Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Tell-Tale Heart, The (1953) [short]

... aka: Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, The

Directed by:
J.B. Williams

It's time to crack open the "Short Sharp Shocks" Blu-ray collection from BFI and take a peek inside. This first set (there are two collections) contains nine short subjects over two discs, which date anywhere from 1949 all the way up to 1980. My plan here is to head down these discs and review all of these shorts in the order in which they appear. I'm not going to be reviewing them here like bam-bam-bam in succession over the next few weeks but will instead squeeze them in periodically and do my usual reviews in between. Of course, the shorts still have to meet my guidelines for this blog, meaning they have to be horror enough for yours truly (many in the collection aren't horror by anyone's standard) and they have to be made or released between 1950 and 1990 or else I will not be reviewing them. That scratches the first two shorts from Disc 1, both from 1949, off my list but I'll talk about them briefly.

Lock Your Door and The Reformation of St. Jules, which fall just short of 15 minutes apiece, are both from director Anthony Gilkison and were shot at the same time on the same simple sets. These are nothing more than an old man in a room (usually sitting down) looking into the camera and telling us these stories. Nothing is visualized. The true appeal here is actually the old man: Algernon Blackwood, a great-named, prolific British writer who specialized in ghost and paranormal tales. Reformation and Lock are two of his own short stories. Blackwood isn't very well known here in the U.S. (I assume he is the UK, though), so it's cool to get a little sample of his work. This is also one of the only filmed documents of the writer, who passed away just two years after filming these; not much of a surprise considering he looks ancient here and was around 80 years old.

Following these is a 20-minute short that I actually can cover here because it's from 1953. It's yet another version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, a story so often adapted that this isn't even the only one from its year... there are three others! The most famous of these by far is the 8-minute-long animated version narrated by James Mason and directed by Ted Parmelee, which was nominated for an Academy Award (category: Best Short Subject, Cartoons) and was also selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2001. This particular version was long ago forgotten until it found its way into this set.

The story itself features an unknown narrator but this one opts to name him: He's Edgar Allan Poe and he's played here by Stanley Baker. Unlike the Blackwood pieces, which are like grandpa telling his grandkids a scary story in a brightly-lit living room, there's a POV change-up here and an attempt to provide a claustrophobic, gloomy atmosphere more befitting the tale. However, this is still little more than a dramatized reading of the Poe story, told verbatim. At least it can never be accused of not being faithful to the source material!

Set in a dark, dreary, grimy and slightly expressionistic looking room, this has a very theatrical and overwrought Baker dressed in mid 19th century period clothing as he addresses the camera and tries to convince us he's perfectly sane recounting the killing and dismemberment of an old man whose malformed, blue "vulture" eye drove him to murder. Music and some sound effects (ticking clock, a loud beating heart [a crucial element of the story]) have been added for dramatic effect and there are also occasional cutaways to things like the moon in an overcast night sky, wind blowing curtains, a steaming kettle, a clock, etc. to help with editing the monologue snippets together. There's nothing really wrong with any of this, it's just not very inspiring.

The story behind how this finally found its way onto DVD is perhaps more interesting than the short itself. Thought missing for half a century, this was found in the attic of a home in Scotland. It had been purchased at a junk shop in Brighton in 1984 by a nurse and film collector, who then filed it away and thought nothing of it. It wouldn't be until 2018 when he was doing some cleaning that he discovered the film. He planned to sell it on eBay for £5 but found out researching the title that historians had been looking for it for years and the rest is history. Once in the hands of BFI, it was restored, archived and digitized. (See Daily Mail and The Independent articles for more details.)

Despite being just a man in a room telling a story, this was amusingly given a "Horrific" rating by the London Country Council and forbidden to those under 16. Imagine if they could take a look into the future to see what 16 year old's are watching nowadays. đŸ˜„

Death Was a Passenger (1959) and PORTRAIT OF A MATADOR (1958), both from director Theodore Zichy, follow on disc one.

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