Thursday, October 31, 2013

Night of Terror #31: 'The Pit and the Pendulum'

Another month straight of horror movies comes to a fitting close with an inexplicably-unseen-by-me-before-tonight entry in one of my favorite series of movies ever, the Roger Corman "Poe cycle" made at American-International Pictures.

The Pit and the Pendulum might be one of the best of the series, although nothing could ever upset The Raven's number one spot in my heart. As I was watching it I had occasion to compare it to another famous series of horror movies made at around the same time but across the Atlantic ocean, the Hammer horror movies, since I also watched a Hammer movie today. While it's easy to imagine Hammer movies being shown in drive-in theaters and the like, the Corman-Poe movies have aged into these weird kind of art films, despite the fact that they attracted huge gobs of teenagers when they came out.

Unlike the Hammer films, which are full of sex, blood, action, and a sometimes almost desperate urge to entertain, Corman's work in this phase of his career is weirdly restrained - narratively austere, maybe because of the source material, and thematically and visually cohesive throughout all the movies in the cycle.

But don't let that fool you into thinking Pit doesn't have any shocks. They're deployed with an expert eye towards maximum impact, but when they hit, they stick. My favorite is probably the reveal of "Elizabeth" within her coffin, clutching at the space between the coffin lid and her hands, her face twisted in grotesque horror - the fact that it actually doesn't make any sense (or at least isn't adequately explained given the plot twists that follow) makes it work even better as a kind of pure shock bludgeon.

Vincent Price gives another excellent performance as the movie's tortured antihero, and he also gets an opportunity to play an outright villain within the same character (never let it be said that Roger Corman couldn't work his way around a low budget better than anybody else). His performance reveals this as probably the most nakedly emotional of all the Corman-Poe movies - watch the scene that has him sobbingly repeating "I killed her, I killed her" over and over again and try not to be affected.

As I mentioned earlier, Richard Matheson's screenplay isn't exactly a masterpiece of airtight plotting - multiple character motivations go without explanation, as do a couple of seemingly contradictory incidents. But this doesn't conflict with the hallucinatory nature of the movie - lurid color filters, claustrophobic restriction of all sequences to within that creepy castle, and a score by Les Baxter that strikes an impossible balance between lush Gothic melodies and atonal oddness.

I had a great this time watching (and writing about, I guess) horror movies this October, just like every year. Thanks for tuning in, those of you who did, and extra-special thanks to those who helped me out with a guest piece. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled next month for 30 Days of Thankfulness in which I watch a movie that involves the theme of being thankful for your blessings every day.

No one will enter this room again.

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