The Gloriously Unexpected, #2: Extraordinary Tales (2013)

By Gillian Kerruish

Have you ever found that certain moods require certain movies? I have that phenomenon down to a fine-tuned science, having a film to cover nearly every possible variation in my emotional spectrum – whether it’s the need to express my anger through hard-hitting, gore-ridden horror, or a wry reminder that I’m not the only one going through a romantic break-up. This week, I present a unique and odd little gem that helps me when life is crazy.

This week, life was crazy, and not in a great way; I’ve found something uniquely grim to match.

Extraordinary Tales, directed by Raul Garcia, is an animated adaptation of five works by Edgar Allen Poe, each presented as an ‘episode’ within the film, each with its own unique style, and all framed by an on-going debate between a raven and Death, about the nature of love and mortality. All told, the variations in style provide a vivid plate that is visually and aurally delicious.

Quoth the Raven

The muted colours of an pop-up book style graveyard give stark contrast to a pitch-black raven. He is greeted by a faceless female entity, and though there is a veritable garden of female statues, it becomes apparent that she is none of them. It’s obvious that the raven is Poe; defensively denying the incorporeal voice’s assertions that he is obsessed with her, and using each episode to prove his point. By the second “interval”, I realise that he is speaking to the Grim Reaper herself. Wait, what? Happy surprise melds with dark satisfaction that Death is a woman. (Seriously, what is more awesome than Lady Death?) My spirits are lifting already! 

The Fall of the House of Usher

I’m sinking happily into that dark little place, from whence horror and crime writers drag their inspiration. But, as the credits for the first episode scroll by, I have an unexpected nudge in the melancholy: each episode has its own narrator, and this particular navigation into insanity is read by none other than Sir Christopher Lee. 

A moment of silence, please! 

Though, who other than this legend – with his chthonic vocal range – could match the solid heft of Poe’s prose? 

An uncomfortably asymmetrical style and gloomy palette are perfect for the story of a man diving head-first into paranoid schizophrenia, with hints at partially-incestuous unrequited love, his house cracking in physical reflection.

The Telltale Heart

By now I’ve found one of two issues I have with the film: credits in each episode. So I was filing my nails when the rhythmic hiss of a “vintage vinyl sound effect” indicated the beginning of the next narration… which is possibly why I had to pause the film, and look for my jaw under my couch. 

There’s something eerie about hearing the voice of someone long gone, when it’s applied to the stark monochrome Sin City-esque style of this episode; most especially when it is the iconic accent and theatrical flair of the Master of Horror himself. I take a moment to breath and internalise how rare this particular recording is: I’m feeling the monolithic brush of History, here. 

Because, when you’re telling the story of a man who kills an elderly relative because “His eye was like the eye of a vulture”, who better to do it than Bela Lugosi?

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

This episode hits me visually first: taking direct inspiration from old-school comic books (and giving me a sudden longing to re-read Tales from the Crypt), with strong ink-work and sometimes off-centre, jarring colour, one can practically smell the newspaper ink and unbleached paper. 

All of this should not detract from the excellent job done by Julian Sands, as he gives voice to a doctor determined to hold a corpse at the precipice between life and death, using the power of mesmerism. 

“For science!” I yell, fist in the air, chortling into my popcorn. Needless to say, this story will end messily.

If I can say one thing about the Poe, it is this: He knew his audience very well, and catered to nearly every quirk on the dark side of the psyche.

The Pit and the Pendulum

The original story removed the sense of sight, by giving harrowing descriptions of everything the poor soul could touch, smell, and hear, as he tried to survive incarceration in a lightless cell. The fear of the ever-present Pit, and the imperceptibly shifting dimensions of his cell, gave superb contrast to the terror when faced with the Pendulum (allowing the reader to ‘see’ only during this ordeal). This is torture at its most subtle and monstrous.

For whatever reason, Mr. Garcia saw fit to allow light to enter the cell, and present the Pit as an hallucination. This is the second of my issues with Extraordinary Tales, though the famous Pendulum scene remains otherwise intact and is just as terrifying on screen as it is in my head. Guillermo del Toro provides a passionate misery, througj softly-spoken words, and the animation is reminiscent of a high-resolution videogame.

The Masque of the Red Death

This episode – my favourite from the anthology – is soft, un-narrated (with the exception of a single line provided by Roger Corman), and gives the feel of a watercolour come to life. It takes place at a prince’s manor-house during the time of a plague, where he has thrown a party/gambling weekend/orgy to keep himself closeted from Death who stalks outside. I track from room to room, observing the goings on and, on a tangent, start humming Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. All seems well, until a guest arrives who causes all to stop their revelries in horror: enter The Red Death. The Prince challenges this interloper; carnages ensues. I am faced with the ultimate truth: no-one escapes Death.

Extraordinary Tales is so beautiful and poignant that I am willing to overlook my two issues and enjoy the whole; kudos must too be given to Sergio de la Puente, for creating an exemplary score to underline each episode’s individuality. If you enjoy the grimmer side of life on-screen, then give it a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Watch the trailer below:

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