Every Sunday in October is Poe Sunday, the day we celebrate the Master of Macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. This year, I’ll suggest the best movie adaptations of Poe’s work.
In the lingering post-pandemic era of Covid-19 and trump presidency, Roger Corman’s 1964 gothic horror triumph, The Masque of the Red Death has never seemed more relevant. Vincent Price’s sadistic portrayal of Prospero, the greedy devil-worshipping medieval ruler who tortured his peasant villagers and gave shelter to his wealthy courtiers from a plague, only to learn you can’t hide from death, is a chilling sublime performance that cemented his legacy as a horror legend.
Corman weaved two tales from Edgar Allan Poe, Masque of the Red Death and Hop-Frog to create this cult-classic and it’s one of his best. While he and screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell took several liberties with the stories, I find this adaption is the closest to any of Poe’s works.
Black Sunday (1961) Sometimes Satan, with his capacity for doing evil, even plays tricks with the dead.
After following in his father’s footsteps, cinematographer Mario Bava made his directorial debut with 1960 gothic horror, Black Sunday, aka, The Mask of Satan, about a witch named Asa Vajda from Moldavia, who vows revenge after she and her apprentice are condemned to death by her brother, the crown prince. Two centuries later, on Black Sunday, the day Satan walks the earth, a traveling physician and his assistant unwittingly bring the witch back to life. After turning her apprentice into a vampire, Asa immediately sets out to fulfill her cursed prophecy, by terrorizing her brother’s descendants.
Production started in late March 1960 and took less than two months to film, releasing in Italy in August of 1960. The film was a modest success, bringing in $140 million lire, earning back its production costs, but performed much better in Europe and the US. Despite being low-budget, Black Sunday was praised for its originality and vivid imagery, however, the gore and gruesome violence shown in the film drew much criticism and was even banned in the UK until 1968, when a heavily censored version, retitled as Revenge of the Vampire, was finally released. The uncut version wouldn’t be shown until 1992!
In the US, Black Sunday was shown as a double feature with Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors in February 1961. In order to make the film less objectionable, American censors edited the movie down three minutes, excluding such violent scenes as, the burning and branding of flesh, eyeball impalement, and blood spewing out from the mask as it was hammered onto witch’s face in the opening sequence.
Unknown British actress Barbara Steele was cast in the lead duel role of the evil witch vampire Asa and her innocent descendant Katia. Even though her voice was dubbed by another actress, audiences swooned over Steele’s haunting beauty and loved her villainous portrayal of the vengeful Asa. Barbara Steele reportedly had a hard time on set and gained reputation for being difficult, mostly due in part to the lack of communication and language barrier.
What was once shocking to audiences of the early sixties, holds the same magic to influence numerous artists and filmmakers over the years, including Francis Ford Coppola, who is said to have recreated several scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as a homage to Bava, and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, which borrowed imagery, namely, the iconic death by iron maiden scene. The horrifying story of revenge and all its extreme violence and sexual suggestions actually helped Black Sunday become a cult classic.
The Black Cat (1932)
“Did you ever hear of Satanism, the worship of the devil, of evil?”
Today’s black and white classic is the horror-thriller The Black Cat from Universal Pictures. Horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff square off for the first time in a movie about a traumatized doctor with a cat phobia named Werdegast and an American newlywed couple, who seek medical aid at the home of the doctor’s nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, the dark high priest of a devil-worshipping cult. The doctor’s original plans of revenge on Poelzig are changed when it is revealed the priest plans to sacrifice the young bride at the dark of the moon.
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., the young studio head believed in director Edgar G. Ulmer’s vision enough so the man had free rein over the pic. Although presumed to be loosely based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe, there are not too many similarities here. It’s a bit strange really because the movie is good enough to stand on its own merits. This perhaps one of my favorite classic films. The story is excellent, with strong performances from the entire cast. David Manners and Julie Bishop pile on the melodrama with their romance, which is now part of the charm in some of these old films, but let’s be honest, they weren’t who we’re here to see anyway. Lugosi playing the tortured Werdegast against Karloff’s evil Poelzig in a battle for screen supremacy is one of the best horror face-offs ever found in horror. I’d say Lugosi is the clear winner, due to a more fully fleshed-out character and more dialogue to offer, but Karloff does manage to say quite a lot with just a creepy stare. Madness and secret motivations are the whole reason why this film is so scary. Clearly, something evil has hold of these men.
The film escaped the Pre-code guidelines but Ulmer’s first cut of the film, which included several scenes of satanic worship and skinning alive of Herr Poelzig, was deemed too dark and violent for the Laemmles (father and son). Between that and Bela Lugosi’s complaints that he appeared to be too villainous, Ulmer reshot several scenes, downplaying the gruesome last scene, and added some sprinkling of humanity in the tragic Dr. Werdegast. In a touch of irony, while cleaning up the film’s ending, Ulmer snuck in some extra shots of Poelzig’s necrophilic menagerie. Already heavy with a dark look and satanic theme, studio execs managed to miss The Black’s Cat’s seriously taboo subject matter, or perhaps they ignored it.
The eerie movie score runs 80 minutes contains many classical selections, including the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, only the second time a horror film featured the now cliched song. The set of Poelzig’s mansion is considered somewhat of a masterpiece in the industry, part art deco, part haunted house. In contrast to The Old Dark House, this film is well-lit, casting defined shadows in a way that you’re unsure if you’re watching a horror film at all.
The Black Cat is considered to be the first movie to use psychological horror, capitalizing on public interest in psychiatry at that time. Despite the audience’s distaste for the dark subject matter, it was the biggest box office hit for Universal that year, due in part to the popularity of its stars. What didn’t work then is exactly why it works now. The Black Cat is creepy, scary, and a masterclass in great classic horror.
Posting this blog a day late and a dollar short, just like dear ‘ole dad. If you were one of the millions who spent Father’s Day pining over your lost, non-existent volatile relationship with daddy dearest, cheer up, and be glad you weren’t the offspring of any of these bad dads of horror.
10. Satan – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
It doesn’t really get much worse than having Satan for a dad. Sure, there are probably perks to being the Antichrist, but the trade-off is lifetime of micromanagement from mid-level staffers on daddy’s payroll. Satan’s coven rape, conspire, commit murder and drive the chosen mother-to-be to the brink of insanity, all to ensure Satan’s son is born on the exact date that will make him 33 years on the millennial, the same age as Jesus when he came into his own. Who would’ve guessed the devil would be so petty?
The full moon has risen and transformed the Wolfman.
Frankenstein’s monster is alive and looking for a Woman.
Dracula’s magnetic gaze will leave you entranced.
The Mummy has risen and wants his soulmate to dance.
The Invisible Man has lost his left shoe.
It was found by the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
King Kong terrorizes the Empire State Tower.
Godzilla rampages Tokyo with his atomic powers.
The Blob crashed landed from outer space.
The Living Dead will eat your face.
I grew up at the theater, watching double features.
That’s why I love all monsters, madmen, and creatures.
Urban legends are stories that are meant to scare us and typically serve as a warning or have some type of moral lesson attached. Every state has their own urban legends, some states even share legends, changing the details to fit their locale or whichever narrative is needed, but the core plot stay the same. The ones I have chosen for this list are the creepiest found in the USA, and some of them are based on real-life true stories! Can you figure out which ones?
Turn on the Light
After partying most of the night, a co-ed decides to spend the night with a boy she met at the party. She returns to dorm room to retrieve her keys, careful not to wake her roommate. In the dark room she can hear the sleeping roommate’s heavy breathing and assumes she’s got a cold. When she returns the next day, she finds her roommate’s dead body and the note written in blood on the wall, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?”
This story is sometimes told with the co-ed being more studious and returning to retrieve a book for an all-night study session, but the end-result is always the same. This legend has been around 50 years or more and most likely was started by a parent worried about their college-bound kid.
Moral of the Story: Screw your roommate’s feelings, always turn on the damn light.
One night, a woman who lives alone with her nice little dog, hears on the radio that an escaped lunatic is on the loose in her town. She locks up the house tight and goes to bed with her faithful canine companion, who stays close by her bedside all night. When the woman wakes the next morning, she finds her pooch slaughtered and note written in blood on the bathroom mirror, “Humans can lick too.”
Some variations of this legend feature an old woman and sometimes, a young girl. Sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night, hearing a dripping sound, and sometimes, the pet is alive and well at the end. Like the ‘Turn on the Light’ legend, the killer rubs the survivor’s nose in the fact that they barely escaped death.
Moral of the Story: You’re never going to be in control of your own death and maybe you should get a cat.