As soon as November comes, with its gloominess and cold, my (already big) appetite for all things dark and morbid grows even bigger. To be fair, as someone who blossoms in light and warmth, I do actually find it hard not to succumb to misery when days get significantly shorter and darker, but I try to make the most of the sombre ambience, turning to books, films and music which are most appropriate for this time of the year. One of the authors I seek comfort in is Edgar Allan Poe, whose Black Cat short story is one of my favourite pieces of literature, and one I created a live performance around many years ago.
Extraordinary Tales / The Masque of the Red Death
Poe has been an inspiration for an infinite amount of works of different genres, including film and animation work. The latest adaptation is a 70-minute anthology of five Poe stories directed by animator Raul Garcia, which came out last year. I was very excited to see it but apart from The Masque of the Red Death, which I consider a very successful adaptation, the others unfortunately disappointed me and I can relate to Jordan Hoffman’s rather cool review of the collection: “a welcome respite for any middle schooler sitting through a boring lecture. But if we were ever asked if we wanted a second viewing, we’d have to quoth the raven: nevermore.” The problem I have with Garcia’s rendition of the stories is that they fail to convey the gloomy, creepy and altogether eerie tone of Poe’s writings. Despite the fact that each of the five films has its own distinct style and aesthetic, besides the Masque, they all have that too-crisp-and-polished video-game feel, which prevents the dark soul of Poe to come through. It is a shame and also an irony, because the director’s very intention was to escape precisely that sort of 3D artificiality, as he said in an interview for IndieWire Magazine: “I’ve always tried to find those distinct approaches because this is a 3D animated film and I wanted to stay away from the style that all 3D animated films have today. They are all rendered in the same manner with photorealist textures. I tried to make something much more pictorial, so that the audience wouldn’t know if they were watching something done in 3D, 2D, in oil paintings, or made out of cut-outs.” The textures are indeed quite nice, especially in The Fall of the House of Usher and The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar, and the influences of Egon Schiele, including the smudged watercolours and his unique way of painting limbs and hands are definitely visible in the Masque, but overall the films are too polished, too nice. The policemen who come for the main character in The Tell-Tale Heart, which style-wise is perhaps the most interesting film in the collection, are not scary at all (compare them with the headless silhouettes in James Mason’s 1953 film. presented below, and you will see what I mean). I’m not sure if the desire to create five completely different films was quite simply too big of a challenge for the director, or whether it’s the case of looking at a sketchbook where a good drawing is surrounded by either mediocre or poor ones, but The Masque of the Red Death does get lost int the anthology, which is a shame, as it would make a successful independent short film.
Stills from “The Masque of the Red Death”, directed by Raul Garcia
The Tell Tale Heart
Directed by James Mason, designed by Paul Julian and animated by Pat Matthews, The Tell-Tale Heart is a very enjoyable watch. Interestingly, the film was originally intended as a 3D film, and it was the first cartoon to be rated X in film history (which means suitable for adult audience only). I love the surreal collage’y style of drawing, the expressive spatial distortions which emphasise the overall creepiness. The film is on one hand playful, and on the other seriously dark. And like in Garcia’s vision of The Masque of the Red Death, in which we see both Schiele and Bruegel, some of the stills from Mason’s film could appear on a painting by Max Ernst or Salvador Dali. Among a large volume of praises on YouTube, I’ve come across the term “classic animation”, which, as I guess, is how people refer to 2D animation to distinguish it from 3D. Here the term is clearly meant as a compliment, because the film, despite being 63 years old, still doesn’t have many contestants.
Stills from “The Tell Tale Heart”, directed by James Mason
The Fall of the House of Usher
Jan Svankmajer, who is one of my favourite artists of all time, has taken a very particular approach when making an adaptation of Poe’s story (here is a version with English subtitles, but in a lower quality). Incorporating real footage combined with his signature clay animation, this 1980 black and white film contains no characters, only interiors and exteriors (and a raven at the end). It is built on visual metaphors — one can see inanimate objects (i.e. chair frame, falling stone) as symbols of the characters (Roderick, Lady Madeline), as well as on exaggerated and unsettling sound effects, such as groans and creaks. With its very experimental character, it is certainly less accessible and more challenging for the viewer than Garcia’s straight-forward film, but I like the fact that it stimulates one’s imagination, which is something I especially seek in visual adaptations of Poe’s prose.
Stills from “The Fall of the House of Usher”, directed by Jan Svankmajer
The Raven, directed by Mariano Cattaneo & Nic Loreti, with narration from Billy Drago and music by Claudio Simonetti, is a little like Mason’s Tell-Tale Heart in its use of eclectic drawing styles. Despite cartoonish and somewhat innocent-looking characters, it remains deliciously dark. In fact, I actually quite like the contrast between the childishly drawn characters and the ascetic sombre spaces. I love the textures and its gloomy outdoor scenes — those eerie trees have sent me proper chills. It is very well directed and among all the films I am presenting here, I think it has the best sound design. A lot is achieved with spectacularly subtle effects, such as eye movement or gentle panning across the images, but it is enough to convey the story and stir up the viewer’s emotions. I am always puzzled as to why so many animators feel compelled to go to great lengths trying to mimic the reality as close as possible (and get obsessed with 3D, for that matter), when subtle suggestion is often way more powerful.
Stills from “The Raven”, directed by Mariano Cattaneo & Nic Loreti
A very different vision of The Raven comes from filmmakers Don Thiel and Chris Saphire, whose adaptation is a fast-paced trippy footage-based film with real actors and an eclectic colour palette — from black and white to sepia and psychodelic magenta. The film won a few awards (“Best Short” H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival 2011- Judged by Guillermo del Toro, “Best Actor” LACF 2011, “Best Editing” LACF 2011) and quite rightly so, as it’s a brave experiment in a demanding style. While I find the main character, who solely carries the narration, a little too sane for my liking, I think that the overall atmosphere is very powerful, not the mention the superb editing work.
Stills from “The Raven”, directed by Don Thiel and Chris Saphire
The Pit and the Pendulum
Like Svankmajer, Marc Lougee also uses clay, albeit in a much more conventional way, building figures. His adaptation of Poe’s tale of condemnation, hope and redemption during the Spanish Inquisition, also won a few awards at various festivals where it was screened (over 250 in total). The sound design, at time quite epic (making one think of battle scenes in films like Braveheart) works well with the visuals, though the narration is slightly redundant in my opinion — the complete lack of thereof (save for one line) in The Masque of the Red Death proves that a story can be successfully told without words. Nevertheless, it is a successful film and a testimony to what a powerful tool stop-motion animation is when it comes to building an atmosphere which is both charming and creepy (which is why it is so extensively used by many artists, including Quay Brothers).
Stills from “The Pit and the Pendulum”, directed by Marc Lougee
Riddle of the Black Cat
Finally, another artistic and “classic”, to use the YouTube language, adaptation. Based on two different tales, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat, directed by J. W. Rinzler with art by Greg Knight, the film uses lots of different techniques to create motion and convey the narrative. Zooming in and out, incorporating Ken Burns style panning on still images, interesting shots, distorted perspective, smudges charcoals, nervous lines, and a deliberately scarce use of colour (which occurs occasionally), it is yet another example of how much can be done without the use of Maya or Rhino. While the choice of music is in my opinion debatable, the visual style suits Poe’s writing very well. It is that edginess, and expressive sketchiness that I would love to have seen in Garcia’s anthology.
Stills from “Riddle of the Black Cat”, directed by J. W. Rinzler