Hessler and Price are together again (for the first time) for a Poe adaptation that actually has a little something to do with Poe, or at least as much as any AIP Poe film has to do with Poe. Poe’s short story, “The Oblong Box,” has to do with a man who witnesses the obsession of an artist friend on a ship with an oblong shipping crate. So committed is the man, seeming delirious and mad, to this box that when the ship is wrecked during a storm, he sinks to the bottom of the ocean with the box rather than abandon it. Not to spoil the surprise, but it was a coffin containing his dead wife, though no one knew of the contents lest they refuse to travel overseas with a corpse. Hessler’s film does indeed contain a coffin that is referred to as an oblong box. And there is an artist, though he himself has no coffin. Beyond that, this film has as much to do with Poe as does the average movie in which someone inherits a wily, diaper-wearing ape that solves a crime.
I’m guessing child protection agencies today would cringe at the thought of a wee sprout staying up until two or three in the morning just so he can thrill as Boris Karloff lurks in some shadows or Vincent Price bugs out his eyes at some fantastic and horrible sight. But for you Teleport City readers, such behavior should be par for the course, and I figure it’s healthier than watching realty television, where there is just as much family dysfunction but far fewer werewolves. The first AIP horror films I remember seeing were Cry of the Banshee and The Terror. I would see Cry of the Banshee pop up once every couple of years, and then when I got cable television, The Terror seemed to pop up every other night. Cry of the Banshee I first saw on a wildly enjoyable night that also boasted broadcast of the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, from back when children’s movies used to be fun and imaginative and sometimes even dark, scary, and not filled with sassy pre-teens driving go-carts and having sleepovers. instead, they had drunks dancing jigs and Sean Connery punching people in the face.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
In 1960, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror and one of the best Gothic horror films from any country. Although more sedate and slower paced, finally the United States had an answer to the wild, Technicolor horror films from England’s Hammer Studio.
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
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
So this is the one that started it all, so to speak, so long as you consider “it all” to be the first cycle of films based, sometimes extremely loosely, on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and directed by low-budget legend Roger Corman. Prior to this film, Corman had made a name for himself slapping together drive-in quickies while Price had become a beloved horror film icon working with William Castle. Film production company AIP had specialized primarily in black-and-white genre pictures, made two at a time with ten-day shooting schedules. Everyone came together for this historic meeting of elements that remains, to this day, one of the best examples of American-made gothic horror films. Corman’s Poe films for American International Pictures became to the United States what Hammer films were in England: low budget, wonderfully acted, gorgeously designed horror films dripping with atmosphere and literary tradition. It was Corman’s first picture in scope, and one of AIP’s first color films to be sold as an individual movie rather than as part of a package. It also had an extended shooting schedule – a whopping fifteen days as opposed to ten.