. It’s success can be seen as a stepping stone for the show, a sign that they could do more than write gags and be a typical, albeit animated, sitcom.