The trailer for James McTeigue’s The Raven, starring John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, has recently been unveiled to much buzz. The film is not a biopic, but rather features Poe solving a series of murders fashioned by a killer to resemble the gruesome murders of Poe’s tales. The movie will be released next Spring and will join hundreds of others adapted or inspired by Poe. Edgar Allan Poe has haunted films almost as long as there have been films.
Edgar Allan Poe is the most influential of all American writers. He was a pioneer of the mystery, horror and science fiction literary genres. And so when it comes to film, Poe would undoubtedly have a major impact with over 200 adaptations of his works and still going strong. Only the writings of Shakespeare and Dickens have received more film and television adaptations. Like Shakespeare and Dickens, Poe’s work is adapted right from the very start, in the silents.
You can make a case that Poe has never been faithfully adapted to film. The movies have always changed characters, plots, settings, etc in order to tell their stories. This is significant if you consider that the movies themselves are usually marketed using Poe’s name. If you drastically change the plot of a story, is it still Poe’s? Or does it belong to the screenwriter? Or the director? Or the producer? Such is the problem of a collaborative art form like film. A film has many authors.
I’m not interested in “reading” Poe on film. I read Poe in books. In film, I want to see interesting choices about Poe’s themes, characters and situations. Faithful adaptation is meaningless because one medium (written fiction) is quite different from another (filmed fiction). Film often begins (with a script) where the written word has already ended. Poe on film is a different experience than Poe on the page.
However, in adapting him, filmmakers can’t help but absorb Poe’s themes and approach to horror no matter how much they change the plot. And what’s fascinating about Poe is that he has become an icon of Horror (and mystery and science fiction), so his presence in film is not just as a writer whose works inspire pics, but his image, his status as an icon, informs the plot and themes of a film.
The most famous cycle of Poe films are Roger Corman’s for AIP in the 1960s (more on those in tomorrow’s post), but there was an earlier cycle of Poe adaptations from Universal Studios (who all but created the Horror genre of film) in the 1930s. After the success of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), Universal turned to literature’s Master of the Macabre for more ideas (and more box office), and even utilized the same creative talent to develop Poe: Robert Florey (the original director and developer of Frankenstein), Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and makeup genius Jack Pierce.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), directed by Robert Florey, follows the basic outline of Poe’s story, but like almost all films, adds a love interest for Poe’s detective, Dupin. And Dupin doesn’t really solve the crime so much as hunt down a monster and defeat him in a rooftop battle.
The plot: Paris 1845. Dr Mirakle, played by Lugosi, is kidnapping women and mixing their blood with his pet ape to find some kind of link between humans and apes. In one gruesome scene, Mirakle kidnaps a woman, ties her to a cross and tortures her (the torture begins at 7:02):
This is a gruesome scene that is nowhere in Poe’s tale. And notice the debt to German Expressionism in the lighting and set design. Lots of fog and shadows, crooked architecture. Lugosi plays a grotesque mad scientist. One critic has noticed that Florey super-imposed the story of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari onto Poe’s story. Universal would continue to make Poe adaptations that had less to do with Poe’s works than our cultural impression of those works. And in American culture, Poe meant horror and torture.
Universal’s second outing was The Black Cat (1934) directed by Edgar G Ulmer, which has absolutely nothing to do with Poe’s story of the same name and is instead about honeymooners trapped inside a bizarre mansion of Satan-worshippers (Karloff and Lugosi). The tenuous link is that the Lugosi character is afraid of black cats. That’s the only link. The Black Cat is really a film about the Living Dead survivors of The Great War. But Universal understood the marketing possibilities of Poe and utilized him accordingly. Behold Karloff presiding over a Satanic Mass:
The Raven (1935) directed by Lew Landers and again starring Lugosi and Karloff is my favorite of the cycle. Instead of taking the plot of Poe’s poem, it’s a movie about a man obsessed with Poe and his works. Lugosi again plays a mad doctor, but this time, his madness is a result of unrequited love. The film opens with Lugosi as Dr Vollin reciting “The Raven.” A museum representative is trying to buy Vollin’s massive “Poe collection,” which includes a life-size replica of Poe’s torture device from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Vollin tells the museum rep that Poe’s poem “is my talisman . . . death is my talisman,” setting us up for a film that is supposedly “about” the themes of Poe’s works, not their plots. There’s even a stuffed raven that is present in lots of scenes throughout the movie because The Raven is about the presence of Poe and what it means to these characters (and us). Here are some clips:
In The Raven, Dr Vollin loves a dancer and in one scene she performs an interpretive dance of Poe’s poem. She calls her dance “The Spirit of Poe,” and it is this essence, not the plots of Poe’s tales, that Universal tries to capture in this first great cycle of Poe film adaptations.
Tomorrow: the Roger Corman Poe cycle.