Poe in 1928

1928 was a good year for film adaptations of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe: it saw the completion of Charles F. Klein’s wonderfully creepy The Tell-Tale Heart, as well as not one but two masterful versions of The Fall of the House of Usher.  The version directed by the American avant-garde filmmakers James Sibley Watson and Melville Weber has a somewhat German-Expressionist feel, with its oddly angled sets and disorienting use of space.  The version directed by Jean Epstein (assisted by Luis Buñuel!) is in more of a French Surrealist vein; it also folds Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” into its narrative in much the same way that Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) also references Poe’s “Hop-Frog.”  The fog-drenched castle and dreamlike haze of Epstein’s film may have influenced Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932); Dreyer even appears to have copied Epstein’s shot taken from the POV of a corpse looking up from inside its coffin (see below). 

An undead Madeleine Usher looks up at one of her pallbearers as he nails her coffin shut.
Looking up through the lid of the coffin in Dreyer's Vampyr (1932).

French artists and philosophers have long been drawn to Poe’s lyrical, sexually charged horror stories, which appealed to the Symbolists, the Decadents, and the Surrealists.  Baudelaire published original translations of Poe’s tales, which profoundly influenced his own writings (in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, Peter Kassovitz reads Baudelaire’s translation of “The Oval Portrait” to Anna Karina).  My boyfriend helpfully informed me that Claude Debussy, who had already turned Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande into a sublimely Gothic chamber opera, was at work on an opera based on “Usher” when he died.  Poe has appealed to French filmmakers as well.  Forty years after Epstein, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim adapted “William Wilson” and “Metzengerstein” for the omnibus film Histoires Extraordinaires (1968), though with considerably less successful results.  Epstein’s Usher may be the best interpretation of Poe ever made for the screen; it captures exactly the atmosphere of dread that pervades Poe’s stories, especially in its ethereal lighting and its slightly queasy-making camera movements which, combined with a slight slow-motion effect, give the whole thing a suitably off-kilter feel.  Though it affects a much different visual style, it invokes the same sense of ominousness that I get from Arthur Rackham’s rendering of the story’s opening scene.

The House as rendered by Arthur Rackham...

...and by Epstein.

As the countless number of film versions of Poe attest, his tales are rich in striking imagery and lend themselves easily to interpretation by visual artists, particularly those who gravitate naturally toward anti-realism.  Perhaps this is why, as a child, I so enjoyed listening to my father read Poe’s stories to me.  As I noted in my previous post, I grew up on such a steady diet of horror stories and fairy tales that I’ve always understood them to be two sides of the same coin (which explains the excitement I felt when I discovered the work of Angela Carter).  Epstein’s film helps reinforce this link for me: his house of Usher is a haunted castle in which Sleeping Beauty is a vampiress.  Like fairy tales, Poe’s stories deal in images that are arresting in their purity: a crumbling mansion bathed in moonlight, a demonic specter presiding over a masked ball, live bodies trapped in coffins and bricked up behind walls.  Like the best horror films, Poe’s stories structure themselves around particular moments of sublime terror in which a single image arrests the reader.  Could this be why some of the best Poe films are silent? 

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