It’s hard to overstate the influence of Edgar Allan Poe on American popular culture even now, on the 203rd anniversary of his birth. Not many 19th century writers can claim to have inspired everything from episodes of The Simpsons to avant-garde Czech stop-motion animation, never mind his extraordinary impact on the genres of horror and suspense. Every successive generation gets to have a new relationship with the writer, whether it’s through Roger Corman’s collaborations with Vincent Price or Homer freaking out to The Raven. It’s a testament to the initial genius of Poe that his work still frightens almost 200 years later. Fear isn’t something that often lasts beyond its cultural moment, and it takes a special kind of vision to hold on to terror centuries down the road.
Equally crucial is Poe’s dedication to short form fiction. Not only did he contribute to horror, science fiction and suspense, but he also helped pioneer the American short story. His tales are some of the first great works of the form and he even argued in his “Philosophy of Composition” that a literary work should be short enough to be absorbed in a single sitting. Well, amen to that. It seems only appropriate to honor the great macabre writer with a collection of short cinema. Here are five of the best, a mix of adaptations and loosely-inspired films that will give you just the right amount of goosebumps.
The Tell-Tale Heart, by Ted Parmalee
Let’s start with the most successful of the shorts, 1953’s Oscar-nominated The Tell-Tale Heart. It’s one of the creepiest animations ever made, though perhaps not deserving of the British Film Board’s X-rating (the first ever issued to a cartoon). It’s James Mason’s leisurely narration that really drives it deep into your nerves. He slowly oscillates between quiet madness and abrupt horror, until the heart’s beating dominates everything and he snaps. It lays down the cinematic aesthetics that now remind us so clearly of Poe: the surreal dark images, deliberate and creepy narration, and rough dreadful music. A rhythmic masterpiece, it’s become an essential companion to the written tale.
Vincent, by Tim Burton
It’s hard to imagine how excited 24-year-old Tim Burton must have been when Vincent Price agreed to narrate his first ever film, this dark 6-minute homage to both Price and Poe. The spirit of Poe, it seems, is most perfectly captured through the voice – the legend of his poetry and tales has been passed down orally, even when accompanied by scary images. There’s something marvelously creepy about the right voice, and boy does Price have the perfect vocal skills to unsettle us all. Visually Vincent also follows in the footsteps of The Tell-Tale Heart, taking the surrealist images of the earlier film and bringing them new life in stop-motion.
The Sealed Room, by D.W. Griffith
Poe’s work was also central to horror film even before voiceover was something technologically possible. This classic D.W. Griffith Biograph film draws equally from “The Cask of Amontillado” and a similar story of Honoré de Balzac, bringing the unique terror of being closed in to the big screen for the first time. Starring Marion Leonard, Arthur V. Johnson and Henry B. Walthall as the minstrel who steals the Countess away from her husband, The Sealed Room captures the narrative essence of Poe’s work well before animators were able to give it a distinct cinematic style.
The Fall of the House of Usher, by Jan Švankmajer
It takes a mind as apparently dark as that of Jan Švankmajer to turn The Fall of the House of Usher into an unforgettably peculiar short without even needing a single human face, animated or otherwise. Aided by the constant narration of Petr Cepek, the film bombards the audience with violently shifting images of mud and wood, the House of Usher physically tormented before our eyes. As Roderick Usher’s madness and his sister Madeline’s burial unravel, the castle throbs with increasing volatility until the inevitable yet still shocking conclusion. Following in the footsteps of The Tell-Tale Heart, Švankmajer uses the almost compulsory combination of voiceover narration, surrealist imagery and impeccable rhythm to bring Poe’s unique sense of the macabre to life.
The Cuckoo Clock, by Tex Avery
Not all of the work adapted and inspired by Poe’s stories and poems has been macabre and desolate, however. The Simpsons wasn’t the first cartoon to bring a bit of comedy into the spirit of The Raven – that honor goes to Tex Avery and Fred Quimby. The Cuckoo Clock opens with the now classic Poe voiceover, setting us into the eerie psychological convulsions of a feline protagonist. Yet we immediately jump into the equally classic cartoon set-up of the cat hunting a much smaller bird. It’s Sylvester and Tweety, or at least an MGM ripoff. It’s also a good way to conclude a marathon of Poe, leaving us to recover our sanity on a high note.