Along with H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, one of the big names associated with tales of terror in the last 100 years is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe. Now before the list of your own favorite writers come crashing angrily into my inbox, I freely state that there are countless other great writers in the genre — but it’s these three that even the bare-bones initiate into horror fiction typically knows. Like the other two, Poe could brilliantly place the reader firmly into the stories, but unlike Lovecraft’s Old Ones or the supernatural mechanics of King, Poe more often than not explored the horrors held within humanity itself. Murderers, madmen, greedy individuals whose covetousness bred the blackest of acts — this was Poe’s domain. Though his literary voice was rich with symbolism and Gothic tones, sometimes touching on spirituality (and thus, teasing the supernatural at times), the common thrust of his tales probed the very darkest depths of humanity, his tortured soul echoing his bleak worldview in his writing. These works have been adapted to film on occasion, most memorably through Corman’s American International Pictures productions back in the early sixties, typically starring Vincent Price. These films, while period pieces accentuating the macabre, also often brought dark humor to the work.
In the 2014 anthology Tales of Poe, Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly bring several iconic scream queens to bear in a telling of three of Poe’s works.
The first tale, a modern take on The Tell-Tale Heart, has Debbie Rochon as a new patient in a mental institution, telling the story of how she got there in flashback. You see, she was a private nurse working for a former film star (played to the hilt by Alan Rowe Kelly) who had long since gone to seed.
Spending her days with the somewhat overbearing but bedridden woman, the nurse begins to suffer from a deep and immutable dread — the dead and milky right eye of the former actress unlocks a deep and irrational hatred in the nurse — so much so that she plots and executes the murder of the old woman. The acting here is spot-on, and the story plays out in a surreal yet horrific way, as we the audience are privy to the delusions and madness of Rochon’s nurse. There’s some gory goodness to be found here, some surreal sexuality, and a smattering of Poe’s actual dialogue from the short story to lend some modern yet sinister elegance to the visual narrative. A special treat for yours truly — look for Desiree Gould (the creepy mom from Sleepaway Camp ) in a delicious cameo role.
The second entry tackles Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado — shortened simply to “The Cask”. Here, the story moves to a more modern telling of a greedy gold-digger (Alan Rowe Kelly again) and her plot to secure all of her new husband’s wealth for herself. The tale wraps around Poe’s original plot, having the husband (former Village Person Randy Jones) as a rich wine mogul, the titular cask being just a symbol of his vast personal worth.
Conspiracy, murder most foul, and preternatural vengeance make up the laundry list of this episode, with all involved playing out their roles with just the right balance of camp and seriousness to recall those Corman flicks I mentioned, yet have a voice of their own. This is what you would have gotten if Poe had worked for EC Comics in the fifties.
The closing chapter is an adaptation largely of the poem Dreams, with a peppering of elements from some of Poe’s other verse sprinkled in. We enter the imaginings (or dreams, if you will) of a young woman (Bette Cassat) as she lies, presumably, on her deathbed. As her grieving mother (Amy Steel) occasionally narrates, we journey with her on a strange and surreal acid-trip of memories, images, and experiences, presumably the elements of her life being explored as it nears its end. Archetypes fill her visions, from demons to gardens, coastal images to dark corridors. Here, she finds guides and guardians of sorts, from a sinister “Queen of Dreams” (Adrienne King) to an “Angel of Dreams” (Caroline Williams) that seem to torment her and guide her, respectively. Often, her more serene moments are disturbed by a sinister woman in black (Lesleh Donaldson) that seems to signify dark elements invading the girl’s life. Though this one is certainly the most thought-provoking and beautiful to look at (it is based on poetry, after all), it’s art house vibe could easily turn some horror purists away — though I myself found the segment intriguing, it did break the general feeling of the film that the first two chapters had set — but perhaps that was the intent.
Overall, I thought this flick was quite entertaining, showcasing some of my favorite ladies of horror in what was in whole an adept adaptation of the literary works. The final chapter might have been better suited to a different film, but it nonetheless captured the essence of it’s author, the darkness of life always intruding into the light. .
My two on this one.