Extraordinary Tales Movie Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Released by Cinedigm
Directed by Raul Garcia
Written by Raul Garcia and Stéphan Roelants (original stories by Edgar Allan Poe)
2015, 73 minutes, Not Rated
Theatrical release on October 23rd, 2015
Roger Corman as Prince Prospero
Guillermo del Toro as Narrator, The Pit and the Pendulum
Cornelia Funke as Death
Stephen Hughes as Poe/Crow
Christopher Lee as Narrator, The Fall of the House of Usher
Bela Lugosi as Narrator, The Tell-Tale Heart
Julian Sands as Narrator, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Extraordinary Tales is a collection of animated short films based on works by Edgar Allan Poe. While there's nothing exactly groundbreaking about any of the shorts, they're all competent and enjoyable, and four of the five tales are exceedingly well narrated by some surprising celebrity talent, including Guillermo del Toro and the late Christopher Lee.
The Fall of the House of Usher is animated in a sort of papercraft style and creakingly narrated by Christopher Lee in one of his final film performances. Though perhaps a bit subdued, as befits the narrative, Lee's somber, slow drawl fits the dreariness of the tale perfectly. The animation style is rather goofy and cartoonish, and more than a little Disney-like—which in this case I mean in a good way—and contrasts nicely with the darkness of the story. The climactic scene is especially satisfying partly for this reason, and partly because [minor spoiler?] it presents a good modern rendering of a classic angry female ghost.
The narrator/protagonist of The Tell-Tale Heart looks a bit like Willem Dafoe if he were a character in Sin City. His voice is provided by Bela Lugosi in an ancient, staticky recording (Lugosi died in 1956) that only adds to the creepiness. Lugosi's performance is wonderful, particularly in the final moments, and using his voice in this way—surrounded by recognizable contemporary actors and filmmakers—is a clever move on the filmmakers' part. The short is shot in black and white and does a particularly good job of conveying the narrator's growing paranoia, making good use of still images and slow camera zooms.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar is told surprisingly well by B-horror actor extraordinaire Julian Sands. This short is done in a self-conscious comic-book style (the opening credits are even presented as literal comic frames). It's a slow story and probably the least interesting of the anthology, but I think that's probably due more to the nature of the source material than any fault of the filmmakers.
By far the most polished and contemporary-feeling story in the collection is The Pit and the Pendulum, rendered in a far more detailed, modern CG-style than the other shorts and, it must be said, wonderfully narrated by Guillermo del Toro. I have a love-hate relationship with del Toro—how can the same mind behind Pan's Labyrinth commit such acts of cinematic and literary terrorism as the Strain novels, Mama and, God help us all, Don't be Afraid of the Dark?—but the man can speak with a sexy gravelly voice when he wants to. Credit where it's due, etc. etc. The story is, of course, good, and the slick production is strangely satisfying amidst the more stylized static-art-inspired look of the others.
Wisely saving the best for last, Extraordinary Tales finishes with The Masque of the Red Death. This story is presented as an animated watercolor painting, and it's beautiful to behold. The soft, fuzzy grace of watercolors is juxtaposed with the horror of the plague, creating a lingering sense of the decay lurking beneath the most beautiful human forms and passions. Unlike the others, this short is largely unvoiced, except for generic party-noises and one outburst by Prince Prospero (played by none other than B-horror giant Roger Corman).
The collection is worth watching both for its interesting and compelling animation styles, and for the considerable voice talent its producers have managed to amass (save Corman, whose single line sounds about as convincing as a young William Shatner doing a TV spot for hair transplants). It's satisfying, as a horror fan, to have so many great film personalities assembled in a single movie. Even Vincent Price has a sort of cameo in the form of the doctor/narrator of M. Valdemar, whose character design is clearly based on Price. Price himself portrayed Valdemar (rather than the doctor) in an earlier film version of the tale, which was directed by Corman—a wink to the tangled web of horror film production and fandom.
Unfortunately the piece as a whole suffers under the ponderous weight of the uninspired frame story, which has Poe himself—inexplicably now a talking raven—arguing with Death (sexily but uninspired-ly voiced by Cornelia Funke) about whether he should pass on or, I guess, not. Poe, presumably the raison d'être of the whole collection, has the worst voicing in the film, his dull and lifeless delivery a noticeable step down from the huge talents of Lee, Lugosi and the rest. The narrative is largely nonsensical: there's no clear reason why Poe should remain after his death or why he's now a raven (except, you know, The Raven). And these bits presupposes a fair amount of knowledge of Poe's personal life and death, which may frustrate some viewers. I'm certainly no expert, and I found some of the smug references to Poe's life and works a bit off-putting—as though I needed to do some homework before I could fully appreciate the Poe-banter.
Aside from the annoyingly unimportant frame narrative, Extraordinary Tales is an enjoyable look at some classics of the horror genre by perhaps its most important founding figure. It demonstrates that the best stories age gracefully, and may just encourage some viewers to revisit (or discover for the first time) some of the earliest works of horror fiction.