"Mostly lifeless for Poe’s otherwise seething stories of death.”
Five stories by Edgar Allan Poe are told in various visual styles in Extraordinary Tales, an anthology of animated short films from Spanish writer-director Raul Garcia. While each has distinctive storytelling approach, all shorts fairly succeed in the depicting the silent dread and stirring undercurrents in the literary master’s stories of epidemic, murder, torture, guilt and madness.
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” narrated by Christopher Lee, is the opening tale. It’s a story about an unnamed person who visits his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who suffers mental illness along with his twin sister. The short is initially vibrant with its Expressionist water colors and it gradually turns to earth and dead tone as it becomes engrossed with mysteries. Lee’s basso perfectly evokes an air of terror in the film and so do the characters' chiselled 3D countenance. Yet, most elements are too familiar of haunted houses stories that the flick in general seems flat and dull.
The second story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is about a person who murders an old man who he lives with because the latter’s “vulture eyes” distress him. The feature is more stylized and daring than the first. Except for occasional splashes of red, its palette is entirely black and white. A vintage scratchy recording by Bela Lugosi tells the story in a convincingly chilly and mad fashion.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” explores the effect of mesmerism or hypnotism to a dying person. It’s one of Poe’s highly discussed tales though not as popular as the others. Its material is hilarious but one not commonly dealt with in modern sci-fi films. Narrated by Julian Sand, the feature pays homage to comics. The panelled visuals, grotesque angles and characters placement, and the contrasting and striking colors intensify the tale’s eerie atmosphere.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” takes on a more contemporary approach in animation. It is a photorealism with multiple screens exhibiting computer-generated 3D images. It is about a prisoner confined in a cell with a deep pit in the center and who is later subjected to torture by a swinging razor pendulum. It is another intense story, backed up by a breathless narration by horror and suspense genius Guillermo del Toro.
The last offering is “The Masque of the Red Death,” one of Poe’s most celebrated stories. It follows Prince Prospero’s failed attempt to avoid a pandemic known as the Red Death by hiding himself and his nobles inside a castellated abbey. It is perhaps the visually strongest among the stories in the movie. The colors are striking, mostly contrasting or presented in different hues. One sequence also suggests nudity and sexual orgies. Yet, it is also one of the film’s weakest tales. Except for a single line delivered by Roger Corman, it lacks any intelligible dialogues. The absence of words, lazy pace and overall ambiguity may disappoint viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the story.
The five tales are connected and spaced by an autumn graveyard interaction between a lady statue symbolizing Death (voiced by Cornelia Funke) and a raven (Stephen Hugues) which represents Poe. The conversations circle around the writer’s obsession with death.
In general, Extraordinary Tales is more of a visual exercise that a genuine exposition of Poe’s literary pieces. The shorts are creative, handsome, striking and mournful but not all effectively capture the charm and magic in Poe’s stories. They are simply too inert and subdued to bring enough life and momentum to the materials.
Production companies: Melusine Prods., Melon Digital, R&R Communications, the Big Farm presentation, with the support of Film Fund Luxembourg
Voices: Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Julian Sands, Guillermo del Toro, Roger Corman, Stephen Hugues, Cornelia Funke
Director-screenwriter: Raul Garcia, based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe
Producers: Stephan Roelants, Melusine Prods
Art Director: Stephane Lecocq
Music: Sergio de la Puente
Editors: Aurelien Antezac, Cedric Gervais, Damien Bayard