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August 19, 2011

Movie Review: The Tell-Tale Heart (1960) / The Oval Portrait (1972)

The Tell-Tale Heart, Directed by Ernest Morris

The Oval Portrait, aka One Minute Before Death, Directed by Rogelio A. Gonzales

Independent Cinema has unearthed two obscure horror programmers, based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, sure to delight fans. Both are highly entertaining for different reasons. Significantly, one was made before the Roger Corman-Vincent Price cycle -- The Tell-Tale Heart, lensed in Great Britain, the other as the cycle was ending, The Oval Portrait, filmed in Mexico with English speaking actors.

Buy Tell-tale Heart, The/the Oval Portrait Double Feature!

Edgar (Laurence Payne) is a respectable Victorian gentleman, but not from lack of trying. Blessed with the charm of a rotting mackerel, he wiles his lonely nights in his upstairs apartment looking at dirty pictures or spying on lovely young florist Betty (Adrienne Corri, best known as the cat-suited rape victim in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, 1971) across the way as she undresses near an undraped window. Smitten, Edgar asks Betty out and their first date ends disastrously as he forces himself on her in lieu of the usual goodnight kiss! Seeking romantic counsel from his worldly wise friend Carl (Dermot Walsh), Edgar gets a second chance with Betty -- only to see Carl rudely "cutting in" on their dinner date. Sparks fly between Betty and Carl, and Edgar later tearfully sees the two of them fall into bed together through Betty's window. The rightly peeved Edgar invites Carl to his upstairs flat for drinks, confronts him about their affair and brutally kills him with a poker. Burying Carl's body under the floorboards, Edgar's conscience begins to get the better of him when he hears ... something not unlike a watch ticking, swathed in cotton coming from the floor...

This free adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart is especially heady stuff and still packs a punch today. Shot in black-and-white and set in Victorian England, this version of the tale has nothing whatsoever in common with the Hammer horrors of its day, and as Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas points out in his helpful liner notes seems to preclude both Alfred Hitchock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom in that were released the same year. In the scene where Betty rummages through Edgar's flat in order to retrieve evidence to link him with Carl's disappearance; it plays remarkably much like Vera Miles' assignation with the fruit cellar in the Hitchcock film. Edgar's pathological voyeurism also links him with Powell's hero in Peeping Tom as a sympathetic -- but essentially violent and dangerous psychopath.

The Tell-Tale Heart also beats Herschel Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast (1963) to the punch with some shocking gore, as in the scene where Edgar scoops out the titular, still beating organ framed in loving close-up.

Downbeat and sleazy -- the population of this version of Victorian London has homely prostitutes baiting our hero every spare moment, its understandable why this Edgar Allen Poe adaptation has remained obscure. It's far too graphic, both in terms of violence and sexual content to have been shown regularly on television (although Lucas says he saw the film theatrically as a child and later caught in on TV -- whoever would let a young child see this picture should have been taken out and horsewhipped). That being said, this British adaptation of the classic tale remains compelling and still packs a wallop today.

The Oval Portrait or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Oval Portrait rounds out the disc. As is the case with Tell-Tale, a very short story has been stretched out to motion picture length, leaving the original tale as largely a source of inspiration. Genevieve (Wanda Hendryx) is called to a forbidding mansion in order to hear the reading of a will from an ancestor. She sees the oval portrait of the title, that of the homeowner’s daughter Rebecca, whose tale is a tragic one. Disobeying her father’s orders, she shelters a Confederate soldier and nurses him back to health. Painting her portrait, the soldier is recaptured by Union forces, presumably to be executed. Rebecca is angrily turned out of the house by her father, and she later dies in childbirth. In the meantime, Genevieve becomes far too sympathetic to the dead girl’s plight – and figures from beyond the grave return to haunt the living.

Fans of Staten Island schlock-meister Andy Milligan will be taken aback at all the amazing similarities The Oval Portrait has to his unique body of work. Portrait is likewise shot in 16mm, and steadfastly sticks to a period setting in spite of its minuscule budget (a Civil War battle scene is tossed into the mix to give the film some production value). Added to the similarities is the poor sound recording, awful performances and rude, arbitrary editing. In addition, it has the Milligan-esque claustrophobic setting peopled with unsympathetic family members, managing a last-minute motherly incest twist shock conclusion.

Hell, it even steals music cues from the “Man In Space With Sounds” by Attillio Mineo album in the manner of Milligan! (While bragging a Les Baxter score, Lucas is quick to pint out that it’s mostly just a rehash of Baxter’s Black Sunday score he did for Mario Bava in 1960.)

Both films are in acceptable shape. The DVD has no extras, and one wonders why Independent Cinema chose to package this double bill in a slipcase with a graphic that at most, took two minutes to make on a laptop computer ….


  1. Nice critique as usual, sir.

  2. Great work Greg! Sounds like such a curious double bill, too.