Friday, November 1, 2013

Pit and the Pendulum (Alta Vista/American International, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night TCM’s Hallowe’en feature was the final night of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Vincent Price — obviously they selected him because it was October (you wouldn’t do a Star of the Month on Price in April!), which featured three of the six films he made for producer-director Roger Corman’s Alta Vista company, releasing through American International, in the early 1960’s at least nominally based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. After those ended TCM went on to broadcast Price’s deliberately (as opposed to unwittingly) campy 1970’s vehicle The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Twice-Told Tales (an omnibus of three short adaptations of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne — including “The House of Seven Gables,” which Price had already filmed at Universal in 1940!), The Tome of Ligeia (the last of the Price-Corman-Poe series), The Conqueror Worm (a.k.a. Witchfinder General, a non-Poe story given a Poe-derived title for its U.S. release to fit it into the series — and that wasn’t the first time that happened to a Vincent Price movie, as you shall see below) and something called Theatre of Blood. First up was a 1961 film called Pit and the Pendulum — Corman and his writer, Richard Matheson, deleted the first definite article from Poe’s title, just as they’d taken off “Fall of the” from the name of their previous Price-plays-Poe film, The House of Usher. The House of Usher had been an enormous hit, so Corman reunited the key talents from it — himself, Matheson, cinematographer Floyd Crosby (Academy Award winner for the 1931 Murnau-Flaherty Tabu and father of rock musician David Crosby), art directors Ben Carré and Daniel Haller, and of course Vincent Price as star.

One problem facing filmmakers doing films at least nominally based on Poe is that his stories are so short; he only wrote one novel, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (and even that is basically two disconnected halves arbitrarily joined together that comes to a thudding non-ending much like The Blair Witch Project — the first half is a magnificent tale of the title character ending up on a ship commanded by an obsessed captain; though there isn’t a white whale in it it’s surprisingly close to Moby Dick, which wouldn’t be written for another two decades; the second half is a relatively dull story of an exploration in the Antarctic), and the rest of his tales are brief and to-the-point, often written for magazines Poe edited himself. So the problem making a Poe movie is frequently what to add to flesh out Poe’s magnificent anecdotes to the length of a feature film — and Matheson may have been the wrong writer for that assignment because, while he had an excellent reputation for science fiction, like Poe he was a short-story specialist rather than a novel writer. Poe’s story (I’m relying on memory since I haven’t read it in decades) was a simple tale about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition in which the protagonist is trapped in one of the Inquisition’s torture chambers, strapped to the titular device — a stone table above which swings a pendulum with a blade on the end of it that will slice him to ribbons once it descends to the level of his body, which it approaches with excruciating and terrifying slowness — and rescued in the nick of time by rebels fighting the authority of the Church. (Poe wrote his story at a time when one of the principal targets of American racists and other hatemongers was the Roman Catholic Church, and credulous Americans ate up tales of the horrors of the Inquisition and attributed similar behavior to the Catholics of their time.)

Matheson’s gloss turned the protagonist into Francis Barnard (John Kerr), a 16th century Englishman whose sister married a Spanish grandee, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), then suddenly died mysteriously. Francis has come to the Medina manse (a huge castle represented by a glass painting, built on a seashore “played” by Monterey via a stock shot of waves crashing on rocks that Corman used again and again and again). Nicholas, like most of Price’s characters in these films, is on the thin edge of sanity; he’s obsessed with the idea that his dead wife is still haunting their house — at one point he even hears harpsichord music, and so do the rest of the characters, the gimmick of course being that his late wife was an excellent harpsichordist but no one currently alive in the household knows how to play at all — and as Francis questions him about the death in a rough manner that verges on the inquisitorial itself, Nicholas’s stories keep changing. He claims to have witnessed his father Sebastian (long since dead but shown in flashback scenes and, natch, also played by Vincent Price) use the fully equipped torture chamber in their basement to torture his wife (Nicholas’s mother) to death after he caught her having an adulterous affair. Midway through the film there’s a reversal in which it’s revealed that Elizabeth (the magnificent Barbara Steele, fresh from her horror debut in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday), Nicholas’ late wife and Francis’s sister, also was having an affair with Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone), Nicholas’ best friend and the man who pronounced Elizabeth dead, and the two of them (it’s hinted at one point that Elizabeth is still alive, having been hidden all this time by Dr. Leon in a chamber hidden inside the walls of the Medina castle) plotted to drive Nicholas crazy and get him to kill himself so they could be together.

Yet it’s also possible that Elizabeth really is dead and the woman Dr. Leon is in love with is Nicholas’ sister — whom Francis, natch, has fallen in love with as well — and Dr. Leon takes a well-timed plunge off the castle battlements or balcony or something, leaving Nicholas to form the delusion that Francis is the doctor, that his sister is his late wife, and he’s going to have to punish them by torturing both of them to death, locking her in an iron maiden (from which she’s rescued with a surprising lack of long-term damage) and strapping him to the table and starting the pendulum. One thing I hadn’t realized before watching all these Vincent Price movies was that, though when Charles and I had seen his 1946 film Dragonwyck I’d downplayed its status as a horror item and regarded it more as a Gothic romance in the manner of Rebecca and Gaslight, Dragonwyck seems to have had more of a long-term influence on Price’s career than I’d thought: many of his subsequent films, including at least two on TCM’s program last night, cast him as a nobleman of dubious sanity with a murderous secret in his past, and when Price’s wife in Dragonwyck tracks him down to his secret room in the family manse and he says, “I don’t have an altar to Satan in here,” I joked, “Just you wait, Vincent; that will come!” Pit and the Pendulum even copies the bit from Dragonwyck in which Price hears what appears to be the ghost of his dead wife playing music (at a time when recorded music didn’t exist — though I couldn’t help but joke during the harpsichord scene in Pit and the Pendulum, “Oh, that’s our player harpsichord, playing a roll Elizabeth made while she was still alive.”

Pit and the Pendulum is actually an effective horror piece, though it showed off limits in Corman’s approach that would become more obvious in the later two films — there are lots of vertiginous camera movements, a nice shock cut when the principals knock down the castle wall behind which Elizabeth’s body is interred and duly find her (or at least a) skeleton, and effective suspense editing in the final torture scene (along with some really creative use of silent film-style tinting and toning in the flashback scenes in the torture chamber) but surprisingly little use of atmospheric lighting. The color is clear, bright and shows off virtually all the visible spectrum (a far cry from the dirty greens and browns that dominate all too many color films today) but the shadowy semi-darkness invented by German filmmakers in the Weimar era and copied for Universal’s horror classics and also in film noir isn’t seen here. Pit and the Pendulum also suffers from John Kerr’s weakness and woodenness in the juvenile lead — at times one gets the impression that Vincent Price and Barbara Steele are the only people in this film who can actually act — and I couldn’t help but wonder why, when he had the young Jack Nicholson under contract, Corman went to the on-their-way-down freelance pool and cast Kerr instead; the role of Francis needed Nicholson’s manic intensity and got Kerr’s blandness instead. One surprisingly good thing about Pit and the Pendulum is the background music by Les Baxter — yes, that Les Baxter, who did pseudo-“exotica” middle-of-the-road instrumentals that were appallingly banal, and who stuck a score onto the American release of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday that wasn’t much (and, when I saw the film, made me wish I could see the original Italian-language version with subtitles to hear what the film’s Italian composer had done), but who sometimes reached for considerably finer things: Yma Sumac’s star-making album Voice of the Xtabay (an amazing set of arrangements by Baxter showcasing Sumac’s five-octave range and, to my mind, creating a skilful, inventive pastiche of folk melodies into a “classical” piece rivaling Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne), The Passions (an attempt to do Xtabay over again and almost as inventive musically even though stuck with a less interesting singer, Bas Sheva), and this score, strongly in the manner of Stravinsky (and briefly quoting some of the most famous passages from The Rite of Spring and The Firebird) and far more interesting than the moody sludge that usually got stuck onto cheap horror films in 1961.