The Tell Tale Heart (2020): An Inventive Take on a Classic Story

I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as pleasantly surprised as I have with this chance I was been afforded. The director of this short film, freshman filmmaker McClain Lindquist, reached out to me and offered a screener of his short film in anticipation of its festival run. The film is a new adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. Being a fan of the classic story, I said yes. What I had gotten was a fresh take on Poe’s tale told with a psychotronic flair that is as in debt to Roger Corman’s beloved Poe pictures of the 60s as it is to the surreal stylings of Dario Argento, and even a hint of Cronenberg thrown into the mix courtesy of stunning makeup effects work by Chris Hanson.

Lindquist’s take on the story sees our infamously unreliable narrator (played by Sonny Grimsley) in a fascinating state of delusion. He and the Old Man (played by James C. Morris) live locked in the period Poe has written the story, but as evidenced by the presence of Mikah Olsen’s Officer Sharpe and Teren Turner’s Detective Tucker, the world in which they inhabit is clearly out of step with the times. This, combined with a nonlinear narrative structure and the unhinged nature of the lead, allows you to become submerged into the fractured psyche of our nefarious storyteller.

Grimsley is undeniably the standout, walking the fine line between camp and class, and delivering Poe’s verbiage in a tremendously eloquent manner. The rest of the cast does fine, but Grimsley relishes in his role in a way that is charming and eerie. There is also a clear streak of black comedy to the piece, thanks to Grimsley’s dated mannerisms and murderous ways clashing with the contemporary nature of Olsen and Turner’s characters. Above all, what makes the film work like a charm is that, regardless of the modern qualities added to the story, is the unashamed Gothicism and surrealism the core narrative is treated with.

With a beautifully old-fashioned home, some marvelous period costuming, and Grimsley’s macabrely quaint narration, one can be forgiven for believing this to be a lost nugget in the cannon of Corman’s work, a string of adaptations noted for an exquisite attention to detail in spite of budgetary constraints. And like with Corman, there is plenty of room for flashes of expressionism. Armed with Joseph Olivas’s colorful and creative cinematography, the unnerving sound design of Jake Proctor, the aforementioned FX work from Hanson, and the effective scoring of Joel Pack, Lindquist keeps in the spirit of Poe’s work while lending it an off-the-wall grindhouse edge that makes for a bloody good time. I’m most astounded by the mastery of lighting here. The detail of a thin sliver of light cast upon the Old Man’s face is masterfully realized, as well as this dazzling shot of a knife lit up in blood-red.

Though one can be forgiven for finding the way the narrative jumps about more than a tad confusing, I love the direction Lindquist has taken the story. The brilliance of The Tell-Tale Heart as a piece of prose is that it allows you to slip into the mind of a killer in such a chilling way, and for my money’s worth, this latest retelling captures that quality by way of its schizophrenic structure, taking you between the Narrator’s recounting of the tale, the tale itself, and the fantastical realms in between. As we all await the revving up of film festivals the world over, this piece shall be subject to change, as I personally feel compelled to let you all know when and where you can find this marvelous short film.

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