Tuesday 22 February 2011

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Having enjoyed Vincent Price in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, I decided to make it a double-feature with THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.  Made three years earlier, this was the second in the justly renowned series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures (AIP).  The series is noted for its style and imagination, impressive sets and design, vivid use of colour and scripts that were superior to most genre pictures of the time.

In actual fact the connection to Poe is nominal in this case, the story being devised by Richard Matheson (him again).  Nevertheless, some very Poe elements are in there: isolated, gloomy and rambling old house; tormented master of the estate; depraved family history; young intruder; premature burial; madness and death.  Heady stuff indeed.

Even before the opening titles have been revealed there is a striking abstract sequence which (I presume) uses coloured lights and oils:

This is typical of the Poe / Corman series and in a way symbolises their atmosphere: lurid, dreamlike and disturbing.  These films aren't frightening in the sense that, say, THE EXORCIST or even THE FOG are frightening.  In fact one could argue that, much like the Hammer films, when viewed today they aren't frightening in any sense.  However, unlike the Hammer films which tend to rely on nostalgia and fond recollection for their impact, Corman's films retain some of their original power because the 'monsters' are human beings.  Poe's characters were sickly, obsessed people whose depravity was only thinly masked by their aristocratic breeding.  Indeed, in some cases their aristocratic background was the cause of their problems.

I understand that the budget was higher for these films than was normally the case with AIP which is undoubtedly why they still look impressive today.  Although the modern audience would be able to instantly identify the matte shots (where live-action footage is combined with a painting on glass to form a composite image) they are still impressive for the skill with which they have been executed.  There is a good example in the opening sequence:

Here the beach and sea are live-action but the cliffs, castle and sky are painted.  Quite obviously not real but a superb image all the same.  There is another fine example in the climactic pit and pendulum sequence:

Again, the actors are shot in the normal way and the footage is integrated with the painting of the pit and surrounding building to great effect.

Similarly, the sets - which to the modern eye will look like imitations - have been designed and constructed with flair and skill.  Corman obviously spent his money well because there are lots of different sets and they are on a large scale, which helps to create the impression of a vast and perhaps not entirely explored castle.  I suspect they are intended to represent Nicholas Medina's (Vicnent Price) mind, or at least his subconscious mind.  As the camera prowls down empty corridors and down dusty staircases, into cobwebbed chambers and dungeons, the narrative is simultaneously taking us into Medina's nightmarish memories.

Incidentally, during a couple of flashback sequences, we do actually enter Medina's past and this is indicated by an eerie use of colour:

There's a lot to enjoy in the Poe / Corman series; the best is probably THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH but this one is also excellent.  Medina's final descent into madness, the brink of which he has been teetering on since the film began, is at once chilling and pitiful.  For cinephiles there is also plenty to look out for.  Barbara Steele, who plays Medina's wife, is another genre movie icon.  She starred in Mario Bava's debut feature THE MASK OF SATAN and possessed one of the most striking faces in all of cinema.

I saw her interviewed by Mark Gatiss in his recent documentary series on horror and she still looks terrific.  She was described once as 'the only woman whose eyebrows could snarl' which is a great expression.  Also in the cast is Luana Anders who most people won't know but she had small roles in a lot of good films in the 1960s and '70s.  She was a member of the AIP stock company and was good friends with Jack Nicholson.  She died in 1996 but Nicholson saw fit to mention her in his Oscar acceptance speech the following year.  The aforementioned art direction was by Daniel Haller, who went on to direct films in his own right, including the flawed but interesting H. P. Lovercraft adaptation THE DUNWICH HORROR.

I can't resist closing this piece with a still of the film's final, haunting image:

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