Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential horror writers of all time, expanding the genre of Gothic literature and creating the earliest detective stories. Poe wrote during the early 19th century in New England and was a strong supporter of the romantic movement which he utilized to create dozens of popular short stories and poems. His interest in the macabre topics of dead bodies and grotesque murders helped him shock and captivate the readers of the time.
Despite accumulating a good deal of fame from his writings, Poe died in poverty due to his lack of business skills and no alternate means of income.
Once film as a medium became popular, Poe’s stories were quickly adapted by horror directors due to the thrilling and dark nature of the plots. Over the course of the 20th century, his popular tales had been filmed countless times in many different styles, inspiring directors of various horror movements and eras. Typical of the horror genre, the bulk of the many films based on Poe’s work were low budget and sloppily made.
Once in a while, however, horror greats like Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Roger Corman would put in some effort and adapt Poe’s tales in horror movie classics that stand the test of time. The following list includes a variety of stories by Edgar Allan Poe brought to the screen by filmmakers from many different eras, movements and countries.
10. Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Sergio Martino, 1972)
This Italian giallo film is loosely based on Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” while adding explicit gore and sex, as is typical of the horror sub-genre. The story follows Oliviero, played by Luigi Pistilli, an abusive and alcoholic writer who lives in an old mansion with his wife Irina, played by Anita Strindberg, and their black cat, Satan.
Their unpleasant existence is shaken up when Oliviero’s mistress is killed and shortly after his niece Floriana comes to stay with them. In order to end Irina’s suffering and take Oliviero’s money, the two plot to kill him and his mysterious cat.
The original story of “The Black Cat” features a similar alcoholic character who owns a black a cat, but the story differs heavily from the film after that. In Poe’s story, the main character blinds his cat when he is drunk and kills it later when he cannot bear the guilt every time he sees the animal.
The man then finds a similar cat and adopts it, only to have it try and cause him harm. The end of the film is the only other similar part of the story, where detectives are led to the dead bodies hidden inside the walls by the screeching of the black cat.
When making this film, Martino seems to have been split in his artistic vision, with the Poe story and more traditional film techniques bookending a wild and twisting experimental film. The middle hour or so of the movie is filled with psychedelic atmosphere, gratuitous violence and a myriad of sex scenes, both straight and lesbian.
While the production of the film leaves something to be desired and the plot gets quite ridiculous, Your Vice is a Locked Room is a unique mix of western and giallo horror influences that shows the international appeal of Poe’s work.
9. Tales of Terror (Roger Corman, 1962)
Horror legend Roger Corman popularized the use of Edgar Allan Poe’s works in film in the 1960s when he created eight films based on his short stories, all of which but one starred his frequent collaborator Vincent Price. Tale of Terror is the fourth in the series and adapts Poe’s stories into three different short films, all starring Price.
The first film is adapted from “Morella”, a story where a girl visits her father who lives in a rundown old house. The father, played by Price, resents his daughter for killing his wife Morella in childbirth and acts coldly towards her still. Over time he softens to her when he learns that she is terminally ill, but their reunion is interrupted by the malicious ghost of Morella who wants revenge.
The second tale is a combination of two of Poe’s most celebrated stories, “The Black Cat” and “A Cask of Amontillado.” Peter Lorre stars as Montresor Herringbone, a man who is unhappy with his life and hates his wife and her black cat.
One night at a wine tasting, Herringbone becomes very drunk and is brought home by Luchresi, played by Price. Luchresi then starts an affair with Herringbone’s wife causing Herringbone to kill both of them by walling them up in his cellar. He is only caught when authorities hear the sound of his wife’s cat who he had accidentally enclosed with the couple.
The third and final short film is taken from the story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Price is featured once more as M. Valdemar, a man suffering from a painful disease who goes to a hypnotist, played by Basil Rathbone, for some relief before he dies.
The hypnotist, however, keeps Valdemar’s mind in limbo, not allowing it to die while his body decomposes, and tries to use hypnosis to convince Valdemar’s wife to fall in love with him. Tales of Terror is not an innovative horror film by any means but it solidly tells three creepy tales that conveys Poe’s identity as as a storyteller.
8. The Raven (Lew Landers, 1935)
This early horror film takes it name from Poe’s famous poem of the same name but it’s plot is not taken from a single story like most of other films on this list. Instead, the movie draws inspiration from the entire body of Poe’s work, referencing numerous stories throughout.
Bela Lugosi stars as a skilled surgeon Dr. Vollin who is hired to save a girl from a car crash injury. He becomes enamored of her and reveals to her his collection of Poe-inspired torture instruments. and her father warns Vollin to stay away.
When Edmond Bateman, a fleeing killer played by Boris Karloff, comes to Vollin for a new face, Vollin takes advantage of the situation to exact revenge, agreeing to perform the surgery only if Bateman kills the girl and her family. After Bateman initially refuses, Vollin transfigures him into a monster, forcing him to do it.
The film’s dark themes were quite controversial for the time, initially making the film do poorly at the box office. This combined with other failures of horror movies created a lull in the industry and Lugosi’s famed fall from grace.
Over time, however, the film became regarded as one of the classic films of the early horror stars. It has especially gotten acclaim for Karloff’s masterful use of make-up. The atmosphere and plot of The Raven, despite not being a direct adaptation of the literature, makes for a highly entertaining and thrilling horror film.
7. The Avenging Conscience (D.W. Griffith, 1914)
Subtitled “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. this silent horror film from the early days of cinema adapts two works of Poe, the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the poem “Annabel Lee.” Henry B. Walthall stars as a young man who has fallen in love with a beautiful girl but his uncle, played by Spottiswood Aitkin, will not allow him to pursue her.
Soon the young man begins experiencing deathly apparitions, making him grow mentally unstable. He is driven to kill his uncle and bury him inside of the wall. Although he is happy at first after this, the frightful visions reappear and his torment continues. When the police start asking questions, the tension builds the to the exciting twist ending.
The Avenging Conscience is one of the first film adaptations of Poe and also one of the earliest great horror films. The ghostly apparitions were innovative at the time and were extremely frightening for the time. Although the film has not reached the acclaim of Griffith’s more epic films like Intolerance or Birth of a Nation, it is a notable entry in his massive filmography.
6. Castle of Blood (Sergio Corbucci and Antonio Margheriti, 1964)
This entry is a bit of cheat, because although the film was advertised as an adaptation of a Poe work, no such story existed. The film, however, does utilize some other stories in part and features Poe as a side character showing that it at least was heavily influenced by the writer.
The story follows a reporter Alan who, when interviewing Edgar Allan Poe, is given a wager to stay in a haunted house and survive until dawn. When he arrives he finds that a beautiful woman, played by horror icon Barbara Steele, still lives there and the two fall in love almost instantly. He soon meets other inhabitants of the mansion who do not seem as friendly.
Alan learns that they are all the spirits of murdered individuals who need his blood to come back as ghosts once a year and he must escape with the help of his love.
Heavily influenced by other Italian horror films by the likes of Mario Bava, the focus of Castle of Blood is in the creation of an eery atmosphere, filled with eroticism, death and gloom. This approach fills the film with constant tension and mystery, as well as many scary moments that don’t rely on jump scares.
The direction is highly effective, using long takes and creepy angles to build tension and the acting, particularly by Steele, carries the film’s intrigue. Despite not being directly adapted from a single work of Poe, Castle of Blood is a masterfully crafted tale of suspense that keeps the spirit of Poe’s writing.