Oct 12, 2019


Hey, have you heard of Edgar Allan Poe?


Because at this point in time, nearly 170 years after his mysterious death, there is nothing more that needs to be said about him. He is the Shakespeare of the macabre, and his prose remains as beautiful as it is intimidating. He’s been a constant source of inspiration for an array of artists – from H.R. Giger to Roger Corman – and he’s as popular today as he’s ever been. From the little seen but frankly wondrous episode of Masters of Horror entitled "The Black Cat," to the one-man show starring actor Jeffry Combs that production inspired, to the big budget The Raven (I didn't say they were all good), Poe-inspired projects are constantly coming along to whet the appetites of his legions of devotees.

Extraordinary Tales stands as one of the best. Five of Poe's most famous stories are told (separately), with very different animation techniques utilized to help suit each story as well as stress the anthological nature of the project. It does an excellent job of, if not fully covering the breadth of Poe's original stories, at least capturing their essence. Though Garcia hasn't transposed 100% of the text of each story, but he has captured what made those stories so powerful, and he's brought them to life using the same kind of striking imagery that's certainly worthy of the legendary texts they complement. Keeping it all contained is a somewhat awkward wraparound segment that sees the spirit of Poe embodied by - you guessed it - a raven, as he returns to what appears to be the cemetery of his legacies while he's pursued by Death, who seems to be speaking to him through the many tombstones baring the names of his most famous female creations. Though this segment doesn't quite work, and the raven itself looks somewhat cheap, the actual cemetery "set" is a gorgeous creation - what appears to be a digitized version of a handcrafted paper model.

The Fall of the House of Usher kicks things off with its use of what looks to be wooden models, made both blocky and somewhat angular with heightened features. Christopher Lee provides the narration as well as the voices of the story's sole two characters. The original text, much like the other stories to come, has been pared down, but also kept mostly intact. This isn't the case of a writer retelling the story while taking it in his own direction: the story as you remember it is the same as presented here, if in a somewhat truncated manner. The animation looks quite good, and the musical score by Sergio De La Puente (who scores every segment) is absolutely beautiful.

The Tell-Tale Heart switches to an all black-and-white aesthetic recently utilized by the likes of Sin City and the under-seen Renaissance, and is complemented by archival audio of Bela Lugosi. In terms of guest narrator impact, this one just might play the best, as the pops and hisses from the original recording (purposely left intact by the director) add an old-school charm and somehow helps to heighten the tension of this story. Unfortunately, the brief running time of this particular segment doesn't allow the original text to stretch its legs. The remarkable thing about the story is how unbearable the murder finds the old man's beating heart to be, growing terrified that the policemen in his house are going to hear it and arrest him for murder. But it's the story's short running time that severs a lot of this tension; the murder's confession is so immediate and surprising that any established tension immediately dissipates. Had it been longer, it would've been a highlight of the anthology.

The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valedemar utilizes the most clever of animation techniques, implanting the story in an EC Comics-come-to-life design in which every panel is colored relying only on vivid comic book colors. Being that Valedmar is one of Poe's most ghastly stories, and certainly the most drippy and gooey in the anthology, it was a perfect tactic to use. That the Mesmerist is clearly modeled after Vincent Price (who starred in a lot of Poe-inspired films and voiced many audio versions of his stories) is an awesome bonus and one geared directly to the super nerd. Julian Sands voices all the on-screen characters and does a commendable job.

The most surprising aspect of The Pit and the Pendulum is how much of a good job guest narrator Guillermo Del Toro does in bringing the story to life. His is not a voice one would typically think of in terms of narration, but he does a tremendous job in bringing a lot of emotion and tension to the story (and being that the story is about a man taken prisoner during the Spanish inquisition, he's also an appropriate choice). However, the adaptation of the story falls a little flat, being that it's mostly about a prisoner fighting off rats and then easily escaping from the swinging pendulum. (Spoiler?) Perhaps Pendulum is one of those stories that simply works best on the page. The animation is pretty impressive, however, brought to life by a near Pixar-level of quality, emboldened by a lot of detailed textures.

The Masque of the Red Death caps off the anthology in beautiful watercolor and is a largely narration-free story. Roger Corman, who directed several Poe adaptations with Vincent Price, gets exactly one line in the entire thing (and he does pretty good!), but the beauty of the images and how the camera moves about them more than aptly propels the story. (If the kids have been in the room during every segment up to this one, now's a good time to send them to bed. Unless you want them to see an animated orgy.)

The biggest bummer about Extraordinary Tales is its running time. Clocking in at a respectable 73 minutes, it's a shame that writer/director Raul Garcia (an animator for many famous Disney films) couldn't have added just one more story - or poem. (His artistic take on The Raven has the potential to be excellent.) It's also a shame that he couldn't have added just a few more minutes of running time to his adaptation of The Tell Tale Heart, as it really could have benefited from it.

Extraordinary Tales isn't the definitive take on the word of Edgar Allan Poe, although it may have come the closest in terms of preserving much of the author's original prose in the film medium. Poe remains a pop culture phenomenon even today, acting not just as the godfather of gothic literature, but also as a conduit of comfort for kids who don't quite feel like they connect with the rest of society (which Poe barely did). His emotional instability, as well as his equal parts egocentricity and inferiority complex influenced much of his writing, and it's also come to represent his reputation. His is an existence that will always prove different things to different kinds of people, but one thing remains certain: Poe had an uncanny ability for invoking sadness alongside more traditional horror iconography - he's probably the only author in existence who could write effectively about horror and despair - and, if nothing else, Extraordinary Tales ably captures that.

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