09 October 2011

SICK, SICK UNTO DEATH

For their very next Edgar Allan Poe adaptation after the surprise hit House of Usher, Roger Corman and American International Pictures went all the way around to the other side - one of the reasons that "The Fall of the House of Usher" makes so much sense as a movie story (and the reason why it has been adapted so much more often than Poe's other prose) is that it is a concrete series of events with well-defined characters. There's not much else in his horror canon that meets that definition, though, and if AIP wanted a lot more Poe movies - as they certainly did - it was going to take some imagination to make that happen.

At any rate, the next film in the Poe cycle was Pit and the Pendulum (that missing "The" fucks me up something terrible), which as I have suggested, is all the way around from House of Usher - for "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a singularly plot-free story even by Poe's standards, consisting solely of the fractured memories and sensations of an unnamed man who finds himself sentenced to death by the Inquisition, locked in a cell with a deep pit in the center and a large blade swinging from the ceiling. Its horror, which is not inconsiderable (it is, to me, far and away the most unnerving of Poe's stories) is based almost completely in the descriptions of the sounds and feelings of that cell.

Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson (a holdover from Usher as was, in fact, most of the crew) did what is, in retrospect, the only likely thing to do: they used that setpiece - for a setpiece is all that the story was - as the climax of an original story, though "original" is a term used advisedly, for in the event Pit and the Pendulum feels a whole lot like the plot of their House of Usher, not a remake so much as it is a remix, let us say. The film ends up being very nearly as good, and better in some respects; and it is perhaps the more important of the two, for while Usher demonstrated the viability of a Poe adaptation as such to the highly mercenary AIP bosses, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, Pit and the Pendulum proved that it would be possible to keep making the damn things as long as you used a title and at least one plot element from the author's prodigious body of work.

As with Usher, the new film begins with a man traveling to a decrepit old building miles from nowhere in search of a woman: in this case, a certain Francis Barnard (John Kerr) visits the home of Spanish nobleman Nicolas Medina (Vincent Price, naturally), during the days of the Inquisition. Barnard has come upon the death of his sister, Medina's wife Elizabeth (legendary horror queen Barbara Steele), suspecting foul play. Medina and his sister Catherine (Luana Anders) both allude vaguely to a blood disorder, an answer that serves only to increase Barnard's certainty that some dark secret is in the offing. At dinner, the Medina family doctor, Charles Leon (Anthony Carbone) reveals the truth: Elizabeth died of a heart attack caused by extreme fright, following a period of decline during which she grew obsessed with the castle's torture chamber in which there is found, you will be shocked to learn, a deep pit next to a pendulum with a sharp blade on it.

Barnard doesn't believe this story any more than he believed the bit about the blood disorder, but as he spends time probing about, he discovers the real secret: Nicolas, who has suffered since childhood from a fear of premature burial - following a terrible incident between his deranged, psychopathic father and his mother - is convinced that Elizabeth wasn't entirely dead when she was walled up in a brick cell, after the fashion of the Medinas. Barnard is sufficiently appalled at this suggestion to believe that it explains Nicolas's obvious discomfort and paranoia; certainly, the nobleman's growing conviction that Elizabeth is not only alive, but stalking around the castle argues in the strongest terms that whatever happened to her, Nicolas isn't a murderer.

The explanation is far more prosaic than either a premature burial or a ghostly bride stalking the castle, but the truth is enough to drive Nicolas's fragile mind over the edge; and now his not-very-dead and not-very-faithful wife finds herself on the wrong side of a man with a firm conviction in his family's genetic tendency towards evil and a room just crammed full of wonderful torture devices. And at last, we arrive at the meat of Poe's original story, though of the two primary details involved (the devices of the pit and the pendulum, and the protagonist as a victim of the Inquisition), one of them doesn't even make it in. But the imagery is there, and the imagery is what counts.

The biggest single problem with Pit and the Pendulum is how redundant it feels with House of Usher: Price is playing effectively the same character (a fragile, dismal nobleman who is convinced that the sins of his forefathers have damned him) until the last ten minutes, Francis Barnard is different from Philip Winthrop mostly in that he's more snappish and less sympathetic, the plot once again hinges on a premature interment (which, to be fair, is true of something like 70% of all Poe's fiction, and thus makes an obvious trope to run to in crafting a neo-Poe story), and several of the sets are rather familiar from the original movie - though not as obviously so as one might expect.

Even that is relatively minor as problems go, and virtually every other aspect of the film is just as good-to-great as it was in Usher - and the acting, at least is a considerable improvement, outside of Price himself, who doesn't come all the way alive until the last scene (though even on autopilot, Vincent Price is still a lot of fun to watch). It is criminal how little Barbara Steele is given to do, but we can't have everything.

Corman's direction is a bit more fluid and clever; having done a Poe already, he used the opportunity to experiment this time, and the results are pretty great: the Expressionist flashbacks, with heavy tinting and peculiar atmospheric effects, add an extra layer of uncanny atmosphere on top of the Gothic extravagance imported over from Usher. Beyond which, he and cinematographer Floyd Crosby get that much more out of the visuals by means of some fairly baroque camera angles, by the standards of an AIP production. If Pit and the Pendulum doesn't manage to be quite as impressively atmospheric as its predecessor, it's perhaps because the original story doesn't have the same sense of universal corrosion as Poe's work - and this is maybe for the best, given that Poe's sense of a rotten world came from a rather dark place in his brain, and it speaks well of Matheson and Corman that they weren't able to attain the same sense of hopelessness.

Still, Pit and the Pendulum captures exactly its predecessor's greatest achievement: it is every bit a B-movie, with all the directness and lack of pretense that implies, and yet it is treated with absolute care and gravity by people anxious to do right by Poe's incontestably sincere approach to his tales of the weird and uncanny. It was done so well, in fact, that this film did even bigger business than the first one, and led AIP to commit themselves to an entire series of Poe adaptations, though they would quickly move away from the ultimately limited model provided by the first two pictures in that series.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

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