Posts Tagged ‘Edgar Allen Poe’

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

October 6, 2017


1 hour 53 minutes – Rated PG-13 for gore, violence, and some insinuated sexual situations

Tomorrow is a day that will live in infamy. On October 7th, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died under mysterious circumstances. He was found in a terrible state and managed to utter “Lord help my poor soul” before he died although it is hard to substantiate that claim. He also reportedly called out the name “Reynolds” the night before his death but nobody knows who that is. His death certificate and medical records disappeared and so nobody could confirm what he actually died of. It is widely accepted that he was an alcoholic and that is often chosen as the direct or indirect cause of death. We do know that the death of his wife hurt him deeply and definitely unbalanced his life combined with his career in writing for journals causing him to have to move around a lot. Regardless, 168 years ago tomorrow he died and was buried in my hometown of Baltimore. The so-called Father of the Mystery Story had left behind two mysteries. One, the exact cause of his death and the other was a Baltimore urban legend. The Poe Toaster is an unidentified man who deposited a bottle of cognac, roses, and sometimes a note on Poe’s grave on Poe’s birthday. To this day, his identity remains a secret but it is theorized that since the tradition continued at least 60 years that it may have been a family tradition. It was a fitting triubte to a man who poured so much horror and mystery onto the page.

If doctors and normal hospitals are scary, then an asylum for the insane or mentally unbalanced is even scarier to me. When I was growing up, we were jokingly told to be good or we would end up in Shepard Pratt. Sheppard Pratt is a mental facility situated in Baltimore County and it has been there throughout my life. It is a modern center of mental health and nowhere near the frightening place that I imagined when I was a kid. Still, it is a facility full of people who are mentally unhealthy enough that they must be kept in a facility to cater to their needs. There should be no stigma for these people but the reality is that these people can be unpredictable. Walking amongst those patients, I would know that they are at least a little more volatile than I am. Dealing with that is scary to me. Beyond feeling less than safe, I would feel alone as I would not know whose mind I could trust beyond the staff. That is a modern facility, the asylums of Poe’s day were far less regulated and were unenlightened on how to treat these people. It was probably far more dangerous to work there.

Right away I really liked the acting. Every line is instilled with a little bit of tension so that even seemingly innocuous things seem scarier. This actually put me off my guard because I had no idea when the actual scares would be coming. This is much more effective than hitting the viewer with random jump scares and musical stings to cause unease. Actual tension is kind of a lot art these days and it was refreshing to get something with traditional horror rather than repeated frightenings. Most of the actors are people I am unfamiliar with but they all have such pleasant accents for an American-made horror film. The core of the movie is held by the legendary Ben Kingsley, legendary English actor and a very charismatic personality. Our protagonist is played by Jim Sturgess and he is likable and a great proxy for the audience. Finally, we have Michael Caine, David Thewlis, and Kate Beckinsale playing major roles.

The movie is an unreliable narrative in the style of similar books and films like Quills and Shutter Island. This is par for the course when you are dealing with insane asylums in fiction. As the movie says, you must not believe anything you hear and only about half of what you see. I will not spoil the secret of the movie but, as with a lot of great horror movies, there is a secret to the movie. It is a middle of the road mystery with some clever surprises. The lighting and the sets are great for a period piee set in one of the worst periods for medicine, a time when we knew just enough to be dangerous. The costumes seem to be impeccably researched as I did not see anything anachronistic.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty good creepy, period drama. While it is no great horror movie, it definitely helps to set the mood as we get deeper into Halloween. It is also a nice break from the two previous supernatural tales to see instead a tale of man’s inhumanity toward man. There are a lot of gray areas in this movie and that makes it all the creepier. I was looking for someting to honor Baltimore’s Edgar Allen Poe and this was the best adaptation I have seen so far. It adapted the The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether short story which is more dark comedy than this was. This had a few comedy moments but it was mostly drama and horror. I recommend it.

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The Raven (1963)

October 7, 2016

I am from Baltimore, Maryland. I am pretty sure I have mentioned this over and over at this point but it always bears repeating because I am proud to call the city my home. I was born, raised and currently reside in the city after an extended stay in New Jersey. So there are certain things that happen when you grow up in Baltimore. A lot of people watch Orioles games, watch Ravens games or go to the Senator Theater. What you definitely do as a kid in Baltimore is you hear the name Edgar Allen Poe a lot and you read and listen to The Raven a lot. The man was inescapable in Baltimore since he was a fixture there in the years before his death. He is buried in the downtown area and there was a long, mysterious tradition surrounding his gravesite that captivated our imaginations. In fact, my senior prom was held in the church that is attached to the small graveyard where his grave rests. And yet, it took reviewing The Raven (2012) to realize that today 10/7/2016 is the anniversary of his death.

Last year I reviewed The Abominable Doctor Phibes and I briefly talked about Vincent Price. Vincent Price is a legend. He has an instantly recognizable voice that has been imitated but never truly replicated. A lot of people go deep and rich when they are trying to be scary. Sometimes actors will make their voice raspy and full of hisses and grating sounds to be scary. Price had a slightly high pitched voice that normally would be innocuous without the acting talent behind him. The force of his personality can be felt in every word and the importance of his words is clear in every single tone. Horror is difficult because the smallest thing can make things seem silly and it sucks the fear right out of you. Older horror movies can suffer from this. However, a lot of the earlier horror movies drew power from using the principle of less is more. A lot of their performances were more subtle because they knew that the ideas themselves could be scary enough. It is not the only way to go about it and it is not necessarily better but it is different from a lot of the big budget films that come out now.

Vincent Price begins the movie by reciting part of the famous poem and, admittedly, the movie could have ended right after he was finished. Few people can recite horror monologues like Mr. Price did. My mind goes back to the terrifying monologue he did as a cold open on The Muppet Show. He has a way of building tension out of nothing and creating an urgency in my gut. Of course, the original poem is about a student longing for his deceased love while falling into madness while talking to a raven. In this, the protagonist is a former sorcerer who is tasked with turning the Raven back to human form. The title character is played by the legendary Peter Lorre who was probably most famous for messing with Humphrey Bogart characters. The two are joined by another horror legend in Boris Karloff who was in a ton of stuff but most famously he played Frankenstein. (Both the Monster and the Doctor in different movies). Karloff is always super creepy. His looks alone are enough to be menacing but his voice just adds to the feeling. Of all people, Jack Nicholson shows up as well. Rounding out the cast are actresses Hazel Court and Olive Sturgess.

The movie is certainly a long way from the dark and romantic poem full of longing and madness. There are plenty of horror elements to the movie. There is a little body horror, mind control and the living dead and these moments have more weight because they are surrounded by lighter stuff. The 1960s saw a peculiar movement that inverted the usual values of what made something “good” or “art”. This was the camp movement which used a certain kind of comic acting to parody more serious ventures. This movie came out shortly before the Addams Family and The Munsters premiered which utilized traditional horror elements in more comic subplots. Of course, this is not strange since Abbot and Costello did it fifteen years earlier. I am more than willing to see the funny side of Halloween since laughing at Death is the only way we can get by sometimes. The movie did a great job mixing a few horror elements in with heavy fantasy elements and plenty of comedy. While the jokes are funny, there is an undercurrent of spookiness that definitely gives me a good Halloween feeling.

Overall, this was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. While it was not a very scary movie, it was definitely suffused with the same spirit that lives in Halloween. I really had no idea what to expect from this movie since I knew the poem was not an hour and a half long. There is only so much you can stretch that original but brilliant poem and I am glad they did not attempt it. Instead, they introduced an original fantasy story that also homages the original poem just enough to be respectful. The ladies are mostly used as props but when they get a chance to act, you can see that they gave it all they had with few opportunities. Peter Lorre provides a lot of funny lines which I understand were mostly improvised. Nicholson was not great but he definitely got better with age. Boris Karloff is manipulative and politely creepy and I really liked his character. Vincent Price is very likable in this and he has unmistakeable charm. The thing was put together by legendary Roger Corman who definitely embraced camp and Richard Matheson who has had a prolific career. I definitely recommend this if you are in the mood for something a little less scary this year.


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