October means graveyards. Graveyards in front yards full of store-bought Halloween gimcracks to let children know the homeowners will be handing out Smarties and Mary Janes on the 31st. Graveyards at the cinema full of the bloated corpses of misfires and cynical low-grade spooky movies using the season to sucker people in.
The misfires are the funhouses of movies. Studios enter with enthusiasm and high hopes, but emerge slightly soiled, dizzy and traumatized. They go in thinking Oscars and come out with handfuls of horseshit like Rock the Casbah.
The low-grade thrills are garbage that rely more on teen boredom than quality to put asses in the seats. Forgettable junk like Paranormal Activity, a series on cruise control where the creative process is more akin to making a Big Mac than art, and The Last Witch Hunter, which has the expectation that audiences are stupid enough to believe in what the moviemakers themselves didn’t.
I thought I was being clever by avoiding all the graveyards. Instead, I trucked via bus down to the art-house and saw Extraordinary Tales, a small animated compilation of five Edgar Allen Poe stories. I got screwed. Even snobs wind up in the graveyard.
Such a generic name for a collection of great short stories should have warned me. Extraordinary Tales could just as easily be a Disney Channel series, or a mid-80s TV rip-off Indiana Jones. The movie, though is five Poe stories, each animated in a different style, but created by the same team led by Raul Garcia. There is a framing device meant to wrap the stories together, but it’s fucking sloppy trash.
In the interstitials, Edgar Allen Poe is a raven in a cemetery (yes, it’s that on the nose) bitching to an angel statue about his fear of being forgotten once he dies. The problem is that the author of these segments isn’t Poe or a reasonable facsimile, just someone presumptuous enough to stuff crap words into the dead man’s mouth. The device is shallow shit when compared to the classic literature it envelops, like sticking Francis Bacon’s painting of Pope Innocent X into a picture frame with kittens and balloons from the $2 shelf at Big Lots.
Each of the segments in Extraordinary Tales has its own credit sequences, which pads out is 70 minute running time and gives the movie the feeling of being packaged from standalone products, like a “Family Value” package of Chuck Norris movies at Walmart. Given the cheap television feel to the animation, I’m guessing that’s where the parts originated.
The dead Christopher Lee narrates “Fall of the House of Usher,” presumably from a recording meant for another purpose. The story is of a spooky derelict house and a strange brother-sister relationship that ends in death and ruin. It’s a pretty creepy fucking story, and you can’t go wrong with the audible portion. The visuals, though, add nothing. Long shadows and light stretching from door jams are cliché, not invention.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is narrated by Bela Lugosi, and if Bauhaus taught us anything it is that Bela Lugosi is dead. The voice is from the grave, a scratchy old recording of the man and his thick menacing accent. A man who kills an old man he cares for buries the body under the floorboards and then is haunted to insanity by the sound of its still beating heart. The animation style is woodblock black and white, which would make for some striking images, but isn’t elegant as animation. While it’s great to hear Lugosi’s menacing accent, the quality of the recording is poor and hard to understand at points.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is narrated by Julian Sands, and visually like an EC Horror comic. It’s about a crackpot who hypnotizes his dying friend, and in so doing suspends his death for seven months. He does experiments on the undead body until finally deciding to wake him up, at which time the guy begs to be allowed to die and decomposes in a flash.
“Pit and the Pendulum” is narrated by Guillermo del Toro. The imagery is video game graphics with the same dead-eyed faces and stiff movements. It’s as though your nephew made you watch a compilation of cut scenes from “Assassin’s Creed” on Youtube.
The last segment is “The Masque of the Red Death,” done up like a gothic Disney princess tale with Roger Corman as Prince Prospero. It’s the least visually interesting, and the one where the stilted animation is most apparent. This story is almost entirely wordless, which takes away from what makes Poe’s stories so fucking good: the way he set the tone.
Poe’s words deserve better than these animated interpretations. Specifically, they deserve to be left alone, or reimagined like the kickass Simpson's take on "The Raven." While some of the movie's images would make cool art prints, the animation isn’t kinetic. Instead, it’s choppy, like those super-somber Eastern European short subjects that used to win the Academy Awards. Worse, the visualizations add nothing to Poe’s written word. They don’t or add depth to what he did, they just literally relay it with less dread and horror than his original prose.
Extraordinary Tales feels like a bad musician with good taste. The guy loves great music, but does it no justice by sharing his love by playing it badly in a tribute band. Just turn out the lights, leave Poe in the graveyard, and read the stories instead. Two Fingers.