Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

30 Days of Madness, Day 25 — The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

pitpendulum1

Quickie Review: Produced and directed by Roger Corman, adapted by the great Richard Matheson from the story by the great Edgar Allan Poe, these guys knew how to do atmospheric horror. Beautiful production design by Daniel Haller and cinematography by Floyd Crosby, great brooding music by Les Baxter, and a great cast that includes John Kerr, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, scream queen Barbara Steele, and the one and only Vincent Price. This is a Poe mystery done right.

Final grade: A

My Flickchart ranking: #438 (out of 3270, a relative 87/100)

Straight Adaptations: The Road v. The Da Vinci Code

By Nathanael Griffis

Why do they have to change everything? moans the viewer as he leaves the theater disappointed that a certain ethos was not captured, that a character’s appearance was different, or that they were cut entirely. Well, sometimes very little is changed. Things will be cut, but these two examples are about as loyal to their source materials as movies get. The problem is that loyalty is not always a good thing. On the one had we have The Road, one of the great post-apocalyptic films and novels from one of the best English writers ever. On the other we have The Da Vinci Code, which was written by Dan Brown and a lot of people bought it. So let’s begin.

Man, boy, gun, on the road. This is basically the movie.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy’s work is a mixture of Raymond Carver minimalism, Faulknerian description, and Poe’s sense of horror and realism. In the future this style will probably be simply titled McCarthyesque. Because of his bleak, straightforward method of writing, his books translate well to film. All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men are great movies. (It should also be noted that No Country for Old Men is not considered one of his better novels). In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy writes the Texas setting like few before him. It was completely unromanticized. So when he published The Road, what would you expect but one of the most horrifying visions of the apocalypse ever.

The world has ended, and a father and son travel down a road trying to survive while still holding onto their humanity. Post-apocalyptic films, for all their scary subject matter, normally manage to make the apocalypse seem cool. They’re afraid to show you what the end of the world would really be like. A hopeless bleak landscape of death, is what it would look like, and that’s what The Road give us. (Also, it might not include massive shootouts, explosions, or skimpily clad attractive women, so Hollywood is suspicious of it.)

As director, John Hillcoat was perfect for this film. The Proposition treats the Western in the same sense The Road treats the apocalypse, with unflinching realism. Hillcoat rounded up an amazing cast too: Viggo Mortensen as the father, Charlize Theron as his former wife, Robert Duvall as the Old Man, Guy Pearce as the Veteran, Micheal Kenneth Williams as the Thief, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Boy.

Why's the black guy gotta be the thief?

This film is full of startling performances, and it’s a shame it was forgotten during Oscar season. Admittedly, 2009 was a tough year to break into the Oscars with so many spectacular films that year. Each actor in The Road, no matter the size of his role, seems to recognize the importance of it. The art direction is perfect in the film. A scraggly Viggo Mortensen in a gray scale wilderness wipes out any sense of grandeur left over from The Lord of the Rings.

What is really impressive about the film though is the script. To take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and dare adapt it is a challenge to live up to, but Joe Penhall (who previously adapted Enduring Love, an Ian McEwan novel, so he likes adapting modern classic writers) was smart. He took the book and eliminated little. He followed the plot’s progression and kept most of the scenes and, more impressively, most of the dialogue. When he cut it was mainly to shorten a section from the book. In this case it works wonderfully. The horror and tension experienced when the Man breaks into a locked basement looking for food becomes fully realized when you see the still living dismembered people groping about the floor. There are a few scenes of violence and cannibalism in the book, mostly involving children and babies, that the director and writer show restraint in depicting, but for the most part it is staggering how frightening a film this is. What’s so amazing about the book is its sense of hope in the face of utter destruction, a classic apocalyptic trope. Penhall, I suspect, recognized that it was McCarthy’s bare dialogue that lends hope to the chaotic vision, so he doesn’t lose it. There is no attempt to add extra action, a stirring race-to-the-goal montage, or a heavy-handed death scene with a blaring score.

The brilliance of the whole project is that the source material is too genius not to use. The writer wisely chooses to keep its brilliance and not change much. No one but Cormac McCarthy can still convey hope in the face of extinction and have it feel unforced, so why not use his words and his descriptions to make a masterpiece. So what happens when the author is not one of McCarthy’s caliber?

Do you think it's a coincidence that Audrey Tautou looks like the Mona Lisa?

The Da Vinci Code: I don’t think Dan Brown would be insulted if I said he wasn’t as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy, but who knows, maybe he disagrees. Dan Brown is comparable to Tom Clancy. He’s a proficient thriller-writer who does an impressive amount of research. The man knows his art and art history. If only he’d taken some time to research how to write interesting characters and dialogue. He can write conspiracy mysteries and give you a creepy bad guy pretty well. What he should do is read some Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett to get a sense of how you make a more interesting character than the bland symbologist Robert Langdon. I present to you our introduction to Langdon in the novel The Da Vinci Code: “Robert Langdon awoke slowly.” Wow. What resonance. What a strong verb. Detect sarcasm? I hope so.

The issue here is that Dan Brown crafted a controversial thriller and perfected the art of the chapter cliffhanger, producing a worldwide bestseller. Then, with dollar signs in their eyes, Columbia Pictures bought the rights and an impressive cast and crew: Ron Howard as director; a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen; a musical score by Hans Zimmer; a script by Akiva Goldsman (and mind you, the last time Goldsman wrote a script for Ron Howard, it was Cinderella Man, and before that A Beautiful Mind). So why didn’t this work out? Because the source material is not that great, if you stay loyal to it. A long scene where an old art collector explains the finer points of conspiracy art theory is kind of interesting on the page. On film, it’s slow and taxing, watching Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks lecture us on art, which is basically what it is–a poorly orchestrated sequence of exposition and Q&A about Renaissance painters. There is very little action in the story, a lot of globetrotting but lackluster locations, and the Louvre is amazing, yes, but it isn’t shot well.

Paul Bettany as "Darth" Silas

The only character of interest, Silas (played by Paul Bettany), is killed off way too easily, and all tension leaves the movie. The mystery is already solved, because everyone’s read the book, so relying on a mystery is boring. Like I said in my first article on adaptations, it’s about how you tell the story. We all know Romeo and Juliet die; you have to make us care. You get great actors to imbibe the characters with something new, not just walk around old historical structures and look at the ceiling.

The Da Vinci Code is basically the strangest and most expensive thing ever made by the Travel Channel. It’s a randomly planned tour of Europe for only nine dollars. Books do not translate perfectly to the screen. Being loyal to an audience can mean ruining your art form. It takes away the ability of the director, the writer, and the actors to create a quality product. (I don’t know what Hans Zimmer’s excuse was). The book should have been rehashed like Tom Clancy’s novels have been, or even better, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. Take the premise–a symbologist solves the mystery of a historical conspiracy while running around Europe. That’s pretty exciting. But it isn’t.

When it comes to a straight adaptation, make sure of two things: that the source material is interesting and well written, and that it translates to film well. Without good writing and good visual descriptions, it won’t work no matter who’s involved in the project.

Next I’ll take a look at the most common of adaptations–the basic adaptation–with the movies Holes and The Golden Compass.

30 Days of Madness, Day 24: The Masque of the Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) Written by Charles Beaumont & R. Wright Campbell. Directed by Roger Corman. Starring Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston.

The personification of the Red Death is one of the story's most interesting elements.

The Masque of the Red Death is adapted from the short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, with elements of another of Poe’s short stories, “Hop-Frog,” included as a subplot, starring Vincent Price as Prospero. This is my second film this month adapted from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and though surprisingly well-directed in a classic 1960s style by Roger Corman, Masque falls far short of the quality of Stuart Gordon’s “The Black Cat.” (Interestingly, this is also the second film from this month’s viewings, after The Phantom of the Opera, to draw inspiration from Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

The art direction and cinematography deliver designs and color schemes very pleasing to the eye–with “much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm,” as Poe himself wrote, and “much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might [excite] disgust.” In this way, the film captures the spirit of Poe’s vision. The script is well-written with plenty of memorable dialogue, and the cast, led by Price, is well to the task.

My issues with the film are largely with its supernatural embellishments upon the original story. In the film, Prospero is depicted as a satanist, and the plot elements involving satanism tend to become tiresome in places. Furthermore, the overly theatrical ending does not begin to rival the horrific impact of the climax of Poe’s original short story.

My Netflix rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

30 Days of Madness, Day 5: The Black Cat

Oh God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

–Edgar Allan Poe

The Black Cat (2007) Written by Dennis Paoli & Stuart Gordon. Directed by Stuart Gordon. Starring Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe.

“The Black Cat” is an episode of the Masters of Horror series created by Mick Garris, who was also a writer on Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series in the 80s. Masters of Horror ran for two seasons on Showtime from 2005 to 2007–two seasons of 13 episodes each, appropriately. Each of these hour-long episodes was a stand-alone horror mini-movie, helmed by a director known for previous work within the horror genre. This particular episode was directed by Stuart Gordon and stars Jeffrey Combs, the director-actor team best known for their work on the 1985 film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, Re-Animator.

“The Black Cat” is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most notorious short stories, a typically first-person narrative of one man’s descent into madness, which in this case leads from mutilating his cat’s face with a pen knife during a drunken stupor to an escalation of violence that culminates in a confrontation with his wife in their cellar. This episode of the same title is based in part on the short story and in part on the actual events of Poe’s life in 1840s Philadelphia around the time his wife Virginia (played by the beautiful Elyse Levesque) began showing signs of tuberculosis. They might even have titled it “Edgar Allan Poe in Love,” were “The Black Cat” to Poe as Romeo and Juliet was to Shakespeare. The episode’s plot hinges on Poe’s struggle with writer’s block and on his relationship with the woman he loves and how she, and their pet black cat named Pluto, influence his work. As Virginia descends into disease and Poe descends into alcoholism and depression, his grasp on reality begins to slip away and he experiences the madness that would lead him to write “The Black Cat.” The inception of several other of Poe’s works are also expertly and subtly worked into the plot.

Jeffrey Combs, the man who played Lovecraft’s Herbert West a quarter of a century ago and is best known for that role, was, it seems, born to play Edgar Allan Poe. Not only is he pitch-perfect in his portrayal of the writer’s descent into madness, but he looks so unnervingly like Poe that one may entertain thoughts that the filmmakers had taken a cue from their Lovecraftian work and re-animated the man from his grave. The look of the film is appropriate–almost monochromatic in its hues–appropriately foreboding and appropriately Philadelphian. It is reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in its color scheme, all grays and muted colors until a sudden splash of red that all but glows against its surroundings. In both films, it is this which makes the eventual and inevitable blood all the more vivid.

This would be Pluto's "after" photo--as in, after daddy attacked me with a penknife.

“The Black Cat” is one of the most relentlessly horrifying films I’ve ever seen. It starts with a dramatic reading of “A Dream Within a Dream,” the scratch of a cat’s claws, and a mere speckling of consumptive blood on a white pillow. From there the tension is slowly ratcheted up minute by minute until there is an occurrence of violence, that first fully bloody scene which had me squirming in my seat; but each occurrence of violence only heightens the horror until the next, and the next, escalating in the ferocity of the violence until the thoroughly terrifying climactic confrontation in the cellar. I have rarely been so on edge watching a film, and this for almost its entire running time. It is also, however–and partly because of these things–one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. It must be one of the closest approximations of bringing the horror of Poe’s writing to life; and, in the tradition of the best horror films, the focus is on the escalation of terror and suspense, as opposed to so many horror films which are only on gore.

I want to be clear on this: “The Black Cat” is an immaculate horror production, one of the best I’ve ever seen, but it is also one of the most horrific and violent I’ve ever sat through. I took a couple of short breaks during its 58-minute running time just to collect myself before I could proceed.

“Yet, mad am I not–and very surely I do not dream. But to-morrow I die, and today I would unburden my soul.” –Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat”

My Netflix rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
–Tom Kapr

30 Days of Madness: Day 3 — The Call of Cthulhu

By Tom Kapr

 

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and in strange aeons even death may die.” –H.P. Lovecraft

 

The Call of Cthulhu (2005) Written by Sean Branney. Directed by Andrew Leman.

H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most celebrated writers of horror fiction in the history of the genre, his name unabashedly spoken in the same breath as that of Poe, and his works have inspired the likes of Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Stephen King. Unfortunately, I have not read but snippets of Lovecraft’s stories, so this film is my introduction to a full-fledged Lovecraft narrative. I trust the faithfulness of the film’s narrative, and with good reason — it was produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Even the beautiful artwork is nostalgic of the silent era.

Aside from its immersion in Lovecraft mythology, The Call of Cthulhu is also immersed in cinematic history. It is a silent film — yes, a silent film released in 2005 — and it displays its makers’ knowledge of the styles and techniques of the silent film era. The makeup and acting imitate the conventions of the era, as do the impressive art direction and the rousing orchestral score. I was pretty excited to see some Harryhausen-esque special effects. As a huge fan of Jason and the Argonauts and an admirer of Ray Harryhausen’s work in other such mythology-based productions, I often long for the days of stop-motion in this CGI-heavy digital era.

The filmmakers even replicate the usual negative scratches and projections of hairs caught in the lenses that viewers will often see in copies of films from the 1920s and earlier. If I have one criticism, it is that the film very much looks like it is trying to imitate these old films, rather than looking like an old film itself. It is obvious that this film was shot on modern technology and then aged in post-production. I wish they had instead used the old technology, or shot on 8mm, to reproduce the look of the silent era, as it would have added a layer of genuineness to the production that I found lacking.

This criticism aside, however, The Call of Cthulhu is a cool little film, coming in at under 47 minutes, and is great fun to watch, especially for students of the history of the medium of film and for admirers of Lovecraft’s work. It is an interesting look at the ability of madness to move from person to person like a virus, as the obsession with the mysteries of the cult of Cthulhu infect each new individual who hears the story from the last person to be driven mad by it.

And thank God for it after the past two nights’ viewings.

My Netflix rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

 

“The most merciful thing in the world… is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents…. Some day the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light to the peace and safety of a new dark age.” –H.P. Lovecraft

 

Go to Day 5 — Puppet Master

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