Wednesday, April 25, 2012

IF "THE RAVEN" HAS YOU CROWING FOR MORE POE, LOOK NO FURTHER

THE RAVEN, starring Chicago’s very own John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, opens this weekend, and I'm hoping for the best. And if you too are looking forward to seeing Poe on the big screen, might I refer you to some previous fare that may whet your appetite, or perhaps satiate your desire for the cold and vengeful dishes of Poe’s prose?
Original caricature by Jeff York of Vincent Price in "The Masque of the Red Death"
HOUSE OF USHER (1960)
During the 60’s, Roger Corman brought a number of works by Poe to the big screen, with mixed results. Some were sublime, and some were utterly ridiculous. Corman started off the decade with a faithful adaptation of the disturbing tale of the twisted bond between the wealthy Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline. Roderick is a hypochondriac, expecting to be engulfed by disease, and Vincent Prince plays him with a jittery mix of sensitivity and ruthlessness. The story takes place in a doomed mansion, a brilliant metaphor for the equally crumbling interior of his main characters, and the art direction is quite something here. It helps make this moody character study truly disturbing putting the Gothic in gothic horror with every velvet curtain and sinister hallway.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)
With the success of ‘Usher’, Corman next brought Poe’s most horrifying tale to the screen, although it never came close to matching the author’s original potent prose. The story of a prisoner fighting the Spanish Inquisition in a torture chamber never seems more than utter cheese as John Kerr’s tepid performance doesn’t help matters at all. A dragging pace and some fleeting hamminess by returning star Price do not help either. The Pendulum does have its scary moments however, mostly due to the fact that Corman took out every other frame of it in post to add to its appearance of being swift and brutal. Unfortunately the rest of this mish-mash doesn’t cut nearly close enough to the bone.

THE RAVEN (1963)
An utter embarrassment. Price returns yet again, this time to compete in the contest for most-over-the-top performance against tired and bloated veteran performers Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. Corman reduced these three great horror legends to Virginia hams, allowing them to vamp their way through this shameful adaptation of Poe’s most famous and haunting poem. Price always said he regretted this one, as well he should have.

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)
For my money, this is Corman’s greatest work, and easily the best Poe adaptation filmed for the big screen. Yet again Price returns, but this time he gives a marvelous performance as Prince Prospero, the vain European prince hedonistically ruling over the land with an insatiable appetite for wine, women and song. Price cameos as the Masque himself towards the end of the film, and is shown in my original caricature that accompanies this article. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH here is a timeless dissertation on the ruling class and their oppression of the masses, an indictment of the 1% almost fifty years before the occupy movement took hold of our economically ravaged world.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)
This one is barely remembered and that’s an utter shame as Corman’s last Poe tribute is a gnawing piece of psychological horror. Once again, Corman favorite Price is the lead, this time taking the role of Verden Fell, a newly married man who just can’t let go of the memories of his dead first wife Ligeia. He becomes obsessed with her visage, insisting that somehow she’s still alive. It drives Fell and everyone around him mad, leading to madness, seclusion and a grotesque exhumation. Any similarity to Poe’s real life, what with his stultifying inability to get past his wife’s death, was purely intentional by the author, and faithfully rendered here.

In fact, it’s that promise of capturing Poe’s obsessions that has me excited to see THE RAVEN this weekend. Sure, it’s about Poe helping a detective trap a killer aping Poe’s death scenes, but what I really hope it’s about is Poe himself, and all his peccadilloes that informed his work and most of Corman’s fitting tributes. We shall see.

4 comments:

  1. I viewed THE RAVEN last weekend not as an expert on Edgar Allan Poe, which I certainly am not, but as someone interested in his legendary, literary genius. To know more of him, of the madness and brilliance he shared with so many other giants of art, literature and song. Surely this tragic writer with such a preternatural gift was almost pre-destined to suffer and die relatively young...his real life was a better drama.

    While it was fairly entertaining on the surface as a detective/murder mystery, and John Cusack portrayed him admirably, all involved were hamstrung by a script trying hard to be too many things. Bits and pieces of Poe’s unfortunate life and ground-breaking works are pulled out of his bio and pasted in to fit within a serial-killer cop drama. The film swoops into slasher-flick “SAW” territory at points when the victims are killed, leering way too long at the disembowelments that leave zero to the imagination. An autopsy would have been more appetizing. And finally a weak love story with a rich and beautiful young woman whose attraction and relationship to him escapes me, other than it furthers the plot along with her kidnapping. They should have focused more on his real life, and real wife, whose early death inspired so many achingly beautiful and heart-breaking works such as “Annabel Lee”, which was quoted very clearly in the film.

    THE RAVEN doesn’t give Poe enough credit or intelligence to rise above the fray in this film. Instead he is reactive to events, including the killer’s ridiculous demands when in the absolute height of implausibility, he drinks the killer’s poison, believing that doing so would save the aforementioned young woman from certain death. Really. The inventor of the detective story couldn’t see through that ruse? But of course, it serves very neatly to explain the mysterious end of his life where he is found delirious and dying.

    As “entertainment-lite”, it’s a fun film. As far as advancing my knowledge of the real man, 'tis a pity...and nothing more....

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  2. I enjoyed the film and thought Cusack did a marvelous job. Fan with No Name makes good points and I agree. Nevertheless, the film was beautifully shot and well-acted.

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  3. Fan, thank you for your intelligent thoughts here regarding the shortcomings of the movie THE RAVEN. Indeed it was quite a disservice to the author's work and biography. I agree wholeheartedly with all of your points. The film may have been easier to sell to a studio what with its SEVEN-like aspirations and its bloodletting a la SAW, but that route was an unfortunate disservice to Poe's life story and his real demons. And because THE RAVEN has done rather poorly at the box office, I doubt we'll be seeing a proper Poe bio film any time soon. And that's the real crime.

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  4. Luana, thanks for commenting! And following us here. I am glad you enjoyed the critique of THE RAVEN by the Fan with No Name here. It was an entertaining movie, but botched making Poe's life have deeper meaning by forcing him to run around at the mercy of the plot's machinations. I reviewed it over at http://www.examiner.com in case you're interested. I am their horror movie critic and some things definitely worth admiring in it, just like you, but ultimately felt that it was so little about the real Poe that it left me rather glum.

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