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Case Number 21317: Small Claims Court

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The Tell-Tale Heart / The Oval Portrait

The Tell-Tale Heart
1960 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
The Oval Portrait
1972 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Alternative Cinema
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // May 10th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Roman Martel got giddy over the tintinnabulation of the gavel gavel gavel.

The Charge

Its time to dig up two forgotten films based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Did they deserve to be unearthed, or will those who watch these relics find themselves subject to the curse of the red death?

The Case

The Tell Tale Heart starts with a William Castle style warning. If you hear the sound of the beating heart, the squeamish and nervous should avert their eyes from the terror just around the corner. It sets the mood for this interesting little film that is attempting to do a bit more than provide simple scares.

The basic story, based on Poe's, is about a man driven to kill another man and hide his body in the floor. It adds a bit more plot and character depth to flesh out the running time. The tale revolves around Edgar (Laurence Payne) a lonely, shy librarian (is there any other kind?). Edgar obviously has some issues functioning in public, but his only friend Carl (Dermot Walsh) doesn't have a problem with him.

Everything changes when Betty (Adrienne Corri) moves in across the street from Edgar. He becomes immediately fascinated with her, even watching her from his window. Finally he gets up the nerve to ask her out and she surprisingly accepts. Everyone but Edgar can tell she accepts because she's new to town and she feels bad for him. Soon she meets Carl and falls hard for him. The love triangle twists all three characters until it comes to its murderous climax. Then it is only a matter of time before the tell-tale heart drives the murderer to snap.

the tell-tale heart

The cast really delivers here. Payne is a nice mixture of intense, bashful and creepy all at the same time. He seems harmless enough, except for the moments we see him alone. His obsession with Betty unsettles her and us. But we also feel bad for him, he's just lonely—isn't he? Corri is alluring as Betty. We can see how easily she entrances Edgar and Carl. But she also allows the audience to see that she's probably just using him to meet other people. Her passion for Carl seems real enough, but she doesn't seem to feel that Edgar is worth much once she meets Carl. Walsh makes Carl a decent guy. He obviously cares about Edgar and seems to be watching over him like a big brother, but he is also deceived by Edgar's bookish ways.

The other big asset to the film is director Ernest Morris, who keeps the film moving at a steady pace. He allows the characters enough room to breathe, but he never bogs down into too much dialogue. His use of camera angles and lighting reminds me strongly of the style used in The Twilight Zone. There's plenty of shadows for characters to dip into and step out from. Once the movie reaches the final decent into madness Morris pulls out all the stops. Repetitive sounds build upon each other. Inanimate objects move in rhythmic ways. And behind it all is the sound of the still beating heart. It's clever and effective.

the tell-tale heart

True to Poe this is not a thrill a minute ride. It's a slow build, as we get to know the characters, and watch the tragedy unfold. There's also a bit of atmospheric pacing in places that some viewers will find slow going. Payne does get a bit theatrical in places, but I felt it fit the intensity of his character. Others might see it as over the top. And it goes without saying that Poe purists will not like any of the changes made to the story.

Poe's short story The Oval Portrait focuses on a simple idea. It's terribly short, and consists mostly of us reading about a man reading about a frightening incident. But, the kernel of the story could still be adapted into something sinister.

The result here is sinister all right. Also going by the name One Minute Before Death, the movie revolves around Lisa (Wanda Hendrix) a "young" woman who moves into a haunted house with her mother. From the moment they arrive, creepy and disturbing things happen. But it's the portrait of a young woman named Rebecca (Maray Ayres) that begins to consume Lisa's thoughts. Housekeeper Mrs. Warren (Gisele MacKenzie) is not surprised by this, since she looks so much like Rebecca. As Lisa falls more and more under the sway of the portrait, Mrs. Warren tells her the story of Rebecca.

In an extended flashback to the American Civil War (which comprises about 80% of the movie) we find out that Rebecca had a controlling father with serious issues toward women. One day a confederate soldier hides in their home, and Mrs. Warren and Rebecca help him without telling her father who is an officer in the Northern army. The solder's name is Joseph (Barry Coe). He used to be a painter, but now he's a soldier and lover. Rebecca can't get enough of his hairy chest and the two start smooching. Well it all goes downhill as father brings down his wrath and Rebecca dies.

After that flashback is done we come back to Lisa and her problems. The movie meanders around scenes where corpses are danced with, ghosts appear, people are shot, a house catches fire and a man with an afro never before seen in the 1800s runs around the screen.

the oval portrait

Wow…This is a slab of '70s over the top cheese. Shot entirely in Mexico with a North American cast and yet dubbed oddly, the whole thing plays like a bizarre fever dream. The entire flashback in the middle of the film could have come right out of a soapy bodice ripper. The bookend sequences try to build horror but only manage to flail around with ghostly images, flying objects, scenery chewing and lots and lots of lightning. The final product is bizarre, boring and hilarious.

A few things manage to work here and there. MacKenzie plays the part of Mrs. Warren well enough. She's the most subtle of the entire group and gives her character a bit of depth. Coe is also fine in the role of the lover. Some of the music by Les Baxter is moody and effective. He has a swooning melancholic theme at work, but it gets overused and blasted at a ridiculous volume.

One of the big issues is the character of Lisa. There is no way that this woman:

the oval portrait

looks anything remotely like that woman:

the oval portrait

But everyone in the movie keeps saying they do, hoping the audience buys it. The character of Lisa is obviously supposed to be a young woman, late teens or early twenties I'd say. Hendrix even attempts to play the character that young and it's a mess. All of her scenes are bad and do nothing build on the horror of the original Poe story.

The pacing is all wrong. The flashback sequence feels like it's nearly two hours long. The final third fakes the viewer out with one ending and then just keeps on going into another one. The movie is not scary. It's not entertaining. It's just a mess. However it's such a ripe mess that its perfect for a session of movie riffing. So I say grab a couple of your funniest friends, and set up a movie mocking session. There's plenty to work with and it gives the disc a bit more merit.

Sadly the print for The Tell-tale Heart is in bad shape. It's never unwatchable, but you can see a lot of damage, especially on the left side of the screen during dark sequences (and there are plenty of those). The sound is fair, it's a bit muffled here and there, but it never ruins the experience.

The print for The Oval Portrait manages to look worse, only because it is in color and has a murky brownish haze over everything. The audio is slightly better, but the music is mixed very loud, and actually creates some feedback in a few scenes.

There are no extras, but the the insert does come with an essay by Tim Lucas on each film. These essays are thorough and well researched. They'll provide plenty of info for those interested in behind the scenes moments and a information about the cast and crew.

Both films are studies of love and obsession, but The Tell-tale Heart is the one worth seeking out. Anyone looking for a good black and white thriller based on Poe will find a lot to enjoy. The movie riffing potential for The Oval Portrait should be considered icing on the cake.

The Verdict

Do you hear that? It's a not guilty verdict.

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Scales of Justice, The Tell-Tale Heart

Judgment: 82

Perp Profile, The Tell-Tale Heart

Studio: Alternative Cinema
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Tell-Tale Heart

• Liner Notes

Scales of Justice, The Oval Portrait

Judgment: 63

Perp Profile, The Oval Portrait

Studio: Alternative Cinema
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Oval Portrait

• Liner Notes

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