Monday, November 15, 2021

American Gothic Week: I felt every fiber in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery


PIT AND THE PENDULUM

1961
Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Richard Matheson (with one scene toward the end somewhat based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe)

Spoilers: moderate; high for the original short story


It wasn't supposed to be a franchise, but even in 1961 Roger Corman knew as well as anybody that nothing succeeds like success, and usually in the form of a knock-off.  Such would be the extremely uncharitable but not for that reason inaccurate (or even all that unfair) summation of Pit and the Pendulum, the film that arose in the aftermath of House of Usher's remarkably large box office take and Corman's subsequent decision (no doubt pushed hard in precisely that direction by his bosses at AIP, James H. Nicholson and Samuel A. Zarkoff) to do another adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe.  In casting about for a second Poe story, it is both counter-intuitive and the most natural thing in the world that Corman and his screenwriter, Richard Matheson, settled upon "The Pit and the Pendulum": counter-intuitive because it really is barely a narrativeor if it is a narrative, then it's the narrative of a setpiece from a Saw filmbut natural nevertheless, because it is, you know, fuckin' metal.  Like, literally metal, as attached to the descending pendulum in the darkened chamber in Poe's story is a big razor-sharp blade that will, at length, and only a small piece at a time, slice our bound and helpless hero in half.  So you can see the appeal.  (Not to sound too bloodthirsty, but perhaps it would be more appealing still if it didn't end in a deus ex machina; it surprises me every time I've ever read it that Poe's protagonist survives.  I have to say, this somewhat collapses the philosophical suggestions of the piece, which is after all about a man given a choice between waiting for his torturers to bring out the pendulum and seeking the solace of the other prominent feature of his pitch-black prison, a depthless pit that, instinctually, terrifies him even more.  Without ending in death, it seems like Poe's just saying, "check out this gnarly shit, bro!"which doesn't mean it isn't pretty great regardless.)

It would be, in any case, a very sound way to end any horror flick, and so indeed does it end Pit and the Pendulum, with a very horrifying pendulum.  (Its pit, frankly, leaves something to be desired: the pendulum platform raised above a dark and damp dungeon floor makes for a great matte shot, but the "pit" is barely even enough of a fall to plausibly kill the two people who die in it, and it mainly just seems like none of the castle's designers cared about making their chamber of horrors a safe workplace for their torturers.)  But my point: "The Pit and the Pendulum's" actual text, even anything alike enough to its text to be called Pit and the Pendulum, could only ever be an endingwell, there's probably some art film treatment that does something else, but that was never going to be the goal hereand to the extent that Poe implies some manner of hazy backstory for his protagonist, Matheson doesn't even use that, instead just looking to his own screenplay for House of Usher.  And not, necessarily, even Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."


This is a standard line of criticism, and if I started listing the elements that wind up copied from Usher into Pit, it would get tiresome quickly.  Yet somehow in the execution it isn't merely "not a problem," it's something of an actual strength: less a formulaic extension and more a conscious and deliberate variation upon a theme.  Just about every element that gets recycled has a certain spin put on it so that it winds up with a distinct resonance.  Even the castle, which is largely a re-use of the sets that comprised the Usher mansion, is never at all obvious about this fact.

It begins, however, almost identically, with only the geographic imagery being different, as a young Englishman named Francis Barnard (John Kerr) travels a bleak Spanish seaside towards a forbidding fastness built high upon a promontory.  This is the palace of Don Nicolas Medina (Vincent Price), his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and, until recently, his late wife, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele).  Barnard is Elizabeth's brother, and he's come a long way to be here, having taken umbrage at the tardy and vague notification that Nicolas sent regarding his sister's passinghe is incensed to learn that Elizabeth died fully three months agoand he plainly suspects more than just an illness.  The weak assertions made by Nicolas, Catherine, and the family doctor Leon (Anthony Carbone) only heighten those suspicions.

But the truth may be even more brutal than the murder Barnard imagines.  Nicolas has been shattered by his wife's demise, and even hard-hearted Barnard eventually comes to accept that he's not just putting on an act as family secrets are slowly revealed, particularly those regarding Nicolas's dreadful father, Sebastian (also Price), who tortured his mother to death before his son's eyes, finishing the job by walling Nicolas's mother within her crypt while she still lived, and still screamed for mercy.  It is this trauma, in combination with his wife's sudden deathnot coincidentally, at the end of a long and debilitating obsession on her part with Sebastian's tools of torturethat has sent Nicolas right against edge of madness.  Though still clinging feebly to reason, he's been reduced to utter frailty, barely able to withstand Barnard's hectoring without openly weeping.  What he fears the most of all, though, is that Elizabeth wasn't deadand that he, like his father before him, buried his wife alive.  And Barnard has prodded him so much that even when Barnard decides that perhaps it's a cruelty to continue harassing a grieving and pitiful man, Nicolas sees no other option to dispel his fears than to prove them wrong by wrenching open Elizabeth's tomb, and what he discovers will drive him into terror beyond all human endurance.  Yet even that is not the end of Nicolas's ordeal.  It is not too much to say that at the end of his journey, he finds his father waiting for him, along with his father's toys, particularly a certain bladed pendulum suspended over a certain pit.


So you can see what I mean, in that it's basically the exact same structure as House of Usher except more complicated.  Yet almost everything that's the same zigs here rather than zags, starting with Price's performance: "a fey aristocrat reduced to dysfunction and insanity" describes both Roderick Usher and Nicolas Medina, but Nicolas is allowed to be profoundly sympathetic (and in possession of at least vaguely human coloring), before the horror finally drives him into Price's more customary smirking-while-he-commits-atrocities mode.  Roderick was more genuinely dangerous than Nicolashe was a villain with a worldview, however warped and horrible that worldview wasand I have little doubt that he presented a more significant acting challenge than Nicolas.  Yet I prefer Price as Nicolas anyway; he may be my very favorite Price performance of them all, in fact, perhaps because it is such archetypal Price, no matter which direction you approach him from.  Price, of course, is esteemed for the joy he brought to his sinister roles, and for the macabre tone of his deliverythe mocking laughter that always seems to fill his voice when he played a scenery-chomping villain and even when he simply narrated a spooky taleand Pit absolutely delivers on that in the end, in huge heaping bucketfulls of Price doing and saying things that are highly frowned-upon, but pretty fun anyway when it's him.

But Nicolas trades on aspects of his persona and physicality that might be undervalued.  Price had one of the single most interesting faces a camera ever photographed, and it was a face of strange handsomeness, built for an affable, theatrical cruelty, sure.  But it was also a face built for utter psychic devastation, and the bulk of Pit entails Price wandering slumped in a dressing gown through every shot and through the endless labyrinth of Nicolas's own mindCorman amped up the Fruedianism even more this time around, and it turns out he's very eager to point out for you the vaginal quality of the Medina castle's corridors and doors, which I find it best to ignore.  I prefer to focus upon the more inchoate visual ideas animating Pit, like the cutaways to crashing ocean waves or the architectural symbolism of dungeons within dungeons and crypts where secrets are buried, or even the opening and closing credits with their chaotic running dyes in kaleidoscopic Eastmancolor, which do have a certain uncontrollable and even biological aspect (moreso, anyhow, than this castle's extremely normal doors).  Price, in any event, with the way his eyes seem to curve downward out of their sockets, essays an almost flawlessly naked griefa little overwrought, but it's Price and it's a Poe movie, and it's only a shame that I'm not sure Price could cry on command, as he never actually drops tearbut in any given shot, it truly looks as if Nicolas is so wracked with sadness that Price's face is in danger of melting off.


The other actors help, but in the strangest manner possible, mostly as a form of human negative space.  I don't for a second pretend this was on purpose; it has a lot more to do, I'm sure, with AIP's policy of paying for one (1) day of rehearsal, explaining why every non-Price actor can barely scrape up enough competence to remember their lines.  Yet it affords a fascinating, almost subjective approach to Nicolas's isolation, as Price's raw humanity is abraded further by the consolations of a bunch of robots who seemingly need to remind themselves to pretend to give a shit about his feelings, whereas Kerr won't even pretend; Kerr, instead, spends almost every single second that he's onscreen narrowing his eyes like he's legally blind and using his every curt line read to bite his brother-in-law's head off for, basically, just grieving in a way that makes him, a guest in his house, uncomfortable.  It is, however, not as monotonous an exercise as I might make it sound: for starters, Kerr's brusqueness is so extreme that it's almost comic relief; and there are precious grace notes in Price's work, too, like the way he regains just enough of his senses to begin laughing at his own descent into madness, but his wan sense of humor is only replaced by an even keener fear.  Of course, the pinnacle moment is his, too: Nicolas's shout of "TRUUUUE!" upon the film's first climactic reveal, and his retreat from the horror of it, whispering "true! true! true!" as he does.  And he might well have gone mad at the sight of it!  It's probably the scariest thing I've ever seen in any 60s horror film (not the highest bar, but still): it's a briefly-seen grue shockCorman still gets two jump-scares out of it, in other words, his money's worthbut it truly embodies the phrase "detestable putrescence," even if that is a different Poe story.

That brings us to the craftspeople who built this Pit, Corman managing for his spiritual sequel to reassemble the whole gang from Usherproduction designer Daniel Haller, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and composer Les Baxter and even editor Anthony Carras and costume designer Marjorie Corso (both of whom I neglected to mention last time).  It's a more robust production than Usher, which had demanded a certain stillness in any case, but also didn't have the lessons of any previous film to draw upon.  The Medina castle is more of a decaying wreck than even the Usher abodea darker, dirtier, older place, once opulent but in an even more pronounced decline.  It is, for example, much cobwebbier.  Likewise, the portraiture that adorns the walls this time, though more credibly of its period, is somehow more malevolent, with gentle Nicolas expressing his inner darkness through pretty paintings of himself and his beautiful wife with cruel, coal-black eyes.  All along, Crosby films it with a greater confidence in his gloom and shadow and firelit passageways.  The final setpiece with the pendulum is a wickedly thrilling thing, constructed out of chaotic shots of the blade and shadows and Price's grin and random, maddening colorsand if anything resembles the pit of Poe's story, it is the soaring black void from which the pendulum is hung.  The disinterment of Elizabeth is almost as affectingand both benefit from striking sound design, riddled with the unnerving hollowness of scraping metal.  Baxter's score itself is an eccentric one, hybridizing the expected Gothic horror music with bizarre electronic impositions.  From time to time, Corman gets up to Expressionist tricks out of a silent film, with the aforementioned color filters and distorted images; at one point, he even uses a curious "pathfinding" effect across a black Pavavision frame while young Nicolas (Larry Turner) dungeon crawls in a flashback, making that whole "labyrinth of his mind" thing artfully literal.  It's a great-looking movie overall, even the most quotidian scene punched up with unusual ideas about how to frame the actors; and Corman, either to distinguish this from Usher or perhaps because making the same movie twice got him antsy, frequently deploys the camera as the stalking gaze of an unseen enemy.


That turns out to be appropriate, and, unfortunately, it's where Pit fucks itself: Matheson, God knows why, resolved that this tale must have a twist.  It is an overly-convoluted twist, and, not to put too fine a point on it, an astoundingly stupid one.  It feels slightly like somebody lost their nerve, and couldn't contemplate a purely psychological horror film where the story detached from reality as fully as its victim-antagonist (it is ambiguous, at least, as regards what ghostly occurrences are definitely another agency and what might be prefigurations of Nicolas's own insanity).  But it redeems itselfeven if I'm not sure it wholly redeems itselfwith a superb final shot gag, full of horrible poetic justice that, I suppose, could not have been arrived at any other way.

Pit surprised me this time throughI confess that until rewatching it a few days ago, I held that standard opinion, "a more-or-less successful but slightly-threadbare retread of Usher."  But of the several films I've rewatched for this project, it's the one that's risen most in my estimation.  The neck-and-neck excellence of the best AIP Gothics makes it almost impossible for me to really pick a favoritethere are at least four that I think are right on the edge of being minor masterpieces, and so close to one another that they're virtually equalbut if you strapped me to a table and threatened to spend a few hours terrifying me and another few hours disemboweling me unless I named one single film the best... well.  I suppose then I'd choose Pit and the Pendulum.

Score: 9/10

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