Tuesday, October 20, 2015

13 Films Of Halloween:


Starring: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe.
Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Roger Corman
Produced by: Roger Corman and James H. Nicholson (American International Pictures)

The 13 Films Of Halloween - Vincent Price Edition - continues with the first of the Roger Corman Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, based on “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”. Roger Corman had been making quickie black & white B pictures for AIP, shot in 10 days (max) which played on double bills with other AIP films in drive ins and grind houses. But Corman convinced AIP to give him 15 days for a color Cinemascope wide screen film based on this classic Poe story, and designed as a stand alone feature which would not be double billed. Budget was under $200,000, which was much much lower than a studio film. The result was a movie that not only played indoor cinemas that usually played big studio films, it also managed to make much more than anyone expected. A huge hit, which had AIP wondering if they should make another Poe adaptation... they ended up making a very successful series, and Roger Corman became a fairly successful director. These films are still great, lush, spooky films... made on a low budget.

One of the things I find interesting about this series is that while big studios were now going out on location and shooting very realistic looking films, these Corman Poe films were shot on sets and look like crazy fever dreams. One of the reasons why they could be made on a budget was that studios had all of these unused sets and pieces of sets - stairways and wall sections - as well as warehouses full of period costumes and props they were not using at the time. Corman and his crew were able to rent all kinds of things that they probably could not have afforded a decade earlier when studios were turning out big period pieces instead of the more contemporary realistic films of the 60s like THE APARTMENT (which won Best Picture that year). And 15 days of costume rentals was still cheap! This gave these films so much production value that AIP could say they cost $1 million and most people believed them. A ticket buyer who saw this film in a cinema thought it looked like a big studio film!

The film opens in desolation... a dead forest covered in fog. Nothing survives here. Winthrop (Mark Damon) rides up to a huge mansion, where the doors are covered in spider webs. Butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) asks him to take off his boots... Mr. Roderick Usher has acute hearing and the sound will disturb him. WTF? He’s given “house slippers”. This is a great strange opening scene.

When Bristol starts to knock on Roderick’s door, it blasts open - shock moment - and Roderick (Vincent Price with dyed yellow hair) is there. “If you please - *softly* - an affliction of the hearing, sounds of any exaggerated degree cut into my brain like knives.” Roderick tells Winthrop that his sister Madeline (whom Winthrop is engaged to) is ill and he can not see her... the door opens and there is Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Winthrop will be allowed to stay.

After Madeline leaves, Roderick explains to Winthrop that his family is cursed with a morbid acuteness of the senses... so this marriage is just not going to happen. Madeline can not leave this house and survive, Winthrop says he will stay and see what Madeline says in the morning.

That night, a candle moves on its own in Winthrop’s room... caused by vibration. Winthrop looks out the (spider web covered) window and sees a crack forming in the wall of the mansion as the ground beneath shifts. As he goes downstairs to dinner, the house shakes and a chandelier comes crashing down at Winthrop’s head! He dives out of the way, Madeline (looking hot now that she’s dressed for dinner) tends to him... and begs him to leave this house before anything worse happens. This is cool because it sets up that worse things can happen... and are even expected to happen in this house.

At dinner, as Winthrop asks questions about the dead trees and cracks in the walls, Roderick is evasive... what is he hiding? What is the dark secret of this place?

After dinner Roderick says that Madeline must retire now, even though she says she is not tired. Roderick insists. Nice moment where Madeline kisses her brother goodnight and only nods to her fiancé.

Middle of the night, Madeline is sleeping when a dark figure enters her room and puts his hand over her mouth... it’s Winthrop, who kisses her and tells her he intends on taking her away with him in the morning. Wham! The door opens and Roderick tells them that Winthrop will *not* be taking Madeline anywhere. She has the family curse and must remain in the mansion.

Middle of the night again, Winthrop is awakened by a noise, goes to Madeline’s room... the bed is empty and the wind howls through an open window. Winthrop searches the dark mansion for her, but when he leans against a balcony banister it gives way and he almost falls to the floor below - is the shifting house trying to kill him? More spooky stuff as he searches the mansion in the dark... nice shock moments with doors slamming closed on their own, and he almost trips over furniture in the dark. He finds Madeline unconscious on the floor of the chapel, as he goes to touch her... Butler Bristol says “Don’t touch her!” from the darkness. Nice jump moment. Bristol explains that she walks in her sleep, and waking her could cause her death. Bristol carries her back to her room.

That morning, Winthrop slyly pumps Bristol for information - he has been a servant in the house since *birth* and the house has always shifted and settled. “If the house dies, I shall die with it.” This is an odd sort of haunted house story where the house seems to be trying to kill the occupants.

In order to explain why she can not run away with him, Madeline takes Winthrop deep down into the bowels of the house... through cobwebbed passages and rusted doorways, to the crypt below... where the coffins of every Usher from the beginning if time reside. She goes through her family line, ending on *her* coffin! She will die in this house and fill that coffin... soon. Then a shift in the house brings a coffin crashing down at them, it pops open and a skeleton spills out. Madeline faints, Winthrop catches her and then - shock moment as Roderick asks “What have you done?” - hey, where did he come from?

After Madeline has been taken to bed, Roderick tells Winthrop that the tarn is deep enough to swallow this house whole (in a great crane shot). And then we get a little flashback about the House Of Usher - how the lands were once fertile, and then everything died and the ponds became black and stagnant... and a plague of evil descended upon the house. Roderick gives Winthrop the evil background of all of past Ushers in a tour of the paintings in the main hall. That evil is rooted in the very stones of the House Of Usher. “The house itself is evil now. And the evil resides in her.” Roderick doesn’t want Madeline to marry and pop kids, because those kids will be evil. He wants to make sure Madeline dies a virgin. Winthrop has a different plan - and thinks taking her from this evil house will remove any evil from her. He goes to grab Madeline and escape the house...

While packing, Winthrop hears Madeline scream and runs to her room, where he finds her sleeping on her bed and Roderick looking out the window... but she is not sleeping, she is *dead*! Winthrop accuses Roderick of killing her - but Roderick says there is no mark on her, that *Winthrop* is the cause of her death by trying to take her from this house. The house killed her. It stopped her heart.

In the Chapel, Madeline in a coffin as the two men pray over her... and argue about her death. As Roderick closes the lip of the coffin to take it down into the crypt we see Madeline’s finger moving. Is she alive? They carry her coffin deep down into that crypt. After the lock the door and leave the coffin in darkness, a scream from within... unheard.

The next morning a heartbroken Winthrop prepares to leave - and asks Bristol if he thinks Winthrop’s coming to this house caused Madeline’s death. Bristol tells him not to feel guilty - everybody dies here because the family is cursed, and runs through the various diseases and causes of death for past Ushers... including Catalepsy. Bristol says Miss Madeline did *not* suffer from catalepsy, but Winthrop races down, deep down, into the crypt and uses an ax to break open the coffin... which is *empty*!!!

Winthrop grabs the ax and goes looking for Roderick.

Roderick refuses to tell him where Madeline is, even when threatened with the ax. “She is in a secret place.” Winthrop *screams* at him, and Roderick says she’s dead. Yes, we buried her alive, but she is dead now... “You buried your own sister alive!” “I had to, don’t you understand that?” Roderick refuses to tell where the “secret place” is, and Bristol doesn’t know, either... so Winthrop searches the dark and creepy house for the woman he loves. Looking for secret passages or hidden doorways - and tearing the house apart. He can not find her... and collapses.

A spooky blue tinted dream sequence where Winthrop searches for Madeline, finding all of the Usher’s out of their coffins in the crypt beckoning him into the darkness. And there in the darkness is Roderick, smiling like a madman, pointing to the coffin with Madeline’s skeletal remains. The Dead Ushers surround him! He goes to pick up the ax, but it is a skeleton arm! Then he hears Madeline screaming... and wakes up.

A storm outside. Roderick plays his lute... tells Winthrop to leave or die with the rest of us. Winthrop says he will go to the authorities and have Roderick charged with murder. Roderick admits that his acute hearing meant that he could hear her breathing inside the coffin, he could hear her fingernails scratching against the casket lid... Then he screams “Be done!” and Winthrop asks if she is still alive and forces Roderick to admit that she still breaths... he can still hear her. Still clawing at the inside of the coffin!

Winthrop runs down into the crypt once more, into the darkness... hears her screaming, but the coffin is empty! A secret passage way... more dark stairways where the spiders have been working overtime on their webs. Bristol yells for him to leave her - she’s gone insane. Winthrop continues through secret passageways... into the main hallway with all of the paintings of the Dead Ushers looking down upon him... and a trail of blood on the floor. He follows the blood to a door which BLASTS OPEN and a bloody Madeline bursts out and tries to kill him, thinking he is Roderick. He pushes her off of him, and she escapes into the darkness. He chases after her.

Finding her in Roderick’s room... when Winthrop tries to stop her from killing Roderick, they struggle... knocking wood from the fireplace and setting the whole house ablaze! Madeline grabs Roderick by the throat - insane - and strangles him to death as the room burns around them! Winthrop escapes the house as it begins to crumble and burn... enveloping the last of the Ushers within. As he stumbles into the wasteland the house burns and crashes and is enveloped by the tarn.

“... and the deep and dank tarn closed silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.”

Tomorrow we will look at the second film in the great Roger Corman / Poe series... THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

- Bill

Buy the pit

No comments:

eXTReMe Tracker