Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays

Screening Edgar Allan Poe, Master of the Macabre

Opening April 27, The Raven stars a serial killer who reenacts the famously grotesque homicides conjured up by Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) in his many tales of perversity. During his final drunken, drug-addled days, the writer who invented the detective genre helps the police hunt down the mocking murderer.

UPA's brilliant 'The Tell Tale Heart': the old man's white eye is everywhere.

To mark The Raven‘s flight, we invite you to savor some particularly tasty screen adaptations of Poe’s fictions, including American and foreign fare, the oddball and the familiar, the cheesy and the chilling. We’ll tour Poe’s haunted castles and tombs, his dank cellars and dungeons, where ravens and black cats materialize at every turn and raving madmen act out twisted obsessions and monstrous acts of vengeance. On the prowl through hectic masquerades and premature burials will be doppelgangers, revenants and, most especially, exotic femme fatales with monikers like Morella, Lenore, Ligeia, and Annabel Lee. And have a care, for our path’s littered with macabre debris, from “Berenice”‘s perfect teeth to an old man’s “vulture eye” to that viscous puddle that used to be M. Valdemar.

Out of the Vault: ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ X 3

Back in 1928, a wicked-weird version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” featured jagged expressionist design and a truly freaky, dead-modern performance by a dead ringer for Johnny Depp (Otto Matieson). Think of Jack Sparrow gone authentically, convulsively mad while also managing to look like Poe himself. Recalling the madhouse in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the story plays out in a single, claustrophobic room, its walls, door and chairs all deformed into lunatic angles that threaten sanity and flesh alike. As the guilt-ridden murderer of the old man with the Evil Eye chats up the minions of The Law, he deliberately positions his chair directly above the corpse hidden under the floorboards. Again and again, the flow of his exaggerated expressions and gestures of innocence and conviviality suddenly freezes. Then, as though possessed, his head and torso begin to ratchet up and down like a mechanical hammer, pointing out the exact spot where guilt is buried.

Two other dissections of “The Tell-Tale Heart” demand mention. In 1941, future film noir director Jules Dassin visualized a zone of sadomasochistic tension oozing with demonic shadows and sickly lantern light, the latter pursuing and trapping the victim in an ever-shrinking circle of illumination. The lantern-camera becomes the killer’s obsessed “eye/I,” mirror to the old man’s maddening “vulture eye.”

In 1953, around the time UPA gave birth to Gerald McBoing Boing, the animation studio released a classic cartoon Tell Tale Heart,” all stylized hallucination from the POV of a madman: gorgeous, terrifying imagery adrift in the darkness of an unmoored mind. Floating in that destabilizing medium, amid wild washes of bright or somber color, everything—moth, pitcher, teacup, gibbous moon—conjures the old man’s bedeviling orb. Throughout, James Mason’s insanely urbane narration edges us deeper into horror: “TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?”

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