Lurker Films has put out a great series DVDs showcasing films based on the work of H. P. Lovecraft. It seems only natural for them to also release films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, arguably the best American writer of short fiction. This volume of Poe inspired works, Annabel Lee & Other Tales of Mystery and Imagination is a good first effort, with the main problem being that the disc is a little short.
Annabel Lee (20 minutes): An amazingly creative and horrifically beautiful piece, this short tells Poe's poem with puppets and stop-motion animation. A very expressionist film, the creator tries to illustrate the narrator's feelings though the sets, props, and the design of the characters that are used and in doing so crafts a moving and forceful film.
This poem tells of a man who was in love with a beautiful woman, Annabel Lee. Their love was so strong, according to the man, that the angels themselves grew jealous and caused a cold wind to blow in from the sea. Annabel Lee became sick and died, but even death couldn't stop the man from loving his wife.
At first glance this is a rather odd poem to turn into a horror short. The poem itself doesn't concern itself with the supernatural or even anything horrific until the very last line, and even that is more pitiful than scary. The stroke of genius that director/designer George Higham had, and what makes this such a great film, is that the whole story is told through the narrator's eyes. The world is no longer beautiful and exciting to him, having lost the most precious thing he had.
Higham does an amazing job of designing the sets and characters. His angels aren't things of beauty and wonder, they're ugly, misshapen creatures that are capable of human flaws such as jealousy. The kingdom by the sea, where the story takes place, is a dark, rat infested, home to horrors, though in the flashbacks to when Annabel Lee was alive, it was a gorgeous beach, a bright and cheerful place to live.
It's easy to see why this film was chosen as the featured presentation on this disc. It is a truly remarkable short.
A/V: The full frame color image looks very good. The blacks are deep and the colors, mainly dark reds, are full. The image is a bit soft in places but that was a minor problem. There's a touch of aliasing here and there and some digital noise, but nothing significant. The narration by Jim Knipfel was clear, but he read the poem in a low booming voice like he was trying to impersonate a radio DJ, and I didn't think that worked quite as well as the rest of the film.
The Tell-Tale Heart (10 minutes): This Spanish made version of Poe's classic story features Paul Naschy, the "Spanish Lon Chaney." Made in 2003, Naschy was past his prime but still does a good job.
The only problem is that this short has only a passing resemblance to Poe's story. In this version a man (Naschy) visits his brother after being released from a psychiatric institution. They talk and after the man goes to bed, the brother gets a call from the hospital where his brother was incarcerated. They inform him that he wasn't released, but escaped. They're sending some one over to retrieve him, but will they be in time?
This film basically took the best parts of Poe's story and threw them out. The vulture eye, the insistence that the narrator isn't mad, the eventual resolution, all of them are gone. In its place is a fairly standard film that works about as good as a bad installment of the Night Gallery. There are supposed to be some shocking moments, but none of them are, and the end just doesn't work very well since you know from the beginning that the main character is crazy. It's not too surprising that Poe is not given credit at the end of the movie. It's barely his story.
A/V: This black and white full frame image was pretty soft. Though it was filmed in 2003, it looked like it was a good 20 or 30 years older. There was a spot or two, and the contrast wasn't as stark as I would have liked, but overall it wasn't a bad picture.
The Raven (10:00): This is the poem that made Poe famous, and it is capably acted out while a narrator reads the work. A man, depressed at the loss of his love, hears a tapping at his door, and then his window. Opening the latter a raven flies in and perches upon a bust above his door. The poor man uses this as an excuse to vent his pain, frustration, and despair. (A pitiful synopsis, I know. If you've never read the poem, do so now. A Google search will turn it up.)
The film is competent and done well, but I've never felt that this poem, though simple in setting and events, led itself well to being adapted to the small screen. The archaic words work better on the printed page and I usually read it slower than the narrator did. Having said that, this is a fine adaptation and works fairly well. The raven itself was particularly nice looking.
A/V: The full frame black and white image is soft but the contrast is fine. There are a couple of spots but nothing major. The narration comes through clearly with no distortion or other common audio defects.
There are two commentary tracks for Annabel Lee, both by George Higham. The first covers the technical aspects of filming the movie, how the puppets were crafted and how it piece was filmed. The second commentary deals with the aesthetics of the movie, where the odd scenery came from and what art influenced Higham. Both were very interesting.
There's also some video extras including a 24 minute interview with George Higham on the creation of Annabel Lee, Forgotten Lore (11 minutes) a series of interviews with the cast and crew of The Raven, a 13 minute interview with Poe expert Paul Day Clements, and finally a text biography of the author.
While there is a lot of extra material, I thought the rest of the disc was a little scant. The three shorts total 40 minutes of time, and while the title piece is excellent, the Tell-Tale Heart is pretty lame. Poe fans will want to get this for Annabel Lee, but the rest will be better off renting it, especially due to the little replay value of the extras and the Naschy film.