It was not an unusual practice for Hong Kong’s powerhouse Shaw Brothers studio to participate in international co-productions during its heyday, and the result of that practice was often some fairly unique screen pairings. For instance, there was British horror icon Peter Cushing teaming up with kung fu badass David Chiang in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and the Sentimental Swordsman himself, Ti Lung, trading lines with American TV movie staple and Night of the Lepus star Stuart Whitman in Shatter. But the 1967 spy thriller Asia-Pol stands out in particular for being a potential wet dream for fans of 1960s Asian action cinema. This participation between Shaw and Japan’s Nikkatsu – the studio that trademarked its own distinctive brand of hardboiled action cinema during the late fifties and sixties – boasts two stars who have, respectively, come to represent more than any others the identity of each of those studios at that moment in their histories.
I expounded recently, in my review of Throne of Fire, on the fact that I am still a sucker for cool cover/poster art, even though I know full well that the movie being advertised is rarely as good as the illustration advertising it. So let me now explore another of my sundry weaknesses: I have a weakness for cool-sounding team-ups. It probably started back when I was a wee sprout camped out in front of the television late at night, watching old Universal horror films. Frankenstein and the Wolfman, in the same movie? Boss! And while the high concept team-ups were generally slightly more dependable than poster art, that didn’t mean that they still weren’t, by and large, a bit disappointing most of the time. But still, come on! Frankenstein versus the Wolfman! Dev Anand versus hippies! And in the case of Our Man in Marrakesh, Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski. Tell me that one isn’t epic sounding. And while my gullible faith in the high-concept team-up often let me down, I was certain that Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski in a lighthearted Eurospy adventure would live up to the promise. I’m happy to say that, unlike Throne of Fire, I was pleasantly rewarded this time around.
So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.
The Mexico of the lucha libre sci-fi adventure films is just about as close to our version of the Promised Land as you can get. I’d gladly turn in our world of turmoil, suffering, and nouveau French cuisine for a good chimichanga and a world where the biggest news comes when pro wrestlers have to thwart the diabolical scheme of some mummy. Oh sure, no one is going to be crazy about a world full of mummies all walking around with their dusty heads full of diabolical schemes, but once you get over the shock of “Hey, look! A mummy! Is that a midget in a cape next to him?” things really are not so bad. The mummy might kidnap a sexy chica in a flimsy negligee so he can carry her around a bit, and he might injure some old pipe-smoking man by knocking him out with the patented “chop to the shoulders” blow that seems to comprise the mummy’s only real offense, but that’s about it. In the end, you know the mummy poses only a minor threat to the world as a whole, and Santo or Mil Mascaras will be around eventually to bodyslam the mummy and burn down an old castle. Compared to what we have to deal with in the real world, I’d much prefer luchadores duking it out with mummies.
While many fans of B-movie and cult film tend to center their discussion of Franco on his horror and sexploitation (though one could argue that all his films fall into this latter category) output, I tend to be more familiar with his action and espionage films– and keep in mind that, when discussing Jess Franco, the term “action” is used in an extremely loose fashion by which “action” can be defined as people sitting in a nightclub watching a psychedelic performance art striptease, or it can mean two people standing silently and staring at a rug for a spell. But the reason I like looking at Franco’s non-horror films is that, within the realm of horror, and certainly within the more narrowly defined realm of European horror, there is already a lot of incompetence and weirdness and a tendency to abandon logic.
It seems fitting that my first post-thanksgiving review should be of a film this goofy. Thanksgiving back home in Kentucky was grand, as it included a visit to Churchill Downs where I raked in a small fortune in winnings (and by small, I mean small, like fifty bucks), bourbon drinking, fried chicken and fried biscuits at Joe Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Family Restaurant, a visit to the Bass Pro Shop where I got to go on a light gun safari (end conclusion — you don’t want to hire me as your crack shot assassin — the only thing I could consistently hit was the turtle, and that was by accident), and a late-night conversation with my sister, my best friend from high school, as well as another friend newly met, about cadaver dissection in East St. Louis, machine gun battles in Guyana, and watching sub-dermal parasitic worms from the Amazon crawl around beneath the skin of your ankle.
This lavishly colorful and thoroughly enjoyable comic book romp features what is without a doubt one of the most wonderful moments in all of cinema, if not the most wonderful. Having just completed a major heist, our cool-as-liquid-nitrogen anti-hero, Diabolik, returns to his sprawling, space-age underground lair full of cool pop art furnishings, where he and his staggeringly beautiful girlfriend, Eva, proceed to make love on a gigantic rotating bed covered in piles upon piles of the money he’s just stolen. When I was young, and even not so very long ago, I always looked at this moment as the goal to which all people should aspire. Our lives should be like this, lived with ferocity and daring, panache and style, sexiness and suaveness. I swore, on that day, that I would work tirelessly toward such a destiny, never resting until I too could collapse into my rotating bed covered in cash and roll about with the woman of my dreams.
As it stands right now, rather than going out drinking with socialites, rubbing elbows with countesses, and dancing the night away in a fancy club before stepping out to steal priceless emeralds and sapphires (I always preferred those stones to diamonds), I spent the evening sitting at home drinking bourbon, watching Secrets of New York, and cutting out little color cover printouts for all the VHS tapes I’m finally converting to DVD-R in the name of conserving precious space in my ever-shrinking Brooklyn apartment. And while I could, if nothing else, cover a bed with money, the denomination would be pennies, and making love on a pile of pennies may be someone’s bag — but not mine. Diabolik would weep for me. Or rather, he would ignore me and laugh heartily before bounding off to live his dreamlike, lusty life of adventure and romance. Make no mistake about it. Though I may try to dress well and stay in slightly acceptable physical condition (though tonight’s dinner of bourbon and cake could put an end to that), I’m still pathetic in my own special, lonely way. Diabolik would look at the whole thing I call a life and shake his head in amused disbelief as he hopped in his Jag and drove off to go punch a criminal kingpin then make sweet love to his woman all night long. Rather than let this get down however, I simply double down on my efforts and try harder.
The 1960s were defined by different things to different people, and while some saw the paramount of the decade as a bunch of scruffy hippies wallowing in the mud for a few days in upstate New York, I always looked at the defining moments of the decade as the films Barbarella and Danger! Diabolik. That or the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Or, um, the start of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Or the Bay of Pigs. Or maybe the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the arrival of The Beatles. No, it was Barbarella and Diabolik, if for no other reason than they were the exclamation points at the end of an era of which I am particularly fond, that being the carefree Swingin’ Sixties that brought the world pop art, slim cut mod suits, mini-skirts, go-go boots, lots of spy films, and that cute pixie haircut sported by Twiggy. Not since the 1920s and the era of the flapper and the dandy has an era appealed to me so deeply.
Although born a shade too late to enjoy the proceedings, it’s the time with which I most closely identify and still attempt to recreate in my own impoverished and pathetically un-daring way. With the escalation of the war in Vietnam and ensuing civil unrest and violence, not to mention the whole hippie movement destroying any vestige of standards in the realm of courtesy, manners, social grace, and dress (I say that assuming it will be taken by hippies as a compliment; if not, I apologize — I have nothing but affection in my later years for the flower people), there was really no way the swingin’ era could survive. Being care-free was taboo, even though hippies tended to spend a large amount of time smoking pot, dropping acid, and staring at their hands. Likewise, adhering to a uniform anti-code of dress became the standard. I won’t argue that increased social awareness is a boon to an individual, though I would argue against anyone who claims those who defined the latter portion of the 1960s were any more politically aware than those who came before them who were seen as shallow because they enjoyed go-go dancing more than that weird wavy-hand dance.
I know many of you enjoy the ultra-casual, anything-goes world in which we live thanks in part to our hippie forefathers, but I can’t count myself among you. I don’t wear a shirt and tie because I have to; I wear one because I want to. I like it. It’s comfortable to me. Granted, I didn’t always hold this sentiment, and there was a time when I could deliver a wild-eyed sermon against the chains of suit and tie oppression as well as any other young punk rocker. But as you get older and start having more important things about which to worry, such as how you’re going to get that rotating bed covered in money and a delicious European partner in crime to accessorize it, you realize that punk, casual, mod, hippie — everything is as much a fashion uniform as anything else, and there really is no sin in putting a little effort into things. The only sin, really, is in wearing pleated, relaxed-fit Dockers. In this, there can be no leniency.
By the release of Danger: Diabolik!, the mod era was well on its way out, and what better way to send it off than with a duo of eye-popping, self-indulgent cinematic flings? In 1968, director Roger Vadim gave the world a zero-G striptease by his then-wife Jane Fonda, who was without a doubt in her prime as far as bombshell status is concerned (and she looked damn good defiantly power saluting the police mug shot photographer, too). Dino De Laurentiis, famous for throwing big budgets at low-budget genre ideas, produced this phantasmagoric Technicolor acid trip adapted from a French comic strip about a sexy space agent plying the galaxy in search of missing scientists and lustful encounters. It was such a hoot that De Laurentiis decided more of the same would be in order. Again he turned to European comic strips for his source material, this time setting his sights on Diabolik, the ongoing saga of a master criminal who confounds both the police and the established criminal underworld.
On paper it was supposed to be a spiritual if not narrative follow-up to Barbarella. De Laurentiis snagged Mario Bava to direct, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Since his first film in color, Bava had been a master at playing with light and creating surreal atmospheres even on the tiniest of budgets. Films like Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) continue to influence films to this day thanks to their bold, convention-bucking use of color and lighting (not to mention violence). With Diabolik, Bava would be allowed to indulge his sweet tooth for candy-colored psychedelia equipped with a budget that dwarfed anything with which he’d previously been supplied. Not that the bigger budget mattered to him. In fact, though De Laurentiis granted Bava some $3 million for the film, Bava brought it in right around $400,000. You’d never know it. The film looks like he spent the full budget, and one can only imagine how out-of-this-world it would have been had Bava not been so conditioned to make the most of every single cent — or lira, or whatever currency applied.
French star Jean Sorel (Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other) was slated to portray the suave super-villain/anti-hero Diabolik, while the beautiful Catherine Deneuve (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) was to star as his partner and lover, Eva. Mere days into the production however, Bava determined that Sorel simply wasn’t right for the part. He was replaced by John Phillip Law, who had starred as the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella and would go on to appear as Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Law was a jaw-dropping hunk with near inhuman good looks, but he was never the greatest actor on the block. Still, since the idea behind Diabolik was not style over substance but rather, as with Barbarella, style as substance, he fit the bill perfectly and certainly looks the part. His reserved – some would say wooden – acting style clicks nicely with the character, a man so far removed from traditional human morality that he seems at times almost unable to act human, sort of like how the Sidhe are described in fantasy literature.
Casting woes continued however, as Deneuve refused to do the nudity required for the aforementioned “making love on a pile of money” scene. Bava had always thought more of concealing than revealing. While there is certainly plenty of flesh both male and female on display in the scene, there is no actual nudity per se, as in no one sees the earth-shatteringly taboo bare bottom or nipple. All the areas proscribed by or moral watchdogs as naughty were suitably and strategically covered by piles of money. But the scene had to be shot with both actors in the buff and Deneuve balked. She was quickly and, for us viewers, blessedly replaced by European starlet Marisa Mell. Nothing against Ms. Deneuve — we do love her — but like John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell was practically born to play the part.
Mell is every bit Law’s physical match. A beauty so great as to cause folk to drop to their knees and weep. As the sophisticated and liberated sidekick to the devil-may-care Diabolik, I can imagine no one else better than Marisa Mell. A serious auto accident in 1963 had left her partially disfigured, and after years of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery, she emerged looking like some incredible kind of goddess, with the only lingering side effect of her accident being a quirky upturn at the side of her mouth which, just about everyone agrees, amplifies her beauty tenfold. Nothing is more boring and predictable than perfection, after all. It is most unfortunate that her life would take a drastic downturn not too long after this film. She was relegated to B and C-movie status then more or less forgotten, making ends meet by posing in a nudie mags and reading poetry to try and supplement what was, by most accounts, rather a wild lifestyle. In the end, she died from cancer in 1992, relatively penniless. A melancholy note, but still she exists on screen in this movie as one of the great and timeless images of grace and beauty. It is that way that I think she is best remembered, as a stunning woman with an impish and playful curl to her lip.
For the roll of Diabolik’s foils on both sides of the law, Bava had experienced French actor Michel Piccoli as the dogged Inspector Ginco, and the robust Adolfo Celi, still relatively fresh off his memorable turn as the vastly enjoyable villain Emilio Largo in the James Bond film, Thunderball (1965), as the flamboyant Mafia boss Valmont. It was as solid a cast of character actors as Bava had ever had. He plucks them down into a world that isn’t quite real. One of Bava’s great strengths, and the element that perhaps made his horror films so successfully eerie, is his ability to warp the familiar, to twist the mundane into something foreign and menacing. Here, he’s pulling the same stunt, but purely for laughs. The world of Diabolik is not the world in which we live, though it bears a striking resemblance. It is instead a campy pop-art extraction. Money is transported in bags marked with huge dollar signs on the front, for example. Stylistically it has the most in common with Bava’s previous Blood and Black Lace and forthcoming Five Dolls for an August Moon and Four Times that Night, both of which revel in trippy modernist fashion and psychedelic over-indulgence. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the characters from any one of those movies show up in the other, though Diabolik is in my opinion the most realized artistically and conceptually. It is also Bava at his most impish and playful, with only a slight hint of the blackness that would inform the humor of his later Bay of Blood.
The story, as stated earlier, was adapted from a long-running European comic strip, or fumetti. Although I’ll admit to being a comic book reader in my youth, with intellectual fare like G.I. Joe and the ten thousand or so Spider Man titles that littered the 1980s being at the top of the list, I don’t really count myself among the legion of comic book fans. I have little interest in them now other than academically, and even the ones that people insist I’ll like because they’re intelligent and mature, leave me cold and a bit disappointed. Even the ones where people tell me, “no, this one is different,” still fall flat. It’s not that I deny their power or their artistic merit, even if I find some of the obtuse attempts to appear more “adult” by adding more violence, sex, and cussing, to be monumentally tedious.This is not an absolute statement, mind you. every now and then I do run across one I love– Brian Wood’s DMZ, for example — but I am by no means someone to whom one should turn for authoritative opinions on the medium.
That said, these European comic strips from the 1960s seem like they would have been a lot of fun. Considering they birthed such chain-smoking, sexy anti-heroes as Diabolik, Barbarella, and Modesty Blaise, all clad in skintight fetish gear, I guess I would have been a fan. Having never read any of the original Diabolik comic strips, but having at least glanced over some English-language plot summaries, I don’t think the storyline for the movie is lifted from any single episode, though bits and pieces may have come from all over the comics. The main characters certainly come from the comic strip, and here we get to watch them as Diabolik goes through a series of heists that get him on the bad side of both the police and the old crime syndicates – the establishment, basically. Chief of police Ginco sets a number of traps for Diabolik, but each time Diabolik outsmarts the inspector and makes his getaway with the loot. When one of his heists angers crime lord Valmont, Ginco hatches an unholy alliance with the mob to finally catch this thorn in both their sides.
Each heist is more or less a little self-contained episode building toward Ginco’s plan to melt down the whole of France’s gold reserve in order to lure Diabolik into a trap. The heists are exciting and outlandish, this again being a fantasy world in which the standard laws of common sense and logic do not apply. In his quest to steal a priceless jeweled necklace, Diabolik defeats the inspector’s trap by pulling the ol’ “stick a photo in front of the security camera” gag. He later smuggles the jewels to safety by fashioning them into bullets, using them to kill an opponent, then posing as said opponent’s relative to collect the jewels after cremation. Obviously, there are some logistical problems with this plan, not the least of which would be fitting jewels into a revolver, but this is a comic book world.
We’re not meant to take anything seriously or worry about realism. This is part of the reason it’s also easy to accept Diabolik as the hero of the story even though he is, without a doubt, a villain. He kills cops. Not corrupt cops, but regular guys just doing their job. He has no concern for anyone but himself and his one true love, Eva. When he dynamites the nation’s tax records, he doesn’t do it out of any sense of Robin Hood-esque duty to the poor and oppressed masses. He simply wants to screw with The Man — which leads to one of the film’s funnier moments, in which the Minister of Finances (a cameo by British film staple Terry-Thomas) makes a public plea to all the outstanding citizens to come forward and voluntarily pay the taxes they owe. Comedic touches like this, along with the purposeful disregard for realism, keep the movie light-hearted and chipper even when our main character is committing acts of a most heinous nature.
It’s not that Diabolik is immoral, however. If anything, he is adamantly amoral, completely rejecting the standards by which society judges the concepts of good and evil. He’s not an evil person. In fact, he’s quite likeable, almost childlike, even when he’s clad in a skintight white leather outfit and scaling a castle wall to rip someone off. At his heart, he is 1968. He is the social upheaval, the youthful rebellion that was engulfing countries across the globe. It’s no coincidence that the two forces most opposed to him are established law and established crime – two sides of a coin in which Diabolik sees no difference. They are the old guards; the outdated, out-of-touch generation whose lack of modern sophistication and intelligence is best exemplified by the fact that Valmont’s gangsters dress anachronistically, looking like something out of a 1930s mob movie.
They don’t understand Diabolik’s approach to crime, his use of modern technology and embracing of modern ideals. Likewise, on the other side of the coin is Inspector Ginco, a man who seems to respect Diabolik in a way, just as Diabolik respects him. In fact, it’s possible that Ginco could catch Diabolik, best him, if only the inspector could break away from the established way of thinking. Unfortunately, he is a man too mired in the old ways, and thus destined to be one step behind Diabolik. If only he could escape the constant supervision and micro managing of the bureaucrats, Ginco could make real progress. In a way, Ginco must envy Diabolik his freedom of thought.
It is in this way, more than through the story itself, that Diabolik achieves the depth so many people seem to claim it lacks. It is a tale of a super criminal versus the cops on one level, but on a deeper level it is a tale of the generation gap, of the culture conflict between young and old that characterized the late 1960s. Diabolik and Eva are the new way, feared and misunderstood by their elders. They are the iconoclasts, perhaps more symbols than actual people, as is Valmont. Ginco is the man in the middle, who knows things and times must change but not by the methods employed by the amoral and self-serving Diabolik. He is, despite being the supporting character and foil to Diabolik, the most sympathetic and human of all the characters. He is, in effect, most of us, dissatisfied with the establishment but still committed to some sense of orderly progression and society.
The relationship between Eva and Diabolik is further example of the film’s hidden but most definitely present depth. They are in love, deeply and passionately. Ginco seems to forego romance in favor of duty, and Valmont can see women as nothing more than playthings to be insulted. But Eva and Diabolik are liberated and modern. They are sexually attractive and have an insatiable appetite for one another, but they are also in love. Diabolik steals for Eva, but Eva does not stay with him because he steals; she stays because she loves him. Stealing is simply what they do, a game, and an amusement. Another way for them to thumb their noses at the generation that does not understand them. Their relationship is strong, and they are willing to sacrifice for one another. In the face of a world that wants to rub them out, they always have each other. Sometimes, they have each other on a rotating bed covered in money. So Diabolik is not an example of style over substance as much as it is, as I mentioned earlier, an example of style as substance. The liberated pop-art lifestyle of Eva and Diabolik is a stark contrast to the buttoned-up, confining world inhabited by Ginco and Valmont.
Not that the style lets itself be overshadowed by the substance. They walk arm in arm, and even if you disregard anything Diabolik might have to say, there’s no denying its look. That Mario Bava pulled this off on a self-imposed minuscule budget is staggering. With the possible exception of Barbarella and some of the wilder Bond adventures from the 1960s, few films look as sleek and sophisticated as Diabolik. The fashion is impeccable, and for a man like me who has endless admiration for the mod styles of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s like some crazy kind of dream come true. Every outfit donned by Marisa Mell is gorgeous enough to make you cry, especially when it’s draped upon someone as beautiful as she was. Likewise, Diabolik’s fetishistic head-to-toe leather outfits are beautiful, leaving as they do only John Phillip Law’s intense and deep eyes visible.
Their underground lair is a sight to behold, as are the old Jags they both drive. I love me a good Aston-Martin, but if I had to chose, I’d go for a ’67 Jag. They’re just about the coolest cars ever manufactured. Ahh, I hope they come in automatic. Diabolik is, indeed, a mod-futurist fan’s dream, even more so than the more outlandish Barbarella. After all, someone out on the town dressed as Barbarella would turn heads but ultimately look just kind of silly; someone out dressed in the mod fashions displayed by Marisa Mell would simply look breathtaking. Someone dressed in Diabolik’s leather catsuit is probably on his way somewhere special.
This isn’t the type of film where you fret over the details, and if you do you’re just going to miss the point. Like I said, it exists in a fictitious comic book world. It’s not meant to be any more realistic than any other superhero/villain movie or comic book. What does count is the pace of the story, and Bava keeps things moving along at a fair clip. It’s not an action-packed movie, not by today’s standards where something big must explode every five minutes in between a sequence involving bikini girls freak dancing. But it is expertly and briskly paced, with a light-hearted tone that keeps you from worrying too much about the fact that the man we’re supposed to love is a murderer and a thief. Ultimately, of course, Diabolik is a criminal and must pay for his crimes. The film’s ending is vague in its resolution but absolutely fitting. Ginco must prevail, after all. The exuberance and reckless abandon of youth must be tamed. And so we are left with Diabolik encased in a coffin forged out of his own indulgence, a gold plating from which he cannot escape…
…or can he? We’ll never really know. De Laurentiis was so pleased with the fact that Bava brought the movie in $2.6 million under its $3 million budget that he practically begged for a sequel. Unfortunately, the reportedly mild-mannered Bava could not bear the oppressive and often dictatorial producer so no sequel ever came about. We are left then with the final shot of Diabolik imprisoned by his own greed, laughing either slyly or maniacally, protected by his special suit from the molten gold but unable, as far as we can tell, to escape. His rebellion, after all, was not perfect. And while the establishment is able, at least for the time being, to contain Diabolik and his socially challenging threat, while they may suppress it, it’s unclear as to how long that will be the case. It could always resurface. It is a beautiful tongue-in-cheek ending, one that even works quite cleverly in conjunction with the fate of Valmont, who finds himself on the more fatal and literal end of greed.
Although it would seem, at first, to be a major departure from Bava’s greater body of work, most of which up to the point had been gothic horror and giallo, Diabolik still manages to cover most of the director’s pet themes and thus fits quite perfectly into his oeuvre. Diabolik is an outsider who rejects what those around him see as established common sense. Appearances are, as always, deceiving at their very best. Diabolik’s use of disguises and his foiling of Ginco’s trap by using a photograph of an empty, peaceful room are the most obvious examples. And like most of Bava’s anti-heroes, Diabolik eventually gets his comeuppance.
For my money, Diabolik is an unabashed success on all levels. The art design is without parallel. The script is crisp, witty, and fast-paced. The universe Bava creates is wild and enjoyable. And the performances – yes, even John Phillip Law’s – are wonderful. It is the ultimate super-villain movie, with a villain so charismatic that you forget he isn’t the hero. Campy, clever, and never taking itself as seriously as some dim-witted critics seem to think it does, Diabolik is one of the best, if not the best, European comic book/fantasy/sci-fi films, not to mention of the most breathlessly beautiful and fun films of the 1960s.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Claudio Gora, Mario Donen, Renzo Palmer, Caterina Boratto, Lucia Modugno, Annie Gorassini, Carlo Croccolo, Lidia Biondi, Andrea Bosic, Federico Boido, Tiberio Mitri | Screenplay: Arduino Maiuri, Mario Bava | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematographer: Antonio Rinaldi | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
So while Corman was basically getting along with AIP head honchos Sam Arkoff and John Nicholson, he thought that maybe in light of his more or less revolutionizing the way he, the studio, and horror films were regarded in America, he might be entitled to a better contract. AIP politely disagreed with him, and so Corman took himself and his idea for the third Poe film elsewhere. Because Vincent Price was under contract to AIP, he couldn’t cast Price in the lead role, and so he set about looking for a new actor to fulfill the spotlight in his production of The Premature Burial. Corman eventually came up with Ray Milland. Milland was blissfully ignorant of the fact that one day in the future AIP was going to graft his head to Rosie Grier, and so he agreed to take on the Poe-perfect role of a man obsessed with the belief that he will be buried alive, as was his cataleptic father. Because Richard Matheson was also under contract to AIP, Corman turned to screenwriters Charles Beaumont (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). The essence of the films, however, came with Corman. Like the previous two films, The Premature Burial would come steeped in the signature atmosphere of the Poe films: billowing fog tumbling across eerie landscapes, tormented souls, a psychedelically-tinted nightmare sequence, creepy old houses, brooding characters, and as is obvious from the title, a thing or two about being buried alive.
The day Corman was to begin principal photography, he was pleased to see Arkoff (or maybe Nicholson, or maybe both of them) show up on the set to wish him good luck despite the differences they’d had over Corman’s new contract. Differences, hell! It turned out that AIP had just purchased the studio for which Roger Corman was making the picture, so it was going to be an AIP film after all. Granted it was too late to recast the lead, but Milland was still thought of as an Academy Award winning actor, and not as “the white guy from The Thing with Two Heads,” so his casting in the lead was something to crow about, even if the part, like all other leads in the Poe films, was tailor-made for Vincent Price.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, an upstanding and intelligent member of the gentry who has a small quirk in the form of a near crippling fear of being buried alive. Now no one wants to be buried alive, except maybe show-off escape artists and people competing for fifty bucks and a burger on the latest reality show, but Guy’s fear of being entombed while still among the living goes way beyond the usual healthy fear of having dirt piled on top of you. So obsessed is he with the concept that it threatens to ruin his newly minted marriage to Emily Gault, who is played by Hammer Studios veteran Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein, and she would appear later in two more Corman AIP Poe films, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death) — and if you know Hazel Court, then you don’t want to derail anything involving her in your bedchamber. Guy shuns his wife and friends in favor of building the most elaborate tomb ever devised.
I’m not exactly certain what Guy’s occupation is, but it must have something to do with being an architectural, engineering, and mechanical genius, because the failsafe tomb he constructs for himself is a marvel. If I set out to build my own premature-burial-proof tomb, it would probably end up looking like a couple of pieces of plywood nailed together with a hole cut in the back so I can crawl out if I should happen to find myself mistaken for a corpse. Buy Guy’s tomb is utterly lavish. In fact, it’s seems even nicer than his home. It comes stocked complete with a break-away coffin so that should one wake up and find oneself in such a pine box, one need only tap the side to have the whole thing spring open or fall to pieces. A variety of levers sound various alarms to let everyone know he’s been mistakenly buried, just in case the half dozen or so escape hatches don’t open. And should that happen and he has to wait for someone to her the bells, he can while away the hours reclining in plush overstuffed chairs, drinking brandy, and flipping through the tomb’s selection of reading material. And should these ten thousand redundant escape plans all fail, he’s also stocked the tomb with poison, so that when he’s finished all his sausages and books, he can just kill himself rather than be bored. I’ve seen fewer failsafe devices on the nation’s nuclear arsenal! Not that I’ve seen the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but I can’t imagine it’s as well thought-out as Guy’s crypt.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but various things keep happening to keep Guy preoccupied with being buried alive. Additionally, his wife and the local quack think that if he’s ever going to make any progress in combating his phobia, he needs to, among other things, ditch the tomb. You’d think that since the tomb has brought him an unparalleled peace of mind, they’d just let it be. I mean, it is a nice crypt, after all, so why not keep it around? Even if he isn’t buried alive, it’ll be a swell place to just be buried regular and dead. This being a Corman Poe picture, it’s no great leap to figure out that someone is plotting to use Guy’s fear of premature burial to drive him mad and thus achieve some small sort of financial or property gain that hardly merits such a lavishly complex and psychologically difficult scheme. Some people would just whack him on the head with a candelabra and blame it on Colonel Mustard, but these people always have to construct intricate “drive them mad” intrigues that are as complicated as Guy’s crypt.
Like the previous two Poe films, The Premature Burial has a tendency to get bogged down beneath the weight of its own exposition-heavy plot. Unlike the previous two films, however, it doesn’t have Vincent Price on hand to liven up the material. Milland gives it the ol’ college try, but he seems lost with this type of material despite his commitment to delivering a solid performance. Where as Price would have had no problem taking the script and making it work for him, Milland’s portrayal comes across as excessively whiny at times and dreadfully dull at others. Still, at least Milland put effort into the role and manages a few strong scenes, which is more than could be said for the shameful display put on by Jason Robards when, some years later, he too found himself filling in for Vincent Price in a Poe film, that one being Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
If nothing else, The Premature Burial proves that it wasn’t just fan bias toward Vincent Price that kept Milland and the movie from earning a more cherished spot. Price was more than a fan favorite: he was an integral ingredient in making the films successful. Without him, it wasn’t just that “things just aren’t same.” His absence from the Poe films very nearly causes them to cease being Poe films. Exactly why Price is so indispensable to Corman’s Poe pictures is a little difficult to explain, but if you see them, well then you just understand. Part of it, naturally, has to do with the fact that Price was a marvel at turning a bad script into a good movie, and while the script for The Premature Burial isn’t bad per se, it is perhaps something much worse: dull.
Corman pours on the atmosphere – there is more fog here than in the previous two films combined, and believe me those films had a lot of fog in them – but Ray Milland simply doesn’t have Price’s knack for making you want to listen to him talk even during the slow spells. He never manages to invest the character with any sort of spark, and as such no real sympathy for him or his story ever develops in the viewer. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance, and Milland has nothing to be ashamed of (unlike you, Jason Robards!), but, well — just watch the end, when Guy emerges from his inevitable getting buried alive scene and has thus gone completely bonkers and launches into a gleefully mad bout of revenge. Milland is OK, but you just can’t help thinking how great the whole scene would have been if Price was given a chance to do it.
The rest of the cast performs with the usual competency one has come to expect by this point from both AIP and Hammer films, though some of the characters seem to be involved in subplots that never really go anywhere or get fully explained (why was Guy out there helping steal a corpse in the beginning of the film anyway?). Besides Hazel Court, who gets more of a chance to act here than she did in Curse of Frankenstein (and has one of the best scenes in the movie, during which she explains to Guy that he’s already dead, and his obsession with being buried alive has, in a way, already buried him alive), familiar faces like Alan Napier (Alfred the butler from the old Batman television series) and Dick Miller (The Terror, Truck Turner, Gremlins, and about ten million other movies) are on hand to round out the cast with their solid character acting. Unfortunately, the script tends to let the performers down, and almost all the characters are either undeveloped, underdeveloped, or just plain unlikable.
Without Price around to liven things up, the weakness screams at you like one of those screaming skulls. You know the ones. The ones that scream. I don’t know enough to know how closely the movie clings to the original 1844 story, but by all accounts, it sticks to the source material pretty tightly. Poe himself was possessed of a very similar fear of being buried alive, which is why it figures so frequently into his stories and thus so frequently into the Poe movies. Still, after seeing a buried alive plot in both of the previous films, one can’t help but hope for something a little different the third time out. Instead, we get the “total package” buried alive movie, one in which interment of the living isn’t just a part of the plot, but the entire plot. And speaking of plots, did I miss the part where they tell us exactly why shadowy characters are attempting to drive poor Guy insane? Plus, you’d think that after the guy has gone on and on about catalepsy for the whole movie, when he actually does lapse into a cataleptic state, they’d do more than just shrug and go, “Well, looks like he’s dead. Let’s get to burying’”
The lack of freshness combined with some gaping lack of explanations keep The Premature Burial situated firmly around or maybe, if I’m feeling good, slightly above the mediocre mark. Plus, it’s just not scary. Even with the gnarled old trees and fog, there are never any chills, and certainly nothing on par with the rampaging sister Usher in House of Usher or any number of scenes in Pit and the Pendulum. As such, Premature Burial remained for a long time the ignored entry into Corman’s cycle, more or less skipped over as people hastened to get from Pit and the Pendulum on to Tales of Terror, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, when everything was back as it should be and Vincent Price was once again stalking across the screen in period costumes. Premature Burial feels like a misfire – not a dreadful misfire, or an entirely unwatchable one, but a misfire never the less. The pieces — Corman, Poe, Price, Matheson, and musical composer Les Baxter — clicked so perfectly in the first two films that it becomes obvious something is amiss in The Premature Burial. The film does have its moments — chief among them Milland’s exquisitely enthusiastic tour of his “buried alive-proof tomb” — but the whole thing never fully gels. It was obvious that there just shouldn’t be any tinkering with the formula, so AIP made sure everything was back in place for the fourth film, the anthology Tales of Terror.
Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States | Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Dick Miller | Writer: Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell | Director: Roger Corman | Cinematographer: Floyd Crosby | Music: Ronald Stein and Les Baxter | Producer: Roger Corman
When a creature is so vile, so evil, so much an affront to the nature of the world and of God himself as is the vampire Count Dracula, there is no easy way to destroy him and keep him down. So it is that in every episode of man’s struggle against this infernal prince of darkness, we mortals seem to succeed in wholly destroying this spawn of Satan only to see him find some way to cheat death yet again, as he has for so many centuries now, so that he may once again rise up and cast his long shadow of terror and bloodshed across the countryside. It seems this notorious bloodsucker has any number of ways he can reverse the effects of his apparent destruction, but the most powerful one by far is making certain that his movie provides bushel baskets full of money for the producers.
With the power to produce so much green, it was a given that Hammer Studio’s Dracula would find a way to resurrect himself after being trapped under the ice at the end of Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Death by running water seemed a more easily circumvented fate than actor Christopher Lee’s emphatic statements regarding his unwillingness to portray the caped one again. Lee made a big name for himself with his turn as the undead ghoul in Hammer’s ground-breaking Horror of Dracula, but he was determined that the name he made wouldn’t be Dracula. So he bowed out of the sequel, Brides of Dracula, and didn’t return to the role until he was comfortable that he’d established himself as something more than the vampire count. But 1967′s Dracula, Prince of Darkness proved that audiences were still bloodthirsty not just for Dracula, but for Christopher Lee as Dracula. That people were so quick to revert to identifying him solely with Dracula made Lee squeamish about reprising the role yet again, though the outstanding success of Prince of Darkness meant that Hammer could hardly pass on making another film.
So would begin a long and sometimes irritating cycle of Christopher Lee making a Dracula movie for Hammer, complaining about what crap the film was and how he would absolutely never, ever do it again, then appearing in Hammer’s next Dracula film a year later. Although Lee did have his viable points for being dissatisfied with the role — chief among them that it grew increasingly unlike anything portrayed in the original Bram Stoker novel — in the end his continuous complaining coupled with the fact that he’d always show up to do another one “under protest” kind of makes you want to tell Christopher Lee to shut the hell up. Hey, I like me the Christopher Lee, but it’s not like the man built for himself some legacy of impeccable artistic integrity. He did show up in Chuck Norris films and other things far worse than even the least of his Hammer Dracula films. But that’s Christopher Lee for you. Sometimes he’s just a bit of a blowhard, but that doesn’t make his turn in these films any less enjoyable.
So obviously, despite Lee’s public bellyaching, Hammer managed to sign him on for a sequel to Prince of Darkness. There was really no reason to tinker with a winning formula, and so they figured they might as well bring back Terence Fisher to direct and Jimmy Sangster to do the screenplay. Things didn’t quite work out that way though, and when Fisher was injured in an auto accident, Hammer turned to Freddie Francis to fulfill the directorial duties. Additionally, Anthony Hinds ended up writing the screenplay (under his frequent pseudonym of John Elder). As good as the Sangster-Fisher team was, there was nothing to mourn in having Francis and Hinds working on the picture. Both were solid company men with a lot of good work to their credit. In fact, Freddie Francis’ tendency to experiment more with dreamlike, experimental set-ups would be a nice change from Fisher’s meticulous concentration on realism and detail.
The film lets you know right away that it isn’t going to mess around, although this warning turns out to be a bit of a fib since the movie does end up messing around a bit. But we begin with one of the finest opening sequences Hammer would devise for a Dracula movie, as a young boy goes to fulfill his duty as the local church’s bell ringer only to find the corpse of a young woman, drained completely of blood, dangling inside the bell. It’s a fantastic image in a film whose main strength is going to be in its imagery. This all occurs, we are led to understand, sometime during the events depicted in Prince of Darkness. The film then picks up some months after that one ends, with the local priest a hopeless drunk and the church abandoned. When a loudmouth, obnoxious monsignor rides into town, he berates everyone for still being afraid of Dracula even though the fiend was indisputably destroyed by that rifle-toting monk in Prince of Darkness.
To prove his point, the Monsignor insists on dragging the parish priest up to Dracula’s now-vacant castle to exorcise the grounds and scatter assorted religious iconography about the place. Unfortunately, while he’s doing this, the drunken depressed priest takes a tumble off a ledge and cracks open his head right on top of the ice beneath which lies the perfectly preserved corpse of Dracula. As blood from the priest’s head trickles through cracks in the ice, it touches Dracula’s lips and, well, there you go. Instant vampire resurrection. This process of reviving the count seems a little, you know, unimaginative. Last time, someone had to be strung above his ashes and completely gutted before Dracula was revived, but this time it just takes a couple drops of blood and a convenient ignoring of the fact that, blood of a disillusioned priest or not, Dracula was still trapped beneath running water and should have just died again instead of being able to burst forth from his icy tomb to wreak terrible vengeance upon the world.
This method of bringing Dracula back would, however, look positively inspired by the time the series got to Scars of Dracula, where the count is brought back to un-life when a random rubber bat flies into his crypt and drools some blood on him without any sort of build-up at all.
The first thing one notices about this whole opening, which is really one of the best procession of images in any Dracula film, is the pervasiveness of religious imagery. Well, I guess the first thing you might notice is how the drunk priest’s head is gushing blood in one shot and is entirely healed mere seconds later in another shot. But the religious imagery is strong too, and indeed Risen from the Grave will emerge as one of the most potently religious of the films, continuing the progression of the series from the relatively secular adventures of Van Helsing (he pays lip service to God, but his primary faith is in science and reason, and he sees vampirism in terms of being a disease) to the “I’m religious but I’ll trust my gun to do the Lord’s work” view of Father Sandor in Prince of Darkness, and now into the realm of Dracula not as a plague, but as a supernatural force that exists apart from and in defiance of the laws of a rational universe.
The Van Helsing-esque voice of the enlightened man of reason comes, somewhat more pathetically than with Van Helsing, from the character of Paul, a student and avowed atheist who is in love with the Monsignor’s niece, though the Monsignor is none too thrilled to have a Godless screwball courting a member of his family. The battle between the forces of secularism and religion is almost more prominent than the battle against Dracula, who eventually discovers that the Monsignor has stuck a big golden cross on the castle door and thus seeks ruthless revenge on the Christian defiler by enslaving the weak priest and moving into the basement of the inn where Paul works. If you’re thinking this is kind of a lame ultimate revenge against all mankind, then you’d pretty much be right. But Dracula also enslaves a buxom bar wench, so it’s not a total wash-out.
Dracula plans to eventually get around to making a vampire out of the monsignor’s niece, but he doesn’t seem to be in any big hurry, which means that while he gets to spend a lot of time hanging around in the cellar being illuminated by eerie green lights, we have to spend a lot of time watching him hang around the cellar being illuminated by eerie green lights. It does indeed make for some frighteningly effective imagery, which seems to be the entire point of this film, but a procession of eerie images doesn’t necessarily assemble into a completely enthralling or entirely coherent film. Things do drag a bit in the middle as we watch Dracula push around the wench and the priest while Paul and his love engage in late-night rendezvous on the rooftop. We know that eventually Dracula is going to kidnap her and there will be a scene of horses wildly pulling a carriage toward Castle Dracula. We just wish there wasn’t so much dead time before that happens.
This movie does contain one of the scenes that really set Christopher Lee off to ranting about how awful all the films are. Paul manages to drive a stake — and quite a large one at that — through Dracula’s heart, which Dracula proceeds to yank out and throw at Paul. Turns out you have to stake the vampire, yeah, but it’s meaningless unless you also pray while you are doing it. Paul, being an atheist or perhaps somewhat versed in vampiric lore, refuses to pray. Who’s heard of such a thing? You just slam the stake in, cut the head off, and then you’re done for the day. This particular scene drove Lee nuts. He still brings it up even today. Everyone knows that once you drive a stake into a vampire’s heart, he’s done for, prayer or no.
Gaffs like that aside, this is really rather a better entry in the series than Christopher Lee would have you believe. The story, though uneven, benefits from greater depth than usual, with the battle between secularism and Christianity adding some real meat to the non-Dracula bits. Of course, any attempt to extract some sort of final message from the film is bound to be confusing. It’s religion’s fault that Dracula gets resurrected. If the Monsignor had listened to the superstitious peasants, none of this would have happened. And it’s Paul the atheist who must come in and save the day when Christianity fails to get the job done. But Paul also winds up perhaps more open to belief in Christ by the end of the film, which is full of redemption and vampires getting impaled on big golden crucifixes. So I guess the overall religious message of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is, “don’t be an asshole.” Don’t be intolerant or a zealot, because then you just open the door for Christopher Lee to go stand on your roof while enveloped in purple mist. And while it may be cool to have Christopher Lee on your roof for a while, eventually he’s going to start asking about eating some of your chips and stuff like that.
Appearance-wise, Risen from the Grave is the best looking of all the Dracula films to date, and really one of the best looking films Hammer ever produced. The atmosphere in the film seems to be heavily influenced by the more phantasmagoric look of Mario Bava’s films, and the result is a Dracula film awash in otherworldly colors and swirling camera filters. It gives the movie a more dreamlike, hallucinogenic mood, which is perfectly fitting to mark the series’ move toward more supernatural, less “man of reason” fare. The next in the series, Taste the Blood of Dracula (it’s salty!), would contain even more overt references to Dracula not as some sort of social disease that can be explained with and combated by science, but as a creature straight from Hell imbued with the powers of Satan himself and able to be both resurrected and defeated through a series of religious or sacrilegious rituals.
Lee’s appearance, likewise, is even more ghoulish than previous incarnations. Each film sees him get more pallid and cadaverous, while his eyes get more bloodshot. He’s in snarling animal mode here, throwing people around wildly and smashing windows. He even gets a few lines this time around. It was watching this movie that I finally had my little epiphany about Dracula’s behavior. I’m slow, so you’ll have to forgive me if this was obvious to everyone else long ago. I was always a bit annoyed by the fact that although he is four or five times stronger than a regular man, Dracula’s answer to a fight is to turn tail and run. I mean, Paul isn’t exactly an imposing figure. Then it hit me, and well, all I can say is “duh.” Dracula is a vicious beast, but a beast never the less, and even the most vicious beast in nature is more likely to turn around and run away than fight. It’s a simple animal reaction to being challenged. Unless he’s really hungry, Dracula would rather take off. Not that I’d recommend combating all vampires by waving your arms in the air and yelling, “shoo!” but it seems to work sometimes. Dracula is only fierce-acting around people he already knows are weaker than him.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a nice Gothic horror despite some slow spots. It’s got a decent cast, though as always Peter Cushing is sorely missed. It has a tremendous look, smart direction, the usual great James Bernard score, and a script that shoots for more meaning than usual. Lee is less of a presence here than in the last film, and his shadow doesn’t seem to loom as powerfully over everything when he’s not present as it did in Prince of Darkness. But when he does show up, he looks exquisite. Although Lee himself runs down these later films in the series, this one is actually quite good, and the next one would be even better.
In 1960, American International Pictures – well-known for being a low-budget film production house possessed of some genuine talent – released The Fall of the House of Usher. It was something entirely new for the company: a color picture, released by itself instead of as part of a black and white double-feature package as was standard operating procedure for AIP. Director Roger Corman, one of the studio’s most valuable assets, had pushed for AIP to extend their usual shooting schedule (from ten days to fifteen!) and shoot the film in color. AIP was wary, but Corman had proven his ability to deliver profitable results for the company over and over, so after hearing his pitch, they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to his risky venture. With Corman as director, Vincent Price as the star, and Egdar Allan Poe as the source material, it seemed like it would be a decent enough success.
House of Usher was more than just a hit; it was a smash, and critics and fans alike suddenly had to reassess the way they thought about Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and AIP. It was a grand accomplishment of American horror, full of imagination and wit and ambiance. It’s arguably one the best American horror films ever made, and certainly one of the top five or six gothic horrors from the period, ranking alongside the very best from Hammer, Mario Bava, or Antonio Margheriti’s own Edgar Allan Poe film, 1964′s Castle of Blood. It certainly convinced AIP to invest more time and money (relatively speaking) in Roger Corman and a second entry into the gothic horror film drawing from the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
Corman’s initial idea for a second film was to do Masque of the Red Death, but the then recent release of Ingmar Berman’s Seventh Seal bore several very similar images to what Corman was planning for Masque. Considering the reputation Seventh Seal was building for itself as one of the great films of all time, Corman felt it prudent under the circumstances to shelve the idea for Masque for a while and go on to film one of Poe’s most famous short stories, The Pit and the Pendulum. There was just one small problem: the story was really short.
That’s why they call them short stories, after all, and no matter how you sliced it up, there wasn’t enough material in the original story to account for a feature length film. But never fear! Corman and Matheson decided to employ the approach that would work for this and plenty of other subsequent Poe adaptations (especially those directed by Gordon Hessler after Corman’s departure from the world of direction). They wrapped Poe’s story up inside a story of their own design, written to the best of their ability to feel like Poe material. In the case of Hessler’s later films, as we shall see, this didn’t work too terribly well. For Pit and Pendulum, however, Matheson and Corman hit one out of the park, or at least got a triple. If it’s not a home run, it’s only because it bears a number of similarities to House of Usher, those these similarities are there primarily because they’re ever-present in the works of Poe.
Price, playing Don Medina, once again stars as the tortured head of a family cocooned within the walls of a crumbling estate that he believes to be the architectural embodiment of evil itself. In the case of Usher, it was because so many of the relatives who lived in the palace were evil. In Pit and the Pendulum, the sole reason for the lurking sense of dread is Don Medina’s father, a former Grand Inquisitor who used the palace basement as his torture and interrogation chamber. When young Barnard (Johnathan Kerr) receives a vague letter from Medina informing him that Barnard’s sister – Medina’s wife – has died, Barnard sets out for Medina’s crumbling villa to uncover the details of his sister’s untimely passing. Though frustrated initially, he eventually learns that Medina believes his wife was literally terrified to death by something she saw in the house, and presumably, something inside the off-limits torture chamber. Medina is also haunted by the belief that his wife was actually alive when they interred her in her tomb, something the local doctor swears cannot possibly be true.
Barnard is slow to buy into Medina’s “scared to death” explanation, and with no small amount of due reason. Medina, either out of grief, encroaching madness, or dishonesty is consistently aloof and vague in his explanation of things, and though he eventually lets Barnard see the taboo torture chamber, he absolutely refuses to open a sealed door that leads to what Medina pegs as a device of unspeakable cruelty and evil. And as one might surmise, strange and inexplicable spooky goings-on start plaguing the household, so much so that Medina becomes convinced that his dead wife, angry at having been entombed alive, has returned from the grave to seek unholy revenge.
To satisfy Medina’s terror and Barnard’s demand for some sane story of his sister’s passing, they decide to open the tomb. Things, as you would guess, only get worse from there, driving Medina to the point of insanity, then right over the edge of the cliff. The action culminates in the titular pit as Medina, his mind shattered, begins to believe he is his own Inquisitor father, and that it’s high time he got some use out of the old torture implements. It won’t be much of a surprise to fans of Corman’s Poe films to discover that there is a dastardly conspiracy behind the ghostly occurrences.
Despite the obvious similarity to House of Usher — the evil palace, the wretched ancestors, the premature burial of someone’s sister, and Price as a man at the edge of his sanity — Pit and the Pendulum doesn’t feel like a rehash as much as it does feel like a variation on a theme. Indeed, most of the Poe films would involve, in one way or another, the concept of premature burial and the torment of a man by specters from beyond the grave. But Matheson’s script manages to make it all feel, if not completely different, then at least looked at from a different angle. Different enough so that the movie still feels fresh.
In many ways, in fact, Pit and the Pendulum emerges as an even better film than its predecessor. There is something even more clinging, eerie, and nightmarish about the atmosphere. If Roderick Usher’s house was the very picture of decaying elegance, then Don Medina’s cliffside palace takes it to the next level. A sense of dread lurks in every corner. The set decoration is, as with House of Usher, extremely detailed and quite gorgeous. Corman departs from the previous film, and from the Hammer films that inspired him, by setting his tale not in the Victorian era, but instead much earlier. During the 1600s, I believe (Hammer’s Twins of Evil would later place itself during the same era, though in a much different setting). The costumes, like the sets, are superb. And like the first film, the ultimate success or failure of the movie rests on the shoulders of Vincent Price.
They prove most capable shoulders. Where the character of Roderick Usher was quiet, soft-spoke, and sinister, Don Medina doesn’t suffer from Usher’s peculiar sensitivity to loud noises, and so Price is allowed a little more freedom in his depiction of the main character. Price was an actor who was able to gauge more or less perfectly just how far over the top he has to play a character to make it successful. Medina allows him to push things a little further than the previous film, but his performance is infused with an amazing degree of pathos. Medina lacks any of the sinister tendencies of Roderick Usher, and so our sympathies are completely with him as we watch him struggle first with the fear that he buried his wife alive, and later that she is haunting him as revenge. Price’s performance is nothing short of brilliant, and his inevitable breakdown (it is a horror film, after all) is wrenching because he’s such a decent guy.
Countering Price’s noteworthy turn is his co-star, the relatively inexperienced Jonathan Kerr. Kerr’s delivery is stiff and at times awkward, and I believe he sets some sort of record for use of the word, “sir” in a single film. I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as calling it a bad performance, but compared to the rest of the cast, he’s the obvious weak link. And speaking of the rest of the cast, now would be a good time to mention that Pit and the Pendulum marks the America film debut of Italian horror queen Barbara Steele. Steele first came to horror prominence with her career-defining role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and she quickly became one of the icons of the horror genre. She appears here, in flashbacks and during the finale, to torment Price’s Don Medino with her beyond-the-grave beauty. Truth be told, it’s rather a limited role, similar in scope to later horror icon teaming like Price-Lee in Hessler’s Poe films, but then any Barbara Steele is good Barbara Steele as far as I’m concerned.
As with House of Usher, the cast is relatively restricted, though Corman does allow himself one or two more extra characters for a grand total of six — seven if you count the carriage driver from the beginning of the film who has no lines. With such a small cast, each actor counts, even in a relatively small role, and with the aforementioned exception, everyone is up to the task. In addition, they’re given gorgeously spooky sets to inhabit, and the script affords some real chills that I found to be much scarier than anything in the previous film. Of particular note is the scene in which they open the tomb of Medina’s wife to find her corpse contorted into a hideous shrieking pose. It’s quite a striking and terrifying image that relies less on being gross and more on playing to our basic fears, for though we may not obsess about it like Edgar Allan Poe or the characters in these movies, I doubt really that anyone takes too much comfort in the thought of being buried alive. The scene in the tomb capitalizes perfectly on our dread. Whispering voices add to the chills, and when the pit and pendulum torture chamber is finally revealed, it is a marvelous sight the likes of which wouldn’t really be topped until some of the wonderfully phantasmagoric scenes in Masque of the Red Death. The revelation of what exactly is going on isn’t a complete surprise for us looking back, now that so many films with a similar twist have been made, but it’s still decent if not a little underdeveloped in the motivation category.
Whether or not Pit and the Pendulum is a better film than House of Usher is a moot question. What is important is that it’s not a disappointment. It maintains the lofty standards set by the first film and proved the success — both artistically and financially — was no fluke. That Corman showed he could do it again at the same level and with the same results at the box office and from critics practically guaranteed that he would be making Poe films for AIP for as long as they could get away with it.
Release Date: 1961 | Country: United States | Starring: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, Patrick Westwood, Lynette Bernay, Larry Turner, Mary Menzies, Charles Victor | Screenplay: Richard Matheson | Director: by Roger Corman | Cinematography: Floyd Crosby | Music: Les Baxter