Steven Berkoff's Tell Tale Heart Movie Review
Written by Rebecca McCallum
Released by Red Rock Entertainment
Directed by Stephen Cookson
Written by Steven Berkoff (screenplay), Stephen Cookson (adaptation), Edgar Allan Poe (story)
2019, 80 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
DVD released on 11th June 2020
Steven BerkoffHugh Skinner as Sunny
Henry Goodman as Reynolds
Dudley Sutton as Old Man
Mark Brailsford as Brown
Originally a short story penned by the prolific and much-loved master of gothic literature, Edgar Allan-Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart operates like a tightly wound alarm clock and once it has started ticking there is no other way to go but forward. With a small cast, led by acting legend Steven Berkoff in the central role of the narrator, it’s unsurprising (but utterly refreshing) that the film often feels very theatrical, especially in terms of creating tension and intimacy. The tale charts the conception and execution of what the unnamed narrator perceives to be the perfect murder as he discloses the precautions he has taken to ensure he will not be caught.
The motive however, like much in the story, remains foggy and the only causative factor we learn of is the narrator’s disgust of the ‘vulture-like eye’ which belongs to another unnamed man (Dudley Sutton) who happens to be the master of the house. Indeed, the narrator has a somewhat obsessive fixation on the eye, which we are led to believe has developed owing to the narrator suffering from a ‘hypersensitivity of the senses’. With all the details left unshaded, all we can do is watch and listen as the narrator offers a confession style account of the night of the murder.
Aesthetically, the film is a work of art as it deviates between sparsely decorated sets (again adding to the theatrical tone) and beautiful watercolour landscapes that all help to conjure up a dark and mysterious world. Director Stephen Cookson successfully achieves an atmosphere befitting of the genre as there is also a strong and evocative sense of the gothic with candlelight, shadows, and seemingly endless corridors abound.
Berkoff is exemplary as the narrator delivering a nuanced performance that is at its heart, deeply complex with his early confidence overshadowed by a display of bumbling incoherence and nervousness in the final scenes. It’s testimony to both Poe’s writing and Berkoff’s embodiment of the narrator that when the Police come knocking at his door to investigate the reporting of ‘a scream’ by a neighbour, we feel conflicted between wanting him to be caught and seeing him manage to evade justice.
The arrival of the Police brings with it some welcome layers of comedy as the three officers share a series of quick-witted exchanges. At one point, while in polite yet mundane conversation, a senior inquires with his young officer what his favourite genre of fiction is, to which he answers: ‘gothic horror’, a subtle wink to the audience no doubt. This insertion of comic relief is particularly clever and functional as it helps ease the suspense following the intense sixty minutes we have just spent with the narrator. On another level, it also allows Cookson to build the tension back up again for the final scenes of the film in order to give the climactic twist the moment of horror it well and truly deserves.
Ultimately, The Tell-Tale Heart deals in one of the most fundamental and compelling aspects of horror: ambiguity. Left in the dark about motive, how the man and the murderer relate to one another and whether we can trust the narrator’s recollection, the film is an exercise in the horror of the unknown and the unexplained. Through its enveloping language and mounting sense of paranoia and dread it also gets under your skin quickly, and what’s more, it stays there.
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