The first segment, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is animated in a stylized and sculptural style that works well for the subject. There were features I liked, such as the gradual progress of the house’s collapse, mirroring that of the inhabitants, and some ambiguity introduced as to whether the climactic appearance of Madeline Usher is physical, ghostly, or a figment of Roderick Usher’s fevered brain. One can’t fault the delivery of the narration by Christopher Lee, but, as adapted by Mr. Garcia, the story falls flat. The faults lie in the timing, and in the lack of emphasis at the climax. The narrator runs from the fragmenting house, and it is shown to collapse in on itself, but the ending has none of the power of Poe’s prose: “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.”
This was a problem with most of the segments. The best one was “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the narration consisted of a recording of the story as read by the late Bela Lugosi. The animation was done in a wonderfully eerie style of black on white, with the white background being negative space and all from defined only by shadows. In this piece, the pacing and action had to follow the recording of Lugosi’s reading, which makes it the most successful of the five segments.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was next. I enjoyed the old-style horror comic style, including the fact that the main character (voice by Julian Sands) resembled Vincent Price as he appeared in the Poe-based films of the 1960’s. Again, however, the adaptation blew it at the climax. The rapid decomposition of Valdemar, the ultimate horror of the story, occurs in seconds, in distant silhouette, leaving only a man-shaped stain on the mattress. There is no voice-over at this point, so we are robbed of the power of “As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of “dead! dead!” absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once — within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk — crumbled — absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence.”
“The Pit and the Pendulum,” narrated by Guillermo Del Toro, is perhaps the least successful. Done in a more photo-realistic style, the animation often directly contradicts the text, even as adapted. Admittedly, since the much of the time the character is supposed to be in pitch darkness, it’s difficult to do that in a movie, but his cell is shown as having a window to daylight even as the narration bemoans being immured in darkness. While the pendulum device is well done and matches Poe’s description, the piece totally fails to capture the terror of the pit.
The last segment, “The Masque of the Red Death,” was done in a water-color style that was beautiful to look at, and captured the decadence of Prince Prospero’s castle very well. There isn’t actually much action in Poe’s story—a lot of it is setting the scene, so the animated vignette takes us very directly to the masked ball. Annoyingly, when the specter of Red Death appears, it’s a conventional robed skeleton, rather than the blood-bedewed plague victim in Poe. (In these days of Ebola awareness, one would think that the artists might have portrayed something close to the type of hemorrhagic fever described by Poe--.) One nice touch is that the few lines given to Prince Prospero are voiced by Roger Corman, famous or directing his own freely adapted (but shocking) movie versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (in the 1962 anthology film, “Tales of Terror”). This version of “Masque” is done without narration, so we again loose the impact of Poe’s words, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Conclusion, a frustrating film. There was so much wonderful work and talent expended, all vitiated by the clumsy scripting. I think the lesson here is that, if you are going to play with the finely honed works of a master like Poe, great care is required to preserve his effect.
(Quotations are from the “Griswold” edition of Poe’s stories, archived on the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore’s web site.)
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