One of my first horror-related passions was reading Edgar Allan Poe, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review Tales of Poe, an anthology film based on his writings. The movie contains three chapters, each of which is based on Poe’s prose with a few twists added to flesh out the stories and keep the viewer a little off balance.
The first chapter of Tales of Poe is “The Tell Tale Heart,” a 30-minute short written and directed by Bart Mastronardi and based on the Poe short story of the same title. There are two departures from the original story. First, all the main characters are women whereas Poe’s version is populated with men. Second, the story progresses beyond Poe’s tale to the murderer’s admittance to an insane asylum and what might have happened as a result. The asylum’s newly admitted patient (Debbie Rochon) is wheeled into the common room by the supercilious Nurse Mallard (Desiree Gould) and is introduced to fellow patients Fritz (David Marancik) and Evelyn (Lesleh Donaldson). The new patient begins to recount her reasons for being there to the pair and asks, “Do you fancy me mad?”
As she explains, she took a job as a private nurse for a former silent film star (Alan Rowe Kelly). As in the story, her employer has a ghastly, hideous, unseeing, but staring eye that eventually drives her to kill her employer and dispose of her body under the floorboards. In the end, she is undone by her own descent into madness as she hallucinates hearing her victim’s heart beat louder and louder beneath the floorboards and is driven to confess to an investigating police officer.
Tales of Poe’s Chapter Two, written and directed by Alan Rowe Kelly, is a 45-minute segment titled “The Cask,” and is based on Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The original story is about a man who, due to an unforgivable offense, has decided to take revenge on an insufferable acquaintance. During a carnival, he lures his drunken target into the catacombs with the enticement of the rare Amontillado, chains him in a niche, and then proceeds to wall him in for eternity. “The Cask” transforms the two male characters at a carnival into a bride and groom at their wedding. In this version, the groom (Randy Jones) is the victim and his bride (Alan Rowe Kelly) is the plotting murderer whose motive is to inherit her intended victim’s fortune. There’s a lot more to the film’s story and after a couple twists, a much more fitting end befalls the perpetrator of the crime.
One of Poe’s recurring themes is the subject of dreams and dreaming. Written by Michael Varrati and directed by Bart Mastronardi, Chapter 3 of Tales of Poe is another 45-minute piece, this time based on “Dreams,” one of Poe’s poems. The Dreamer (Bette Cassatt) begins the segment on a hospital bed while a doctor converses with another woman in the room. Though there’s no audible dialogue, the impression is given that there is nothing more that could be done for the patient. As we hear segments of Poe’s poem narrated by Amy Steel, The Dreamer moves from the bed through multiple dreamlike landscapes and interactions with a variety of guides: the Mother of Dreams (Amy Steel), the Angel of Dreams (Caroline Williams), the Queen of Dreams (Adrienne King), Dr. Tarr (Michael Varrati), Professor Fether (Andrew Gaszek), the Demon of Dreams (Brewster McCall), and Kharon (Cartier Williams).
The poem itself is rather impressionistic and even hallucinatory, defying clear-cut interpretation. It’s tough to wade through this segment at first viewing. However, the second time around, as I focused more on the poem and the filmmakers’ visual imagining, I liked it more and more. I was particularly intrigued with Cartier Williams’ performance as the robed and dreadlocked Kharon, who also wears silver-adorned, tap shoes. As the viewer hears a syncopated, hypnotic rhythm approaching, we learn it is the sound created by Kharon’s tap-dancing mode of movement. Kharon, the ferryman, is there to accept payment from The Dreamer for her impending crossing of the River Styx. Once his payment is received, he dances back into the darkness with his strangely punctuated gait.
The final narrated line, “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,” is fitting. Even though the line comes from a different dream-themed poem by Poe, “A Dream Within A Dream,” it perfectly matches the feel of the title poem and the film’s interpretation.
The filmmakers amassed a capable cast with significant genre experience, many of whom play multiple roles. Tales of Poe’s cast includes Debbie Rochon with well over 200 credits, Amy Steel from Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), Desiree Gould from Sleepaway Camp (1983), Adrienne King from Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th Part 2, Bette Cassatt from V/H/S/2 (2013) and Model Hunger (2016), Lesleh Donaldson from Funeral Home (1980) and Happy Birthday to Me (1981), and maybe most interestingly, Randy Jones, who played the Cowboy in the Village People.
Though most everyone knows the stories of “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” the film’s versions have enough additional material so as not to be completely predictable. The writers have also stayed true to Poe’s tendency to populate his stories with narrators who seem calm and rational, but at their core are completely mad. One exception is the bride’s motive in “The Cask.” In the story, the villain’s actions are driven solely by his desire to exact revenge for a slight that was perceived as unforgivable. However in the movie short, the bride is after her new groom’s money, a somewhat more common and mundane motive as compared to being driven by nothing other than irrational madness.
If you’re a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s dominant, recurrent themes, Tales of Poe is definitely worth your time and investment. The writing, acting, and practical effects all live up to the master’s vision.
Tales of Poe (3.5 / 5)
Tales of Poe is available from Wild Eye Releasing (SRP $19.95) and will exclusively include a behind the scenes featurette, deleted scenes, an interview with co-director Bart Mastronardi, trailers and more.