Stephen King may reign supreme as the horror author most adapted to film, but that title once belonged to another American master of the macabre: Edgar Allan Poe. Poe died a few decades before the first proto-movies started showing off horses galloping or men sneezing, but his popularity was already established in the U.S. and Europe—and his influence on popular genres like detective and horror fiction was already a noted selling point to the soon-to-be-moviegoing masses.
That meant Poe stories were hot commodities from the jump, making their way to the cinema starting in the 1910s (with one of the first German art films, 1913’s The Student of Prague, which helped inspire the Expressionist cinema of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a few years later) and running through the 1930s, which saw multiple Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff Poe team-ups. His name, and his stories, were constant exploitation draws, eventually attracting royalty of the form in the ‘60s: Roger Corman and Vincent Price. With their fascinating, beloved eight-film run of Poe adaptations (even if The Haunted Palace was actually an H.P. Lovecraft story that just nabbed a random Poe title), the pair helped bring humor, color and fun to their B-grade Poe that would help him maintain his reputation among modern horror aficionados.
Unlike Lovecraft, whose penchant for profound, indescribable tentacle monsters and cosmic horror went through a recent popular revival (not unrelated to his work’s exciting opportunities for effects and makeup artists), Poe’s Gothic style has a more mass appeal. His madness is of a far more human sort than Lovecraft’s; his deathly horrors far more mundane and inevitable. That means straight adaptations, while relatable, can come off a bit dull and stagey—Poe works flourish when filmmakers use the medium to tap into his characters’ troubled psyches. As modern directors continue the grand tradition of adapting Poe, even as the adaptations continue the equally grand tradition of being fast and loose, the diverse world of Poe horror films still delivers.
Here are the 13 best Edgar Allan Poe adaptations:
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
The complete filmography of movies that claim to be adapted from the works of Edgar Allan Poe range from experimental, short art films, to slavish feature-length adaptations, to quite a few in the mold of The Black Cat: Horror-thrillers that swipe the names of famous Poe stories for their visibility in marketing otherwise unrelated films. You’ll see it throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and again under the watchful eye of Roger Corman in the 1960s—the Poe name must be one of the most exploited in horror history, although H.P. Lovecraft would likely give him a run for his money these days. The Black Cat, however, really doesn’t need the Poe embellishment to stand out—all it needs is the names of its two stars, meeting here in their first of eight pairings. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were the two preeminent horror genre stars of their day, for obvious reasons. In portraying the two most important Universal monsters, each actor ensured both fame and typecasting that would last throughout their careers, but in 1934 it’s still early enough that neither seems to resent having to appear primarily in horror fare. Here, these two icons just seem to be having a great time, portraying two equally mad (although not quite equally heinous) doctors with vendettas against one another. Our protagonists are technically the newlywed couple who get swept up in the diabolical game of cat and mouse playing out between Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast and Karloff’s Dr. Poelzig, but Universal knew damn well the audience had no particular interest in the story’s ingénues. They were here to see Karloff vs. Lugosi, and in that respect The Black Cat does not disappoint. Make no mistake, this is very much a pre-Code horror film, with plenty of content that would not have flown if it had been completed just a few months later. From the implied rape of Karloff’s stepdaughter to the film’s sacrilegious Satanism angle and hints at deeper perversions on the part of Poelzig, The Black Cat is about as depraved as horror films of the era get. Both leads ham it up, determined to destroy one another. Lugosi is playing the lesser of two evils this time around, a wild man who wants revenge on Karloff after spending 15 years behind bars. He’s completely unhinged, his mind having been left behind with the body of his dead wife. Karloff, on the other hand, is playing the sinister mastermind archetype he does so well, grinning with arrogant self-satisfaction and letting others do his dirty work for him. It all builds to a conclusion where even the implied violence is surprisingly grotesque. Unfortunately, The Black Cat represents a high point of the Lugosi-Karloff team-up pictures, which would slowly ebb in quality, with one very notable exception: Son of Frankenstein.—Jim Vorel
Director: Patrick Picard
A simmering and strange modern take on “The Fall of the House of Usher,” The Bloodhound stands tall thanks to writer/director Patrick Picard’s modernist vision and a fascinatingly off-kilter lead performance from Joe Adler. Adler plays JP, a reclusive little fancy lad who reconnects with an old friend (Liam Aiken) as they both suffer through mental crises. This is, however, after we see a faceless, crawling being squirm into JP’s ritzy house and hide itself away in a wardrobe. That kind of back-of-your-mind dread haunts the entire film, a weight that imbues the intentionally stagey dialogue with a kind of farcical horror—why won’t they recognize all the terrible things going on under this obvious superficiality? Shot like a dream—sometimes hazy and dark, sometimes using an odd fixed angle like a Resident Evil game—the slick and upsetting adaptation proves that Poe and his fears live on.—Jacob Oller
Director: Kenneth Johnson
If you’re ever hosting a Halloween party, by all means queue up An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe, which simply features Vincent Price in a chair, narrating a bevy of Poe stories with his camp-o-meter turned up to 11. It sets the mood pretty beautifully.—Jim Vorel
Director: Raul Garcia
There is so much bargain bin, straight-to-VOD horror trash streaming out there that it’s all too easy for something like Extraordinary Tales to go completely unnoticed, and that’s a shame. This anthology of animated, narrated stories from Edgar Allan Poe may be uneven in terms of quality, but dammit if it’s not far more artistically interesting than another found footage horror turd that was shot in the course of a weekend in Bulgaria. Extraordinary Tales is remarkable for the level of talent the filmmakers were able to bring on as narrators or voice actors: Christopher Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Julian Sands and Roger Corman, reprising his own interest in Poe that led him to direct films such as House of Usher and The Raven in the ‘60s. There’s even a unique rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart that is narrated via archival recordings by Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi! Each story is likewise presented in a different style of animation, which sadly is of varying quality. But for the sheer novelty of hearing Christopher Lee perform “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or the attractive animation of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Extraordinary Tales is worthy of attention.—Jim Vorel
Director: Jean Epstein
Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher has such an otherworldly feel, it seems you could get lost in the ether just watching it. Multiple exposures were much more common in the silent era, as directors attempted new ways to visually communicate ideas, but Epstein takes it to another level, with layers of visual fog that add dread to each shot. Whether we’re simply watching a dog running away or witnessing a house fall to ruin, Epstein evokes Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid fright whether or not he’s paying much mind to the details of the source material.
Director: Jan Švankmajer
An “infantile tribute” to Poe, in the words of director Jan Švankmajer, Lunacy is a gross-out bit of strangeness that combines Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and “The Premature Burial” with a malevolent Marquis de Sade (Jan Tríska) to create a disconcerting but thoroughly entertaining piece of Czech absurdity. Put-upon and mourning Jean (Pavel Liska) is on his way back from his mother’s funeral, suffering from nightmares that two burly Mr. Clean lookalikes keep bursting into his quarters to straitjacket him. He’s picked up by the Marquis for some debauchery, loosely telling a story of the Marquis’ various blasphemies and a literalized inmates-running-the-asylum fable—all connected by anachronism, nudity, violence, and frequent interludes featuring stop-motion cutlets. With a bit of the same anarchic spirit that pervades Ken Russell’s The Fall of the Louse of Usher, but with far more polish, Lunacy is enjoyably bizarre and even able to turn some of its silly surrealism towards more disturbing ends. It’s amusing to watch meat, eyes and tongues crawl around, but when they begin recarnating cow skulls, it pushes the fun to the icky brink of madness. Scoffing in the face of mortality can only be so funny without nagging at your sanity. That said, the Marquis de Sade wears a chasuble adorned with an inverted cross that’s effectively the Christian equivalent of the ahegao hentai hoodie…and that alone is worth the price of admission.—Jacob Oller
Director: Dwain Esper
A so-bad-it’s-good Z-movie (not to mention one of the first sexploitation horrors), Maniac AKA Sex Maniac is a lurching, moaning Frankenstein’s monster of Poe material, in search not of his God-defying master, but of scantily-clad women to ogle and cats to harass. Seriously, it seems like many, many animals may have been harmed—or at least thrown around—during this production. Loosely taking from “The Black Cat” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the half-assed film from Dwain Esper is a blatant cash grab meant to titillate the roadshow crowd and little else. From its nasty if amateurish stunts (a vaudeville impersonator who killed, then assumed the identity of, a mad scientist appears to pop out a cat’s eye and gobble it down) to its blatant sexual pandering (women stand around in their underwear chatting about nothing for nearly a fifth of the film’s runtime), Maniac is an utterly memorable and enjoyable disaster. Esper, whose sense of visual logic has been overridden by a thorough ability to sell, was responsible for making Reefer Madness into an exploitation hit…so you can only imagine what he can (fail) to do with horror. Pay special note to the cat-breeder neighbor who claims to have thousands of cats in his backyard and his cyclical business plan for feeding cats to rats. It’s so hilariously loopy, like much of Maniac, that you might find yourself falling into a bit of Poe-like insanity.—Jacob Oller
Director: Roger Corman
We should be a society of laws, not men, they say. But who’s carrying out the laws? Faced with the triumph of cruelty and avarice, with the powerlessness of the innocent and the impunity of the wicked, you can understand the twisted mindset of Vincent Price’s Prospero in Roger Corman’s 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” a story he wrote in 1842. If a beast like Prospero can caper about unchecked, it’s certainly proof that a higher power is asleep at the wheel, or that the true ruler of the cosmos believes our suffering to be the rightful order. It’s a convenient worldview for a guy with a castle, an army and a shitload of money to have. You can finish reading Poe’s story inside of two minutes, just long enough to paint a picture of Prospero’s decadence and hubris and then see it shattered. Any adaptation of feature length needs to make distinct choices. Corman’s invests Prospero (Price) with loud and proud Satanism, and contrasts him against two young peasants, the lovers Gino and Francesca (David Weston and Jane Asher). Poe lost three of the most important women in his life to tuberculosis before he wrote “The Masque of the Red Death.” The most basic reading of it is that death is absolute and uncaring in its design, that no high wall or army will hold it back when the time comes. But there is, even in the sparest interpretation, an unmistakable relish in the way Poe inflicts the disaster on the wealthy and secure. “When his dominions were half depopulated” pulls all the weight it needs to: Prospero has danced and fiddled while his lands have burned. Corman hones in on that part, and tasks Price with making Prospero’s maleficence and hubris explicit. The movie is about the inevitability of death, but it’s also about a comeuppance.—Kenneth Lowe
Director: Otto Rippert
Written by Fritz Lang and shot by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s Willy Hameister, The Plague in Florence makes a sultry pagan woman (Marga von Kierska) into a harbinger of “The Masque of the Red Death”’s plague—or at least, ties outbreaks of free love to the Black Death in a way that plays with the stodgy Church and its power in intriguing ways. The real plague is personified by another, far less sexy woman with terrifying makeup that’d keep James Wan up at night. A lush production with plenty of wide shots captures the impressively baroque décor and sets, filled with strutting peacocks and dancing people—reflecting the plot’s emphasis on hedonism. When things turn south (and of course they do, it’s Poe), that same excess rots. Loving, swirling masses become a river of bodies, flowing along as if hauled by conveyor belt. Theodor Becker and von Kierska are magnetic leads, stumbling through their resistance, seduction and eventual ruin with expressive flair. An unruly thriller of sexual deviance and contagion, Lang’s adaptive decision is an engaging one and Rippert’s execution of the script is suitably lascivious. While most Poe films see their humans devolve into anxious madness, this loss of control is equally deadly—and, because of its raw animal appeal, not confined to one sick mind.—Jacob Oller
Director: Roger Corman
One of Roger Corman’s best takes on Poe is his second effort: The Pit and the Pendulum followed the surprising success of 1960’s House of Usher with a bigger budget and bigger ambitions. Writer Richard Matheson expands upon Poe’s source to create a creepy and quintessentially spooky castle story, with Vincent Price as the haunted hero. His wife (Barbara Steele) has died and her brother (John Kerr) has arrived to find out what actually happened. The lurid and psychological ramifications involve torture chambers, family histories, hauntings and peak Price acting, all shot by Floyd Crosby in lush widescreen. The result is big, brash and as lovely as its still-economical budget allowed. Expertly retrofitted sets and an impressive pendulum are extravagantly enhanced by enjoyably gaudy choices like tinting flashbacks in drenched, hazy monochrome blue. Not only is Price’s performance genuinely affecting, even though it retains his knack for ham, the tale’s expansion of Poe is one of the best executed and most entertainingly twisty. The final shot isn’t just the best few seconds of any Poe adaptation, it solidifies the 1961 film as a style bomb that deeply affected the future of the genre—most notably in the Italian giallo soon to follow.—Jacob Oller
Director: Roger Corman
In the 1960s, B-movie producer extraordinaire Roger Corman set out on a mission to appropriate seemingly every Edgar Allan Poe story (and at least one H.P. Lovecraft one) that could be successfully adapted into a feature film that would turn a profit. This he did to great effect in flicks like House of Usher, Masque of the Red Death and The Pit and the Pendulum, but what of the stories too short for proper feature adaptations? That’s where this Poe horror anthology comes in. Corman has his way with the structure of these stories, reshaping them as he pleases, but they’re good fun thanks to the presence of Vincent Price in all three. Closer “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is a bit of a snooze, but middle chapter “The Black Cat” delights, pitting Price (as a snobbish aristocrat wine expert) against a career lush everyman played by Peter Lorre, who promptly runs circles around him in a competitive wine tasting. As you might have already guessed, “The Black Cat” is essentially an adaptation of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” to appropriately macabre results.—Jim Vorel
Director: Ted Parmelee
It’s hard to beat James Mason delivering Poe, but Ted Parmelee and the innovative, abstracted style of UPA even overcome his warbling vocal madness in the definitive rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart. Oscar-nominated and X-rated (in the U.K.), this animation is utterly eerie and uses both faux lighting and camera movement to bring gothic horror to a medium still dominated at the time by Disney (which was in fact already cribbing the modernist UPA style in things like Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom...which beat out Tell-Tale for the Oscar). Minimal and surreal, its negative space, cut-out-like movement and dark, dark colors help set the mood…until the heart begins to beat. The swirling environments and hounding lights bolster Mason’s voice, creating overwhelming sensory pressure. Eyes dart around the screen. Then there’s no escape—and eight minutes begins to feel like an eternity.—Jacob Oller
Director: Sergio Martino
Aside from having the best title on this list, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is one of the slicker and more put-together giallos not from someone named Fulci, Bava or Argento. Turning “The Black Cat” into a sex-drenched slasher, Sergio Martino’s tale of author Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli), his wife Irina (Anita Strindberg) and his niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) is as deliciously gory and heady as it is horny. Featuring additions like an impressively shot dirt bike race and sex scenes basically…whenever someone’s not getting murdered with a bill-hook or pushed off a cliff, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is satisfyingly trashy and a genuinely gripping mystery. It’s no wonder everyone’s driven to the brink in this take on Poe, but it’s a bit surprising that he fits into the giallo world oh-so well. If anything, it’s a testament to how relatable Poe’s obsession with sanity continues to be—and how so many pains and pleasures can edge us further from its safety.—Jacob Oller