October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article ranking the ten best Edgar Allan Poe adaptations is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
You must make room for variation when digging through Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Poe’s moody pieces hinge drastically on the written word and its poetry. Translating the beauty of his language into visuals is not impossible but demands deviation. How cool you are with that deviation will determine how cool you are with our ranked list below.
The Boo Crew (Rob Hunter, Chris Coffel, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, and myself) doesn’t mind when a filmmaker goes wild in the production process. Many of the films here veer radically from what Edgar Allan Poe intended. More than half of them come from Roger Corman, which probably says more about our tastes than anything else.
These movies are not dusty. They’re weird. They’re demented. And, yeah, they’re more than a little wobbly. Just like our favorite author. Edgar Allan Poe challenged the status quo, and our favorite adaptations do too. You will not find a shiny blockbuster among the bunch. These are penny-pincher endeavors, where the filmmakers put as much of themselves into them as they could afford. Most are elevated by cast and crew willing to stretch beyond their paychecks. They’re all heart. Beating and dripping outside their body.
10. The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Vincent Price in those shades. It’s worth the watch alone. Never mind that he’s way too old for the title character and a little creakier than in other Roger Corman Poe adaptations. The original short story is barely a story; it’s a brief shot at an idea and a vibe. Screenwriter Robert Towne (Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible 2) vastly expanded on Poe’s concept by plugging in several other themes from his work. Mostly, Towne doubles down on the necrophilia, creating an uncomfortable tone, which, again, causes The Tomb of Ligeia to stand apart from the previous Corman riffs. There’s a danger to this film, a sting that never lingers, but when it appears, it’s satisfying. (Brad Gullickson)
9. Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Dawn of the Dead was the last time George Romero and Dario Argento worked together in some capacity. After so many years apart, the two icons coming together for this mini-anthology was quite the event. Possibly, the movie was better in our imaginations than in reality, but as is, Two Evil Eyes is a fun enough party. Romero’s half loosely adapts “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” with Adrienne Barbeau as Jessica Valdemar and Argento’s half takes on “The Black Cat” with Harvey Keitel and basically smashes in a dozen other Poe references. The two shorts don’t blend well, but their contrast is rather exciting. Both directors have made better material, but they’ve also made worse. Two Evil Eyes works best when viewed through the passionate lens of fandom. For the directors or the author. (Brad Gullickson)
8. The Black Cat (1981)
At the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest, Austrian singers Teya and Salena debuted their song, “Who the Hell is Edgar?” a satirical jab at the music industry with lyrics inspired by the true story of a group of women who wrote poetry after allegedly, channeling the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. Who’s someone who didn’t channel the spirit of Poe? Lucio Fulci when he made his adaptation of The Black Cat. While he does preserve the essence of the shocking finale in Poe’s original story, as well as the torturous connection between a man and a semi-supernatural cat, overall he dispenses with everything Poe wrote to create a new killer cat story in his unique style. If you want to see a faithful recreation of Poe’s story of a man’s descent into madness as he spirals into alcoholism, I highly recommend you seek out Stuart Gordon’s adaptation for the television series Masters of Horror. However, Fulci’s film is worth the price of admission alone just to see one Master of Horror tackle another Master of Horror’s finest work. (Jacob Trussell)
7. Tales of Terror (1962)
Tales of Terror is a trilogy that adapts four Poe stories: “Morella,” The Black Cat, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Once again, it’s directed by Roger Corman and ranks as the fourth entry in his Poe cycle. Here is where I write the obligatory anthology review; not every entry is great, but there are sequences worth applauding. Previously, Corman mostly sought scares with his Poe adaptations, but with this one, he started to inject humor. The results are mixed, but without Tales of Terror, you wouldn’t get the absolutely bananas The Raven (see below). Vincent Price introduces each section through narration and appears in all of them as well. In addition, Corman packs each story with another rad character actor. And yeah, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone are the standouts. (Brad Gullickson)
6. Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is another spin on “The Black Cat.” It’s a full-blown giallo from director Sergio Martino, who slathers on as much style as grime. What the film gets most right about Poe is that certain side of the author can be unrelentingly depressive. For most of the runtime, Martino pushes the audience through at a thrilling pace. It swerves with possibilities, and as you approach the end, you think the good (?) people will make it out okay. Enter The Simpsons‘ Nelson, “Ha Ha.” Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key cares not for your hopes and dreams or the hopes and dreams of its characters. The same goes for Poe. These people are gonna end up where they end up. Nowhere. (Brad Gullickson)
5. Spirits of the Dead (1968)
I’d say that I’m breaking up the Roger Corman party, but wouldn’t you know it, as Spirits of the Dead was released stateside by AIP with narration from (say it with me) Vincent Price. You can’t throw a telltale heart at cinematic Poe adaptations without hitting that Corman guy! In any case, Spirits of the Dead still stands as the most European attempt to bring Edgar Allan Poe to the big screen. The film is segmented into three bite-sized chunks: “Metzengerstein,” in which Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda play kissing cousins (one of whom may also be a horse); “William Wilson,” which posits that certified hottie Alain Delon having a doppelgänger would be a bad thing; and “Toby Dammit,” a.k.a. “What if a shitfaced Terence Stamp lost his mind and did burnouts in a Ferrari?” Directed, respectively, by Roger Vadim (Barbarella), Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre), and Federico Fellini (8 1⁄2), Spirits of the Dead is cinematic Poe at his most debauched. It’s a wild ride that should be experienced on a stormy night with a crackling fire… and a bottle of vino is optional but recommended. (Meg Shields)
4. The Raven (1963)
The Raven would not have made the cut if we ranked Edgar Allan Poe adaptations based on their accuracy. The poem must be one of the most popular poems ever crafted, and the idea of adapting it is rather absurd. Of course, Roger Corman would give it a go with his pal Vincent Price and a few other horror movie legends: Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. What remains from the Poe piece is the titular creature and a grieving man. What’s added are wizards, rivalries, magic duels, and Jack Nicholson. It’s an utterly ridiculous exercise, but the attempt is a damn delight, and every actor carries tremendous charm even when a few of them have no idea what they’re doing within it. The movie works best for those who can remove themselves off their high horse and just have a good, silly time at the movies. (Brad Gullickson)
3. House of Usher (1960)
Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman, and Vincent Price have each gifted horror fans with numerous gems, so it should surprise no one that a collaboration between the three would deliver the goods. House of Usher is the first of a half dozen or so Poe adaptations directed by Corman and starring Price, and it’s arguably the best. (Well, third best according to this list, but what are ya gonna do.) Poe’s classic tale of a family cursed through the generations with a little something called insanity (or gullibility, take your pick) is getting an updated miniseries from Mike Flanagan this year, but Corman’s film checks all the boxes and will be hard to beat. Lurid color photography, melodramatic turns by Price and Myrna Fahey, and production design that walks a fine line between Corman’s cheapness and the perfect home for a fucked up lineage. As a bonus, the film is a rarity in that Price appears both without his mustache and with bleached blond hair. Beautifully terrifying indeed. (Rob Hunter)
2. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
After the surprise death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), Francis Barnard (John Kerr) pays a visit to his brother-in-law Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to get some clarity about the mysterious circumstances surrounding her passing. As Francis pushes for answers, Nicholas and his sister Catherine (Luana Anders) are very evasive and vague, offering little in the way of details. Once the truth about Elizabeth’s death is finally revealed, it’s far stranger than any of them could have imagined. The Pit and the Pendulum is arguably the most important of the Roger Corman-directed Poe films. The follow-up to House of Usher was a box office hit and convinced AIP to greenlight six further Poe adaptations. Richard Matheson‘s terrific screenplay deviates from Poe’s short story quite a bit to build something bigger, until getting to the final act that closely aligns with the classic tale. The film relies on dream-like sequences in monochrome and the use of wide-angle lenses to take us on a journey into the mind of a madman. Price, playing dual roles of sorts, chews up the scenery as only he can. An excellent film that helped set the stage for the next decade of horror to follow. (Chris Coffel)
1. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Nicolas Roeg cinematography. That’s enough. You don’t need any more to get your movie to the top of the list. The Masque of the Red Death is an insanely gorgeous trip through the cheapest Roger Corman sets. Well, probably not the cheapest, but Roeg makes these wood planks look like on-location shooting. Okay, that’s an exaggeration too. Dammit, the movie is beautiful! That’s all. Screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell expand on the Edgar Allan Poe story by injecting a little “Hop-Frog” into it, but they don’t skimp on morality or perversity. Vincent Price is in tiptop shape, eating up his role with relish and tenacity. He’s got the pedal to the metal, and he never once hits the breaks. This Halloween or next, please find your nearest repertoire theater and beg them to play The Masque of the Red Death on the big screen. It’s great on the boob tube, but the widest canvas is where it belongs. (Brad Gullickson)
Quoth the Raven, “read more 31 Days of Horror Lists!”