Written by Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Kenneth Johnson & David Welch
Directed by Kenneth Johnson
An American International Television Film
Starring: Vincent Price (the Narrator).
Throughout the sixties, Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson made barrels of money by forming American International Pictures and churning out B-budget films that were made quickly but with style and charm and that captured the attention (and dollars) of moviegoers. Although these films were the product of many creative artists both in front of and behind the camera, three names in particular were vital to the success of these films: Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman and Vincent Price. Poe was long dead and his reputation was intact no matter what happened. Corman became known as one of the most successful directors in film history, not only practically inventing a lightning-fast style of filmmaking that still looked classy, but also kick-starting the careers of many important filmmakers who served as interns for him (among them Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola). As for Vincent Price…
True, the AIP films of the sixties cemented Price’s image as one of the grand stars of cinematic horror (something that he had already been working on in films like House Of Wax (1953) long before the first AIP script turned up in his letterbox) and the exposure and money could not have been unwelcome for an aging actor who might have been wondering what would become of him once the star system of old Hollywood crumbled. The AIP films of the sixties allowed Price opportunities that locked him into the mainstream of American culture and gave him a celebrated career as a grand-old gentleman of cinema that sustained him for the rest of his life. What actor could ask for more?
Of course, he may have asked for better scripts and more time to prepare so that his performances wouldn’t come off as hysterical and over-indulgent. Price once said that if a reviewer called a performance of his “restrained,” then he knew he’d done a good job. Throughout the AIP-Poe films of the sixties, Price gives performances that range from right-on-the-money to wildly-overblown, often in the same scene. Price must have sensed this early on, jumping ship after making two films (forcing Corman to hire Ray Milland for The Premature Burial, a role that most critics agree would’ve suited Price better) before returning to star in The Masque Of The Red Death and a slew of other films. During those ten years, Price was rarely idle, making films for not only Corman but also William Castle, Gordon Hessler, Michael Reeves and many others. By the end of the sixties, he was America’s number-one boogie-man and his reputation as a serious actor was all but completely chipped away.
So why, at the end of his AIP days, did Vincent Price say “Yes” to a television special that required him to dramatically recite four (edited) Poe tales? Wasn’t he sick to the teeth with Poe by this time? How could he possibly face another AIP-Poe adaptation?
This one was different.
An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe is a piece of early seventies one-man theater for television, with inventive editing and lighting thrown in to support the lead actor and his material. When watching the film, which lasts all of fifty-two minutes, one can almost detect a note of pride in Price’s performance: after ten years of acting in films that used only the barest plot elements of Poe’s original stories, Price seems to be saying, “You see? This is what Poe really is. You thought Poe was funny for the last ten years, didn’t you? Well, he isn’t. This is what I always wanted to show you.”
The film is split in quarters, each segment giving us Price reciting slightly edited Poe stories in stage-like settings. Price renders The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask Of Amontillado, and The Pit And The Pendulum as those tales’ four narrators and manages four distinct characters for us to feast our eyes on for an hour. Price must’ve seen it as both a golden opportunity and a challenge; here he can finally get to dramatize the actual text of Poe (not some screenwriter’s attempt to twist and extend it into a ninety-minute film) while, as the only member of the cast, carry the entire production on his shoulders. This could’ve been a daunting task as Price, as iconic as he was, could often be upstaged by his more classically-trained (a euphemism for English) co-stars. In the earlier Poe films, actors like Hazel Court, Jane Asher, and Elizabeth Shephard all gave far more restrained performances and made Price seem like a whirling dervish in comparison (Price must’ve loved playing opposite Peter Lorre in Tales Of Terror, who made him look positively stoic). In An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe, all we get is Price. But by the end of the first segment, that’s all we want.
The first segment, The Tell-Tale Heart, whets our appetite for what is to come. Price is Poe’s insane murderer, protesting his sanity but gleefully confessing his murder of an old man because he was haunted by his host’s deformity: a horrifically blinded eye. Price’s high-pitched scratchy voice lends creepiness to his confession and we’re drawn in immediately because we’re not watching an aging actor trying to read classical lines in a film: the setup places us squarely in the theater and we’re watching a trained actor deliver a soliloquy. Although the film is expertly edited (cutting into close-ups of Price’s manic eyes at just the right moment), the film’s greatest achievement is that it lets Price go for minutes at a time, expertly reciting his (admittedly difficult) dialog and letting the audience bask in his abilities as an actor. The Tell-Tale Heart tells us practically everything we need to know about Price’s strengths as an actor: he moans, he screams, he giggles, and he’s got us for the entire run. This is high theater we’re watching and our lead actor knows it. Thankfully, the camera and the editor never let him down. The camera goes where it needs to go and cuts closer just when the dialog demands it. Price is given the difficult job of acting out the events he is narrating, all on his own. In The Tell-Tale Heart, he has no actual old man to kill nor any policemen to sit chatting idly away as the sound of the beating heart pounds further into the maniac’s brain. Price is required to pantomime the presence of others and he does it like a master. By the time he rips up the floorboards as displays the hideous heart (a barely-seen lump of flesh in his hands), we the audience are like that heart – resolutely in the palm of his hand.
The second segment, The Sphinx, is far less dramatic and the film’s producers may have decided that a more level-headed sequence was needed to follow the turmoil of The Tell-Tale Heart. In The Sphinx, Price takes the role of an actual narrator, speaking sanely in his own voice, and recalling events that lead him to recall what he believes to be the sighting of a monster. Price wears less makeup here than in any other segment, and seems to relish a moment of calm story-telling where he can be more or less himself, but the segment is a bit flat, due to both the direction (a glimpse of the monster that the narrator sees might’ve been a step in the right direction) and the nature of the story itself. In Poe’s cannon, The Sphinx is something of a shaggy-dog story, one character’s fevered belief in the existence of a monster comes down to nothing more than the existence of a bug that the narrator did not realize was hanging right in front of his eye. On its first reading, the story is interesting, but its surprise doesn’t lend itself to many repeat readings. Price seems to know this: after revealing the punchline, he laughs as the script apparently tells him to, but then the laughter dies away and he has a look on his face that reminds one of a jokester who realizes that his efforts have gone for naught. Price (and the director, of course) seem to know that no one is really going to find this joke incredibly funny, and his aborted laughter seems to signal that this may not have been the best use of Poe’s genius or of celluloid. The segment ends and it isn’t hard to imagine that many viewers at home might’ve switched over at this point. If they had, they would’ve missed the feast that was to come.
In The Cask Of Amontillado, Price gives a brauva performance without ever rising from his chair. He is the elderly Montessor, pontificating at his dinner table about his old friend Fortunado and how he bested him after an unexplained insult. Price’s makeup and costume are perfect in this segment and he is further aided by the direction. During dialog sequences when he is required to recite both parts, he is shot on his left as Montressor and on his right (with a reddish light) as Fortunado. This at first seems like a simple device to differentiate between the two characters, but once Fortunado is trapped in his tomb, Price appears darkened and back-lit as Fortunado screams his last words. The camera-work lends a hand to Price’s performance as he endeavors to create a second character independent of his established Montressor. Price handles it with flying colors, his voice and accent becomes gruff but never cartoonish. The Cask Of Amontillado may be Price’s best performance in the film, even beating out his lunatic murderer in The Tell-Tale Heart; in the former tale, Price needed to be a maniac all the way through while the latter challenged him to give a similar confession from the point of view of a respected gentleman who was not on his way to the scaffold. Montressor is giving his account not to save his life, but as an after-dinner anecdote to aid the digestion. He’s walled a living man up in a tomb, walked away and decided to relate the tale years too late to do the victim any good. Who is the more maddened at the end of this sequence?
As a finale, the film gives us a rendition of the Pit And The Pendulum. Here, Price is a battered old man sentenced to die by torture. In this segment, the producers pull all the stops out and use camera tricks a-plenty to assist Price in this final tale. This is maybe because The Pit And The Pendulum is a bleak tale set in a prison (and in which there is no light to see by in its first third). Price’s makeup in this sequence is the nastiest and knarliest that we’ve seen yet; he’s beaten, broken and waiting to die. And yet he continues to fight to live past each trap and turmoil that the Inquisition throws in his path. His shots lying down with his face in the pit aren’t anything to scream about (created by simply turning his right-side-up image sideways), but he is heart-breaking as a he is strapped to a table while awaiting the fatal slash of the pendulum to reach his chest. This is the climax of the film; the subsequent effects that simulate the heating of the prison and the closing-in of the walls are an anti-climax. Price is forced to wail and scream with each new horror long after we’ve had enough. These extra tortures are true to Poe, but the director runs out of inspiration as we watch and wait for Price’s victim to finally be released by a last minute storming of the dungeon. Price gives the final lines all their worth as the noble actor that he is, but the bulk of the audience has already started for the exit. The final segment is good, filled with fine special effects which try and illustrate Price’s torment, but it ultimately goes on too long to satisfy modern audiences.
So if there are flaws in the film, why does An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe lead off my month of Halloween horror? The film certainly isn’t scary by any stretch of the imagination; it’s stage-bound and helmed by an actor who has a reputation for leaving no scenery unchewed. So what gives?
In the thirty-one course meal that we are embarking on (get the bicarbonate ready), An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect appetizer; it whets the appetite for what is to come for the rest of the month. What the film gives us is an honest rendition of the greatest genre writer with the actor most closely associated with him at the helm. Vincent Price has literally never been better than as Poe’s four protagonists. When Price howls and raves in The Tell-Tale Heart, he isn’t merely serving the audience his usual run-of-the-mill over-the-top performance, he’s embodying Poe’s most famous lunatic and, if anything, his raving could be considered restrained considering that he’s reduced to producing a beating heart from a hole in the floor by the end. The film also looks remarkably good, considering that it was shot on celluloid for television in the early 70s and does not show any evidence that anyone paid a dime to restore it. The colors are vivid and the effects, for the most part, enhance each segment without getting in the way or calling attention to themselves (The Pit And The Pendulum goes a bit overboard, but only occasionally). When it comes right down to it, when we are embarking on a journey that, as we get closer to Halloween, will take us into the realm of slasher, splatter-punk, found-footage features and torture-porn, there is simply no better way to ease ourselves into the season of boo than to dip into a work of literature courtesy of our two ghoulish friends, Poe and Price.