The Adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe: The Good, the Bad, and the Appalling

Poor Edgar. 

While he enjoyed a modicum of critical success in his lifetime, he died at the age of forty, penniless and under mysterious, still unsolved circumstances. He was orphaned at an early age, clashed frequently with his foster father, lost his young wife to tuberculosis, and his reputation was almost completely destroyed by his archrival, who somehow managed to become Poe's literary executor and launched a smear campaign that lingers to this day.

Talk about a tragic, depressing life. No wonder the guy was obsessed with death, loss, and madness. 

In the 150+ years since his death, it's a shame that many adaptations of his stories have been so schlocky. Why is it so hard to do an atmospheric, genuinely thrilling Poe adapt? The man's widely considered the foremost American voice in Romanticism and the inventor of detective fiction for crying out loud.

I think we need to make Guillermo del Toro put down the twelve other projects he's always carrying around and do a big budget Fall of the House of Usher or something. He's the only guy I'd trust at this point.

If you're a fan of Poe, there are plenty of films—and a handful of TV shows—to choose from. Here's just a handful of the most notable:

1. Roger Corman’s Poe Series:

  • House of Usher
  • The Pit and the Pendulum
  • The Premature Burial
  • Tales of Terror
  • The Raven
  • The Masque of the Red Death
  • The Tomb of Ligeia

Distributed by American International Pictures, the “Poe Cycle” was the brainchild of infamous director/producer Roger Corman, who is perhaps best known for his work in B-movie horror. Seen as the American answer to England's Hammer Horror, this series of seven films adapted Poe's stories and poems to varying degrees of accuracy. 

Since most of Poe's work was in the public domain and the common tone/subject matter meant the studio could re-use sets, costumes, and even footage, AIP was more interested in the cheap bottom line and the profitability of such a series, which was produced in incredibly short order—all seven films were filmed and released within a five year span. 

Director Corman did, however, do his best with the budget and time he was allotted. With horror legend Vincent Price starring in all but one of the films (Ray Milland was the star of The Premature Burial), they're certainly worth watching, if sometimes laughably outdated to modern audiences. 

The Masque of the Red Death is perhaps the greatest of these films, combining both the title story and “Hop-Frog,” one of Poe's lesser known but more deviously entertaining stories. With its greater focus on visuals and philosophy over traditional scares and gore, Masque is the story of a Satanist prince (talk about a perfect role for Price) and his debauched, death-haunted court.

In contrast, The Raven is a downright goofy farce utterly lacking the somber poignancy of its source poem, though the cast—which includes Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre, a personal fave of mine—is undeniably stellar. 

2. The Black Cat (1934)

A Hungarian psychiatrist and war-weary veteran, Dr. Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), travels to the foreboding home of Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) alongside newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop). Werdegast is deathly afraid of black cats, Poelzig keeps dead women preserved in glass cases in the basement, Joan is slated for sacrifice during a Satanic cult ceremony, and the film ends with a jolly old flaying scene!

Boy, I wish this movie was as good as it sounds in summary. 

The first film to pair horror legends Lugosi and Karloff—and a huge box office hit when it was released—it earned a place in cinematic history for being one of the first movies to have an almost continuous music score. Given all that, it should be a wild adventure of a flick, right?

Not quite. There are definitely moments of atmospheric tension, and Lugosi looks dang good as the tragic Dr. Werdegast, but the overall plot is a meandering mess and bears only the slightest of resemblance to the Poe short story it's supposed to be based upon. 

The most entertaining thing about this film is lampooning it MST3K-style from the comfort of your own couch, as my mother and I did a few weeks ago. Pretending Lugosi and Karloff are jealous ex-boyfriends who are a bit kinky vastly improves the entire picture, but especially the skin-flaying climax. 

3. The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1986)

The incredible detective Auguste Dupin (George C. Scott) and his young friend Phillipe Huron (Val Kilmer) must solve a double murder after Dupin's daughter Claire (Rebecca De Mornay) begs for his help when her fiancé is arrested for the crimes. The heroes face not only a nearly impossible locked-room mystery, but also an antagonistic Prefect of Police (Ian McShane) who would like nothing more than to see Dupin fail.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” remains one of my all-time favorite Poe stories, despite it's laughably implausible ending. This is largely thanks to its genre importance—this single short story is credited with creating the modern detective story and laying the groundwork for so many of the tropes we've come to expect in mysteries. 

Dupin is the first Sherlock, the first Poirot, the first Gil Grissom. His process of deductive reasoning—something Poe called “ratiocination”—involves seemingly-superhuman leaps of logic and observation, a process Sherls fans will surely recognize. “Rue Morgue” was also the first locked-room mystery and the first mystery to be narrated by a close friend of the detective rather than the primary hero himself—a technique still utilized frequently today. 

Given my fondness for the story and my not-so-secret childhood love affairs with both Val Kilmer and Rebecca De Mornay, this made-for-TV movie should be a fave, especially with the growly likes of Scott and McShane filling out the primary cast. 

Sadly, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts in this case. It's certainly not bad. The sets and locations are great, the costumes decent, and the cast is wonderful (and pretty to look at; I refuse to feel guilty about this). There are a few sparkling moments, and it's not boring, per se. 

The cinematography and lighting, however, is muddy and difficult to watch at times, and anyone familiar with the original story may be annoyed by how this adaptation tries to make the climactic twist SO SURPRISING! Also, the rivalry between Dupin and the Prefect (something referenced but not made explicit in the short story) is focused on in a way that doesn't serve the overall film. 

Still, there have been far worse takes on this classic story. Plus, Val Kilmer wears a great hat.

4. Vincent (1982 short film)

Young Vincent Malloy wishes he could be more like his hero Vincent Price and live a life straight out of the works of Edgar A. Poe. His childhood torment is expressed through a story told in rhyme, narrated by Price himself and accompanied by charmingly gothic stop-motion animation. 

Vincent may not strictly be a Poe adaptation—but it references his work and positively drips with the unique air of gothic Romanticism he cultivated. The short film ends with Vincent quoting directly from “The Raven,” lamenting the loss of a beautiful Lenore (despite the fact that Vincent is only seven years old). 

Plus, long-time Poe actor Vincent Price narrates our young hero's plight, and director Tim Burton is certainly a contender for Most Poe-Like Filmmaker in the last thirty years. It may be a mere six minutes in length, but this charming little story remains impressive and lovely; I feel that Poe himself would have enjoyed it. You can find it on Youtube and on certain DVD releases of another stop-motion Burton brainchild: The Nightmare Before Christmas

5. The Raven (2012)

It remains a mystery: just how did Edgar A. Poe die? Who was the “Reynolds” he reportedly mumbled about when he was taken to the hospital after being found half-conscious in a Baltimore park?

(The most widely believed version of events suggests Poe was snatched by a “cooping gang,” a form of voting fraud where innocent bystanders are coerced into voting for certain political candidates, usually via alcohol or physical threats. This would also explain why Poe was found wearing clothes that didn't belong to him, as “coopers” would sometimes re-dress their victims in various disguises so they could vote numerous times.)

This highly-fictionalized take on Poe's last days, however, suggests that Poe (John Cusack) was actually helping Detective Fields (Luke Evans) track down a killer who was emulating some of the more gruesome scenes in his stories. 

In this twisting of historical events, Poe's arch-rival Griswold—the man who became his literary executor, later going on to commit complete character assassination against the writer—is one of the murderer's victims, and Poe has a ladylove named Emily (Alice Eve) who is kidnapped and used as leverage against the heroes. 

It's Saw meets Poe, where the murders all refer to the author's greatest works: “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The climax, of course, leads to Poe's inevitable death, but thanks to his deathbed mumblings, Detective Fields tracks down the killer and enacts justice in the final scene. 

The Raven isn't a half-bad film when taken purely for its entertainment value. It's fun to see the inventor of the detective genre help catch a murderer, and it's certainly stylistic and nice to look at, with some great costumes and evocative settings (Budapest was a stand-in for 1840's Baltimore). Cusack does a decent job as the tortured Poe, while Evans and Eve are as pretty as ever.

I won't say it's a great film, though; it's lacking something. As a way to spend an evening in with friends, though, you could definitely choose worse.

6. The Simpsons (“Treehouse of Horror” and “Lisa’s Rival”)

This should surprise no one, but The Simpsons have taken Poe's ideas and run with them in spectacular fashion. 

In the original “Treehouse of Horror” special, almost the entirety of “The Raven” is read by James Earl Jones as narrator while Homer (a stand-in for Poe) rages against the infuriating raven (Bart) and laments his lost Lenore (Marge). 

“Lisa's Rival” sees Lisa competing with a new student, Allison, in a diorama competition. Allison recreates the infamous climax of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” complete with a tiny mechanism that mimics the cursed heart, and Lisa sabotages her by swapping it with a box that simply contains a cow's bloody heart.

What makes these Simpsons episodes so great is how they introduced Poe to a brand new generation. That “Treehouse of Horror” was my first taste of Poe, and made me promptly seek out the full poem and commit it to memory; “Lisa's Rival” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are forever imprinted on my memory banks thanks to that evocative diorama. There have been numerous references to Poe on the show throughout the years, but these two stand out in a major way.

Today, Lovecraft seems to be the American horror author most referenced in films, comics, and games—probably thanks to the existential and universal dread his Old Gods evoke—but I think it's high time for Poe to make a comeback. Guillermo del Toro's latest, Crimson Peak, had a deliciously Poe vibe to it: let's hope that's a harbinger of a trend to come.

See also: Stepping Out of the Shadows: Leslie S. Klinger and Chuck Caruso Talk Edgar Allan Poe


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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