Kenneth Johnson, 1970
Starring: Vincent Price
An unusual experiment, An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe is likely not at all what you’re expecting. Though it is often lumped in with Vincent Price's anthology films, this is actually a made-for-TV, 52-minute teleplay. Though most online descriptions say it was narrated by Price, he acts (apparently in front of a live studio audience) in four, short one-man plays, reciting some of Poe’s stories as they were meant to be heard. Appearing in period costume with some very lovely sets on a confined stage -- each set is a single room -- Price brings to life Poe’s actual words, rather than the spirit of the stories as he did in several adaptations with director Roger Corman.
First up is “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), one of Poe’s famous stories. It concerns a paranoid man who tries to justify the fact that he murdered an old man with a creepy “vulture eye” (a cataract). After killing the man, he dismembers his body and hides it under the floor boards, finally cracking when he can no longer shut out the sound of the old man’s heart, still beating somewhere under the floor. Price does not act out the murder, but merely recites the story from the confines of the old man’s bedroom.
The next story is the lesser known tale “The Sphinx” (1846), set during a cholera outbreak in New York City. The city -- and the narrator -- are in the grip of fear, terrified they will be the next victims and mourning their lost loved ones. One day, on the bank of the Hudson, the narrator sees an enormous, terrible creature, elephantine, with horrible black husks, wings, and metallic scales. It is intimated that this creature is a sort of manifestation of the Grim Reaper and the narrator has become insane from fear.
The last two stories, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) and “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), are both very well known. Pit and the Pendulum was adapted by Corman and Price -- with a great many embellishments to flush out the story time -- as a full length film. “The Cask of Amontillado” was adapted as part of Corman and Price’s Poe-themed anthology film, Tales of Terror, and co-starred Peter Lorre. “The Cask of Amontillado” concerns a man who gets revenge on another nobleman for some unknown slight. He convinces the man that he has a bottle of rare wine they can share, but walls the man up in the dungeon-like wine cellar of his castle, conveniently located in the catacombs.
In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a disturbing meditation on death and morality, a man relates his experience of being tortured during the Spanish Inquisition. He is held in a dark cell and sees many symbolic reminders of death. Eventually he is tied down and must watch a razor sharp pendulum swing closer and closer to his vulnerable chest. He manages to escape, but faces an even worse fate: red hot walls that push him inexorably towards a terrifying pit.
As with the other Poe films starring Price, this was produced by American International Pictures through their television branch. It is certainly a low budget affair and the surviving print can’t really boast a lot of quality -- it is grainy and fuzzy and looks exactly like you’d assume a TV production from 1970 would look. This is reminiscent of the touring one man show, Diversions and Delights, where Price starred as Oscar Wilde in his later years. Though not quite as wonderful as Diversions and Delights, it would certainly have been interesting for Price to do a touring versions of An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe, or perhaps additional TV specials involving more Poe stories.
Though this is fun, captivating, and entertaining, it is primarily recommended for die-hard Price and Poe fans, and it is certainly proof of Price’s wonderful talent that expanded far beyond playing hammy horror villains. Theater buffs will also enjoy it, but the format may seem strange to anyone who is expecting this to be a standard film anthology. An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe is available on a double feature DVD from MGM’s Midnite Movies series with the wonderful The Tomb of Ligeia, another Poe adaptation starring Price. You can also check it out on YouTube.