You soon see the reason why Edgar Allan Poes name has been left off the credits of Tell-Tale, as the film throws most of the short story out. Out has gone any aspect from the story about the hero being a murderer who is afterwards haunted by heartbeats; the hero does conduct murders but is more of an agency who is taken over and possessed for the duration by the heart. Moreover, he appears to suffer no guilt about any of the murders he is driven to do. There are some scenes where he is haunted by amplified heartbeats, however the principal difference here is that the heartbeats the hero hears are not the guilty reminders of the murder he has conducted but the heart signalling to the hero the proximity of the people that murdered its owner.
What we have here is a film that bears less in common with Edgar Allan Poes The Tell-Tale Heart than it does with the silent German horror classic The Hands of Orlac (1924). The Hands of Orlac, which has been remade several times, most famously as the Peter Lorre-starring Mad Love (1935), concerns a pianist who receives a set of hands that have been transplanted from an executed murderer and comes to believe that they are driving him to kill. Variations on the possessed transplant limb or plots about surgery that leaves the recipient with the memories from the donor urging them to solve the murder have appeared in a number of other films, including Black Friday (1940), BrainWaves (1982), Body Parts (1991) and Unforgettable (1996).
Unfortunately, the Hands of Orlac plot proves a decided disappointment. For one, we go from a story about a murderer obsessively haunted by guilt to a run of the mill film about an ordinary man being taken over by a transplanted organ. The cliches that The Hands of Orlac and its ilk have created are so familiar to the genre now that there is almost zero surprise to anything that happens. It takes nearly half of the film, for instance, for the characters to catch up to what we know has been happening all along simply due to watching a few of these Orlac-styled films. At all points, you are able to easily predict exactly where the film is going.
Certainly, there are some plus aspects to Tell-Tale. Michael Cuesta directs with a quiet intimacy and the film takes place in personal conversations rather than loud confrontations. It gains an enormous amount out of the presence of the increasingly underrated Josh Lucas. The role of Terry is one that could be filled with any actor and, as written, is a cut-out one of no particular distinction. However, Lucas and Michael Cuesta succeed in giving the part unexpected depths and roundedness. The film climaxes on a fine scene where Josh Lucas is placed in a bath of ice as surgeon Dallas Roberts comes, puts a hand holding a scalpel into the water and starts cutting, before he decides to inject Lucas with a fatal dose of potassium chloride. It is a scene that approaches the similar bathtub climax of What Lies Beneath (2000) in terms of nasty tension, being aided by a particularly chill performance from Dallas Roberts.
Director Michael Cuesta had previously made films about troubled youth with the likes of L.I.E. (2001) and Twelve and Holding (2005). Within genre material, Cuesta also made the unsold tv pilot for Babylon Fields (2007) about zombies. Screenwriter David Callaham has also written Doom (2005), Horsemen (2009), The Expendables (2010) and Godzilla (2014). Interestingly, Tell-Tale is produced by the Scott Free production company of brothers Tony and Ridley Scott.