Edgar Allan Poe on Film

Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with inventing the detective fiction genre. He also inspired some of the earliest filmmakers who began adapting his works as far back as 1909. His work also attracted a diverse array of directors from around the globe - Jacques Tourneur, Jules Dassin, Federico Fellini, Lucio Fulci - but perhaps none captured him better than American Roger Corman. Here are the best of Poe films, and the bulk are from Mr. Corman.
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'Murders in the Rue Morgue' (1932)

Murders in the Rue Morgue
Murders in the Rue Morgue. © Universal Studios
In the 1930s, Universal was to Poe what Roger Corman was in the 1960s. The studio cranked out a series of successful Poe adaptations, although not much of Poe's actual content made it into the films. Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first with The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935) to follow. Director Robert Florey turned to star Bela Lugosi for his lead and Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund for the lighting. John Huston is credited with "additional dialogue."
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'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1953/short)

The Tell Tale Heart
The Tell Tale Heart. © UPA

The first cartoon to receive an X-rating by the British Board of Film Censors. If the Universal films strayed from Poe's material, this sticks close with James Mason providing the increasingly tense narration adapted from Poe's story. Beautiful animation and rarely shown, it is now available in the UPA's Jolly Frolics Collection DVD.

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'Fall of the House of Usher' a.k.a. 'House of Usher' (1960)

Fall of the House of Usher
Fall of the House of Usher. © MGM
The 1960s ushered in the Roger Corman era of Poe features. Before Fall of the House of Usher, Corman was making b-horror drive-in flicks like She Gods of Shark Reef, A Bucket of Blood, and Attack of the Giant Leeches. With his Poe adaptations, Corman matures as a filmmaker and develops a more impressive visual style. Meanwhile, star Vincent Price had been cementing his horror icon status with a series of films for William Castle. Together Corman and Price would find popular success with Poe's moody pieces. The film's box office success prompted the decade long series of Corman/Price/Poe films.
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'Pit and the Pendulum' (1961)

Pit and the Pendulum
Pit and the Pendulum. © MGM

Next up in Corman's Poe series is Pit and the Pendulum, a decidedly and deliciously more colorful adaptation. Vincent Price again stars and chews scenery with appropriate gusto in this period tale involving the Spanish Inquisition. The script is by Richard Matheson, who wrote the classic novel I am Legend and such screenplays as The Incredible Shrinking Man. One of the most entertaining of Corman's Poe outings. Stuart Gordon would try his hand at The Pit and the Pendulum in 1991.

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'Tales of Terror' (1962)

Tales of Terror
Tales of Terror. © MGM
With Poe number 3, Corman changes up the formula and goes for an omnibus format incorporating three tales. One of the problems adapting Poe is that his stories are often concise nuggets that feel diluted when drawn out to a feature length film, but combining 3 short stories in one movie provides a perfect solution. Well, sort of. Not all three tales of terror are of equal quality in the film.

In the first tale, Morella, Vincent Price is an embittered alcoholic who blames his estranged daughter Lenora for the death of his wife Morella. Father and daughter attempt a reconciliation but the ghost of Morella disrupts things. In The Black Cat, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price famously square off in a tale of murder, jealousy, and a pet cat. And finally, The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar pairs Price with another acting veteran, Basil Rathbone. Each tale establishes a slightly different tone, from the macabre humor of The Black Cat to the atmospheric Morella. Richard Matheson again pens the screenplay. The vet performers make this a film to savor despite its unevenness.
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'The Raven' (1963)

The Raven
The Raven. © MGM

Novelist Richard Matheson returns yet again to turn Poe's poem The Raven into a feature length film and a Grand Guignol horror comedy to boot. Poe's title, the word "nevermore," and the character named Lenore are pretty much the only things that survive the translation to the screen. It may have little to satisfy Poe fans but it does bring together Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre -- what a glorious triumvirate! Plus a very young Jack Nicholson makes an appearance. Not the most impressive of Corman's Poe outings.

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'The Masque of the Red Death' (1964)

Masque of the Red Death
Masque of the Red Death. © MGM
But then there's The Masque of Red Death. What fun! For this Poe tale, Corman decides to head on over to England to shoot the lush period film. He also tapped director-to-be Nicolas Roeg (Performance, Bad Timing) to be his nimble cameraman for this visually bold and vivid film. Vincent Price returns to take center stage as a cruel prince who torments the peasants while he and his fellow aristocrats hole up in his castle to avoid the plague. This film is a wicked delight thanks to Price.
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'The Tomb of Ligeia' (1964)

Tomb of Ligeia
Tomb of Ligeia. © Fox
Again a talented screenwriter early in his career serves up a script for Corman. Robert Towne would go on to write Chinatown and Shampoo, this time out he adapts Poe's Ligeia. Vincent Price plays a classic Poe protagonist: a man mourning the death of his beloved wife. The film rounds out Corman's run of Poe translations nicely.
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'An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe' (1970)

An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe
An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe. © MGM
Corman's Poe films are more inspired by Poe than literal adaptations of his work. But in this film (that runs just under an hour) Vincent Price gets to do some "pure Poe." Price delivers what is essentially a one-man show in which he reads The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Pit and the Pendulum. It's a nice mix of the familiar -- like The Tell-Tale Heart -- and the obscure -- The Sphinx. It is also touted as a word-for-word reading of Poe's original texts. It reminds you, as the animated The Tell-Tale Heart does, of the still potent power of Poe's words and the author's ability to vividly create a sense of fear and dread. The image quality may not be great but Price savors every word to give us a wonderful evening of Poe-fection.
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'Vincent' (1982)

Tim Burton adapts his own poem into this beguiling and very short animated film. Vincent Price reads Burton's poem about a young lad who wants to grow up to be like his idol Vincent Price. The boy's favorite author just happens to be Edgar Allan Poe. The film offers a perfect tribute to both Price and Poe, capturing the macabre appeal of the two icons of horror and terror. Visually, Burton's film captures the mood, tone, and moments of insanity that are so associated with Poe. An absolute delight and the perfect way to round out this list of Poe films.

And a final note highlighting Non-Poe Poe Films: The Haunted Palace was a Corman film made in 1963 and promoted as a work of Edgar Allan Poe, even though it was merely an attempt by the studio to cash in on the recent success of Corman's other Poe films. The story really comes from H.P. Lovecraft. Similarly, 1968's Witchfinder General got rechristened The Conqueror Worm (the name of one of Poe's poems) to again try to cash in on Corman's prior success with Poe adaptations.