Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky kills this show, stuffs its corpse under the floorboards, and blithely ignores the beating of its hideous heart.
"My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified—have tortured—have destroyed me."—Edgar Allan Poe, "The Black Cat"
This would be the part of the review where I would tell you all about Edgar Allan Poe. But you know all about him already. You can look him up. Poe is such a standard in the literary canon that it would be silly to tell you what you already know. Chances are you have also formed an opinion of his work. Truth is, I don't really teach Poe very often. Even in courses on horror literature, I use Lovecraft more. (I think Lovecraft is a more pronounced influence on modern horror writers, and several of his stories usefully comment on Poe's work even as they move past it.) But I am not here to pass judgment on Edgar Allan Poe. It is enough to acknowledge that his stories and poems have proven an almost inexhaustible source of material for movies all the way back to the silent era. He has been adapted faithfully, parodied mercilessly, and turned over to actors both skilled and awful. Roger Corman, Jules Dassin, Philip Glass, The Simpsons—everybody has taken a crack at him, with varying degrees of success. And it will likely never stop.
So here we are again. This time it is a 12-episode television series, plus a "biographical portrait" episode to pad things out to a syndication-friendly 13. What? You say you don't remember watching this? No surprise: The show never aired. In fact, little is really known about Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery and Imagination. It appears to be a South African production shot mostly in Croatia with British actors. Whether it never aired due to financial problems—or merely because it was really bad (which admittedly never stopped other shows)—I cannot say. There is no IMDb listing for the show, and even Christopher Lee doesn't recall much about it when asked. But this is the age of DVD, where—in the spirit of a Poe story—nothing remains buried for long. So, does this show rise from the grave fresh as a daisy?
No. Of course not. As in a Poe story, this show rises from the grave as a moldering corpse pointing its withered finger at you, begging for attention. If you see it, run.
Since I am forced to face down the horror for you, I'll tell you what you need to know. Top-liner Christopher Lee merely introduces the episodes, except for "The Masque of the Red Death." He looks like he would rather be somewhere else. The stories are faithful for the most part, but they are dull dull dull.
The show adapts eleven stories, all of which have been done better by other
movies or shows:
Poe's horror tales are psychological. You can never be sure how stable the ground is under your feet, because the protagonists are falling apart from the inside at all times. But nobody in these episodes ever seems quite mad enough. Roderick Usher behaves like a dinner-theater version of Lord Byron, and we apparently need the narrator to tell us that Roderick is "wasted and wan"—because we certainly can't see it. And his grimacing when Madeline arrives at the door to embrace him at the story's climax? I thought I would fall over laughing. I've seen better tragic acting from the prancing singers in '80s music videos, whom I suspect the cast of this series borrowed much of their puffy-sleeved wardrobe from. Enjoy the bug-eyed histrionics in "Ligeia" as well. Pure camp. Or the papier-mâché vision of Heaven in "Mr. Valdemar." Oh, I could go on and on.
Occasionally, the series does make a limp effort to update the stories. "The Oval Portrait" was in Poe's hands a brief study of an artist whose obsession with image brings about his wife's decline and death. The television version starts in the modern day before leading into a period flashback that meanders with the energy of an iguana trudging through an Arctic landscape. Even Lee tries to cover for the story's inadequacies by comparing it to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. "The Cask of Amontillado" adds an adultery subplot. "The Tell-Tale Heart," a story most fans of horror literature have nearly memorized, is unrecognizable (adding a sick little girl to give the killer a sympathetic side)—and features the worst make-up effect I have seen since Ray Dennis Steckler to depict the iconic evil eye.
Atmosphere is hard to establish, since the low budget and videography (yes, the series looks pretty harsh, having been shot on video) distract the audience. The prop cat in "The Black Cat" looks like it cost a dollar. Don't even ask about the cheesy synthesizer music that sounds like soap-opera gothic.
The only episode that almost works is an update of "The Pit and the Pendulum" set during World War I that is so surreal and freaky in its acid-trip imagery that I actually wondered where it was all leading. Points to director Hugh Whysall for not trying to rationalize the crazy dream world of the story and just cutting loose with the weirdness. The editors botch the ending by having Lee interrupt before the "twist," ruining the audience's immersion in the story completely. But as I said, it almost works, at least for a time. If only the rest of the series—hell, even a single other episode—tried half this hard.
Christopher Lee himself has fun chewing through the role of Prince Prospero in "The Masque of the Red Death," but the story is padded out with uninteresting supporting characters and the plot is an incoherent mess. You know the script has veered way off Poe when the Celtic "Green Man" wanders out from the trees dressed like a tubby Peter Pan to chat with one of the characters.
The final episode is a dramatized biography of Poe (James Ryan) and his tragic marriage to his underage cousin Virginia. You won't understand the man or his work any better after watching this, since it reduces the complicated figure of Poe to just another depressed alcoholic, a view that no serious biographer subscribes to.
Edgar Allan Poe and his work deserve better than this lame television series. Although I have never been much of a Poe fan, I found myself nursing a deep sense of pity after wading through these thirteen episodes. There were moments when I found myself actually tuning out and instead reading parts of the original stories (which I kept nearby as a reference). I don't think it is a sign of a successful television show when it makes you stop watching and go read a book instead.
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