The literary fantasies of 19th century horror meister Edgar Allen Poe have enjoyed numerous unholy marriages to film, attracting silent masters like Jean Epstein and Edgar G. Ulmer all the way to Tim Burton and Fellini. In Extraordinary Tales, award-winning Spanish animator Raul Garcia (The Missing Lynx, The Lady and the Reaper) revisits five of Poe’s most famous stories in different styles and moods, effectively capturing the uber-horror for newbies, particularly the young adult audiences the film is aimed at. The Luxembourg-Belgium-Spain-US coproduction is a lovingly crafted class act and a fine intro for the graphic novel crowd. The film won the Youth Jury Prize on its bow at the Luxembourg City Film Festival in early March.
Completed between 2004 and 2014 as animated shorts (of which The Tell-Tale Heart was short-listed for the Oscars in 2005 and The Fall of the House of Usher in 2013), the creepy quintet make a diversified but satisfying 73-minute feature. They are framed by a conversation held in a graveyard between Lady Death (elegantly voiced by German children’s author Cornelia Funke) and Poe (Stephen Hughes) who appears in the form of a fiery-eyed raven raging against the dying of the light. The two swap macabre stories while she coaxes him to let go of life, and forces him to face his obsession with death and his fear of dying alone and forgotten. It’s a nice way to bring in a bit of biography and psychoanalysis of the writer who inspired so much of contemporary horror lit.
Not that all his work has gone down in history as great literature. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously dismissed him as “the jingle man” for lines like “Quoth the raven, `Nevermore,’” which seems to have lodged itself even in the mind of Lady Death. But in the stories, the real power of his imagination is reflected. Garcia culls some of the best graphic designers, letting different visual artists, animators and illustrators explore the psychology of each tale with images that reference Goya and Piranesi to German Expressionism.
Sir Christopher Lee sonorously narrates the first story, The Fall of the House of Usher, as the friend unnerved by Roderick Usher’s insufferable gloom and fear of death. The characters look a bit like penciled marionettes but the mood is Sleepy Hollow scaresville.
In a completely different vein are the stark black-and-white drawings of The Tell-Tale Heart, inspired by Alberto Breccia’s artwork (El Eternauta to name but one). The mere accent of American-Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who played the original 1931 Dracula, is enough to raise arm hairs.
Picking up the mood from Warlock and Gothic, Julian Sands narrates The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar, in which a doctor puts a dying friend into a mesmeric trance that suspends him between life and death, until it all ends in a gory mess. Here the limited color scheme suggests a 1950s comic book and it’s a relief there’s that to distance the creepfest.
Having to pick the most truly terrifying of the bunch, the palmares would go to The Pit and the Pendulum, set in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, which are drawn like Piranesi’s intricate prisons in sepia tones and grainy pencil work. The story-telling reflects the dark fantasy of it narrator, Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone.) As the only story with a hero one can identify with, its “ghastly horrors” are the most realistic and frightening of all.
What better than to end with a party, and Garcia’s last choice is The Masque of Red Death. His narrator is B-movie film producer Roger Corman, who wears the badge of his 1962 cult Poe adaptation, Tales of Terror, starring Vincent Price. At the time of the plague, Prince Prospero closes himself and his guests in his fortified castle for a great ball, where they carouse under the illusion that they can cheat death. We know better, of course. Inspired by the paintings of Egon Schiele and Bruegel and almost wordless, it is the most hypnotically designed of the tales.
While respecting the individual atmosphere of each story, Sergio de la Puente’s spine-tingling score gives the film some underlying homogeneity.
Production companies: Melusine Productions, Melon Digital, The Big Farm, R&R Communications Inc.
Cast: Sir Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Julian Sands, Roger Corman, Guillermo del Toro
Director, Screenwriter: Raul Garcia
Producer: Stephan Roelants
Directors of photography: Raul Garcia, Stephan Roelants, Cédric Gervais
Animation: Studio 352
Music: Sergio de la Puente
Sales: BAC Films
No rating, 73 minutes