January 21, 2019 House of Ravens (Movie Review)
Originally entitled P.O.E. (Pieces of Eldritch 3), House of Ravens is a series of six vignettes either loosely adapted from the short stories of the legendary Edgar Allan Poe or inspired by his writing, originally released in Italy in 2014. Finally making its way to North American soil thanks to Wild Eye Releasing, House of Ravens becomes available on DVD Tuesday, January 22, 2019.
As previously mentioned, House of Ravens is an anthology. The collection is woven together by a series of introductory links that include a narrator (Venantino Venantini: The Dinner 1998, 22 Bullets 2010) reading excerpts from Poe’s extensive oeuvre. Much like with many anthology offerings, each of the components that make up House of Ravens is unique to its constituents with a personality all its own.
In “Morella” — very loosely based off the Poe story of the same name — we meet a woman (Feda Fargas in her acting debut) who, inspired by some serious daddy issues, takes to the internet in search of a BDSM hook-up. There, she meets Carlo Usher (Gabriele Arena: Jabal: Ali Di Ghiaccio 2013, Walk with the Devil short 2017), who definitely has a thing for feet. Directed by Ricky Caruso (Naftalina 2011), the overall feel here is darkly quirky art school visuals that cross into disturbing sexuality.
One of the inclusions that is fully recognizable from its forebear, “King Pest” weaves the story of two drunken sailors — Antonio Pauletta (Hope 2012, My Little Sister 2016) and Ettore Nicoletti (Arthur mini-series, Made in Italy 2018) — who end up in the Red Death-addled court of King Pest (Mattia Stasolla in his acting debut). Directed by Alessandro Redaelli (Alice is Beautiful 2012, A Taste of Phobia 2017), “King Pest” dips into more Shakespearean territory with its focus being on the ensemble cast’s delivery of dialogue rather than intricate, metaphorical visuals.
Perhaps the best-known of the selected stories, “The Cask of Amontillado” sees our gagged, bound, and bloodied rat (Federico Ivan Biagioli in his acting debut) walled into a room and losing his grip on reality. Directed by Domiziano Cristopharo (Phantasmagoria 2014, The Transparent Woman 2015), this entry is appropriately dark and grotesque, perfectly relaying the desperation of our dying character.
Loosely based off the Poe story of the same title, “Thou Art the Man” features Martin Webster (Diary of a Disgraced Soldier documentary 2009, Penitent 2016) and newcomers Giacomo Boselli and Paolo Campanini in a detective story that includes a delicate nod toward The Tell-Tale Heart. Directed by Francesco Campanini (Il solitario 2008, La casa nel vento dei morti 2012), “Thou Art the Man” is perhaps the most engaging of the group, story-wise, and yet it is poorly developed and moves at too quick of a pace to ever reach its full potential.
The original piece “Shadow” stars Lumi Tagliavini in her acting debut as an adorable little girl whose only friend is her shadow. Directed by Edo Tagliavini (P.O.E.: Project of Evil 2012, 17 a mezzanotte 2014), “Shadow” lacks in plot and ultimately feels lackluster.
In the final installment, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” we meet Toby Dammit (Wayne Abbruscato: E.N.D. The Movie 2015), an extreme hijinks internet celebrity ala Jackass. In a nondescript watering hole, he will meet a gregarious fellow named Mr. Aster (Frank LaLoggia: Lady in White 1988, H.P. Lovecraft: Two Left Arms 2013) who will challenge him to prove how tough he truly is. Directed by Mirko Virgili (Ganja Fiction 2013), “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is suitably moody and modern, and serves as a parable for today’s insta-celebrity chasing generation.
Clocking in at 81 minutes for the entire collection, House of Ravens is not without some serious flaws. The first and perhaps the collections’ greatest is that the scenes that serve as the glue to bind each of the segments are an audio nightmare. The late, great Venantini speaks with a perfectly inviting, storytelling pitch, but each camera angle comes with its own audio issues – either canned or horribly muffled. Add to this Venantini’s thick Italian accent and, more oft than not, the words he is orating are simply lost.
Pushing this aside, the vignettes are independent of one another, so that while they form a cohesive anthology, they also stand on their own and bring with them their own issues. It’s hard to say which entry is the strongest of the lot, so let’s begin with the weakest: “Shadow.” The story is kind of silly and, thusly, creates a somewhat dull vignette. This is no fault of its adorable star Lumi Tagliavini, who does the very best with what little material she is given. Largely, she plays with and embraces a friendship with her shadow. There’s a Horror spin on the concept, of course, but by and large, due to its banal plot this is a forgettable offering.
“Morella” is awkward. The art school approach to the piece shows clear artistic intent, visually speaking, but the story underlying this is really just a truly awkward sexual romp that ends in orgasm and death. While the score is irksome, the on-screen antics feel entirely forced for the sake of shock value. Bottom line: it’s just weird.
Cristopharo’s “The Cask of Amontillado” falls somewhere in the middle, as it clearly depicts its story and draws its visual metaphors fluidly, but it’s not an entirely engaging experience, either. There’s blood, nails, a needle through a penis, a cheesy CGI spider, and a rat-man, sure. With no dialogue spoken throughout the entire scene, the weight of the tale is told through these visual metaphors — which is perfectly fine, but it makes for a relatively flat story. Conversely, “Thou Art the Man” is perhaps the strongest script in the batch. A curious little vignette, one that moves a bit too fast to ever properly develop its story, the piece is fraught with audio issues but, had it received a longer runtime, it might have been a true stand-out.
The best of the lot, “King Pest” and “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” are two entirely different animals. “Pest” goes for an old-school Shakespearean translation, one that emphasizes its dialogue over subtle nuances or visual cues. Hands-down, its score by Ruggero Melis is the best in the anthology, suitably dramatic and with a historical feel to the music. Meanwhile, though the props and wardrobe are basic, and the backdrops are the lowest of low budget, the ensemble cast sell the story to their viewers. It’s certainly an Avant-Garde approach to visual storytelling in 2019 (or 2014, as it were), but it works for this vignette, at least. “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is its polar opposite: an age-old tale that has been told ad nauseum that now receives a fully modern retelling. In fact, it is Virgili’s current spin on the tale, painting parallels with insta-celebrity and the dangerous Pandora’s box of committing extreme acts on live feeds that gives the story its unique spin and makes it engaging. It’s certainly not the best thing you will see this year, but it provides a strong closing number for the diverse collection.
Overall, each vignette has its own personality and none come across as though they were pressured to conform to a shared philosophy on film-making, which boosts the overall presentation of House of Ravens. Unfortunately, there are just too many flaws throughout for the collection to be considered a perfect representation of Poe’s classic material, but it’s a presentation that offers a lot of different angles and approaches to film — some fully modern, others steeped in traditional theater. Suitably dark, sometimes disturbing, but mostly an experimental collection of low-budget film-making, House of Ravens is what it is — neither wholly good nor entirely bad. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock give House of Ravens 2.5 of 5 stars.