5. Spirits of the Dead (Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim, 1968)
Spirits of the Dead is an anthology film of three Poe stories, each directed by a different European filmmaker. The first short film was directed by Roger Vadim and based on “Metzengerstein”, Poe’s first published short story.
Jane Fonda, Vadim’s wife at the time, stars as Frederique, a member of nobility who inherits the Metzengerstein estate and lives an immoral life of vice. She meets and falls with one of her neighbors, played by Peter Fonda, but he does not return the feelings so she burns down his stable. He perishes in the flames but a mysterious black horse escapes and Frederique takes it in out of guilt and curiosity, leading to increasingly ominous events.
The second short was directed by Louis Malle and based on Poe’s short story “William Wilson.” Taking more liberty with Poe’s story than vadim did, the film keeps with the tone and overall theme but changes many events. Alain Delon plays William Wilson, a man who is tormented by a doppelganger with the same name as him.
When his doppelganger embarasses William in front of the beautiful Giuseppina, played by Bridget Bardot, he snaps and stabs the double, killing him. He then sinks into depression which leads to suicidal thoughts, and his identity becomes muddled. Although “William Wilson’ is probably the weakest of the three films, it is worth watching to see one of Poe’s most interesting stories for it is rarely adapted.
The final entry in the anthology is “Toby Dammit” directed by Federico Fellini. Based loosely on the tale “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” Fellini’s film stars Terence Stamp as the titular character, an alcoholic actor who begins to be haunted by visions of a little girl after helping one find a ball. After completing a film he becomes thoroughly lost and sees many more strange images around him. Once more he spots the little girl with the ball who leads him to his doom.
This short, while almost completely unrecognizable from Poe’s story, is a extremely intriguing film and a return to form for Fellini. The collection as a whole is an interesting approach to Poe’s work, vastly differing from the other films in this list by approaching the gothic tales from fresh perspectives.
4. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
This horror landmark is the second film on this list to feature Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It is also similar to The Raven in that, while the title is taken from a Poe story, the plot itself only takes the very basic structure of “The Black Cat”, in that there are two mysterious black cats who appear when people die.
Lugosi plays Dr. Werdegast, a psychiatrist who was stuck in a prison camp and has not seen his family. When he is on his way to visit his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff, he meets a young couple and when their bus crashes they all travel to Poelzig’s house.
Although initially Poelzig helps the three with their injuries but the true malicious nature of him and his black cat is soon revealed. Since the war, Poelzig has become a Satanist and is responsible for the murder of many women, forcing the three visitors to fight for their lives or die.
This legendary horror classic is a masterclass in how to make a movie that is both fun and scary. Lugosi and Karloff both give terrific, campy performances adding to the unsettling atmosphere of the film, promoting both of the actors to full blown stars.
One of the most notable aspects of the film is the extremely dark and disturbing content for the time, but the movie is tremendously light and entertaining. Regarded as one of the most important and defining horror films of all time, The Black Cat is a bizarre but effective exploration of Poe’s themes.
3. The Pit and the Pendulum (Roger Corman, 1961)
Corman followed up his first film in his Poe-cycle, House of Usher, with this loose adaptation of the titular story starring Vincent Price and featuring Barbara Steele in her first film since her breakout role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.
The film’s main story is not based on any specific Poe tale but is similar to many in that it takes place in a spooky castle and features themes of premature burial and torture. John Kerr plays Francis Barnard, a man who is investigating the mysterious death of his sister, played by Steele. He travels to the castle of his wife’s husband Sebastian Medina, played by Vincent Price, where he finds the situation suspicious.
Medina is distraught not only at losing his wife but believes that she may have been buried alive due to a childhood trauma where he saw his mother walled up by his father. As the mystery unravels, Medina slowly loses his mind and becomes violent.
Probably the most famous of all of Corman’s Poe films, The Pit and the Pendulum is also the most fun. The plot is lively and the visuals are colorful and lively. Corman also experimented with more film techniques, such as longer tracking shots and colored filters for the ominous flashbacks. The climactic pendulum sequence is especially notable for its thrilling depiction of desperation and doom, enhancing the senses and disorienting the viewer.
Price’s performance is brilliantly overdone, hamming up every scene and giving the film a campy, fun atmosphere while not detracting from the thrills. Since risen to cult classic rank in horror circles, The Pit and the Pendulum is an incredibly fun and well made Poe classic.
2. The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928)
This visually stunning silent film was the first of many adaptations of Poe’s classic tale of family secrets and murder, including an American short film that came out the same year. The plot follows a man, Allan, who is invited to his friend Roderick Usher’s house who needs help coping with a mysterious illness that has befallen him and his sister Madeline. Allan takes care of his friend and keeps him entertained by serenading him and reading him stories.
One day, Roderick tells Allan that Madeline has died and they bury her. After this Roderick’s condition and mental stability worsens and Allan tries to distract him with stories but his distress combined with bizarre occurrences in the house make him inconsolable, leading to the final climactic and horrific ending.
Epstein’s film combines many innovative techniques to create the surreal and creepy atmosphere of the film. Through his imagery, and the help of co-writer Luis Bunuel, the film evokes the brilliant and detailed prose of the short story which parallels the character Roderick’s hypersensitive condition.
The film’s artful cinematography not only tells the story well without the help of many words but the mood it sets is beautifully eery, and the mystery builds until the shocking and powerful finale. One of the greatest early horror films as well as influential to arthouse cinema, The Fall of the House of Usher is a beautiful and chilling film.
1. The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964)
The seventh entry in Corman’s series of Poe adaptations is one of the most complex and mature films of his career. Once again, the film stars Vincent Price, this time playing the sadistic Prince Prospero, a paranoid Satanist during an outbreak of the plague. He burns the surrounding villages to stop the disease and relies on his devotion to the devil to save his soul.
One night Prospero hosts a lavish masquerade ball for all of his upper class friends in order to take their minds off of the spreading sickness, but plans take a turn when the party is crashed by a mysterious guest in a red cloak and guests start dying.
The main plotline of a rich ball visited by the plague incarnate is fairly faithfully taken from the titular short story by Poe. While this story lacks some of the sheer horror of his more traditional tales, it is a powerful commentary on the inevitability of death and the futile efforts by some to avoid it. This film also incorporates another Poe story “Hop-Frog”, in which a dwarf jester exacts revenge on his abusive magistrates by tricking them to dress up in monkey suits and burning them alive.
Due to the film’s focus on the social class and differences, Corman’s film is less outright scary than many of the other Poe adaptations and instead focuses on telling a captivating story and creating a creepy atmosphere. Price is excellent in his role as Prospero, oozing menace and keeping the film engrossing. Filled with spooky imagery and some typical Corman psychedelia, The Masque of the Red Death is an entertaining classic of the horror genre.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.