Released Oct. 23, 2015
Unrated (equal to PG-13 for mild violence, disturbing imagery, thematic elements, and brief nudity – all animated) – 1hr 13min
Directed by Raul Garcia
Voice acting by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Julian Sands, Guillermo del Toro, Roger Corman
An animated anthology of some of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest stories – The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-tale Heart, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Pit and the Pendulum, & The Masque of the Red Death. They are thread together by a story of Poe himself in the embodiment of a raven debating the nature of his life and work with none other than Death, taking the form of a graveyard statue.
Each chapter of Extraordinary Tales is animated in a different style and narrated by a different horror icon (with the exception of Masque where legendary producer and director Roger Corman supplies the voice of Prince Prospero – it is otherwise entirely visual). While each segment may switch up its presentation with changes in artistic appearance and narration, they are firmly threaded together by the distinctive literary voice and dark themes of Poe.
I’ve read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, so I was pretty excited about Extraordinary Tales. As an author celebrated generally for his short stories, his work is really difficult to adapt to feature-length without a screenwriter taking considerable liberties with their own additions and elaborations, and those who have tried generally didn’t fare so well, to be generous. Much of the essence of Poe’s work is found in the grim poetry of his words, so an anthology that retains those words while accommodating the naturally brief nature of the tales themselves seems like an ideal way to go.
It’s all in the execution, of course. First off, the artwork here is mostly fantastic. House of Usher features a kind of gothic Disney vibe. The Tell-tale Heart is presented in a bold monochromatic style, inspired by famous Argentine artist Alberto Breccia. Case of M. Valdemar goes with a graphic novel aesthetic that resembles EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt. With The Pit and the Pendulum, we get that photo-realistic performance capture look popularized by director Robert Zemeckis in films like Beowulf and The Polar Express (with the same dead-face problem that those movies had, but it’s not much of an issue here). Finally, The Masque of the Red Death takes on the appearance of an oil painting come to life in its depiction of decadent hedonism amidst a horrible plague. Much of this movie is pure eye candy, and that’s not a complaint, but the wraparound segment stands out as a disappointment, visually and otherwise. It looks rushed in comparison to the rest of the entries and I suspect it was something of an afterthought in the film’s production. It certainly comes across as such.
The voice acting in Extraordinary Tales exhibits high highs and low lows. Sir Christopher Lee, in his final role, is as excellent as expected in his telling of House of Usher. His voice was among the most famous in the cinematic world, with its resounding baritone and authoritative enunciation, and it’s a perfect match for the gothic horror of Poe. Guillermo del Toro nails it as The Pit and the Pendulum’s tortured prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition and Julian Sands does a fine job, particularly with the dialogue, in Case of M. Valdemar.
However, as awesome of an idea as it was to utilize an unreleased recording of the late great Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula himself, for The Tell-tale Heart, that recording is totally unmastered – full of the pops, clicks, and hisses you would expect from a 1930s audio sample. Purists call these ‘audio artifacts’ – I found it to be extremely distracting and ultimately detrimental to both the sentiment behind the use of the recording and the segment as a whole. Lastly, while The Masque of the Red Death is presented without narration, there is one key piece of dialogue for which Roger Corman, legendary producer and director of multiple Poe adaptations in the 1960s, is stunt-casted to speak. The line is supposed to be powerful, full of indignant rage, and he delivers it with the mild irritation of someone whose lunch was interrupted by a phone call. Again, like with the Lugosi recording, I appreciate what the filmmakers were going for here, but it just didn’t work. In trying to pay homage to too many things in too many ways all at once, the final result is somewhat compromised.
Anthologies tend to be uneven works, but I was surprised that here, with the same creative team adapting stories from the same author, it would still be the case. Usher and Masque, in particular, felt abbreviated to the point of being perhaps incoherent to anyone not already familiar with those stories. On the other hand, Valdemar and, the film’s standout, Pendulum were fantastic adaptations. Those, along with Lee’s voice work and the artistic style of Tell-tale Heart, make the film worthwhile. You can fast-forward through the wraparound parts though, unless you really want to see a raven that’s supposed to be Edgar Allen Poe speak with the voice of a guy that sounds more like an insurance salesman.