DEATH OF POE, THE - DVD review

Doesn't do enough with the mystery of Poe's death to be terribly satisfying.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

Edgar Allan Poe's legacy is as strange and mixed as his life. His most famous poem, "The Raven," is reflected now in Raven Beer (which has Poe's image on the bottle caps) and in Baltimore's NFL franchise, the Ravens (which have three mascots named Edgar, Allan, and Poe). His house, his grave, and the bar in Baltimore where he was last seen alive have become pilgrimage sites of admirers, and legends of ghosts have sprung up which involve Poe and a mysterious figure who's left three roses and a half-bottle of cognac on the author's grave since 1949. Poe was revered in France, where symbolists embraced his aesthetic, but often reviled in America for the excesses that characterized many writers from the Romantic Period. And it doesn't take a film scholar to observe that Poe's Hollywood legacy is one of campiness, thanks to Roger Corman and over-the-top performances from people like Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff.

But Poe was one of the first to champion the notion of "art for art's sake" rather than thinking there had to be a message encoded in a poem or fiction, and one of the first to argue that everything in a short story should contribute to the overall effect. His "Murders in the Rue Morgue" was the very first detective story--credited for starting and shaping the entire genre of Detective Fiction--and Poe and Mary Shelley were also primarily responsible for pushing Gothic literature into the realm of what would become all-out horror.

Perhaps Poe's most famous legacy is as one of many American writers who were addicted to the bottle. In fact, liquor has been widely blamed for his death--though speculations also include drugs, cholera, rabies, TB, and robbery. Poe was found by a friend in Fells Point, Baltimore, wearing clothes that were not his own, delirious and incoherent. He died without being able to explain how he came to be in that state. Naturally, I approached this film hoping that it would take the very best scholarly and scientific theories about what happened and shed some light on that evening of October 7, 1849. That, alas, was not what I found.

Included in this three-disc release of "The Death of Poe" is an episode of Creepy Canada which aired on Canadian TV in 2005, and that Geraldo Rivera-style bit of sensationalism about "The Haunting of Poe's House" is as hokey as it is familiar--with "mediums" and other pop-psych experts, a dramatic voiceover, and a narrative structure that's predicated upon one long strand of teasers. Frankly, the same sort of tone surrounds the feature film, "The Death of Poe," which was written and directed by Mark Redfield, who also appears as Poe. His performance and the relish he clearly takes in playing Poe--the way Elvis impersonators and Lincoln look-alikes get off on their alter egos--is much stronger than the screenplay he co-crafted with Stuart Voytilla, or the direction that seems inspired by those Geraldo-style sensational "in search of" mocumentaries.

In make-up, Redfield looks convincingly like the author, and except when bad lines of dialogue fill his mouth like a glob of feathers, his portrayal really does bring the character to life. But "The Death of Poe" doesn't do enough with the mystery of Poe's death to be terribly satisfying. Those unfamiliar with Poe's life may also feel that it jumps around a lot in its obvious attempt to create a film that reflects the inner turmoil and delirium of its subject. With something that's so obviously a labor of love I hesitate to be unkind, but the fact is that both my wife and I turned to each other at precisely the same moment and said that it reminded us of community theater. The acting by Redfield, Kevin G. Shinnick (as Dr. Moran), Jennifer Rouse (as Mrs. Moran), and Kimberly Hannold (as Poe's beloved wife, Virginia Clemm) just isn't up to the quality you see in bigger budget films.

Video:
Redfield makes considerable use of black and white, and shoots with just enough grain and low light to create an ambience that seems appropriately antiqued. The silent films included as bonus features are in surprisingly good shape, considering that there was probably no money available for restoration, while the color sequences and other segments with talking heads don't have much grain at all. The film is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Audio:
There's nothing in the literature or on the box to indicate what the audio is, but it seems like Mono or a poorly mixed Dolby Digital 2.0. It's nothing fancy, and there's not much resonance nor does sound really fill the room or travel across the speakers. It's like watching television with sounds coming from the front of the room.

Extras:
Here is the surprise: there's an interesting group of extras. Fans of silent cinema will appreciate "The Avenging Conscience" (1914) and "The Raven" (1915), the latter of which plays out like a genealogy of Poe's family with the bird an outcropping. A "making of" feature talks about the locations and process of filming in ways that we've become used to, and it's here that you can see Redfield's dedication to the project. I have to say, though, that "Edgar Allan Poe's Baltimore" was a real disappointment. Instead of a tour of important sites, we get a flippant music-video style featurette that moves too quickly (and jarringly, with an annoying hand-held camera) and incorporates a fast-talking narration that's supposed to be "hip." The result is that you really don't get much of a feel for Baltimore OR the Poe sites there. Everything is show in such bits and pieces that you never get any sense of context and never have much of a chance to process the information. I've already mentioned how hokey "The Haunting of Poe House" is. The only other extras are audio performances of Poe's work by Redfield. Included is "Danse Macabre" (which is a tribute, not written by Poe), Poe's "The Raven" (which is read with the same over-the-top gusto as the Hollywood film version), "The Cask of Amontillado" (which is the very best reading/performance on this CD), "The Haunted Palace," "The City in the Sea," "Hop Frog" (at 24:26, the longest performance), "The Tell-Tale Heart" (okay, but borderline cheesy), "The Conqueror Worm," and "Annabel Lee," (the best of the poems that are performed).

Bottom Line:
Fans and admirers of Edgar Allan Poe may want to check this out, but "The Death of Poe" doesn't have the level of acting or script sophistication to make it play in Peoria . . . or anywhere else where Poe isn't revered.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
6
Extras
6
Film Value
5