Wednesday, October 21, 2015

13 Films Of Halloween:


Starring: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone.
Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Roger Corman
Produced by: Roger Corman and James H. Nicholson (American International Pictures)

This is my favorite of all the Corman Poe movies, and that may be because it was the first one that I saw back when I was a kid, or it may just be that the story kicks ass. It is scary as hell, and manages to get under yours skin. One of the other great things about it is that it is presented almost as a murder mystery, complete with a locked door puzzle and a skeptical detective who doesn’t believe in ghosts... well, until he has no other choice. And Price gets to really show his acting chops - his slow descent into madness is Oscar calibre stuff. All of that is before we even get to the pit and the pendulum part of the story!

Like USHER, Roger Corman shot this in 15 days in color Cinemascope and designed as a stand alone feature which would not be double billed. Budget once again was under $200,000, which was much much lower than a studio film, and was very successful at the box office... PIT AND THE PENDULUM doing even better than USHER had before it. These films are still great, lush, spooky films... made on a low budget but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. PIT features some great period costumes (they may look a little silly with their puffy trousers, but authentic) and with each new film in this series they accumulated more props and set pieces - so each film has better production value than the last. PIT looks beautiful - the sets are amazing and the lighting and cinematography seem even better than USHER. 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!

These Corman Poe films were shot on sets rented from studios and look like crazy fever dreams. Corman said, “One of my theories was that these stories were created out of the unconscious mind of Poe, and the unconscious mind never really sees reality, so until THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. we never showed the real world. In PIT, John Kerr arrived in a carriage against an ocean background, which I felt was more representative of the unconscious.” Plus, when you are shooting in Los Angeles the Pacific Ocean is free production value. PIT AND THE PENDULUM has all kinds of shocks and scares and builds suspense and dread... and has a great performance by Price that takes him through all kinds of emotions. One of the interesting Corman techniques is the color tinted flashbacks, which predate the same technique used by Soderbergh... but Corman does some great work here - changing the blue tint to red and twisting the image . This film is a nightmare before we get to the title device. The film opens with a strange psychedelic title sequence that really sets the mood of insanity.

Spain... a few decades after the Spanish Inquisition. A horse drawn coach drops off Barnard (John Kerr) on the road, it doesn’t go all the way to the castle... he has to walk. The castle is on a cliff over the ocean. Barnard walks through the fog surrounding it and knocks on the door, asks to see Don Medina. The Servant tries to get rid of him, but Catherine Medina (Luana Anders) allows Barnard in when he says he is Elizabeth’s brother... His sister Elizabeth was married to Don Nicholas Medina, he came as soon as he heard that she passed away. He would like to visit his wife’s grave... Catherine tells him she is in the family crypt... below... please follow me.

A locked gate leads to descending stairs. Cobwebs. Shadows. A *loud* mechanical noise is a jump moment. Another gate, another stairway going down, deeper and deeper. Barnard gets ahead of Catherine - following the machine noise to a doorway. Catherine warns him not to open the doors... as Barnard reaches for the door handle - WHAM! - the doors open in front of him and Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) stands before him. “Who are you?!” Catherine introduces him, and Medina softens - the brother of his departed wife. He locks the giant door behind him and they continue down to her crypt.

Medina tells Barnard that his sister died of a lingering disease of the blood, which was diagnosed by Dr. Leon... his personal physician. They get to the crypt - the coffin is behind a bricked in wall with a plaque bearing Elizabeth’s name. Barnard is still suspicious of his sister’s cause of death, and when Medina asks if he will stay the night, Barnard answers, “That and more” - he wants to investigate the cause of his sister’s death.

Upstairs, Barnard asks if a painting on the wall is Don Medina - “That is my father, Sebastian Medina. The other is my uncle Bartolome.” Medina asks Barnard to come with him and they go up to Elizabeth’s bedroom - untouched since her death. As he shows Barnard all of the luxurious furnishings of the room... a woman’s shadow appears ghost-like behind the curtained partition... moving towards them! When it comes in to the light it is... the Maid Maria. After the scare, Medina tells Barnard that he is *still* in love with his sister, and shows him a painting of her (a nice way for the audience to know what she looked like). She sang like an angel and played the harpsichord every night after dinner (a plant which will pay off later). Medina breaks down in tears and Barnard leaves him in Elizabeth’s bedroom.

Dinner: Barnard and Catherine do some mild flirting when there is a knock at the door. Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) who is introduced to Barnard, and they all have a glass of wine. Barnard gives Dr. Leon the third degree about his sister’s death. Dr. Leon mentions just living in this castle as one of the factors. What? “Your sister’s death was caused by failure of the heart, sir, due to a terrible shock. Literally, she died of fright.” What? “Show me where it happened!” Medina says they were wrong not to be totally honest with Barnard, they must show him where his sister died... and they open that gate and climb throse stairs into the depths below the castle, to that locked door that Medina popped out of when we first met him. Beyond that door is...

A torture chamber. His father Sebastian’s torture chamber from the Spanish Inquisition days. “I shall not dwell upon the history of this blasphemous chamber, suffice it that the blood of a thousand men and women was spilled within these walls. Limbs twisted and broken! Eyes gouged from bloody sockets, flesh burned black.” Barnard says his sister was a strong, willful woman, not someone who would succumb to evil atmospheres... so Medina tells the story, and we get a blue tinted flashback...

Elizabeth Medina (Barbara Steele) as his perfect wife and their perfect life. He would always bring her breakfast in bed, she would pose for his painting, dinner - often with Dr. Leon, she would play the harpsichord afterwards and sing with her beautiful voice... And then one morning she had no slept, and then she stopped eating... Then one night she disappeared, and when Medina searched the castle for her he found her down in the torture chamber, obsessed with all of the evil devices. Medina’s curse - his blood curse inherited from his father - had been passed on to her. Medina decided to take her away from this cursed castle - an extended holiday to rid her of the curse. On the night before their departure, Medina and Dr. Leon heard a scream... they ran down to the torture chamber to find her... locked in the iron maiden! Just before she died she called out a name - “Sebastian!”

Later, Catherine begs Barnard to believe that Don Medina did not mean to lie to him, only to save him from the frightening details of his sister’s death. Barnard thinks Medina is acting guilty... Catherine says of course he acts guilty - he believes his blood, the curse he inherited from his father along with that torture chamber, is to blame for his wife’s death. Catherine decides to reveal the deep, dark, family secret to Barnard, in a blue tinted flashback...

When Nicholas Medina was just a ten year old boy, we wandered down to the torture chamber even though he was forbidden to ever open that door. Curiosity. A nice creepy bit where the boy pokes around the foggy torture chamber, opens an iron maiden and a skeleton pops out. Footsteps on the stairs above - the boy hides. He spies his father Sebastian (also Price) and Mother and Uncle Bartolome climbing down the stairs to the torture chamber. Sebastian gives them a tour of torture chamber... then Sebastian picks up a hot poker and kills Uncle Bartolome. Our blue tinted flashback becomes red tinted! As Sebastian kiss his brother Bartolome he keeps screaming one word over and over, “Adulterer!” And then he turned on her. Accusing her of sleeping with is brother...

“And there before my brother’s eyes, our mother was tortured to death,” Catherine says as we come out of the flashback. Since then, Medina has been haunted by his mother’s death, and then his wife’s death almost pushed him over the brink into insanity. Barnard promises Catherine that he will be more gentle with Don Medina.

That night, the sound of a harpsichord echoes through the castle...

Barnard hears it, and goes to investigate... a hand grabs his shoulder! Catherine. She heard it, too. As did Dr. Leon (who says he feel asleep in a chair after dinner). Barnard thinks it must be Don Medina (since he is the only one not present), but Catherine says Don Medina *doesn’t know how to play the harpsichord*. Spooky! They go downstairs to the harpsichord, and when they turn a corner in the stairway - A Woman Pops Out - it’s Maria the maid, she heard the harpsichord, too. At the base of the stairs - Wham! - Don Medina! He is completely freaked out - that was his dead wife’s playing, he recognized it! The music stops. Barnard unlocks the door to Elizabeth’s bedroom and throws open the doors - the room is *empty*. On the harpsichord, Elizabeth’s ring... as if she had taken it off to play the keyboard. Are there any other doors - ways out of the room? No. Don Medina takes one look at the ring and faints.

They take Don Medina to his room, and Dr. Leon gives him a sedative to help him sleep. Outside the room, Catherine asks Dr. Leon to stay for the rest of the night, and he agrees. How did the ring that she was buried with end up on the harpsichord? Dr. Leon asks Catherine and Barnard to come with him to the dining room so they can discuss this...

Dr. Leon says that what he is about to say is something that only Don Medina and he have known... and insists that Catherine and Barnard have a drink first. Must be something really weird, right? Don Medina believed that Elizabeth may have been interred... prematurely. The doctor says this is not the case... she was quite dead. But Don Medina believes this due to what happened to his mother when he was 10 years old. You see, she was not tortured *to death*, as Catherine was told. “Your mother was walled up in her tomb, while yet alive.” From that day, Nicholas Medina has been afraid of being buried alive. Since Elizabeth died, he has had trouble sleeping - thinking that he hears her roaming the hallways of the castle... that he has heard her speaking his name.

Barnard’s skepticism jumps in - But we all heard the harpsichord playing.

Dr. Leon answers that he thought only himself and Don Medina knew of his belief that his wife was buried alive... but maybe one of the servants overheard, and are behind this.

But Barnard is still the skeptic: “I want to know one thing, sir. Are you absolutely positive that Don Medina’s dread is unwarranted?”

“If Elizabeth Medina walks the corridors of this castle, it is her spirit, not her living self.” So now we have three possible explanations for the harpsichord playing: It’s a servant trying to gaslight Don Medina for some reason (but what would be the motivation?), it’s Elizabeth’s ghost haunting the castle because she was buried before she died, or it’s just Elizabeth’s ghost who was buried dead but still haunting the castle.

The next morning - a blood curdling scream from Elizabeth’s room - Dr. Leon, Catherine, and Barnard run to the room. When they open the door - WHAM! - Maid Maria blasts through the door at them. While Dr. Leon tends to the frightened Maid, Barnard investigates the room - empty. The Maid says he *heard* Elizabeth’s voice. She said, “Maria, leave this room!” That’s when Don Medina shows up, “My wife spoke to you?”

Don Medina is freaked out, taken back to his room and given a sedative.

At breakfast, Barnard is in full investigative mode - he knows it is not ghosts, so who is behind these things? Dr. Leon says only Maria heard the voice. Barnard says he questioned the maid, and the voice was just a whisper - not completely identifiable as Elizabeth’s voice. It could have been anyone...

BANG! The sounds of a things being thrown around and broken upstairs. They run up and follow the crashing sounds to Elizabeth’s room - door locked. They pound on Medina’s room and ask him for the key. Barnard and Dr. Leon take the key and open the door to Elizabeth’s room. Catherine tries to hold Medina back, but he insists on looking inside. Inside that locked room. Barnard and Dr. Leon find that the room has been **destroyed*. All of the furnishings broken. The painting of Elizabeth *slashed*. And no one is in the room. Locked door - no way in or out... so *what* could have done this? When Medina see s the slashed painting, he faints. Dr. Leon takes him back to his room.

Barnard is alone in Elizabeth’s trashed room. How could this have been done behind a locked door? He begins to poke around the room, looking for some secret passage... and finds one! Covered in spider webs. He enters the passage - a narrow corridor between the walls of the castle - and follows the voices until he find the secret passage into Medina’s bedroom. Startling Medina and Dr. Leon and Catherine.

Barnard accuses Medina of being behind all of this. He breaks it down, “haunt” by “haunt” - Medina is the one person who could have done all of it. But Medina pleads innocence... and eventually breaks down and wonders if it is possible that he is doing these things unaware, to punish himself? Has he gone crazy? Has his subconscious mind created this evidence of Elizabeth’s revenge from beyond the grave because she was buried alive to punish him? Could he be haunting himself? Medina wonders if he is crazy...

Medina says the only way he can be at peace is if he knows for sure.
Knows that his wife Elizabeth was dead when she was buried.
They all go down to the crypt with axes...

They use the axes to cut through the brick and mortar, Medina has another blue tinted flashback to when he was a boy, watching his mother being bricked up in her tomb alive.

They break through the wall, and Elizabeth’s ornate coffin is in the crypt. They climb through the hole, open the coffin lid, exposing...

A horrifying mummied corpse of his dead wife - hands raised and clawing at the coffin lid! Her scratch marks on the coffin lid!

“True! True!” Medina screams as he is pushed over the edge into madness.
Dr. Leon tries to comfort him: “On my honor as a physician I though she was dead. I swear to you!”
This doesn’t help. Medina runs off screaming “True!”

Catherine finds Medina in his room, a pistol against his head. He says, “I killed her!” and breaks down, dropping the pistol and himself to the floor. He keeps repeating, “I killed her!”

Dr. Leon tries to calm him... but can not. “While we were up here mourning her, she was alive - struggling to be free. I am responsible, for if it were not so she would not want to haunt me.” Dr. Leon says he must leave in the morning, and begs Medina to leave with him. “I can never leave. I must accept whatever vengeance Elizabeth chooses to inflict upon me.”

Downstairs, Barnard apologizes to Catherine. Even though all of his suspicions were true, he can not blame Don Medina for this horrifying accident... for which Medina is suffering. He feels only sympathy for Medina. And he does a nice subtle hit on her, hoping that they meet again someday under better circumstances, perhaps in Barcelona where she lives. Catherine responds very favorably - the romance subplot that has been quietly running in the background of this horror story reaches its resolution... they will be hooking up later.

On the stairs Barnard bumps into Dr. Leon, who advises him not to disturb Don Medina. Maybe in the morning Don Medina will be... more himself. Dr. Leon offers Barnard a ride into town in the morning, which is accepted. Is this the end of our story?

Don Medina snuffs out all of the candles in his bedroom to prepare to sleep... when he hears Elizabeth’s ghostly voice calling his name. “Nicholas...” Did he imagine that? The secret passage in the wall slowly creaks open. Medina grabs the last candle and follows her voice into the secret passage.

Dark, dank, filled with spider webs... he follows her voice calling his name deeper and deeper into the bowels of the castle. The candle blows out, leaving him in almost total darkness. A great creepy moment when he walks full face into a spider web - the webs clinging to him, suffocating him... yech! He wipes them away. Her voice continues to call him deeper and deeper down the secret rat-filled corridors. All the way down...

Upstairs, Catherine finds Medina’s bedroom empty... knocks on Barnard’s door. They form a search party with Dr. Leon - Catherine and Barnard will search the upper floors, Dr. Leon will search the lower floors of the castle... including the torture chamber.

Medina continues too follow his dead wife’s voice... on the brink of insanity... he comes to a Y in the hallway - one door leads to the torture chamber, the other leads to the crypts. Her voice calls to him from... the crypts. He follows the echoes to the broken open crypt for his wife. “Elizabeth?” He peers through the shattered bricks to her coffin...

And the coffin lid slowly opens...

And a bloody hand emerges...

Bloody fingernail scratches on the underside of the coffin lid...

And dead Elizabeth crawls out of the coffin...

Medina falls to the ground in terror...

Elizabeth rises before him - bloody and dead and...

Medina runs like hell... the corpse dragging her dead form down the dark corridors behind him. He unlocks the crypt door, races to the doorway leading up to the torture chamber - but it is locked. He fumbles for the keys as she creeps closer, and closer, and closer! He finally gets the door unlocked, running onto the landing above the torture chamber, slamming the door behind him. But Dead Elizabeth throws open the door, screaming his name! He sees her dead face and stumbles backwards... falling all the way down the stairs to the floor of the torture chamber, where he is finally pushed over the edge to complete insanity... a babbling lunatic. No longer a man.

We saw her face, too - it was not Maria the maid dressed like Elizabeth, this was Medina’s actual dead wife!

The door opens and Dr. Leon enters, sees Dead Elizabeth and says, “I told you to wait.” So everyone can see this ghost? Dr. Leon goes down the stairs to examine Medina - “He’s gone.” Medina is over the edge crazy...

Dr. Leon goes back to Dead Elizabeth and gives her one hell of a kiss. Then another one. And another one.

This has been Dr. Leon and Elizabeth’s plan - they have faked her death, and then begun gas-lighting Medina... making him believe that her ghost is haunting the castle. Using the secret passages so that she could play the harpsichord, whisper his name, play the ghost. Once Medina has been driven crazy they will have him committed and liquidate the castle and all of Medina’s belongings and run away together - wealthy! Dr. Leon scolds Elizabeth for jumping the gun and doing the final phase of their plan a day too soon. Couldn’t she have waited until Barnard left in the morning? Elizabeth says it had already been too long..

Elizabeth bends down to Medina, “We have finally broken you. Is it not ironical my husband: your wife - an adulteress, your mother - an adulteress, your uncle - and adulterer, your closest friend - and adulterer? Do you not find that amusing dead Nicholas?”

Medina laughs like a lunatic, then moves to his feet... and calls Elizabeth by his mother’s name, Isabella... and calls Dr. Leon “his brother”... the son has become the father. Their plan was to drive him crazy... and they have succeeded! He grabs Elizabeth, tells her that he will torture her to death and drags her to the iron maiden, locking her inside! Dr. Leon tries to escape, but Medina chases him... Leon opens the door at the end of the torture chamber and runs through... right off the edge of the landing and into *the pit*. He screams all the way down to the bottom!


Barnard comes downstairs - he heard strange sounds. Sees Medina, “Oh, there you are, sir, we’ve been searching all over for you.” Medina hits him, knocking Barnard out.

69 minutes into our story, and Barnard wakes up... strapped to a table on a platform over the pit. Above him - the pendulum. Medina explains the horror that “Bartolome” is about to endure... then sets the pendulum in motion. The razor sharp blade swings lower and lower and lower - inching towards Barnard’s stomach!

Catherine pounds on the torture chamber door, then runs to get the servant.

As Medina operates the pendulum, swinging it closer and closer to Barnard’s stomach - blade slicing the man’s shirt - Medina flashes back to his father using the pendulum on his Uncle Bartolome (in blue and red tint). The blade swings closer - scratching flesh. A few more swings and Barnard will be sliced open.

Catherine and the Servant break open the door, the Servant wrestles with Medina while Catherine tries to figure out how to stop the pendulum. Medina fights the Servant, then mis-steps and goes over the edge into The Pit. Screaming all the way down. Splat!

But Catherine has not stopped the pendulum’s descent! She calls for the Servant to help. They finally get it stopped - it has sliced into Barnard, but not deep enough to be fatal. Catherine tends to his wound, unties him from the table, and she and the Servant help him up and out of the room. On their way out of the torture chamber, Catherine locks and bolts the door, “No one will ever enter this room again.”

Of course, Elizabeth is still locked in that iron maiden!

Great twist end shocker! I love how everyone is basically hoist by their own petard - they want to drive him crazy... and they get their wish! I think these kinds of resolutions are great in horror flicks, and wish there were more of them.

Tomorrow we will take a look at one of the non-Price Corman Poe movies... THE PREMATURE BURIAL, starring Oscar Winner Ray Milland.

- Bill

Buy the pit

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