Monday, October 10, 2011

Ocean in a Seashell

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
directed by Roger Corman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Don't ask me why I waited so long to get to Roger Corman's Poe adaptations. This is his second, after House of Usher. Perusing Corman's directorial credits, I can't believe how few I've actually seen, but it's good to have a movie project to look forward to once October bleeds into winter.

Pit and the Pendulum, like Horror Express, is everything I want from low-budget horror: matte paintings, smart shorthand - Spanish moss because the story is set in Spain! - and beautiful enunciation. John Kerr is a terrible actor but he blunders into Vincent Price with a bully's unyielding insistence, making him the perfect foil for Price's nuanced turn towards madness. Price, as Nicholas Medina, is a man in constant internal anguish and contradiction, effeminate with his fainting spells and truly terrifying when he at last settles into the role of vengeful cuckold. The lurching gait he assumes as the Inquisition's most loyal practitioner is downright diabolical.

A Les Baxter score; a Richard Matheson screenplay; picture credits; Barbara Steele: what kept me away? Flashbacks flicker like silent movies, not bad psychedelia, and that painting of the pit should be seen by anyone who thinks himself a student of scary movies, good architecture, or plain American invention. Specifically, the harpsichord scene is a good example of why Corman, more than a man with an eye for talent, was perfectly capable behind the camera.

Residents of the castle wake in the middle of the night and amass, one by one, in a dark hall. Each hears music, and we assume, as they must, that Nicholas has reprised his former wife's habit of playing a sad song on the piano. The music is eerie; we share in the characters' unease and anticipate a maniacal display of Nicholas' inevitable decline. But just as they approach the den, Nicholas himself bursts from his own chamber, fearful of the sounds from the adjacent room. Everyone jumps, including me, as his sister confirms to her flabbergasted companions that Nicholas can't play a note. Undead!