11 December 2013

The Vincent Price Collection: Pit and the Pendulum

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson. Starring Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders.

I should move faster on the films in Shout! Factory’s Vincent Price Collection Blu-ray set. But once Halloween drifts past, you can’t spend all your time on horror films. And now it’s December. Oh well.

Anyway, moving on.… Now that the House of Usher has fallen, it’s time to lower the pendulum.

(To be a stickler about the title, although advertised as The Pit and the Pendulum, the onscreen title has no first “The,” and therefore I will treat it as such.)

Pit and the Pendulum, the second of the Corman-AIP-Poe cycle, faced a larger adaptation problem than The Fall of the House of Usher. Where Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” contains enough story to create a beginning-middle-end structure, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is more typical of the author’s adherence to storytelling economy. Essentially, the short story is a great finale for a movie, but has nothing before that. Screenwriter Richard Matheson needed to craft an original opening and middle in order to create a full movie. What he devised feels like Poe, with a man character dropping down into madness, and it stays within the Spanish Inquisition setting of the short story and its emphasis on torture. I don’t beleive a better feature length film could be fashioned from the material.

For those unfamiliar with the original story (go read it now!) it’s a masterful piece of suspense featuring a single unnamed character who is trapped in a chamber where he endures three death traps. That’s all. Nobody ever forgets the story, however, because of the agonizing terror of the second trap, a slowly descending blade swinging on a pendulum, coming nearer and nearer to slicing through the heart of the helpless prisoner with each pass. A century and a half of torture-related literature and film arose from this scene.

The movie, uhm, executes its equivalent sequence brilliantly. Pit and the Pendulum lacks the fiery close of House of Usher, but seeing Vincent Price in full madman mode, relishing the dropping of the death blade—yes, it’s a blast. And tense, even for modern viewers. The scene also gave Price his signature iconic image. The actor never had a strong association with a particular character the way Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff did, but he had a powerful connection to his look in Pit and the Pendulum, cowled in inquisitor’s robes beside a devilish torture device.

However, the final shot of the movie is its most shocking and horrifying moment. Nope, won’t spoil it, because it isn’t something from Poe. Great touch, Mr. Matheson.

Matheson’s new tale leading up to the pendulum climax has many similarities to The Fall of the House of Usher. A young man arrives at a castle, searching for a woman. He meets the skittish and strange master of the house, who reveals that something horrible has happened, but also acts deceptive. The young man in this case is Francis Barnard (John Kerr, a far better actor than Mark Damon in the similar role before), and he has come to see about his sister Elizabeth, whom he learned died abruptly. Elizabeth’s husband, Nicholas Medina (Price) warily explains that she died of a blood disease a month ago, although Barnard realizes that the man is hiding something

Barnard decides to stick around to dig up the truth. The truth unfortunately involves Medina going bonkers because of his father’s sadistic history as a master torturer, and a scheming plot between two of the other characters that ends up doing no one a bit of good. Edgar Allan Poe—you thought this was going to end up happily?

Price played an understated role Usher, but he launches into full scenery-chewing here, and that’s just as fun. Although starting as a sympathetic figure, Don Medina eventually throws all that out when the madness takes over and he never looks back. Barbara Steele, in a small but juicy part (she just had her breakout role in Europe from The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday), adds to the fun of the final act—the movie could have used much more oh her, but the nature of the role made that impossible.

Although not made on an appreciably bigger budget, Pit and the Pendulum looks larger and more expansive than The Fall of the House of Usher because the production crew was able to re-use sets from the earlier film while building new ones. This explains why the Corman-Poe films keep looking more expensive as the series progressed. The movie continues the hallucinogenic visual style for the flashbacks and nightmares, and the music score from Les Baxter takes a turn for the atonal and odd. It’s one of the best score Baxter wrote for the series.

However, despite its fame within the Corman-AIP-Poe canon, Pit and the Pendulum impressed me much less this viewing than the first time I saw it. Arriving in the wake of The Fall of the House of Usher weakens it a touch, since the earlier film works on a more psychologically subtle level, and yet contains the more blazing finale. Price brings an enormous amount amusement to his performance as Don Medina, but I’m discovering more and more how much I enjoying his acting range in his more constrained parts.

Next in the Vinnie Blu-ray vault, I’ll look at The Haunted Palace, which despite it’s Poe poem title, is really an H. P. Lovecraft adaptation.

Odd personal story: When I first read “The Pit and the Pendulum” in fifth grade, I thought it took place in Ohio. I didn’t know there was a city called “Toldeo” in Spain.