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Edgar Allan Poe: The Master of Phantasmagoria
‘Inch by inch — line by line — down and still down it came! The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I grew frantically mad, and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful scimitar. And then I fell suddenly calm, and lay smiling at the glittering death, as a child at some rare bauble.’ The Pit and the Pendulum
Published in 1842 and newly imagined as part of James McTeigue’s gory feature, The Raven (2012), Poe’s short story represents a key pillar in horror writing. Poe’s narrative, which wanders through psychological disturbances and hallucinatory visions, struggles to survive the journey from page to screen. Whilst McTeigue’s images faithfully capture the brutality that pervades much of Poe’s stories, he fails to translate the substance of the original narrative.
Telling a story on screen is all about bringing the audience into a relationship with the characters. Many of Poe’s central characters take the shape of blank canvasses onto whom the viewers are encouraged to project themselves. In this way, they come not merely to sympathise but actually to feel with the characters and this is how to excite true horror in an audience. The story becomes personal, immediate, threatening. In The Pit and the Pendulum, the man awakes and begins to perceive a bladed pendulum swinging above him and gradually descending upon him; we learn about the environment from his perspective, piecing together the situation, as one would in real life. McTeigue, however, dispenses with this personal engagement with the character by shooting the scene at a wide angle that immediately reveals the full mechanism. The victim’s emotions are forgotten and any empathy is obliterated slice by slice as we watch the blade carve the man in two, nothing more than a slab of meat. The character is butchered along with Poe’s narrative.
Implication can be far more powerful than explication and this is particularly true of horror. The monster is just behind you, but when you turn it disappears. The monster, the mysterious evil entity, or whatever you call it, lurks just beyond your understanding. This monster is to horrors what Hitchcock’s MacGuffin is to thrillers: the drive and essence of tension. This unknown force, whose details are often left unsaid, propels the plot. Sadly, this bottomless source of tension seems to be falling into disuse, the horror genre being populated by blood-splattered spectacle. No wonder Let The Right One In (2008) inspired such rapturous acclaim. Stunning cinematography and chilling performances aside, it gave the audience more questions than answers, drawing them into a relationship with the story and keeping that monster just out of reach.
Although Poe’s literature functions to thrill, his overall aim is to explore. His characters and plots are cloaked in obscurity; he does not seek the light, but rather revels in the darker edges of the human psyche. As with all story telling, an artist hopes to transport the audience into another experience, another way of seeing the world, another life. Although Poe and I live centuries and an ocean apart, I am drawn into his works and find there a common world.
Posted by Eddie on August 1st 2012 at 11.31am