Director: Raul Garcia
Cast: The voices of Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Julian Sands, Guillermo del Toro, Cornelia Funke, Stephen Hughes, Roger Corman
Running Time: 1:13
Release Date: 10/23/15 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 22, 2015
The theme of this anthology of animated shorts adapted from five stories by Edgar Allan Poe, of course, is death. In case we weren't aware of that, Extraordinary Tales offers a framing story in which Poe, having taken on the form of a raven, communicates with a soft-spoken representation of death itself.
There's not much to that framing narrative, except the raven Poe (voice of Stephen Hughes) arguing with Death (voice of Cornelia Funke) that he is not obsessed with mortality but, rather, inspired by it. This conversation repeats nearly every time we encounter Poe in bird form and death in the form of a female statue, standing in a group of statues of some of the other women who served as the writer's muses.
No one will mistake these scenes for incisive literary analysis, and the closest it comes to some other observation about Poe is in the movie's closing moments, as the raven/Poe declares that he does not want to be forgotten in death. Death has already come for him, although he does not seem aware of that fact (The circumstances of his death and the potential lessons therein are like something out of a Poe story, really). Here, his death is more or less an excuse to get us from one adaptation to the next, and those transitions are far from subtle ("I wrote about" something like this, the raven says, and Death offers, "Didn't you write a story like that?").
This collection is akin to a greatest-hits compilation of Poe's most famous, non-poetic works: "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Masque of the Red Death," with "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" tossed in for a little break from the obvious. Each adaptation has been written and directed by Raul Garcia, and each one approaches its respective tale in a unique—but still aesthetically cohesive—visual style. They stand on their own, apart from the framing narrative, and in fact, each short segment contains its own opening credits (Three of these, apparently, already existed as standalone works, and Garcia clearly intended the other two to do the same).
It's more than a little distracting each and every time we see those credits run, and along with the hasty-feeling framing story, it gives the impression that the movie as a whole is either an afterthought or an act of convenience. The question, then, is how successful each adaptation is on its own. It's a mixed bag, to be sure, although only one is a clear misfire.
That would "The Pit and the Pendulum," the penultimate installment. It's the most literal of the quintet, both in terms of its aesthetic, which—of all of them—tries the most to achieve a sense of realism, and in terms of its adaptation, which turns Poe's hauntingly descriptive language about a man's torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition into rather ordinary imagery (The segment's use of split-screen, especially when the man reaches the bench with the pendulum swinging overhead, is effective). It doesn't help that the segment is narrated by Guillermo del Toro, whose marble-mouthed recitation pretty much demands a precise visual adaptation of the story.
To be fair to del Toro, he is in the company of two vocal giants and one very skilled speaker in regards to the narrators here. The late Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi respectively recite—perform, really—"The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." The latter's reading comes from an old, scratchy recording, which is particularly eerie within the story of a man detailing the steps he took to murder an old man whose vulture-like eye has made the killer quite mad. It sounds like a confession found in some police archive. Meanwhile, Julian Sands narrates "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" with a mischievous aplomb that complements the story of a hypnotist trying and grotesquely failing to cheat death.
The movie's style carries it for the most part. The man's trip to the collapsing manor of the sole remnants of the Usher family is presented as paper figures in motion. The insane man's murder scheme, undone by a hideous beating beneath the floorboards, is rendered in photo-negative monochrome. The hypnotist's experiment to see if a dying man can be saved from eternal slumber by means of being mesmerized in his final moments is portrayed as a moving comic, complete with bold, sickly colors standing in for light and shadow.
The most impressive adaptation of them all is the tale of a prince's grand party while the rest of the country dies of a plague. The final segment is the most daring in the way it is almost entirely wordless (Roger Corman has a line and some death rattles), especially after experiencing the previous four, which smartly rely on Poe's words. This installment translates those words visually, in the rather stunning style of a watercolor painting come to life.
The anthology's segments work to varying degrees ("Usher" and "Red Death" are the highlights, while "Valdemar" benefits from its unexpectedness and "Heart" is primarily worthwhile for Lugosi). With its weak framing story and hastily assembled formatting, Extraordinary Tales simply is the sum of parts—not a whole.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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