Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Tell Tale"

I asked my friend, the actor Tom Riis Farrell, what he'd been in recently, and he pointed me to a 2009 movie I'd overlooked, Tell Tale. It stars Josh Lucas and Lena Headey, and I finally saw it yesterday.

Tell Tale is an extremely loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, which shares in common with Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" one element: a murdered man's heart pounds loudly in the presence of his murderer. Beyond that, Tell Tale goes its own nutty way, telling the story of a heart transplant recipient, Terry Bernard (Lucas), who comes to realize that his donated heart came from a murdered man, and that the murder was connected to a ring of black-market organ traffickers. Terry's heart pounds loudly in his ears whenever any conspirator connected with the murder is nearby, and drives him to kill the conspirator. Thus Terry, possessed by the tell-tale heart, becomes a sort of avenging demon.

In several ways, Tell Tale is a pretty good movie, including engaging performances by Lucas and Headey (as Terry's girlfriend) and, of course, by Farrell, who plays a conspirator in terror of becoming Terry's next victim. The production values are good, the pacing is fine, the narrative interesting, the final frisson effective. But Tell Tale never becomes a great movie.

It isn't that the movie's too far from Poe's source material; most movie adaptations of Poe are remote from the source, and that needn't cause a problem. One of my favorite Poe adaptations, The Haunted Palace (1963), borrows not much more than the title from Poe and is really based on an H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

The biggest problem is that the central conceit of Tell Tale is kind of lame. The transplanted body part taking over the transplant recipient and making him homicidal is an old notion (see The Hands of Orlac, 1924), much more plausible in the days before transplants were common and we realized the recipients did not all become homicidal. Now the notion seems "cute," as one character tells Terry. Further, the horror movie in which the deformed destructive being (the DDB, here Terry) kills his victims selectively and serially to avenge some wrong seems to me to display a weak form of destructiveness for a DDB. It is too rational for a monster. I would much rather that the DDB killed unpredictably or on the basis of some more twisted logic.

Tell Tale is reminiscent of an old Karloff-Lugosi vehicle, Black Friday (1940), in which the recipient of a brain transplant becomes possessed by the donor's brain and takes revenge on the donor's enemies. It didn't quite work then, it doesn't quite work now. But just as Black Friday is worth seeing for some elements, including Karloff and Lugosi, Tell Tale is worth seeing for some elements, including Farrell.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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