In his short memoir-cum-authors’ guide, “On Writing”, first published in 2000, the horror novelist Stephen King writes about the development of his love of movies as a pre-teenager when growing up in the late-fifties and early sixties, and he remembers how he and a school friend at the time would regularly visit their local Ritz cinema to search out the latest westerns, biker flicks and horror movies. Among the latter (their favourite out of all the genres they viewed), King and his friend always paid particular attention whenever anything came to town that had been produced and directed by Roger Corman under the auspices of American International Pictures, between 1960 and 1964. These films, although there were only really eight genuine articles ever made, seemed so distinctive in their display -- through their Panavision, Technicolor splendour, of what King accurately calls an ‘hallucinatory eeriness’, and so indicative of a particular filmmaking sensibility, that the young King and his best friend considered them virtually exponents of their own self-contained genre: ‘there were westerns,’ writes the author, ‘there were love stories, there were war stories … and there were Poepictures.’
Amongst the feverishly alluring titles King cites as being his and his school friend’s principle favourites at the time – “The Haunted Palace” (the title of a Poe poem, but actually based on a H.P. Lovecraft tale … but no matter), “The Conqueror Worm” (not actually anything to do with Corman’s cycle but instead AIP’s crafty Poe-themed re-titling of Michael Reeves’ “The Witchfinder General” - but how was a twelve-year-old to have known?) and “The Masque of the Red Death” – one in particular stood out for them. More than any of the others, it seemed, Corman’s 1961 film, “(The) Pit and the Pendulum” exemplified this genre’s knack for taking ‘a standard bunch of Gothic ingredients’ (connected, with one exception, by the scarlet thread of Vincent Price’s heightened performance style) and ‘turning them into something special.’ Indeed, King ends his short appreciation, which is mostly refracted through a lens of childhood nostalgia, by opining that this film above all others ‘might have been the last really great studio horror picture before George Romero’s ferocious indie “The Night of the Living Dead” came along and changed everything forever.’
Such an opinion is surely coloured by the subjective experiences of youth, but it nicely captures the overwhelming sensory impression all these pictures (and “Pit and the Pendulum” in particular) must have made upon young audiences seeing them for the first time in the mid- to late-sixties, projected in all their floridly baroque, narrow-scope widescreen glory at drive-in billings and theatre runs all across the states. Although King labelled these films with the apt moniker ‘Poepictures’, he soon became aware that the works of the nineteenth century author and poet Edgar Allan Poe, which had ostensibly inspired their content, were in themselves but only one small ingredient in the recipe responsible for the series’ sense of artistic unity. King writes: ‘I wouldn’t say [they were] based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, because there is little in any of them which has anything to do with Poe’s actual stories and poems.’ Instead, what unites this cycle of pictures can perhaps better be attributed to a combination of production-related factors that, by chance, add up to more than the sum of their parts, and much of what continues to beguile us about these films today was an unintentional by-product of the circumstances that led AIP's James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff to commission them in the first place.
For one thing Roger Corman’s confidence as a director seems to develop with each one, resulting in the perception of a working method being refined and perfected as the series progresses. Because the production schedule on these films was so rushed (fifteen days were allotted for the entire shoot on “Pit and the Pendulum”, for example), the director retained the services of many of the same key personnel from film to film in order to aid the organisation of the production … such as cinematographer Floyd Crosby and set designer Daniel Haller, who endow each movie with a specifically recognisable visual palette. When he had originally asked AIP for only a slightly expanded budget in order to be allowed to shoot one colour film based on a story of his choice by Poe, instead of two cheap black-and-white quickies filmed back-to-back, as had been his usual practice, Corman hadn’t bargained on the success of the experiment that became “House of Usher” resulting in his being asked to helm a ‘sequel’. But even when he followed up with the even more popular and profitable “Pit and the Pendulum”, still there had been no real intent to capitalise on the phenomena by creating a franchise out of it.
Yet the success of “House of Usher” allowed Corman and his collaborators to increase the level of opulence visible on screen in its follow-up, not just because they now had a slightly larger budget to work with, but because Daniel Haller’s money-saving method of recycling the set flats and props from the first film while adding to them with brand new ones, made sure that the screen was now filled with visual stimulus rather than replicating the rather more Spartan look of the former movie. This was a cost effective way of working which Corman continued to utilise in the run of films that followed (before the cycle eventually upped sticks and moved to Pinewood in England), and it accounts for much of the sense of continuity that can be attributed to them. However, “Pit and the Pendulum” benefits from this approach perhaps more than any other ,despite coming so early in the cycle. The reason for this has to do with a number of other factors that also came together to facilitate its elevated place in the cannon.
“Pit and the Pendulum” was chosen as Corman’s second adaptation because his original first choice, “The Masque of the Red Death” had been pre-empted by the release three years earlier of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”, which the director felt played host to similar visual elements. Poe’s 1842 story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, first published in the annual literary publication The Gift, is one of the author’s most famous evocations of mortal dread, and so was in some respects an obvious second choice. Rather than anything specifically to do with the supernatural, though, the story focuses on relating an account of the tortured state of mind and heightened sensations experienced by an unnamed prisoner after he is sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition and awaits a seemingly inescapable demise, first while bound and at the mercy of painful evisceration from the descending motion of a scythe-like blade attached to a swinging pendulum, and then from by being edged towards a bottomless pit as red hot walls close in upon him from all sides. The story is extremely short and predicates its spine-chilling effect on the re-creation of a sensation of fear in its readers through the method of simply describing it in minute detail, emphasising in the process the mental torment of the awful situation the protagonist is forced to confront. It offers virtually nothing in terms of plot content on which to base a film adaptation though -- and so Corman and returning “House of Usher” screenwriter Richard Matheson were forced to get creative in order to fill their allotted eighty minutes of screen time. Corman remembers how: ‘the method we adopted on “The Pit and the Pendulum” was to use the Poe short story as the climax for a third act, because a two-page short story is not about to give you a ninety-minute motion picture. We then constructed the first two acts in what we hoped was a manner faithful to Poe, as his climax would run only a short time on the screen.”
In fact, what Matheson’s expansion of Poe’s material actually accomplishes is to copy beat for beat the initial story structure of “House of Usher” during an opening act that transposes the action from the 18th Century New England setting of the latter to a Spanish coastal Tudor era location, retaining the first film’s small cast and isolated castle locale while incorporating a perennial Poe theme, returned to by the author time and time again in stories such as “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado”: that of the fear of being buried alive, or else of burying a loved one alive by mistake -- these elements being incorporated into an original story of Matheson’s that rather cunningly uses Poe trappings to disguise a plotline that actually owes more to the twists and turns of Pierre Boileau’s and Thomas Narcejac’s “Les diaboliques" than it does to the Poe tale whose title it appropriates.
Vincent Price is once again placed at the core of this heady Gothic concoction, playing another tormented aesthete driven to madness by a haunted ancestry that reaches out from the past to drag down the last remnants of the present generation through its benighted taint. Matheson doesn’t initially cleave very far at all from his screenplay for “House of Usher”, and the film begins so similarly to its predecessor by having John Kerr’s rather dull central character, Englishman Francis Barnard, arriving by carriage at the bolted door of his brother-in-law Nicholas Medina’s (Vincent Price) Spanish cliff-top castle dwelling, that any viewer of “House of Usher” will feel a palpable sense of déjà vu throughout the early part of the picture, that’s only relieved by the obvious increased level of baroque lushness being displayed by the set dressings across which Corman’s gracefully executed dolly shots glide with exquisite delectation, or which he showcases in a series of wide-angle lens shots that revel in the significantly more ornate status lent to the new sets by Haller’s skills.
We learn that Francis comes here from England, demanding to know the circumstances that pertain to the reported sudden death of his sister Elizabeth. He meets Nicholas’s sister Catherine (Luana Anders), also recently arrived from Barcelona to comfort her brother after the loss of his wife; and Nicholas’s best friend, the physician Charles Leon (Antony Carbone), who actually pronounced Elizabeth dead. But he appears to be greeted with lies and evasion and a series of conflicting stories when he asks about the details of his sister’s mysterious demise, and he is perplexed to learn that her body has been interred, according to an ancient Medina family tradition, in a bricked-up underground casket, deep in the castle’s inner recesses. As the film unfolds the implacable Francis eventually forces into the light, through his insistent rationally minded enquiries, all manner of dark family secrets and deceptions that have lain hidden in the labyrinthine catacombs, vaults and darkened burial chambers of the Medina household for many years, the unearthing of which seem to prey on Nicholas’s irrational fear that his wife was in fact buried alive, which in turn seems to prompt Elizabeth’s restless spirit to return in the form of whispered murmerings in the ear of a disconcerted servant, the sounds of ghostly harpsichord playing which can be heard echoing down the corridors at night, and a violent disturbance in Elizabeth’s perfectly preserved but securely locked room … thus the brother’s search for truth leads only to insanity and death, and, eventually, the re-enactment of a hideous past crime.
Besides the initial set-up (a handsome hero arrives at a remote castle setting and finds a suspiciously morose and secretive Vincent Price cloistered amongst luxurious surroundings that conceal cobwebbed crypts and ghostly happenings in lower recesses) there are a number of other elements used in the plotting of “House of Usher” that are conspicuously retained once again in this second film: the prominent status afforded the family portraits of Nicholas’s ancestors for instance, displayed reverently here above the mantle in his quarters along with a curtained painting of his deceased wife, repeats a motif from the previous film which signalled how the horrors of the past are kept alive by events in the present, almost becoming a physically malign reality in the household as a result. Although the portraits of Nicholas’s father Sebastian and uncle Bartolome which are seen here, despite being colourful and striking, are not rendered with the impressionistic distortions that characterised Burt Shonberg’s work on “House of Usher” (in which it was suggested that Roderick Usher’s ancestors are so criminally and morally deformed that their inner ugliness could not help but burst forth in the disfigured surrealist outpourings of the artist’s technique), they clearly hint at an ancestral malignancy playing a role in answering the question of how and why Elizabeth died, taking the matter beyond surface facts and into the realm of family legend and perhaps inherited psychological dispositions too. Both films also make use of tinted dream sequences, shot in the style of the expressionist silent movies of the 1920s, to peer into the inner mind and background of Vincent Price’s character -- but Corman’s use of the technique is much more sophisticated the second time round, and plays up to the director’s developing interest in Freudian interpretations of Poe’s stories, an implication which had also been present in the first film but is much more forthrightly prevalent here thanks to the way Corman and Matheson choose to structure the material.
On his commentary for the film, Corman mentions that he thinks he should have had the portraits of Nicholas’s father and uncle painted in the same feverish style used to represent the gallery of Usher ancestors in the first film; but, in fact, he gets it right here -- because, for one thing, it is vital for the viewer to be able to see that the sickly, guilt-ridden Nicholas is the physical doppelganger of his tyrannical father Sebastian (a member of the Inquisition who is said to be infamous for his sadistic ruthlessness), a quality which might have been inhibited if the paintings had been rendered in a wildly impressionistic style. Moreover, by toning down the overt weirdness in some areas of the mise-en-scene, Corman is also able to achieve a strange, feverish sense of psychological imbalance that juxtaposes the semi-realism with more outright dream-like fantasy images displayed elsewhere; and that effect, combined with Corman’s conscious effort to suggest the idea that the Medina castle’s various levels -- its upper living quarters, underground catacombs and, still below them, the ancestral torture chambers of Sebastian (who is also played by Price in flashback) -- correspond to Freud’s topography of the mind as it is conveyed in his psychoanalytic theories, with their divisions of ego, superego and id, imbue what on the face of things is a rather stagy, dialogue-heavy three act period melodrama with a sense of there being dark subterranean Freudian undercurrents of repressed sadistic obsession flowing beneath the surface of the events being depicted.
Matheson’s screenplay finds ingenious ways to hint at the repressed sadistic pathology which underpins Nicholas’s character – a man who spends his spare time deep below ground, maintaining the antiquated workings of his deceased father’s most hideous torture instrument. The unseen grinding of the gears of the pendulum with its lethal blade are heard reverberating from behind a shuttered room almost as soon as Francis enters the castle, and Vincent Price’s on-screen introduction is that of a furtive-looking man who, when asked about the strange noise which can be heard coming from somewhere in the room beyond the locked door, merely says that it is ‘an apparatus that must be kept in constant working repair.’ What better way of suggesting a desperately conflicted man who is attempting to deny his own sadistic obsessions while his unconscious mind labours to maintain them? ‘This is my father’s world,’ he proclaims at one point, after being persuaded to show Francis, in the company of his sister Catherine, around the lower chambers; the blood of a thousand men was spilled within these walls.' In attempting to mimic the florid style of Poe’s prose, Matheson also seeds clues as to how Elizabeth’s death is in Nicholas’s mind related to her exposure to ‘the malignant atmosphere of this castle’ and her ‘breathing its infernal air – absorbing the miasma of barbarity which permeates these walls!’ Yet Nicholas’s detailed descriptions of his father’s atrocities (‘limbs twisted and broken, eyes gouged from bloody sockets, flesh burned black’) also suggest excitement mingled with repulsion -- and dreamlike flashbacks, in which Nicholas attempts to paint a romantic image of his idyllic life with Elizabeth, also reveal how her own developing fascination with the lower chambers of torture, before her sudden death, may have sparked the atavistic appetites always dormant within him. The account that closely follows this scene, of the traumas of Nicholas’s childhood, related to Francis by Catherine, in which he witnessed his father, in his medieval dungeon, murder his uncle and then torture his mother for her infidelity (before walling her up still alive in her tomb) is also presented to the viewer through a prism of distorted lenses and optical effects which add up to a visual representation of the unconscious influences which have formed the various levels of Nicholas Medina’s tormented psyche … and just to add to yet another frosting of twisted psychology to proceedings, the major source of identification between Catherine and Francis, in a relationship that never quite develops into the romance you’d normally expect to see in such a film, appears to be their mutual devotion to their respective siblings, which, in this atmosphere at least, cannot help but appear also somewhat suspect …
Corman’s interest in the idea that Poe’s stories were the author’s pre-Freudian attempts to examine the workings of the unconscious mind, and that they in fact anticipated many of Freud’s discoveries, was rooted in his affinity with 1960s drug culture ideas about the significance of altered states of reality in general. His attempts in “Pit and the Pendulum” to suggest visually the concept of an orderly surface reality gradually becoming disrupted by the repressed portions of the psyche bursting forth, manifest themselves in an opening sequence which prefigures the countercultural psychedelic imagery of his 1967 film “The Trip”, with Francis’s arrival at castle Medina being set against a backdrop of crashing waves against a cliff’s edge (always a potent metaphor for the uncharted regions of the mind struggling to break through), strange echo chamber percussive scrapings on the musical soundtrack by Les Baxter, and the incorporation into the realistic beach cliff scenery of a fantastical matte painted Gothic castle, provided by an un-credited Albert Whitlock.
Later, the traditional Gothic imagery of the dark and stormy night, with its violent waves crashing against craggy rocks, brooding thunder storms, and flashes of lightning illuminating the silhouette of castle Medina against a turbulent painted backdrop, becomes an equally strong metaphor for the violent emotions being unleashed by the macabre events that are by then transpiring within the castle walls. Corman even anticipates the acid-soaked lava lamp imagery of psychedelia in the optical photographic effects created by Ray Mercer, which are made the first visual impressions the viewer encounters. Being a disciple of Freud, Corman was keen to include visual symbolism suggestive of Freudian psychology in the movie, hence its preponderance of long twisting corridors and gaping doorways. The twin influences on the narrative of Freud and Poe finally come together in the scene in which Nicholas’s physician Dr Leon decides it would be ‘therapeutic’ for Nicholas to see Elizabeth’s crypt opened up in order to prove that she is still interred there: the journey through the long dark tunnel to the bricked-up crypt entrance and the ensuing images of pick axes smashing a hole through into the burial chamber is obvious enough in its Freudian implications, while the themes of madness, premature burial, obsessive desire and repressed guilt which permeate the works of Edgar Allan Poe are all encapsulated in the mostly off-screen figure of Elizabeth Medina. This pivotal character only appears in a couple of scenes, which amount to no more than about two minutes of screen time in total, yet Barbara Steele’s performance, her first appearance in a colour Gothic horror film, is almost as memorable as her iconic debut in Mario Bava’s “Black Sunday” the year before. Corman includes here all the associational elements which made the Bava film such an instant classic, and Steele an enduring horror star – the necrophilic mixture of sexual allure and death, and the image of the Iron Maiden torture instrument – and his masterly handling of the sequence in which Nicholas is pursued, almost in slow motion, by Elizabeth’s grinning spectre, who whispers his name and glides malevolently through the maze-like warren of cobwebbed catacombs after her bloody hand is witnessed emerging like a grasping claw from her crypt casket, helped cement Steele’s image (much to the actress’s own chagrin) which was developed during the next few years in a plethora of Italian Gothic horrors by the likes of Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti, many of which were heavily stylistically influenced by Corman’s work, as were many others usually scripted by Ernesto Gastaldi, such as Bava’s “The Whip and the Body”.
After creating such a torrid amalgam of Gothic and Freudian excess, the final ten minutes of the film which are actually derived from the original Poe story The Pit and the Pendulum, are given a lot to compete with -- but Haller’s spectacular art design and Whitlock’s phantasmagorical matte painting turn it into a riotous spectacle of derangement in which Price, his character now completely unhinged by preceding events, gets to indulge in pure melodramatic villainy, taking on the personality of his sadistic father and, mistaking Francis for Sebastian’s brother Bartolome, who was his wife Isabella’s lover (a rather tellingly mistake, given the brother’s own obsession with his sister), attempts to re-enact his torture and murder, suspended above a vast pit beneath a swinging blade.
This luscious looking Gothic classic is given a marvellous new HD transfer for Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release, preserving grain and emphasising colour and contrast just as one would hope. This one is still well up to the UK Company’s usual standard of late, and the 1.0 mono audio is nice and clear throughout, while subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are also included as is an isolated audio track for Les Baxter’s versatile score and the film's sound effects. There are two commentaries: the first by Roger Corman is lucid and insightful in detailing the producer-director’s working methods at the time; while the second, by Video watchdog editor Tim Lucas, is as meticulously detailed and knowledgeable on background information and analysis as one has come to expect from his writing. “The Story Behind the Blade” is a 43 minute making of documentary and appreciation of the film, produced by High Rising Productions, in which Corman and Steele reminisce (interestingly, Steele contradicts some received wisdom about the film, particularly the claim, repeated in Lucas’s commentary, that her voice was re-dubbed by another actress because of her ‘working-class British accent’) while director and fan of the film Brian Yuzna and film historian David Del Valle offer their opinions and insights about the film’s influence on the genre. Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria also talks about her father’s career and his new lease of life on the Poe cycle, which gave him the opportunity to work extensively in England.
When the film was later syndicated for TV in the late-sixties, AIP filmed an extra scene to use as a prologue in order to fill out its two-hour time slot. This sequence, which has nothing really to do with the rest of the film, is included as an extra here, and features actress Luana Anders reprising her role of Caroline Medina, who is made an inmate of a lunatic asylum recalling the events of the film, which are then related as a flashback. A trailer is featured (‘more blood-chilling than Black Sunday’) as is a 50 minute TV special filmed in 1970, and featuring Vincent Price acting out scenarios and reading from four original Poe tales – The Tell Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum. This disc showcases Vincent Price at the peak of his horror career in one of his best Gothic outings, collecting a brilliant set of extras around yet another unbeatable transfer to make this a must have. A Limited Edition Steelbook is available alongside the standard Blu-ray release which contains a reversible sleeve and a booklet of new writing.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!