Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle took early 1960s horror fans by storm, but by the time the decade hit its halfway mark, the series had dropped eight entries and wrapped. In Italy, the Giallo movement was kicking off with the 1964 release of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, praised by none other than Roger Corman himself. Giallo films would dominate much of Italian horror cinema for the next decade and a half. The subgenre continues to have sweeping influence to this day in the works of various directors, including James Wan via Malignant, Nicolas Winding Refn in The Neon Demon, and Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani in works like Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, among others.
Not all of the films under discussion in this piece fit specifically into the realm of Giallo, but they are included on the basis of either featuring common traits or being created by directors that are in some way associated with the movement. While Poe’s influence on Giallo was notable in theme and subject matter, there were few direct adaptations of his work. Yet, Giallo shares the Corman-Poe cycle’s bright colors, psychological gameplay, and over-the-top acting. As such, many of these pieces feel in correspondence with those classic AIP takes, even if they only share the common thread of being influenced by the same writer.
Castle of Spiders, Web of Blood
Director Antonio Margheriti is responsible for two entries on this list, Castle of Blood from 1964 and its nearly identical but colorized remake, Web of the Spider, which debuted roughly eight years later. The concept behind the original script apparently materialized in order to make use of leftover set pieces from another film, while Margheriti was tapped when director Sergio Corbucci found himself double-booked. The remake is said to have occurred because Margheriti was disappointed by the poor box office performance of the original. This may give insight into the somewhat arbitrary nature of the remake but makes it no less paradoxical.
Castle of Blood is attributed to being based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Yet, while it toys with Poe’s themes and features a very loose interpretation of the writer as a character in its opening sequence, it is not specifically connected to any of Poe’s works. Poe appears as a character in both, rambling about a dreadful experience with ghosts and ghouls only to have our protagonist, a journalist named Alan Foster, laugh off his claims. This leads to a wager in which Foster accepts a challenge to stay in a haunted estate overnight.
The resulting films are melodramatic, loosely plotted, and often redundant to one another, but neither is without its unique charm. The original manages to invoke a great deal of atmospheric tension, though mostly when removed from its somewhat tedious plot. Barbara Steele remains a treasure despite her poorly drafted character in Castle, and the always unsettling Klaus Kinski is miscast as Poe but perfectly cast as himself in Web. Castle leans into the atmosphere in the moody black and white format while Web is so brightly lit that it negates sincere attempts at interjecting further horror into the premise.
Spirits of the Felliniesque
Spirits of the Dead is an anthology film that draws three directors together, with Roger Vadim directing “Metzengerstein,” Louis Malle offering up a version of “William Wilson,” and Federico Fellini taking on “Toby Damnit,” based on “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” Though this list of names is impressive, this is lesser-known among Poe adaptations. Overall, it’s a strange little artifact that’s well worth tracking down.
“Metzengerstein” features a Prince Prospero-style countess, played here by a stunning Jane Fonda. Hedonistic and cruel, the countess falls for her cousin, played by her real-life brother Peter. When he sees through her and spurns her advances, she angrily orders the barn where he keeps his beloved horses to be burned to the ground. Her cousin dies in the blaze when he refuses to leave his steeds, but a strangely demonic black stallion emerges. This is a weird short that shouldn’t work, but Jane Fonda adds substantially to the appeal of the film. Beyond clearly taking delight in playing such a deeply unlikeable lead, her portrayal adds a surprising level of pathos to what is essentially a one-note character. For comparison, placing her next to Vincent Price’s Prospero, she equals his cruelty while adding something essentially tragic to the tale.
Meanwhile, “William Wilson” reimagines the protagonist as a violent misogynist, featuring performances from Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon and drawing in Malle’s penchant for decadence, casual cruelty, and beautifully shot crowd scenes. A riveting card game between Delon and Bardot remains the highlight of this piece as she is disgusted with his treatment of women and deftly beats him at his own game until he is forced to cheat in order to win. As in the original tale, that is his downfall.
Perhaps the best of the bunch, however, is Fellini’s “Toby Damnit.” Incorporating all the classic Fellini tools of fashion-forward allure, bizarre sets, and glamorous but shallow characters, this short runs an emotional gamut with our washed-up protagonist and his inability to escape his own frayed personality and struggles with addiction. Ending on a fraught extended scene in which he desperately tries to escape a town that refuses to let him leave, this short easily stands among the best of the best when it comes to Poe adaptations.
Each of these directors brings a very specific style to the table, none of which requires particularly tight plotting or cohesive narratives. Yet, that is the appeal of Spirits of the Dead, which feels very much like a dream. Amping up the surrealist qualities of Poe and injecting plenty of their unique flair, this is an underrated gem in the Poe adaptation canon as well as being a fairly good overview of three of the most influential directors of the era.
Your Vice is a Locked Metaphor
Taking it out of the world of dreaminess and surrealism and into the stylish and bloody, there is Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Director Sergio Martino previously directed The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh in which a killer leaves a note reading this phrase, and clearly, the director enjoyed it too much to let it slide at that. Vice is a take on “The Black Cat” that is low on scares but packed to overflow with sadism.
Most takes on “The Black Cat” are uniquely upsetting, in which the general sense of remorse expressed by the main character of the Poe tale is replaced with something significantly uglier. The story necessarily tells of a man who kills a cat while under the influence of alcohol, making the horror especially gruesome. By showing characters torturing animals and inflicting verbal and physical violence on their spouses, many adaptations take the story out of the realm of the fantastical and drop it somewhere significantly closer to home. In typical Giallo fashion, this story takes every character and turns them into a villain so that by the end there is no one to cry for.
Vice flirts with greatness, and there is no denying that it’s classic Giallo through and through with its twisting plot, isolated estate, and unrepentant femme fatales. Indeed, there is much to love about it, with gorgeous scenery, effective pacing, and a Bruno Nicolai soundtrack. Likewise, there is some interesting commentary from the feminist, bisexual, but ultimately doomed Floriana (played by Giallo frequent flyer Edwige Fenech). At first daring and sympathetic, Floriana shows great care to the suffering Irina and even seduces her. Yet, as she ultimately begins sleeping with the monstrous Oliviero as well, her tolerance for the couple disintegrates, and we see that conning Irina into killing her uncle was always part of her plan. As a thriller, that’s far from the last plot twist in the film, but it does effectively lead to Floriana’s end.
Meanwhile, Angela La Vorgna is underrated in her role as Brenda, perhaps the only genuinely likable character in the film though she suffers racist treatment and a truly atrocious fate. A house servant to the warring couple, Brenda predictably dies early in the film. Yet, there is a fascinating scene in which she dons Oliviero’s mother’s dress and stares at herself in the mirror before becoming frightened and dashing up the stairs to her unfortunate end. Though played for titillation, this is one of the most haunting moments of the film. She is treated dismissively but the other characters seem to understand that she’s more interesting than the rest of them combined as they continue to bring her up constantly all the way through to the closing credits.
Indeed, it is the constant racist references to Brenda that last well beyond her lifespan in the film, alongside the violent gouging of a cat’s eye and the brutal public mockery Oliviero subjects Irina to, that all combine to make this film grate a little more than it should. Though even in the context of Oliviero’s relentless cruelty, there are fascinating moments, including one near the beginning where he openly torments his wife, and a group of women start singing and dancing and effectively reclaim the energy of the room. Featuring excellent characters, soundtrack, and cinematography, it still isn’t a viewing experience that can be called enjoyable, and the end result remains more Giallo than Poe.
So Many Black Cat Adaptations
Meanwhile, Fulci’s take on The Black Cat nearly a decade later injected a little more fun into the premise. Though this is what could be referred to as “Fulci Lite” with a notable lack of the viscera and gore that he is known for, it still manages to be an entertaining twist on a story that has given us some truly unpleasant adaptations over the decades. This pulls us into the 1980s with style and soundtrack to match and stars another familiar face for Giallo fans with Mimsy Farmer in the role of an intrepid photographer.
Most takes of “The Black Cat” don’t inject much personality into their focal feline, but this film goes the extra mile by giving us a cat who is undoubtedly a star. Opening on a scene in which a large black cat struts across a rooftop, the cat has several showdowns against his owner and nemesis Robert Miles (Patrick Magee). This is far from an essential watch, but it might be the most entertaining take on this short story while also providing a relatively gentle initiation to Fulci.
Two Evil Eyes is a joint film with George Romero directing a take on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” while Dario Argento takes on “The Black Cat.” Though this brings us to the 1990s and shows a definite departure from the classic Giallo aesthetic, it still follows a similar structural vibe. Facts introduces us to a wife who is eager to see her elderly husband dead in hopes of claiming his fortune. When he dies under hypnotism, she and her lover refuse to let him fully cross over. Neither dead nor alive, he moans from inside a chest freezer and ultimately takes his revenge on his faithless wife.
Meanwhile, this version of “The Black Cat” shows Harvey Keitel as a crime scene photographer who kills his wife’s beloved pet and ultimately ends her life as well. Though it runs a bit overlong and embraces a truly nasty mood, Keitel’s extended descent into depravity matches the vibe of Argento’s direction. It’s no great shock that Two Evil Eyes didn’t pull numbers at the box office, but for fans of the 1990s’ Tales from the Crypt, this is exactly the kind of gruesome morality tale that the show excelled at.
The world of the Giallo-adjacent did not offer the cohesive aesthetics that the Universal era or the Corman-Poe cycle gave us, but many of these entries showed an uglier undercurrent in Poe’s work than those prior takes did. Pulling Poe’s classic realism into the realm of slasher films, many of these takes seem to willfully refuse to absorb the gradation of the stories on which they are based. Yet, even without the substance for which his works are known, the stylism of Poe’s many short stories shines through. For all their flaws, these adaptations show Poe’s mean streak without flinching or attempting to lighten the blow. 🩸
Part 4 is coming soon.
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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