Friday, August 12, 2011
“The atmosphere is heavy in here...”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In 1955, James H. Nicholson (a former sales manager with Realart Pictures) and Samuel Z. Arkoff (an entertainment lawyer) joined forces to form American Releasing Corp., a motion picture company dedicated to churning out low-budget films targeted to youth audiences jam-packed with action, violence, adult themes and, as a famous fictional studio director once observed, “with a little sex in it.” As executive producers of ARC, Nicholson and Arkoff hired independent directors and producers to crank out the studio’s product — one of whom was a former 20th Century Fox employee named Roger Corman who entertained ideas of breaking into the movie business while toiling in that studio’s mailroom. It was the Corman-produced The Fast and the Furious (Rog also co-wrote the movie) that became ARC’s first official release, and he continued to turn fast, efficient filmmaking into box office gold for what eventually became American International Pictures by April 1956.
With a resume of successful drive-in classics that ran the gamut from Westerns to sci-fi to rock ‘n’ roll, Corman was interested in plowing newer B-picture fields by the start of the 1960s — and he discussed with Nicholson and Arkoff the possibility of making a horror film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Because Poe’s classic horror story was in the public domain, AIP wouldn’t have to pay any royalties and the name recognition of the tale alone would certainly guarantee some degree of audience curiosity, which would naturally translate into fruitful box office receipts. The film, House of Usher (1960), was a huge success (Corman later admitted that “we anticipated that the movie would do well, but not half as well as it did”) — and because nothing succeeds in Tinseltown like success, plans were made to get a second film based on Poe’s work into theaters…a movie that accomplished that very task 50 years ago today. It’s considered to be one of the finest in Corman’s “Poe” series: Pit and the Pendulum (1961).
In 16th century Spain, nobleman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) arrives at the stately castle of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price). Greeted by Nicholas’ sister Catherine (Luana Anders), Francis explains that the reason for his visit is to gain further information about the recent and mysterious death of his sister and Medina’s wife, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). Nicholas explains that it was “something in her blood,” but his evasive manner arouses suspicion in Francis, who announces his intention to stay at Castle Medina until he is fully satisfied with a proper explanation of her demise. When he is told by family physician Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) that Elizabeth’s passing was brought about by a heart attack (she literally died from fright), Bernard’s skepticism continues apace.
Further interrogation of Nicholas prods him to reveal that Elizabeth developed an unhealthy fascination with the torture devices stored in one chamber of the castle, and that her death was brought about by an incident in which she locked herself in an iron maiden. Francis still is convinced that something is amiss, and in talking with Catherine he learns the sordid history of the Medina family: Sebastian, their father, was a member of the Spanish Inquisition and learned one day that his wife Isabella was having an affair with his brother, Bartolome. A young Nicholas just happens to be playing in the torture chamber when his father confronts both wife and brother and, after beating Bartolome with a red-hot poker, he proceeds to torture Isabella to death while a horrified Nicholas looks on.
Dr. Leon disputes the story of Isabella’s torture — he maintains that Sebastian in fact entombed Isabella alive behind a brick wall in the torture chamber. A tormented Nicholas begins to think that he may have done the very same thing to Elizabeth, and when peculiar events continue to take place in the castle (her room is ransacked, a harpsichord plays in the middle of the night) the Medinas and their guests venture down to Elizabeth’s tomb to assuage Nicholas’ fears. Breaking the wall of the tomb and looking inside her casket, they are stunned to see Elizabeth’s frozen corpse, looking as if she had tried to claw her way out after the lid was shut tight.
Learning of his wife’s grisly fate (and an additional plot development that I won’t reveal for the benefit of those who haven’t seen the film) causes Nicholas to become mentally unhinged and convinced that he is his father (Sebastian) and Francis is Bartolome. He straps Francis to a huge torture device in which a swinging pendulum slowly descends from the ceiling to cleave Francis in two. (This exciting climax is the only real connection to the original Poe story, and takes up a small fraction of screen time but is one of the most nail-bitingly suspenseful moments in any classic horror film.)
Edgar Allan Poe devotees are often the most vocal critics of the films in Corman’s “Poe” cycle, believing that the poetic license taken in several of the screenplays deviates too much from the original short stories. In the case of Pit and the Pendulum, the elaboration on the narrative was borne out of necessity — the original version of “Pendulum” is really an incredibly brief treatment about a prisoner being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition. Poe fans often overlook the reality that “Pendulum” the short story often plays fast and loose with historical facts itself but ultimately a fleshing-out of the tale (by the legendary Richard Matheson) was essential to complete a 90 minute film.
Matheson’s original screenplay contained a flashback in which Nicholas and Elizabeth go horseback riding and enjoy a picnic lunch, a sequence that director Corman excised before shooting because he thought it violated the spirit of Poe. However, when the film was sold to ABC-TV in 1968, AIP probably wished that Corman had left the scene in because the network deemed the movie too short for a two-hour time slot and asked the studio to help “pad” the film out. A five-minute sequence was shot by one of Corman’s production assistants and featured Luana Anders’ Catherine (Anders was the only member of the cast who was available for shooting) in a prologue set in an insane asylum, with Catherine relating the story’s events to the inmates. (This footage later turned up on the MGM Midnite Movies DVD release of the movie, though it was branded with the misnomer “Original theatrical prologue.”)
Depending on which source you consult, Pit and the Pendulum was either filmed for a cool million (so says Lucy Chase Williams, author of The Complete Films of Vincent Price) or one-third of that ($300,000, according to Corman) — but most seem to be in agreement that the movie was quickly turned out over the course of 15 days. By this point in his career, “the Pope of Pop Cinema” could shoot films that fast in his sleep — but the lavish-looking production and overall visual quality of the movie owes a lot to Corman’s extensive pre-planning, which he worked on with cinematographer Floyd Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. Corman’s camera movements on Pendulum are among the most fluid of his films, and d.p. Crosby used wide-angle lenses and titled camera angles to accompany Corman’s insistence that the flashbacks experienced by Nicholas be filmed to re-create his hysterical subconscious, which the two men conveyed effectively by filming the scenes in monochrome and then tinting them blue and red to produce the haunting dream-like images.
Haller’s challenge was constructing impressive sets on an AIP budget, and after making sketches and floor plans of what he would need, went on a scavenger hunt at other studios to rent discarded pieces from previous productions — an archway and fireplace at Universal, a stone staircase from elsewhere. The “from scratch” castle was then festooned with about 20 gallons of “cobwebbing” and of course, director Corman made liberal use of fog — otherwise known as “the B-picture director’s best friend.” (The opening shot of Kerr’s carriage ride to Castle Medina was shot on the Palos Verdes coast.) The piece de resistance known as the pendulum was 18 feet long and weighed a ton…and at first was outfitted with a rubber blade, but complications soon developed when it began getting caught on actor Kerr’s chest. The production was forced to switch to a metalized blade covered with steel paint and even though Kerr’s waist had a steel band wrapped around it (the blade had to cut Kerr’s shirt but avoid slicing anything else) it was a hairy situation for the actor…let’s just say the sweat beads breaking out on his forehead weren’t due to his first-rate thespian skills.
To play the part of Nicholas Medina (and also the dual role of his pop, Sebastian) Corman enlisted the services of Vincent Price, who had previously appeared in the director’s first Poe film, House of Usher — Pendulum would be, in fact, Price’s third film for AIP (he had previously appeared in the entertaining Master of the World). Price’s tendency to really chew the scenery in films and TV often resulted in a drubbing from his critics but I’ve always felt that his trademark hammy histrionics works in Pendulum — he is, after all, supposed to be an Edgar Allan Poe character and subtlety is certainly not the watch word here when it comes to Poe. As Medina, Price displays convincing anguish, gravely concerned (and extremely filled with remorse) that he may have been responsible for his wife’s death…but when he learns that this is not so, has lip-smacking fun as his insanity takes over and he swears vengeance on those who have wronged him. Price was supposedly so disturbed by a bad review of his performance in The Los Angeles Times that he dashed off a nasty letter in response to critic Charles Stimson. (He later reconsidered and tossed it in the trash, secure in knowing that his salary of $125,000 and small percentage of the profits of the No. 2 hit at the box office at the time would be ample compensation regardless of what some poorly paid ink-stained wretch thought.)
Pendulum also contains an early performance by cult figure Barbara Steele (though disappointingly, her voice was dubbed in post-production), who was just making a name for herself after appearing in Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (aka Black Sunday) — and it’s interesting to note that Pit and the Pendulum had an enormous influence on Bava (notably The Whip and the Body) and other later Italian horror films such as Castle of Blood (1964), Web of the Spider (1970) and Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975). The rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely in their roles: Antony Carbone was a member of Corman’s “stock company” (A Bucket of Blood, Creature from the Haunted Sea) and Luana Anders, whom Roger met in an acting class taught by veteran character thesp Jeff Corey, would go on to appear in later Corman flicks as The Young Racers (1963) and The Trip (1967). Actor Kerr, who won a Tony Award for Broadway’s Tea and Sympathy (1955) and later appeared in both the 1956 film adaptation and South Pacific (1958), later expressed surprise that more people remembered him from Pendulum than either of those two films…but considering that he was not a particularly remarkable actor he should take the accolades when he can get them.
Pit and the Pendulum improved on the box office take of the previous House of Usher, and with its success AIP committed to a series of Poe-influenced films directed by Corman and starring Vincent Price — the lone exception being Premature Burial (1962), which starred Ray Milland. (I should also point out that 1963’s The Haunted Palace is actually based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft.) All of these films were financially profitable for AIP, and the stylish quality of the productions negates the long-held fiction by certain film snobs that Roger was mostly a B-picture hack. Plus, Pendulum remains my personal favorite of the Corman Poe’s, though people also have made strong cases for the Bergman-esque The Masque of the Red Death (1964; which Roger had originally planned to be the follow-up to Usher) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965), the last movie of the AIP Poe cycle.
Pit and the Pendulum is my favorite for a number of reasons: it’s a superb example of how films need not be produced on opulent budgets if creative filmmaking techniques and extensive planning will more than suffice; it contains a fine performance from Vincent Price, an actor who never really received his due for his contributions to film; and the screenplay by Richard Matheson — moody, witty, literate and Freudian all at the same time — contains one of the best twist endings in the history of cinema. Fifty years ago, Roger Corman may have thought it was just another day at the office in his career — but he created a timeless horror classic that still ia beloved by audiences and admirers today.