Master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe was born 209 years ago today, and the horror genre owes much to the legendary author. Poe’s poems and short stories had a massively formative influence on the detective genre, science fiction, and of course, horror. Poe’s work is a popular source for film adaptations. And no wonder! His terrifying concepts offer a rich mine of inspiration. Classic horror produced some of the best Poe adaptations, and we’ve narrowed it down to five favorites.
So put down that curious volume of forgotten lore, make popcorn, and celebrate a spooky birthday with some classic horror!
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
This delightfully weird pre-code shocker was Universal’s first Poe adaptation. It’s a loose retelling of Poe’s 1841 story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The original story is a closed room murder mystery that is widely regarded as the first detective story.
The 1932 film stays surprisingly faithful to the original, especially when compared to later universal “adaptations” of Poe. The source material is played out more or less intact, and serves as the climax of the film. The remainder consists of a grisly, disturbing backstory to flesh out the reason behind the bloody murders.
The film features a mad scientist played by Bela Lugosi, sporting a hell of a uni-brow, in his first role following Dracula. Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) is hell bent on proving the theory of evolution …by injecting a woman with an ape’s blood to create a “bride” for Erik, his ape specimen. Doesn’t sound very scientifically sound to me, but I guess that’s where the “mad” bit comes in. Unfortunately, his experiments haven’t been very successful, and he’s killed three kidnapped women already in the process. But he sets his sights on Camille (Sidney Fox), a young woman he believes may be the key to his success. Camille is being courted by medical student, and amateur investigator, Piere Dupin (Leon Ames). Dupin is, of course, Poe’s famous detective character, though his first name is changed and he is given more development than his literary counterpart.
Murders in the Rue Morgue is a wonderfully odd gem of early sound horror. The mystery of the original story is lost in favor of showing the terror unfold from the beginning. But the gory concept and “anything goes” pre-code nature of it all more than makes up for it! The film piles on raunchy humor from the start, making this a great treat for fans of early 30s naughtiness. And the horror itself doesn’t hold back. Murders in the Rue Morgue also achieves a wonderful, gothic atmosphere, with its dark 19th century Parisian streets, drafty tenements, and bodies pulled from the Seine. All combine to make this film a very successful Poe adaptation!
The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
Poe’s 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher is one of his very best. It’s an airtight work of gothic horror, complete with a foreboding manor, cursed siblings, and one of the best endings in short fiction. It’s no surprise that the story has been adapted for film many times. There are several excellent adaptations, including a silent French production from 1928 that made it to Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” list. Sadly, that version is currently unavailable, save for a few very poor quality versions floating around YouTube. Alas, the struggles of being a silent horror fan! But Roger Corman’s version from 1960 is available, and it’s a very strong adaptation at that!
The Fall House of Usher was the first of Roger Corman’s seven Poe adaptations, most of which starred Vincent Price. It’s a relatively straightforward retelling of the story, with some changes to enhance character motivations and thematic backstory.
Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) travels from Boston to visit his fiance, Madeline Usher, at her family’s estate. There he finds her brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), who refuses to let Madeline leave the crumbling house. He’s convinced that the sins of his family have cursed the two remaining Ushers, and that the line must die with them.
The Fall of the House of Usher is shot in ultra rich technicolor, which is used to enhance the horror. A collection of brightly colored, surrealist portraits of the deceased Usher family loom over the events, suggesting the inescapable curse of the family. A truly frightening dream sequence is shot in trippy washes of colored tints. And of course, there’s nothing like the look of technicolor blood!
House of Usher is not the greatest film of Corman’s Poe cycle (we’ll get to that later). But it’s a solid, effective retelling. And it really delivers the story’s famous climax — the true test of any Usher adaptation.
The Black Cat (1934)
Another Universal Horror take on Poe, The Black Cat was the first film to feature horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together on screen. The movie takes its title from Poe’s 1843 story. Beyond the title, any resemblance to the original story stops. Instead, the film features an entirely original plot and an occasional thematic appearance from an undying black cat.
Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast, newly escaped from a POW camp, on a quest for revenge against his former friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). A young couple, ( David Manners and Julie Bishop) get caught up in the rivals “game of death,” a wild ride that includes corpses on display, satanic rituals, and flaying alive.
Despite the fact that this film can barely be called a Poe adaptation, it remains one of the best, most shocking, and thematically deep works of pre-code horror. The chance to enjoy Lugosi and Karloff on screen, giving some stellar performances and delivering some truly disturbing scenes, more than earns this film a place on the list!
The Tell Tale Heart (1953)
You can’t get much more true to the original than this! This animated short film from 1953 was nominated for an Academy Award and selected by the United States Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry. It was also the first animated film to receive an X rating in the UK. Since it doesn’t do much more than faithfully retell Poe’s 1843 story, I imagine the British rating board feared young audiences might be lured with the promise of a cartoon, only to be traumatized by a tale of murder and madness!
The film features James Mason in the role of the story’s unhinged, unreliable narrator. The man, who is never shown except in shadow, tells the story of murdering an old man and hiding his corpse in the floorboards, only to hear the distinctive sound of a heartbeat from beneath his feat.
The film uses surreal, stylized animation to suggest the narrator’s unhinged mental state, and Mason’s superb narration pulls you into the plot. The Tell Tale Heart is a story that brilliantly uses its short length and simple series of events to horrify. By not straying far from that magic formula, this animated short is a highly successful Poe adaptation.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The Pit and the Pendulum is widely considered the greatest film among Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. And with good reason! Corman takes Poe’s 1842 story and expands it into a truly engaging, frightening, and influential horror film.
The original story describes terrifyingly creative torture of an unnamed narrator at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Corman maintains the Inquisition and the titular torture device. But he builds a frightening and creative gothic horror around it.
Set in 16th century Spain, The Pit and the Pendulum follows Frances Barnard as he travels to Spain to investigate the death of his sister. There, he meets his grieving brother in-law, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) and learns of the Medina family’s dark history with the Spanish Inquisition. Frances discovers that his sister died after becoming unhealthily obsessed with her castle’s past. But could something even darker be afoot?
The Pit and the Pendulum boasts gorgeous technicolor cinematography, a story that keeps you guessing up until the final twist, and some seriously dark scares. The film uses flashbacks throughout that are produced similarly to the dream sequence in House of Usher. But the effect is even more haunting as it reappears throughout this film. The color filtered, distorted sequences unnerve the viewer and suggest repressed traumas of the past revisited.
The unique visual style and themes of The Pit and the Pendulum had a huge influence on Italian horror, including films by Mario Bava and Dario Argento. And with its use of color, psychological undertones, and nightmarish visuals, it’s easy to see why!
Poe’s horror writing is not very easy to adapt to film. A lot of it hinges on a short story format, and a nightmarish quality enhanced by a simple premise with limited character development. It’s difficult to flesh out the plot and still maintain the effectiveness of the scares. But these five classic films took on the challenge and transformed Poe into some seriously entertaining horror cinema! What’s your favorite Poe adaptation? Let us know and keep the celebration going evermore, with fellow friends on Facebook, Twitter, and in the comments below!