Baltimore's an Edgar Allan Poe kind of town, never more so than in 2009, with the Poe House, a football team named for his most famous poem and a yearlong celebration honoring the macabre author's death. Naturally, Baltimore's repertory movie house would want to feature a Poe movie at some point, if only to bask in the reflected glow of this long-term love affair.
Problem is, when it comes to movies based on Poe's stories, there's a curious dearth of material. There's certainly a dearth of good material.
"I can't think of any that stand out as great," says John Standiford, a former co-owner of the Charles Theatre who has spent eight years programming the theater's Saturday revival series of older films. "I was encouraged to play Poe movies, but I immediately thought that would make for showing some not-very-good movies."
It would be hard to name a prominent literary figure worse served than the estimable Mr. Poe, from whose pen sprouted two of the dominant literary - and cinematic - genres of the 20th century. Through stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat" and "The Pit and the Pendulum," Poe was scaring readers decades before Bram Stoker ever imagined "Dracula." And with "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," he practically invented the detective genre. Without Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, it's quite possible Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would never have created Sherlock Holmes.
But when it comes to translating Poe to film, there's precious little to rave about. Actually, there's precious little to talk about, period. Search for "Edgar Allan Poe movies" on the Internet Movie Database, and only 20 results come up. Many of those are shorts or made-for-TV quickies. Of the theatrical films, the most prevalent are Roger Corman B-movies from the 1960s - fun, but not exactly classics. The major studios have largely avoided Poe's work.
It may be that a director like David Lynch, who creates creepy obsessional atmospheres in "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet" akin to the Bard of Baltimore's work, cuts closer to Poe than anyone who tries to adapt the stories directly. Akira Kurosawa wanted to make a version of "The Masque of the Red Death." He didn't, but that story's color-coding influenced his "Ran."
Hollywood has always showed its love for Sherlock Holmes, whether through the much-beloved 1940s series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, or the coming big-budget "Sherlock Holmes," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law and set for a Christmas Day release. And new horror movies seem to come out every week. Which makes it even harder to explain why Poe, an early master of the genre who is even more celebrated today than he was in his own time, has been given short shrift when it comes to the movies.
Mark Redfield, a Baltimore-based actor and director who has his own version of "The Tell-Tale Heart" in production, thinks that lack of a track record may, in itself, be the problem. Famous or not, respected or not, Poe is far from an economic sure thing.
"Nobody is doing it because the other guy has not made a fortune doing it," he says. "That's the way Hollywood works. ... All filmmakers try to find their commercial niche, to make their money back and to reach an audience. But to do something that might be true to somebody like Poe ... the risk-takers might be in TV, but it's not going to be in Hollywood."
Others suspect the length of Poe's works may be the problem. He wrote primarily short stories, and fleshing them out to fill 90 minutes of screen time has never proved easy.
"Maybe there's just not enough material to stretch it out to a feature," says Marc Sober, humanities librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. " 'The Masque of the Red Death,' the first time I saw it, I thought, 'This looks as if Ingmar Bergman has directed a horror film.' But even in 'The Masque of the Red Death,' [director Corman] had to use a second story to flesh it out some more."
(Sober will be showing "Masque" at his monthly Film Talk series, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Pratt's Central Library, 400 Cathedral St.)
George Figgs, a film historian and exhibitor who ran the much-missed Orpheum theater in Fells Point, suspects Poe's best work has, until recently, been beyond the scope of what was possible.
"Before now, with the state that CGI [computer-generated imagery] has gotten to, it would have been impossible to really materialize Poe's visions on the screen without looking silly," says Figgs, who is shopping around a script he's written based on Poe's final days.
Plus, Figgs notes, few great filmmakers have ever tried to bring Poe to the screen. "Frankenstein" had James Whale, "Dracula" had Tod Browning, directors who understood the essence of the stories and translated that to the screen. Poe's creations have never been so lucky.