THE OVAL PORTRAIT
THE TELL-TALE HEART
B&W, 1960, 78m.
Directed by Ernest Morris
Starring Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh, Selma Vaz Dias
Color, 1972, 68m.
Directed by Rogelio A. Gonzalez
Starring Wanda Hendrix, Barry Coe, Gisele MacKenzie, Barney O'Sullivan, Murray Ayres
Independent (Alternative Cinema) (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
THE OVAL PORTRAIT
Shockingly gory for its time and still quite nightmarish at times, The Tell-Tale Heart can lay claim with Eyes without a Face and Black Sunday as one of the earliest gore films thanks to some graphic images of repeated mutilation with a fire poker and even some heart-ripping. The build-up is fairly slow and deliberate, but the final half hour is still fairly strong stuff complete with some nice surreal touches like a floor throbbing in time with the guilt-inducing heartbeat, and while the "gotcha!" twist ending seems like a sop added to ward off censors, the film as a whole still holds up well. Thanks to its public domain status, numerous awful-looking versions have shuffled around on VHS and DVD over the years including a widely available but unwatchable edition from budget line Alpha Video. Though still imperfect, the new telecine done for this Poe double feature is certainly several steps up; at least you can tell what's going on, and while there's still some obvious damage at numerous points in the print, it's a worthy upgrade for anyone who enjoys the film and wants to see it in something better than a blurry VHS-era transfer.
The co-feature on this disc, The Oval Portrait, is a much more subdued affair lensed in color and previously released on VHS under the title One Minute Before Death. Wanda Hendrix, best known for her stormy brief marriage to Audie Murphy, had her final role her in the tale of a post-Civil War mansion where a wounded Yankee soldier and a young daughter have instigated a horrific curse when he paints her portrait, damning any man who dares set foot inside the house after him. Years later, the portrait begins to exert a malicious influence on Genevieve Howard (Hendrix), who supposedly bears a striking resemblance to the painting's subject, her cousin (though visual evidence suggests otherwise). She's there for the reading of a will, of course, and soon things start to get very spooky indeed as the past and present collide with ghostly results.
Soapy and definitely strange, The Oval Portrait is a Mexican production disguising itself with a roster of B-level American actors and lots of period trappings, including Civil War battle scenes! You have to give the filmmakers credit for trying, even if the end results will elicit shrugs in most horror fans used to the more flamboyant Vincent Price offerings. That said, the last half hour does offer a few notable flourishes including a peculiar, dream-like finale scene. For some reason the soundtrack is a mishmash of library tracks credited to Les Baxter, which Tim Lucas' perceptive liner notes point out as mostly excerpts from his score for Black Sunday. The liner notes also cover a lot of informational ground for both films, including the backgrounds for the cast and crew and thumbnail histories of the short stories' other cinematic incarnations. As for the picture quality, it looks okay considering the film was shot in 16mm and still looks like it. At least the disc looks better than the long-discontinued VHS version, which was very soft and smudgy. If you like overlooked Poe adaptations, this pairing is certainly worth a peek particularly for the still potent first feature.