10 great Edgar Allan Poe adaptations

As Mike Flanagan’s new version of The Fall of the House of Usher launches on Netflix, we trace its dark lineage in screen adaptations of a master of American gothic: Edgar Allan Poe.

12 October 2023

By Gayle Sequeira

The Fall of the House of Usher (2023)
Eike Schroter/Netflix

For an author whose protagonists frequently find themselves nursing obsessive fixations, the works of Edgar Allan Poe themselves have long held a singular fascination for filmmakers. One of the major figures in American gothic literature, and considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, Poe wrote stories that delve into the physical and moral rot of man, while others surprise with their cheeky sense of humour and sharp sarcasm. 

Screen adaptations of Poe began virtually with the dawn of narrative cinema, with early films including 1913’s The Student of Prague, considered to be the first German art film. By the 1930s, the author’s cultural cachet was such that even films having little to do with his short stories were titled after them, as for example in the case of the 1934 Bela Lugosi-Boris Karloff classic The Black Cat. In the 1960s, director Roger Corman embarked upon a Poe cycle, adapting the author’s works into eight films in which recurring elements included misty outdoors, decrepit homes, revenge plots and Vincent Price. Now, Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, reimagines the titular dynasty as a modern pharmaceutical empire.

Many filmmakers have delighted in expanding the scope of Poe’s short stories, throwing in twist upon twist, adding humour and playing with genres. But at the heart of all of these adaptations still lies the author’s original darkness, an enduring torment from which there is no respite. Reworkings might have long moved away from Poe’s cavernous castles and into sunny suburbia, but it really doesn’t matter where they’re set – their foundation is built on fears lurking in the innermost recesses of the mind.

The Avenging Conscience or “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (1914)

Director: D.W. Griffith

The Avenging Conscience or ”Thou Shalt Not Kill” (1914)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

D.W. Griffith’s silent film isn’t coy about its inspirations – its protagonist (Henry B. Walthall) finds a reflection of his besotted feelings for a young woman (Blanche Sweet) in Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’ and later, denied his uncle’s (Spottiswoode Aitken) permission to marry her, draws murderous inspiration from Poe’s short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. In reworking the central relationship of Poe’s story to that of an uncle and nephew in his film, Griffith depicts how even familial love can chafe and curdle. And in positioning his protagonist as turning against the man who raised him since birth, his story magnifies the heinousness of the crime. 

If the film’s subtitle, Thou Shalt Not Kill, didn’t clue you in to its staunch moral stance, Jesus himself makes an appearance in one of the protagonist’s guilt-induced spectral hallucinations, as does the stone tablet on which the titular commandment is inscribed. Its ending is bound to be fiercely divisive, but Griffith’s film remains strikingly original for how it extends to its protagonist what so many in Poe’s stories are denied: redemption.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

Director: Jean Epstein

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

The stark black-and-white photography of this French film, based on Poe’s short story, emphasises the ghostliness of the desolate mansion in which it’s set, a contrast to the ornate richness of Roger Corman’s version released 32 years later. Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt) becomes fixated with painting a portrait of his wife Madeleine (Marguerite Gance) – the more he wills vitality and vibrancy into each brushstroke, the weaker his wife becomes, a nod to Poe’s short story ‘The Oval Portrait’. Madeleine’s portrait blinks, mocking Roderick for his callousness, his slavish devotion to the painted imitation over the real thing. Its luminescence reflects in his adoring gaze.

In superimposing a slew of Madeleine’s pained expressions over each other, Epstein viscerally conveys her disorientation. His use of slow-motion gives the film a trancelike effect. A shot of nails being hammered into Madeleine’s coffin superimposed over the woods through which Roderick walks reflects the reverberating consequences of his actions. Adapting a story that hinges on the protagonist’s acute sound sensitivity into a silent film is tricky, but Epstein’s work endures on the strength of its images alone.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

Director: Ted Parmelee

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

This animated story of nighttime murder, carried out under the cover of darkness, is dominated by inky shadows and creeping silhouettes. Narrator James Mason alternates between deceptive calmness and gnawing unease as spinning frames emphasise his loosening grip on sanity. As the unnamed protagonist fixates on plotting to kill an old man living in his building, the medium allows for visual markers of his madness – the film cuts to a smashed white jug, the same colour as the old man’s clouded-over eye that had been tormenting his thoughts moments ago, a neat encapsulation of his rage’s cause and effect. 

As the screen cuts to solid black for one sequence, moments stretch out into an eternity. The narrator’s confidence in his criminal endeavours appears even more ill-judged, juxtaposed against the atmosphere of heightened paranoia. Ted Parmelee’s Oscar-nominated short is just eight minutes long, but those are enough – the sensation of the walls closing in lingers long after.

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Director: Roger Corman

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Director Roger Corman reworks Poe’s tale of solitary confinement under the Spanish Inquisition into a riff on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, folding in much of its mood and many of its themes – mysterious illnesses, family homes with a malignant atmosphere, hereditary pain, women buried alive. A man (John Kerr) arrives at the castle of his recently deceased sister (Barbara Steele) and finds that her husband (Vincent Price), though shaken, is unable to provide any satisfactory answers about the illness that killed her. Then the woman’s voice is unmistakably heard. Could she be alive? Or is her spirit haunting them? 

Corman emphasises the starkness of the castle walls and the terrible secret they conceal. Instead of being trapped in prison, as in Poe’s story, the protagonist finds himself mired in a troubled family history. Recurring shots of the stormy sea outside underline his in-laws’ emotional churn. The sickening dread this film builds up during a climactic sequence is eventually subverted, but Pit and the Pendulum still conjures up one last stomach-sinking image to sear into memory before it ends.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Director: Roger Corman

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Death’s presence looms large from the first shot of this atmospheric adaptation of Poe’s story, in which a plague sweeps through a medieval Italian village before arriving at the prince’s (Vincent Price) castle in a choreographed swirl of bodies. Director Roger Corman heightens the ruler’s cruelties and his pursuit of excess, while also depicting how dire straits can crumble even the will of a good man. Painting his protagonist as a Satanist also allows him to imbue the text with theological questions designed to prod at the paradoxes of faith.

For all its elaborate, theatrical staging and grand declarations, however, the film doesn’t lean into camp despite lines such as, “This is your day of deliverance, remember?” The result is more akin to that of Shakespearean tragedy. Corman’s film retains the story’s view of death as the great leveller, unsparing of the rich and poor alike, but leans into the satisfaction of watching the wicked and wealthy, in particular, suffer its torments. Death is inevitable, but retribution is a nice flourish.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

Director: Sergio Martino

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

Opening titles scroll on as a couple rolls around in bed, a sign that this classic tale of violence is also about to become unabashedly horny. Death and desire are inextricable in this slick, clever reworking of Poe’s short story ‘The Black Cat’, which trades the first-person point-of-view of a man ruing the growing blight upon his soul for a slasher thriller in which the identity of the perpetrator initially remains a mystery.

Unlike in Poe’s story, which traces its protagonist’s gradual descent into fits of liquor-soaked terror, Oliviero Rouvigny’s (Luigi Pistilli) humiliation of his wife (Anita Strindberg) and degradation of his house help (Angela La Vorgna) are on full display from the first scene of the film. When young women are found hacked to death with a sickle, he’s the first suspect, though this wouldn’t be a giallo without a twist upon a twist upon a twist. Sergio Martino’s film doesn’t have the same steady buildup of atmospheric dread as the original story, but it offers plenty of trashy pleasures and a satisfying tying up of its various strands. Who knew a Poe adaptation could accommodate a lesbian subplot and a dirt bike race?

The Cask of Amontillado (1979)

Director: Bernard Wilets

The Cask of Amontillado (1979)

Angered by his friend Fortunato’s insult, the nobleman Montresor plots to lure him to his catacombs, then seal him up within. Director Bernard Wilets tells Poe’s short story through a series of still illustrations made dynamic by how the camera moves around them. Zoom-ins allow Montresor’s face to fill the screen as the narration traverses deeper into his psyche. That same face later viewed through the prism of a wine bottle appears terrifying, distorted and decayed. Slow pans point to his smirking intent, writ large on his face, then gradually reveal the obliviousness of the victim seated across from him. The camera dizzyingly swirls around a winding staircase, mimicking the drunk Fortunato’s impaired balance as he descends it. 

Stellar voice acting not only captures the unselfconscious, unedited exuberance of speech that accompanies Fortunato’s intoxication, but also makes Montresor’s pretence of solicitousness easy enough to see through. For all the film’s evocative imagery, the most haunting sight is that of a black screen as the audience is placed in Fortunato’s point of view and the last brick is hammered in, walling us up alongside him forever. 

Two Evil Eyes (1990)

Directors: Dario Argento and George A. Romero

Two Evil Eyes (1990)

Two masterful horror directors spin Poe’s tales into an anthology of contemporary narratives that centre men attempting to get away with murder. George A. Romero’s adaptation of ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ is set away from the author’s dark caverns and gloomy castles – his is an evil that blossoms in full daylight. Shot like an episode ripped straight out of a soap opera, it follows a woman (Adrienne Barbeau) attempting to steal her ailing husband’s (Bingo O’Malley) fortune with the help of her former boyfriend (Ramy Zada). The grisly ending is distinctly Poe, as is the final shot of the Eye of Providence on the US dollar bill, which reinforces the eerie feeling of being watched, of no crime without consequence.

Inventive visual flourishes, such as scenes shot from a cat’s point of view, dot Argento’s adaptation of ‘The Black Cat’, which plays up the lack of privacy and intrusion that accompanies city living. Harvey Keitel plays a crime-scene photographer who grows resentful of his girlfriend’s (Madeleine Potter) affection for her pet cat. Abuse of the cat gradually escalates to abuse of his girlfriend. Is Argento suggesting that sustained exposure to violent imagery induces violent tendencies? A cheeky idea, given his own cinematic style.

The Tell-Tale Heart (2008)

Director: Robert Eggers

The Tell-Tale Heart (2008)

Rich in gloomy atmosphere, and with a pervasive silence that lets every creak, tick and breath land with the force of a shattering thud, Robert Eggers’ moody adaptation of Poe’s short story is a signpost for the director he was to become in the likes of The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). In clarifying the characters’ relationship as servant and master, in place of the short story’s ambiguity, he not only forces the two into much closer proximity – to the servant’s growing revulsion – but also adds new dimensions to the old man’s helplessness, given how utterly reliant he is on the protagonist here. 

The choice of a puppet to play the old man intensifies his positioning as an aberration. While the lifelike doll moves, sags and breathes, it doesn’t quite pass off as being human, lending credence to the protagonist’s unease around him and doubling the house’s discomfiting atmosphere. In shooting some scenes as if viewed through a keyhole or a peephole, Eggers makes us co-conspirators in the tale, peering at something we shouldn’t be privy to. By the time the stillness gives way to a murderous frenzy, it’s impossible to look away.

The Bloodhound (2020)

Director: Patrick Picard

The Bloodhound (2020)

A masked man slithers out of a lake, crawls into a house and conceals himself inside a closet. The Bloodhound’s opening scene lingers at the back of your mind, casting a pall of unease on the rest of this film. Director Patrick Picard updates ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ for contemporary times – gone is the mansion, replaced by a luxury modern home, but both residences are but gilded cages for their residents. Jean Paul (Joe Adler) invites his childhood friend Francis (Liam Aiken) over to stay but proves to be a host from hell, gaslighting and manipulating him.

Picard hones in on the isolation at the heart of Poe’s story. The pointed, stilted way Jean Paul talks, the sincerity of his words at odds with his flat intonation, points to something being terribly off. The Bloodhound has no major jolts, just a steady sense of foreboding. Nearly two centuries on, Poe’s anxieties find new resonance.

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