Look. We’re all nerds about something, right? It doesn’t have to be comic books or Star Trek; some people are nerds about rocks or numbers or history or maritime law, etc. Some people are literary nerds, and if I’m being honest—which I am required by law to be for a minimum 40% of every article I publish—I can count myself among them. Sue me.
Actually, that’s a bit vague. I am not a nerd about literature in general, but about certain pieces of it, specific authors and genres. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is one of the authors about whom I consider myself just a wee bit nerdy. Since this article primarily concerns Poe and his works, I shall endeavor to keep said nerdy-ness in check. Please forgive me if I fail.
Extraordinary Tales (2016)
The Plot: The film depicts five short stories by Poe in five short animated segments, each with a horror-adjacent celebrity narrator: The Fall of the House of Usher (narrated by Sir Christopher Lee); The Tell-Tale Heart (narrated by a very old recording of Bela Lugosi); The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar (narrated by Julian Sands); The Pit and the Pendulum (narrated by Guillermo del Toro); and The Masque of the Red Death (narrated by Roger Corman). They are loosely connected via frame story.
Right at the onset, Extraordinary Tales manages to do some things perfectly right, and other things perfectly wrong. As much as I can add it up, it seems as though the right and the wrong even out into a lukewarm mediocrity, except that I can’t characterize the film properly with a dismissive shrug like I normally do. The problem is that when they get something right, they really get it right. When they get it wrong… well… let’s start with the positive stuff.
Director Raul Garcia’s greatest achievement is the fact that he united five (well, four) brilliant Poe readings in one place (four, because Corman only has a few scattered lines, not a full narration like the others). Most reasonable people have heard Christopher Lee perform Poe a few times before. That’s about as normal as hearing Vincent Price do it. The Fall of the House of Usher was new for Lee, though, and he does a fabulous job. Most of his horror appearances occurred in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so to hear his older, even more weathered, even deeper voice do Poe is a real treat. Julian Sands, of the five narrators, is perhaps the one you’d least associate with horror, but he does have a fabulous voice, and suits the perversely clinical tone of M. Valdemar. And I’m sure most of us are familiar with del Toro as a keen Gothic visualist, an excellent director, but not someone with whom I’d associate a great voice. At least, I wouldn’t until now. Next to Christopher Lee, he delivers the best performance in the movie, capturing the discomfort, terror, and sad attempts at rationality that make The Pit and the Pendulum such an effective tale.
As for Bela Lugosi, well, I don’t always approve of using recordings of long-dead stars just to give your movie a bit of a gimmick, but it’s tastefully done here, and Garcia worked with Lugosi’s descendants to make sure he did it respectfully, and I appreciate that. It is a very old, grainy recording, which gives it a haunting, almost spectral quality. The animation style for this segment is mostly minimalist, black and white, and borderline surreal. Pairing that with this worn recording of a man with a thick accent detailing his descent into madness produces… quite the experience.
That’s a good segue into what didn’t work for me, though: the animation. Each story is depicted in a different style of animation, some of which sort of work (I liked Masque of the Red Death), and some of which don’t (Valdemar and Pendulum, for example). The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar is drawn like a comic book, even including panel divisions at times, but as far as I can discern, there’s really no reason for it. I guess you’d do that to invoke a kind of pulpy tone, but it’s not a pulpy story. The other thing that bugged me about that is the fact that they’ve drawn the main character to look exactly like Vincent Price, which strikes me as sort of a lazy homage to the king of Poe adaptations (especially when you’ve got three stories he actually adapted that could have benefited from the presence of his face). Much as I do like Julian Sands, hearing his voice emanate from Price’s mouth is just wrong.
For The Pit and the Pendulum, they adopt this style that recalls video game cut scenes. There’s really no reason to be doing that, but that’s beside the point. The real problem here is that you’re attempting to draw a story that bases all of its terror on disorienting darkness. The protagonist can’t see anything through most of the story, so it’s especially ineffective to animate a decently lit, colored adaptation.
Maybe those are small critiques. What stops Extraordinary Tales from being a worthwhile entry into the Poe canon is its frame story, which depicts Edgar Allan Poe as a raven (because, you know, that’s clever) having a philosophical conversation in a graveyard with inanimate statues of his dead women (you know, Lenore and Ligeia and Morella, those krazy kids). These characters meditate on death, usually providing a loose segue into whatever story they’re about to tell next. It’s heavy handed and unnecessary, and really kind of pretentious. One of those things that someone mistakenly thought would be an insightful, original, poignantly metaphorical frame narrative. The reality did not match their expectations.
I’d highly recommend listening to Extraordinary Tales, because it provides four truly excellent readings of Poe classics. I don’t think I could recommend watching the whole thing, though.
*Clever article title courtesy of my dear father.