The Tell-Tale Heart

Monday, December 3rd, 2007 Horrorthon Posts

1954 (*****)

Thank God for YouTube, because without it, I’d be doomed to spend another thirty years fruitlessly searching for this exquisite seven-and-a-half-minute animated film, which scared the crap out of me in a fifth- or sixth-grade 16mm showing in school (so much so that I couldn’t sleep that night without the light on).

Like most television viewers of our generation I grew up subjected to an encyclopedic history of American animation without realizing it. From the Ub Iwerks black-and-white non-sync-sound efforts of the 1920s and 1930s, through the Golden Age of Warner Bros. and MGM (the heyday of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, the Lennon and McCartney of short-form cel animation) through the transition to television and the limited-animation joys of Rocky and Bullwinkle, it was all there, every afternoon after school, and we drank it in like Coca-Cola; I loved cartoons, and I remember some early conceptual breakthroughs watching them at my friend Alan’s house on his parents’ big Trinitron and beginning to distinguish (for example) between different eras of Tom & Jerry or notice that there was “a certain kind” of Bugs Bunny cartoon that had an electrified, liquid-excitement quality that I didn’t have the vocabulary or the knowledge to identify (I had unwittingly discovered Chuck Jones). Aesthetically, we all learned about the WPA (again, without realizing it); the strange, New-York-in-the-‘fifties visionary style of animation sometimes called “Cartoon Modern” (click here for information about Boris Gorelick, one of the WPA animators) that brought jazz and 20th century painting influences into cartoons in explosively creative ways. (All those “Screen Gems” cartoons with our favorite characters displayed against abstracted backgrounds with discordant music are WPA-influenced.)

So, when the teacher wheeled the old welded-aluminum 16mm projector into the room and asked somebody to “get the lights” while somebody else “pulled down the screen” (Remember those days? Now it’s probably “everyone make sure you’ve got WiFi turned on”) and we saw this innovative and atmospherically chilling presentation of the Edgar Allan Poe story I wouldn’t read until ten years later, I didn’t understand about the WPA or 1950s styles or the influence of surrealist painters like De Chirico or recognize the smooth-as-silk voice of the cartoon’s narrator (it’s James Mason!) but I knew that I had seen something totally amazing and totally scary.

I never saw The Tell-Tale Heart again until last month when a sudden flash of memory made me search on YouTube and find it. It’s every bit as fantastic and chilling as I remember; I recommend everyone go watch it. Maybe I’m seeing this through nostalgic fear-colored glasses; but I still think it’s a masterpiece of horror.