The Metal Minute Awarded 2009 Best Personal Blog By Metal Hammer Magazine

Monday, October 20, 2008

Halloween Hoardesfest: It's All How You Slice It... The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)



In my interview a couple years ago with director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak) we touched on his remake of Edgar Allan Poe's immortal horror yarn "Pit and the Pendulum" and one thing we discussed was how the sharpened iron pendulum is a character unto itself within the story. I couldn't agree with him more as I've always felt that dreaded swinging death trap is one of the most insidious weapons ever conceived, so much you understand why Poe chose it as a muse. The fact it sways in such large, menacing quarter arcs spells out doom in a tediously prolonged fashion, even more so than Freddy Kruger dragging his steel hand knives along boiler pipes or even one of those hedonistic pay-to-kill slobs in the Hostel films who torture their victims just for the sheer experience.

The villainous pendulum in the 1961 version of The Pit and the Pendulum starring Vincent Price is saved until the final hurrah after Price's character Nicholas Medina has gone stark raving mad following a jarred seizure and mindwarp that turns him into a grand inquisitor that resided in his mansion ages before, and whose spirit is believed to still linger. One might infer this is the Marquis de Sade, had the story not been set in Spain. Living atop a subterranean torture garden filled with snarling gargolyes, ancient paintings of hooded occultists, an iron maiden and other torture devices, Medina snaps into his murderous alter ego Sebastian and cranks the scary-as-hell pendulum into action with his brother-in-law Francis Barnard (John Kerr) strapped helpless beneath the swooshing blade of death that inches closer and closer to wholly bisecting him.

Okay, for modern-day seen-it-all horror audiences and particulary a younger generation accustomed to watching over-the-top dragged-out snuff scenes, The Pit and the Pendulum is probably tame stuff, and that's a crying shame. Famed director Roger Corman (who tackled quite of a bit of Poe in his sixties horror classics) had an elegance and style to his craft, be it his pre-Victorian sets, sophisticated casts (almost always with the master Vincent Price in the lead) and Corman's films possessed the grace to charm you and tug confused sympathy out of you from various characters. In this one, you don't know if you really like Francis Barnard since he's smug and a pompous ass, but you understand full well his mistrust of the elusive situation he's contending with when searching for answers to the death of his sister. You then feel his plight 100% when he's within inches of being gutted by the pendulum as his previously timid and foppish brother-in-law has mentally snapped, donned executioner's robes and submitted him to a fearful and drawn-out death. The guillotine was horrifying enough, but as a victim you at least knew death would be swift, assuming the blades were probably sharpened.

Twilight Zone writer and director Richard Matheson, one of the greatest contemporary horror and sci-fi scribes who walked in his time, rearranged Poe's story (using mostly the pendulum sequence from which to build his own tale) to drag it out to an hour twenty, and still the film feels moderately faithful despite. One thing you have to wonder about Poe is his lingering dread of being buried alive or even having bodily remains hauntedly call out to their leads, be it in "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado" or "The Fall of the House of Usher." In Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum, Vincent Price's Nicholas is badgered by the soul of his deceased wife Elizabeth, which is played out via Matheson's penned hidden love tryst.

Nicholas keeps hearing her voice within the dungeons and is wracked with guilt, so much he is prompted to smash down a wall he knows hides what he believes are the skeletal remains of Elizabeth. When a sinewy corpse is indeed found, Nicholas is so distraught he slips into a deep depression that leaves him so vulnerable he finds Elizabeth again after hearing her voice from the beyond, and this time he finds her quite fleshy and rising from her crypt to stalk him. Petrified, Nicholas slips down a flight of concrete steps and then into catatonia, where the underlying plot of the not-so-dead-after-all Elizabeth's deception is revealed. Not only is she quite alive, she is having an affair with the family doctor, Dr. Leon (Anthony Carbone).

Making the mistake of assumption that her husband is dead, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) spitefully unravels her plot to be rid of Nicholas and run away with Dr. Leon. Woe be to her, as Nicholas is far from dispatched, and she's now contending with Sebastian, who recognizes the infidelity on behalf of Nicholas and he nastily declares to make her death a long and unsparing one. Immediately throwing her into the iron maiden, Nicholas/Sebastian next submits Francis to the pendulum after a quick dukereoo. Nicholas' younger sister Catherine (Luana Anders) hears Francis's pleas for help and spurs Dr. Leon into action. Leon and Nicholas scrum, Nicholas falls to his death and Francis is spared, but just barely. The blade nicked him a few times, bearing a thin film of his blood on the blade in a snazzy narrow margin afterpoint.

Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum ends in appropriate Poe fashion as Elizabeth is completely forgotten and left for dead in the iron maiden, thus her ruse becomes reality.

While many liberties were taken with The Pit and the Pendulum in 1961, at least the story is stylish, and even Stephen King has gone on record in noting the corpse discovery scene was so ambitious for its day it set a precedent that would eventually have to be met with the British Hammer series and of course outdone to the nth power by Herschell Gordon Lewis. Between this gory (for 1961 standards anyway) and the viscerally powerful pendulum sequence, Roger Corman and Richard Matheson deserve kudos for reinventing a classic and putting a vogue face to it before getting brute ugly.

No comments: