Just in time for the onset of longer nights and gloomy, wistful days, this weekend comes a film festival devoted to Edgar Allan Poe, sponsored by the Poe Museum and set largely under the great crystal chandelier of the Byrd Theater.
The Poe Film Festival’s special guests include Poe Museum friend Victoria Price, daughter of Vincent Price. He was a philanthropist and a connoisseur of the finer things who bought his first work of art at age 12 on a three-year payment plan. The elder Price became most associated with the horror genre. His daughter is an art consultant, designer and public speaker who first became acquainted with the museum at a 2014 Halloween event. Also on the roster are Charleston College Poe scholar Scott Peeples, whose work includes “The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe.”
Admission for each film or panel is $8. Saturday evening, Sept. 24, take in a catered reception at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen for $75, featuring a discussion by Victoria Price and a screening of “Tales of Terror,” starring her father.
Image courtesy the Poe Museum
Poe, born in Boston, spent a combined 26 years in Richmond. It was here that he became a professional writer through the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger.
Poe Museum Curator Chris Semtner explains, “Since 1907 there’ve been more than 300 films inspired [by] Poe, his work and life, and on Oct. 9 our own Latin Ballet returns to the Enchanted Garden for their performance of 'Poemas.' "
The idea of holding a full-on Poe film festival evolved from the museum's Unhappy Hour gathering, held each month.
“We’ll occasionally show Poe-related movies during the Unhappy Hour,” explains Semtner. For Poe’s birthday celebration in January 2016, the animated anthology “Extraordinary Tales” (directed by Raul Garcia) received a Richmond premiere; it will show again at the Byrd Theater this weekend.
The festivities begin during the “Unhappy Hour” ($5), and tickets are available at the Poe Museum or here. Now, if you can’t devote your entire weekend to Poe, but you can get to the museum on Thursday, Sept. 22, you’ll be treated to not one but two 1928 versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” There’s French director Jean Epstein’s influential 1928 surrealist silent film paired with the significant expressionistic short by U.S. filmmakers James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. “Watson and Webber tear the negative apart and scrawl words on the image,” Semtner says. And since silent films weren’t ever really quiet, the Epstein film includes the accompaniment of the Chris Massey Trio.
Accompanying the films is the opening of an international exhibit of artists responding to themes in Poe’s work, “A Poe-tic Tribute” curated by the Lakewood, Ohio-based Good Goat Gallery. The works are for sale, and the proceeds go toward art scholarships for young people. Semtner, an artist and author in addition to being a museum curator, also contributed to the 20-piece show, which includes Scott Radke's "Deep In Earth" (seen here).
Scott Radke is a Cleveland-based sculptor and marionette maker; his piece, “Deep In Earth,” will be featured in a Poe-inspired art show at the Poe Museum this month. (Photo courtesy Scott Radke)
You can also gaze upon the visage of Rufus Griswold, whose portrait in the Poe Museum is undergoing a needed cleaning. Griswold shares the name of a 19th-century melodrama villain, and he is almost single-handedly responsible for defaming Poe’s name, beginning with an obituary that erroneously stated that Poe died friendless. Here, too, are 45 letters by Griswold, in which he mourns his wife Caroline and confides he kissed her dead lips.
And here we are amid a strange election season worthy of Poe’s touch. Poe, driven by poverty, once made a desperate bid for an appointment by Virginia native President John Tyler to the Philadelphia Customs House, although he admitted that he couldn’t agree, really, with any political establishment. He arrived late and intoxicated to his job interview.
The 1848 revolutions in Europe toppled several governments, and that year also brought out the Communist Manifesto. Poe both witnessed and read of mob violence perpetrated by U.S. political factions. He viewed these events with concern. In February 1849, he published a short science fiction story, “Mellonta Tauta,” offered as a look back from the future of 2848. The narrator is informed that “Amriccans” lived in a “sort of every-man-for-himself confederacy, after the fashion of ‘prairie dogs’ we read of in fable ... they started with the queerest idea conceivable, viz: all men are born free and equal ...” Democracy, he concludes, is a good government for varmints.
He received inspiration for a number of his most disturbing stories from newspaper accounts of freakish incidents carried in the sensationalist press. In 1842 he learned of the disappearance of a beautiful woman and the murder of a sleeping man that became “The Mystery of Marie Rogét” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” J. Gerald Kennedy writes in “Strange Nation,” “But Poe did not have to look far for freakish situations; he himself knew the angel of the odd and the imp of the perverse. He had been disowned, court-martialed, fired and parodied; he many times did himself in with ill-timed debauches, as happened in Washington when he sought an interview with John Tyler. Featuring himself a culture critic and pundit, Poe developed a queer eye for the American grotesque.”
Semtner remarks, “And of course, he’s found senseless and dies during election time in Baltimore.”
Somehow, Poe’s life has resisted an actual rattling-good biopic. A writer’s life is spent in rooms alone, which doesn’t make for compelling drama. What the writer then does outside that situation must make for compelling viewing. “They often want to play up the drug abuse angle,” Semtner says. “They want to make him look like a mad man. They get caught up in his caricature.” A person as confused and drunk as he’s often understood to have been wouldn’t have been able to produce as much, nor as well, as Poe.
One approach to a film portrait will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday at the Byrd, with Roger Corman’s “Fall of The House of Usher."
Victoria Price introduces the film that was made for $270,000 – of which, Corman said, Vincent Price was paid $50,000. But the director wanted no one else to portray the haunted Roderick Usher.
At 9 p.m. is “Stonehearst Asylum” (2014), based on the bizarre short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether."
Despite the many efforts, adapting Poe’s stories into artistic and critical success has eluded filmmakers, either on purpose or otherwise. This will be one aspect of the Saturday afternoon “Adapting Poe” discussion.
“Filmmakers have a real tough time making good versions of his stories,” Semtner says, “because so much of what happens is internalized. The narrator is thinking this. You add an hour and a half, and it’s difficult to maintain the integrity of the source material.”
Panel member and New Orleans director John LaTier has made it his mission to create 11 crowdfunded films influenced by Poe’s work. His “Tell-Tale Heart,” with Rose McGowan and Peter Bogdanovich, is paired with a 2015 short, the faithful adaptation of “The Cask of Amontillado,” by Monica Tidwell, with Michael Paré and Lee Godart.
For more information, email the Poe Museum or call 648-5523.