Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Poe: The Oblong Box

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/25/2016 – Poe: The Oblong Box (1969)
Directed by Gordon Hessler

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is arguably the most influential horror writer of all time and one of the most influential American writers period. He is responsible for establishing the detective story as we know it now with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, was a significant inspiration for such stories as Moby Dick and At the Mountains of Madness and authors such as Jules Verne. For many, he was probably the first horror writer they ever read, particularly his many famous short stories.

On screen, adaptations of his work date to the silent era with 1908’s Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery which despite the name, apparently adapted “Murders in the Rue Morgue”. The first notable adaptations were probably 1914’s The Avenging Conscience from D.W. Griffith and two 1928 adaptations of The Fall of the House of Usher however (see below for one of them). It was in the 1930s that Poe adaptations hit the relative mainstream with the mediocre and frequently loose adaptations of Murders in the Rue MorgueThe Black Cat, and The Raven.

This is as good a time as any to mention the quality of these adaptations. Considering all but one work of Poe’s (the infrequently adapted novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket) is either a short story or a poem, any film is going to require quite a bit of expansion to fill out the run time. While certain authors and films can get by on this (such as The Shawshank Redemption and 1408based on Stephen King’s work), more often than not, this extra content just slows the story to crawl and turns Poe’s tight and suspenseful works into fairly generic horror movies.

Arguably the most well known and best adaptations came in the eight films (although The Haunted Palace was actually based on a work by H.P. Lovecraft) making up the Roger Corman-Poe cycle for AIP. All but one these (The Premature Burial) starred the fantastic Vincent Price and were all made from 1960-1965. Aside from the first one, the clear standout in the House of Usher, they were all enjoyable and solid works consisting of The Pit and the PendulumThe Premature BurialTales of TerrorThe RavenThe Haunted PalaceThe Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. Oddly enough, the best Poe film may be An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe which is just Price reading four of his stories. The ‘60s also gave us the disappointing Spirits of the Dead from Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, the at best vaguely connected but quality The Conquereor Worm, and the unseen by me (but supposedly good) Castle of Blood.

While there have been plenty of adaptations since (and 100s overall) that about does it for quality adaptations unless you delve into the realm of The Simpsons(who recited “The Raven” during the first “Treehouse of Horror” since if you are going to compete with Price, James Earl Jones is a heck of choice), the 1972 giallo Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key which was heavily based on “The Black Cat”, and Jan Švankmajer’s Lunacy which also draws from the works of the Marquis de Sade (and as much as I considered tracking this film down, I’ve had enough of him for one year). Despite the quality of his stories, I see no real reason to try to change this (at least on a feature film level) based on both history and the fact that the stories are just so much more suited to the format of shorts.

This is the second film from Hessler in three days and has no connection to Roger Corman despite having Vincent Price starring in a Poe adaptation from the ‘60s (though it is from AIP). It is the first film to costar Price and Christopher Lee (who sadly only starred together again in the not especially good Scream and Scream Again and The House of the Long Shadows) and that alone makes it worth watching. The film opens on a stereoptypical African native tribe sacrificing a goat and torturing a man (Alister Williamson) during a voodoo ceremony and as much as the nature of the scene pissed me off, I love the odd clossups on the leader and his strange movements with lots of first person work from the perspective of the soon to be disfigured man. The film takes place in 1865, as all Vincent Price films seem to be required to be set in the latter half of the 19th century which at least “excuses” some of the talk of darkest Africa especially as the film has an anti-imperialism bent, but certainly not all the witchdoctor talk. Price acknowledges plundering of natives land, though he then proceeds to call them simple SPOILERS and turns out to have murdered one of the African children so let’s not pretend any of these people are good people. END OF SPOILERS

In a cruel twist, the disfigured man goes to a witch doctor so he can fake his death and escape his overprotective brother (Price) who keeps him locked away but his seemingly dead body is discovered by his brother first. This sets off a whirlwind of plots as his brother wishes another body be displayed in its place to hide his true nature, a man is murdered to fulfill this (not that Price knows), the brother is buried alive only to be saved when a graverobber stealing cadavers for Lee brings him assuming too that he is dead and also having to kill a witness. It’s a bit over complicated and everyone seems to be blackmailing Lee who is such a passive character here. Not that Price feels all that connected for much of the runtime as he is variously perfectly alright and haunted by the events in Africa, only rejoining the plot in the end.

In truth, it is Williamson who feels like the main character as he goes around getting revenge as he wears a bag on his face like he’s Jason freaking Voorhees (or more like a red hood like well The Red Hood) and attempting to get the witchdoctor to fix him (throwing tar in their face is a bit of a dick move to someone who managed to successfully help you fake your death and did try to help you SPOILERS though getting buried alive again (don’t piss off a witchdoctor) is a heck of a return punishment even if he was only mistakenly targeted as retribution for Price’s crime. Heck his face isn’t even that badly scarred. Price doesn’t get off lightly as he is bitten which spreads the curse (in the form of some bad but not horrible scarring but I do l love the ending with locking himself up in his brother’s old room. “No it isn’t, this is MY room”. END OF SPOILERS

It’s a messy film that largely wastes the talents of Price and Lee (though Price still chews the scenary when he can) but it still has enough worth to check it out. Price has away of doing that along with the gothic atmosphere.

Bonus Episode #S-5 – Silent: Edgar Allan Poe (1909)
Directed by D.W. Griffith

One of the first films pertaining to Poe is this silent film featuring the author himself as the main character and directed by D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nationand Intolerance) as one of his earliest films (he had only started directing shorts the prior year though he had already directed dozens of shorts in that time). Griffith would later adapt “The Cask of Amontillado” into The Sealed Room and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee” into The Avenging Conscience. It’s melodramatic crap about the writing of “The Raven” (apparently done in less time than it took me to write this sentence) and the attempts to publish it. Poe is portrayed hilariously as just filled with passion and happiness as he writes it and goes about things until his wife’s death in a way normally reserved for opening a box and finding her pretty head.

Bonus Episode #S-6 – Silent: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber

As mentioned above, this is arguably the first notable film to be based on Edgar Allan Poe’s work. It’s also a highly experimental short with tilting cameras, shots done through prisms that mess with the look, and a very German Expressionist feel. It’s intertitle free aside from some quick moving text at the beginning and a few floating letters and that’s certainly for the best, not breaking up the mood just to throw in a black screen of text. I am generally someone not easily impressed by these kind of things and while it runs close to being the kind of thing a film student would turn in, there’s a clear narrative progression and it’s truly haunting. As filled with artsy shots as it is, they never seem to exist just to show off, they exist to create a feeling and I loved it. It’s highly recommended at only 13 minutes an I can completely understand why someone might be put off by it, but I was all in (it may be my favorite silent title but what do I know). I only regret that I didn’t have time to watch the longer, generally better considered vesion by Jean Epstein (maybe I’ll get to it later)

Bonus Episode #S-7 – Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
Directed by Ted Parmelee

This is an animated version of the story (to the best of my knowledge it is a straight adaptation of the short story) narrated by James Mason and is also the first cartoon to be rated X. It’s stylish and surreal and captures the feeling of the story perfectly. It moves quick, building in tension (though I’m sure most all of you including myself have read the story before, probably in class) and is probably the purest form of adaptation you could expect.

Sorry this is up so late but how ‘bout them Flyers and that comeback.

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