It’s hard to add to an artistic legacy like Edgar Allen Poe’s. The first adaptation of his work was released over 100 years ago, and more have come out steadily since then. Master of the cinematic macabre Roger Corman secured his place in horror history with adaptations of Poe’s work, the best of them starring Vincent Price.
That’s one end of the spectrum. On the other, you have giallo master Dario Argento and George Romero’s “Two Evil Eyes” and the 2013 reimagining of a Poe masterpiece “The Mask of the Red Death.” The Luxembourger animated anthology “Extraordinary Tales” lands squarely in the middle. Some stories are better told than others, but none achieve greatness. Weirdly enough, the most inspired parts happen in the frame narrative.
Poe, in the form of a raven, lands in a graveyard and argues with Death about his obsession (or inspiration, as he calls it) with her. Each of the five stories told, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” are points in their debate, and the result is a humanizing look at Poe’s life. The stories themselves are (mostly) beautifully animated, but some are just boring.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” looks like a PlayStation 2 cinematic and moves just as stiffly. Guillermo del Toro as the narrator doesn’t help much. He’s a director, not an actor, and it shows. The final segment “The Masque of the Red Death” is wonderful thanks to its sharp visual style and near-absence of dialogue. At the end, though, two characters speak and it just takes the mystery of the adaptation away. Why include those three lines at all? They add nothing to the telling.
The opening story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” fares better. Christopher Lee’s aged narration adds serious poignancy, especially considering he died just four months before the movie’s release. At points, it sounds like he’s struggling to deliver a line, and that’s all-too-perfect for a tragedy like “Usher.”
The movie’s peak comes early, though. “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” acted and narrated by Julian Sands, is a vigorous callback to the heyday of horror comics. The art is just the right shade of sickly and warm with stark color contrasts built into every scene. It’s just an excellent piece of animation enlivened even more by Sands’ eclectic delivery.
But in the end, “Extraordinary Tales” doesn’t rise above its flaws. The point of an anthology like this is the stories, and the movie misses that point. Instead, it glues each segment together with a far more fascinating meditation on Poe’s work and identity. That alone is a worthy contribution to Poe’s legacy in cinema, but “Extraordinary Tales” adds little else.