Edgar Allen Poe’s Extraordinary Tales
by Rob Rector
Edgar Allen Poe was a poetic prince of darkness to the me as a reader who loved to let words linger like a phantom around my brain for days after the books were closed. The fact that he often haunted so many regional areas in his lifetime was especially enticing: Virginia, Philadelphia, Baltimore all have monuments that celebrate his stays.
As an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, I often visited the historic Deer Park Tavern– where, legend has it, he was inspired to pen “The Raven.” It was my hope that I would somehow absorb an ounce of his mastery of the macabre, which may have lurked within the pipes of the historic bar. So devoted was I, that sometimes I would stay there for countless Mug Nights in an attempt to siphon knowledge from the taps (and countless plates of nachos) for inspiration, all to no avail.
I know, I know. It’s an impressive commitment, but that is the kind of dedicated student I was!
Director Raul Garcia channeled his devotion to the esteemed writer in perhaps a more creative way. He has created “Extraordinary Tales” as animated shorts since 2005, and has finally woven them all together in a feature-length film (available on Demand and on iTunes) that works as a wonderful literary introduction to the author for the younger readers interested experiencing the origins of their “Goosebumps.”
He has enlisted an impressive cast of voices to narrate the five included tales — some culled from archival recording (Bela Lugosi lends his creepy cadence to “The Tell-Tale Heart”) and some from more modern (director Guillermo del Toro narrates “The Pit and Pendulum”) — and features varied forms of animation to give each short its own distinctive style. The results can vary, but it’s enough to serve as a strong, dread-inducing introduction to the dark world of Poe.
Garcia ties them together with a framing device of Poe embodied, naturally, as a raven flittering around a graveyard conversing with the statues that represent death. Voice actor Stephen Hughes anthropomorphizes the emblematic bird, and it’s not the strongest choice for such a role. This narrative thread is perhaps the weakest part of the film, even though it is written well, it’s lack of vocal drive and curious choice of colorful animation (despite its setting amidst tombstones) is odd and rather innocuous.
But within minutes, veteran actor Christopher Lee’s menacing baritone introduces “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and the proper tone is set. The CGI animation at times seems a bit remedial (most likely due to the film’s small budget), but Garcia includes many an image of the crumbling house that successfully slides under the skin. It’s followed by the Lugosi-led “Heart,” and even though the narration was obviously made decades ago, the rough-edged, scratchy recording is frightfully fitting, especially when contrasted with the black-and-white animated style reminiscent of “Sin City.”
Actor Julian Sands takes the lead for “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which is created in comic-book style (with an obvious nod to Vincent Price as the main character “Dr. P”). Despite the relatively large voiceover lead-in Sands had to follow, the overall tone and vibrant animation assist in effectively delivering the shivers.
The film concludes with two shorts that are the most recent additions to Garcia’s anthology: the aforementioned “Pendulum,” and the relatively wordless “The Masque of the Red Death.” “Pendulum” favors a more modern CGI-realistic look which truly comes in handy when the concluding pendulum begins its descent upon our hero. And “Death” is animated as more of a baroque painting that successfully captures the high-class celebration with an unfortunate party crasher.
The films can vary in overall quality, so they actually work better as a whole, as each builds on its predecessor’s sense of dread and misfortune. And while it may not live up to its titular “extraordinary” title, as a Poe primer, “Tales” is wonderfully wicked introduction for those who are willing to dance in the graveyard.