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).
Yes, it’s yet another review where I talk about a British movie company that isn’t Hammer wherein I mention Hammer every other word. Sorry about that, I’ll try and get it out of my system early on. Hammer Hammer Hammer. The problem is, most writing on the lower tier of British film companies in the 50s and 60s was on H*****, since they were the most successful both commercially and artistically. Other companies that made genre films, such as Amicus, have garnered critical interest by association through shared casts and crews. Part of this is because Hammer (and Amicus too on some occasions) could take a B-movie budget and create something that looked like an A-movie, um, movie. But beneath Hammer there were a whole strata of other companies that made real B-movies, the ones that were only ever destined to be second features or, with a bit of luck, entries in cheap TV anthology shows. It’s only recently that these films have gained any sort of academic and collector interest.
The businesses in question have pleasantly workaday, provincial names; Butcher’s Film Service, Grand National Films, Present Day Productions, Adelphi Films and the legendary cheapest of the cheap, Danziger Productions. This company was founded by Jewish-American brothers, Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger, who had what one would have to describe as chequered pasts. Edward was a lawyer who had been involved in the Nuremberg trials during his army service. Harry Lee studied music at the New York Academy, and depending on whose account you believe had either played trumpet in a cruise ship band, or been first violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He’d also found time to explore the Amazon and win a Silver Star and Purple Heart. At some point he even managed to market a brand of liqueur, Danziger Gold, so called because of the bits of gold floating in it.
The brothers had previously operated a sound studio in New York, specialising in the dubbing of foreign films for American release. Later they switched to producing features of their own in the US before trying their luck in Britain. The reason the Danzigers abandoned their homeland is, like everything else about them, somewhat murky, though it may have been to avoid the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. They saw the film business as just that; the cheaper you could make the product, the more profit you stood to retain. And the Danzigers made them cheap; as Edward once observed, “nobody makes ‘em cheaper!” It was something of a running joke/horror story among the London acting community, if your current employment was less than salubrious; ‘it could be worse, you could be making a film for the Danzigers.’ Actors who were smart took their salaries in cash on a daily basis.
Initially Edward and Harry Lee rented space from existing facilities, but this was uneconomical for their thrifty productions. After failing to buy Beaconsfield Studios, the brothers purchased some land not far from the famous Elstree. The site contained abandoned aircraft engine testing sheds from world war II. They expanded and converted these buildings into well-equipped soundstages, naming the complex with some hubris ‘New Elstree.’ From here they could knock out a movie in ten days and an episode of TV in two and a half. And knock them out they did; like the rest of the B-producers, mostly murder mysteries and comedy, though with the occasional foray into sci-fi (Devil Girl From Mars, Satellite in the Sky). They called on a stable of solid actors who weren’t stars, or at least not yet – Venerated Horror Icon Christopher Lee starred in a pre-Hammer film entitled Alias John Preston for the company, bemoaning his salary of £75. Other actors would pop up regularly, including Francis Matthews and Dermot Walsh (there was some kind of rule that two out of every three Brit B-pictures had to star Dermot Walsh). Occasionally other companies would rent space at the studio – Quatermass II (a.k.a. Enemy From Space) was filmed there. The Danzigers actually became very successful at TV series, with Mark Saber/Saber of London and Richard the Lionheart (starring, yes, Dermot Walsh) being especially popular.
I’m not really sure why the brothers chose to go with an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, outside of their habit of ‘adapting’ previously existing material, often without credit (rip-off is such an ugly word, isn’t it?). True, interest in horror films based on classic literary works was exploding thanks to, er, some outfit who’s name may or may not begin with an ‘H’. It’s even possible The Tell-Tale Heart was an attempt to hitch a ride on the success of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation Fall of the House of Usher. This was released in the UK in the summer of 1960, and if anyone could knock out a cash-in movie in record time, it was the Danzigers. As it happened, The Tell-Tale Heart sat on the shelf for a further three years, and wasn’t released until after the brothers had pulled out of film and TV production altogether (again for somewhat murky reasons, though the studio not being profitable enough is one likely cause). But more on that a little later.
The film starts with a classic Universal-style warning, including a title card with the following cautionary information: “To those who are squeamish, or react nervously to shock…” (there follows a blank screen with the sound of a relentless, sinister beating heart) “close your eyes, and do not look at the screen again until it stops!” The effect is spoiled a little by the ‘boingggg!’ of a kettle drum as the beating starts – composers Tony Crombie and Bill LeSage seemed to think this was a sinister sound as they used it throughout the score, but the effect is sadly more comedic.
When we rejoin the action, we find a man screaming in the grip of a nightmare. His landlady and a friend burst in on him, crying “Mr Poe! Edgar!” The author (for it is allegedly he) takes some form of medication, then drifts off into another dream, where he is now Edgar Marsh (Laurence Payne, TV’s Sexton Blake and both versions of The Trollenberg Terror). Marsh is a timid reference librarian, desperately shy around women, and only able to express any kind of sexuality via his stash of smutty, nude daguerreotypes. Poor guy, if only there had been a worldwide web in Victorian times. Maybe with some kind of cool, steam-powered brass computers to download from ‘Mrs. Arbuthnot’s Celebrated Collection of the Empire’s Finest Suicide Girls, dot com.’ I’m pretty sure speculative fiction writers have imagined a steampunk version of everything else, so why not steampunk internet porn?
Where was I?
Oh yes. From the window of his bedroom, Edgar can see into the chamber of sexy flower shop employee Betty Claire (the lovely Adrienne Corri, Vampire Circus). Edgar is immediately smitten, but is too nervous to talk to her. He asks his much more worldly friend Carl Loomis (the inevitable Dermot Walsh, Ghost Ship) for advice. With Carl’s help, Edgar manages to persuade Betty to join him for dinner, but he’s still painfully shy. Escorting her home, Edgar is afraid the stairway to Betty’s room is too dark and asks to see her to the door. This is somewhat amusing since the interior set is extremely well lit, though we’re clearly meant to think it isn’t. To Corri’s credit she manages to read her line – about a mean landlady refusing to waste money on candles – with a straight face. Anyway, at the door Edgar makes a clumsy pass, and is given his marching orders.
The next day, Edgar is distraught and apologises profusely. Betty, taking pity on the shy fellow, agrees on another date. Unfortunately at the restaurant it’s quickly obvious she is finding Edgar very tiresome, though he remains oblivious. By coincidence Carl is dining there too. Edgar is delighted to see his friend, while Betty is immediately taken with the confident and handsome Carl. Betty is so besotted she fabricates an excuse to interrupt Edgar’s chess game the next day, because she knows Carl is his opponent. To Carl’s credit he warns Edgar not get in too deep, as he can clearly see what sort of woman Betty is. His words fall on deaf ears though; Edgar is already planning to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage. Poor Edgar is now looking like something of an idiot, what with Carl’s reluctance to hurt his friend crumbling, and Betty all but tearing Carl’s pants off in public. Unfortunately that night Edgar, having been rebuffed once more, observes Carl having his fiendish way with Betty in her room. The next morning Carl says he’ll break it to Edgar gently, though Betty doesn’t care as long as they’re together. But Carl never gets the chance; that night the supposedly sick Edgar sends for him, only to beat him to death with a poker.
After Carl has been missing for a few days, Betty contacts the police. The Inspector (John Scott, who had a long career playing policemen in bit parts) is unimpressed. This is not the first time Carl as fled town to avoid either gambling debts or an overly-attentive woman. She visits Edgar at work, and he feigns surprise at the level of her concern for his friend. In fact Edgar seems generally more relaxed and confident around her. However, later that night he is disturbed by persistent, repetitive noises; a clock, a dripping faucet, and finally the beating of Carl’s restless heart from beneath the drawing room floorboards. Betty observes the deterioration in Edgar’s behaviour as the heart torments him, and becomes suspicious. She sees Edgar return from hacking out Carl’s heart and burying it in the park, and realises that he must have have seen their deceitful night of passion. The police are still not interested though, what with Edgar being a respectable member of the community (I love the idea that a reference librarian is surely not capable of committing such a horrible crime).
Betty has no option but to sneak into Edgar’s house while he’s out trying to drown his sorrows. She finds the bloodstained, bent poker and takes it to the police. Finally the Inspector agrees to question him, but Edgar can hardly make out his words as he now hears nothing but the beating of the heart. Unable to stand it any more, Edgar is driven to make a mad confession. He is shot and killed by the Inspector as he tries to escape, and for good measure gets impaled on a spike (which just happened to have been standing in his hallway, apparently). We then jump back to author-Edgar, who tells his friend Carl about this latest horrible dream, how they were both there along with a mysterious girl. Looking from the window, Edgar sees a woman resembling Betty, and the heart begins to beat once more…
The Tell-Tale Heart was among Poe’s most filmed stories even by the time of this adaptation, including a celebrated animated version from a couple of years earlier. The Danzigers’ regular writers, Eldon Howard (Edward’s father-in-law) and future Avengers creator Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), got around this by throwing out almost all of the original text. In the short story – which like a lot of Poe’s work, puts the emphasis firmly on ‘short’ – the narrator kills his elderly landlord because he’s afraid of the old man’s evil eye. Howard and Clemens add an entirely new framework in much the same way Richard Matheson did with Pit and the Pendulum, retaining only the element of the beating heart itself. And the script is extremely good, providing just enough character beats for us to know immediately who these people are. We aren’t explicitly told why Edgar is so terrified and repressed around ladies, but the way he gently caresses a portrait of a stern older woman (presumably his mother) tells us all we need to know.
The cast, despite being made up of B-listers, is excellent. Laurence Payne has to do most of the heavy lifting, and he’s well up to the task. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom as Edgar guilelessly raves about his best friend to Betty, oblivious to the fact that she’s almost drooling in his presence. Edgar’s rage and descent into madness could slip into the ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actor, but Payne makes it feel very real and tragic. It’s to his credit that Edgar remains sympathetic even after his terrible crime. Dermot Walsh is also very good, mixing the confidence of the cad-about-town with a genuine reluctance to hurt his friend, and then guilt at having done so. Adrienne Corri has the least enviable task, as her character is probably the least likeable. Betty does little to hide her boredom with Edgar or her lust for Carl, and is clearly indifferent to hurting her first suitor’s feelings. It’s quite satisfying that, although she survives the film (or story-within-a-film), she has to live with the death and dismemberment of her lover.
Director Ernest Morris was a regular on television and the B-picture circuit, working with the Danzigers frequently. He turns in some excellent work here, helped by Jimmy Wilson’s stark black & white cinematography and Norman G. Arnold & Peter Russell’s production design. The Danzigers’ movies often borrowed furniture from The Mayfair Hotel, which they also owned, but the results are impressive. The studio-bound nature of the film (including backlot exteriors on New Elstree’s standing street set) serves to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and repression in Edgar’s life. Morris makes the most of close-ups on Laurence Payne’s distraught, haggard face, and the sparingly-used special effects (a rug or patch of grass pulsing along with the heartbeat) are very effective. Morris’s best work comes in a scene where Edgar, Betty and Carl go out to dinner. As Edgar and Betty dance, the camera focuses on her gaze, always fixated on Carl even as she is spun around the floor by the delighted, oblivious Edgar.
Which isn’t to say that the film is perfect by any means. The score doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening onscreen, especially as far as that bloody kettle drum goes. The scenes with the police inspector smack a little too much of filler, though not to the extent of most B-pictures of this era. And there are a few amusing missteps, such as Edgar living on the Rue Morgue – it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to be set in London, or at least another English city. This certainly isn’t the only film to make the mistake that Victorian prostitutes were sexy young things rather than prematurely-aged, gin soaked derelicts, but it’s an anachronism that always amuses me.
Though The Tell-Tale Heart must rank among the best work to come out of the Danzigers’ operation, it wasn’t released until after they’d abandoned filmmaking. The movie struggled with the British Board of Film Censors due to the gory and sexual content. In particular, a film where the main character is a voyeur with definite women issues, was troublesome coming in the wake of Peeping Tom earlier the same year. It seems the Danzigers didn’t have the same type of collaborative relationship with the BBFC that Hammer did, and The Tell-Tale Heart languished unreleased until 1963. Thankfully it’s now available on DVD, though if you want to see it I’d recommend the remastered UK release. The American disc from Alpha Video uses a misframed, blown-out print that does the film no favours at all. As well as being a great little movie and one of the best British B-films, The Tell-Tale Heart is a pleasant reminder of when movie producers were fast-talking, cigar-chomping* chancers who were out to make a quick buck, but could sometimes create great work almost by accident. As Brian Clemens said of the Danzigers in a recent interview, “they weren’t the Mafia. But they were close.”
*n.b. I have no evidence that the Danzigers spoke above normal speed or smoked cigars, chomped or otherwise. But you get the idea.
Release Year: 1963 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh, Selma Vaz Díaz, John Scott, John Martin, Annette Carell, David Lander, Rosemary Rotheray, Suzanne Fuller, Yvonne Buckingham, Pamela Plant, Graham Ashley | Screenplay: Brian Clemens, Eldon Howard | Director: Ernest Morris | Cinematography: Jimmy Wilson | Music: Tony Crombie, Bill LeSage | Producer: Edward J. & Harry Lee Danziger
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
By 1965, the year this film was released, American International Pictures had enjoyed considerable success mining the works of Edgar Allan Poe for a series of films starring Vincent Price (and Ray Milland, once) and directed by Roger Corman. The streak began with Corman’s low-budget but lavish looking adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher and continued with The Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. These films represented something new and relatively risky for AIP, then a studio that specialized in making cheap, fast black and white double features. Corman, inspired by the work that was happening at England’s Hammer Studio, convinced AIP to let him shoot in color, a single film, with a bigger budget (though still tiny) and longer shooting schedule (though still incredibly fast). The resulting film, The Fall of the House of Usher, did big time box office for AIP, is considered one of the all-time great horror films, and convinced AIP of a couple things. First, that color films with more money put into them were a worthwhile investment, especially when someone as good as Corman at turning out expensive looking results for pennies was on board. Second, that they should tack Edgar Allan Poe’s name onto everything and plumb his works mercilessly.
Although all the films in the first AIP Poe cycle were good, and most of them were great, several of them had very little to do with the Poe poem or short story from which they took their name. The Raven, for example, uses the Poe poem for its opening scene, with Price being plagued by a mysterious raven. But as soon as the raven starts wisecracking in Peter Lorre’s voice, you can guess that the Poe material is out the window. The Pit and the Pendulum takes the Poe source material and extends it with a number of subplots original to the screenplay or snatched piecemeal from other sources. And in the case of The Haunted Palace — one of the very best films in the Poe cycle — it wasn’t based on Poe at all. It was actually based on The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. But AIP felt that audiences wouldn’t know who the hell Lovecraft was. Distributors agreed. And so, despite Corman’s protests, it became an Edgar Allan Poe movie.
Dubious connections to the source material not withstanding, all of the films were very good (well, I’m not that fond of Tales of Terror, but that’s because I don’t care for anthology films), thanks to the line-up they enjoyed: Corman as director, Price (and Milland once) as star, and Richard Matheson as the screenwriter (most of the time). Matheson was to AIP horror what Jimmy Sangster was to Hammer horror: consistently wonderful. In 1965, AIP decided to stretch Poe’s connection even further, tapping one of his short tales called The City in the Sea as a source for War Gods of the Deep. But other than having Price read some of the story for the opening credits, War Gods of the Deep has very little to do with Poe. AIP would take a similar approach during it’s second round of Poe horror films, with The Witchfinder General being retitled Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm — a title justified by having Price read some of the original poem before the film launched off into a plot that has pretty much nothing to do with the poem or Poe. In that case, however, the movie was good.
In the case of War Gods of the Deep, the results were…not as impressive. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Although Roger Corman wasn’t directing, AIp assigned Jacques Tourneur to the film. Tourneur is perhaps best known as the director of such films as Night of the Demon and the Val Lewton produced films Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. All of them are considered classics, and deservedly so. On top of that, he directed one of the all time great noir films, 1947′s Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum. And then there was the classic Burt Lancaster swashbuckler epic The Flame and the Arrow. By the 1960s, however, Tourneur’s best years were perhaps behind him, and he found himself working in television and at AIP, first as director of the Poe-esque Comedy of Terrors which features one of my all-time favorite idiotically hilarious scenes (when awful opera singing causes Vincent Price’s undertaker top hat to pop off wit a “boop!” sound effect), and then as director on War Gods of the Deep.
And while the film isn’t written by Richard Matheson (most famous for being the author who penned I Am Legend, the book that inspired everything from Night of the Living Dead to Last Man on Earth to The Asylum’s I Am Omega), AIP did get Charles Bennett, who was no slouch in the screenwriting department. Among his sundry credits are the very first filmed version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the black and white version made as part of the Climax! television series, where James Bond goes by Jimmy and was played by Barry Nelson. Bennett also wrote plenty of classic scripts, including work for Hitchcock (Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent), the adventure classic King Solomon’s Mines, and Tourneur’s own Night of the Demon.
He was also frequently tapped by producer Irwin Allen both for movie (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and television (Land of the Giants, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series) scripts. Of course, there are a few turkeys in his resume, including the epic misfires The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen’s attempt to tell in sweeping epic fashion the complete history of mankind, from caveman times to the present and starring pretty much every B lister and has-been ever, from the past their prime Marx Brothers to Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Heddy Lamar, and of course, Vincent Price as Ol’ Mr. Scratch) and Cecil B. DeMille’s sweeping and often dull tale of piracy and romance on the 19th Century Georgia coast, Reap the Wild Wind. On the other hand, that’s the movie where Bennett was smart enough to write a scene where John Wayne battles a giant squid, so that counts for something. Still, that’s a basically solid resume, especially for this type of film.
Despite the presence of Vincent Price and the shaky Poe tie-in, War Gods of the Deep isn’t considered part of the Poe cycle, not so much because it wasn’t directed by Corman, but more because it plays out less like a gothic horror film and more like the Clif Notes version of a Jules Verne fantasy adventure film. Of course, Disney had already made pretty much the be-all and end-all Jules Verne fantasy adventure film in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Anything else was going to pale in comparison to a film that had the benefit of Disney’s vast financial resources and Kirk Douglas shaking his bon-bon while singing sea chanties and wearing a jaunty little cap. But that never stopped AIP, or anyone else for that matter. And so, in 1965, Tourneur, Bennett, Price, and AIP took us under the ocean for what we all hoped would be a really cool adventure film.
And things start off well enough. Beautiful Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Pajama Party) is minding her own business in her castle by the coast bedroom when, all of a sudden, she is attacked and kidnapped by a hideous gillman who looks like that dude who helped Lando fly the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Perturbed by the kidnapping of his beloved by this uppity haddock, square-jawed hero Ben Harris (reliable Tab Hunter) and his nebbish, ferret-faced sidekick Harold Tufnell-Jones (Disney live-action film regular David Tomilson) follow in leisurely pursuit. And for some reason, Tufnell-Jones (presumably an ancestor of legendary heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnell) insists on bring along his trusty pet: a chicken in a basket. Why exactly, this guy goes everywhere with a chicken is a mystery. Why he is a bachelor, of course, is not. Tufnell-Jones and his chicken are there to provide frequent comic relief. Guess how many times you will laugh at their shenanigans!
Ben and the chicken lover soon find themselves in a maze of sub-aquatic (but never the less dry) caves inhabited by a population of long-lived men ruled over by the mad Captain Hugh (Vincent Price). It seems that Price and his men were once smugglers and, while fleeing from the authorities, stumbled upon this network of sub-aquatic caves leading to the remnants of a city constructed by a highly advanced civilization. By the time Price arrived, however, the society was centuries into decline, the secrets of their technology being lost and the former inhabitants being reduced to nothing more than animalistic gillmen. Price and company made themselves at home amid the decaying remains of the city under the sea, and something about the air down there and the lack of exposure to UV light has resulted in them living for hundreds of years.
Price commands the gillmen, for they consider him their god for one reason or another (no problem — I sort of consider him a god as well) and he had them kidnap Jill for the usual reason: she is the exact spitting image of the captain’s long dead true love. When our heroes arrive to rescue her, they promptly get captured but stave off execution by pretending to be geologists who can help Price out with the big problem: the volcano. Everyone spends some time stalking around the cave-palace, which like pretty much every undersea kingdom in the history of movies about undersea kingdoms, is threatened by a nearby underwater volcano that is going to erupt any moment now. Eventually, Ben, Jill, and their comic relief load are forced to don unwieldy Victorian-style scuba gear (which, for some reason, demands gigantic helmets into which you can fit a man’s head and his accompanying chicken) and flee for their lives with Hugh and his murderous followers in hot pursuit.
And by hot pursuit, I mean…well, let me explain this in detail. You see, everyone is underwater. When you are in water, you swim. It’s really the best way to get around. That’s why all fish do it. That’s why pretty much everyone does it except for those sprinters who practice by trying to run underwater. That established, we then move on to the fact that watching people swim in movies is usually boring. The pitfalls of scuba scenes in cinema are well documented. So how could you take a scene — scuba diving underwater — that could be really boring even if properly done, and ensure that it’s even more boring than you could possibly imagine? Well, instead of swimming, the people could be walking underwater. Yes, indeed. War Gods of the Deep is one of the only movies that thought what people really wanted to see was a foot chase on the floor of the ocean, with people flopping about awkwardly and moving incredibly slowly. But that’s not really enough, you also have to make the scene go on for like ten minutes, and pad it out with dialog-free close-ups of Tufnell-Jones and his chicken looking around.
Now keep in mind that I have a pretty big tolerance for underwater scenes, owing largely to my fascination with what Cousteau referred to as “the silent world” and my love of diving. So trust me when I tell you that this underwater foot chase scene is one of the most horribly boring scenes I’ve ever seen. They try to spice things up by having guys shoot crossbows from time to time, but since no one ever actually gets hit, that never pays off. And every now and then, some of the gillmen swim up and mess around with Ben and the crew, presumably confused by the fact that these humans are walking underwater instead of swimming (thus the ability of the gillmen to swim circles around them). Despite the fact tat the gillmen can swim, breathe underwater, and aren’t weighed down by cumbersome iron helmets, they aren’t very effective at attacking our slowly fleeing heroes. You can pretty much defeat them by swatting at them in that slow-motion way that occurs when you are underwater. It’s a tremendous relief when everyone resurfaces inside some weird temple. The volcano explodes, a giant hand falls on Vincent Price, and a singularly terrifying moment occurs when the heroes put their scuba gear back on. Dear God, no! Please! No more scenes of people awkwardly walking around underwater! This time, however, we’re in luck, because the good guys crawl out of the water and the movie ends.
I’m not sure what went wrong. Good director, good screenwriter, a good cast. I mean, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure, but he’s fine in this role, even though a lot of people pick on his performance. He’s a one-note character, but so is everyone else. And Hunter proves adept at singing the note “stiff straight man.” Susan Hart is vapid and has nothing to do, but she does that nothing well. There’s no chemistry at all between her and Hunter, and once again, as I did with Arabian Adventure, I can’t help but think that this movie would have been greatly improved if our lovers were played by Doug McClure and Caroline Munro. But Hunter and hart are acceptable. Heck, even comic relief guy is unfunny but relatively inoffensive and easy to ignore. To some degree, the blame for this misfire falls on the producer, Louis Heyward, who insisted on monkeying with the script endlessly and much to Tourneur’s annoyance. But AIP sided with Heyward in the conflict, and his changes remained despite the protests of Tourneur, Vincent Price (who had great respect for Tourneur and very little respect for Heyward), and original screenwriter Bennett. But that can only go so far in explaining things — the nail in the coffin of an already flawed work, as it were.
And you know, if I’m replacing cast members, we might as well get rid of David Tomlinson and replace him with Terry-Thomas.
Maybe the whole thing played out better on paper, and no realized how boring it was going to be when actually committed to film. Actually, let me alter that. This movie really isn’t terrible up until the underwater foot chase. It’s no classic of fantasy adventure cinema, but it’s harmless enough. But the underwater footage deep sixes the rest of the movie, which just isn’t buoyant enough to stay afloat with the dead albatross of the underwater foot chase around it’s neck. Is that enough seafarin’ allusions for ya? Then let’s stop beating that dead seahorse and move on to some of the film’s other problems. First and foremost is, and I never thought I’d say this, Vincent Price’s performance. We’ve seen Price play it cool and reserved before to great effect, but the decision for him to play mad Cap’n Hugh with Fall of the Hous eof Usher style reserve was, in my opinion, a tremendous mistake. This movie could have survived its dreadful underwater chase scene if Price had been hamming it up and playing Hugh as crazy and nutty as the script alludes to him being.
Instead, Price’s Hugh comes off as dull. The script is too thin to lend the character a sense of gravity, so there’s no real emotional reaction to him. He’s a villain you hate, or love to hate, or relish, or grow to sympathize with. He merely exists on film for a duration of time, and then a big stone hand falls on him. I mean, this is a mad sea captain living in an undersea city that looks like a crumbling Victorian castle and commanding an army of mutant gillmen while giving speeches about the end of the world. Why on earth would anyone think to play that character with quiet reserve? Vincent Price is, as I think I’ve written before, one of my favorite actors. Quite possibly, he’s my most favorite actor. He never gives less than 100%, and he doesn’t give less than 100% here. But the character is so boring, and Price plays it so straight, that War Gods of the Deep becomes perhaps the only film in which Price is upstaged by a irritating guy with a chicken in a basket.
Speaking of the chicken — what the hell was that about? It’s not like the chicken ever does anything wacky, or like it jumps out and pecks Price on the foot or something. It is simply carried around for the entire movie, having no point at all. Even within the realm of unfunny comic relief, surely no one thinks the mere presence of a chicken is hilarious. A monkey, sure. But a chicken? I don’t get it. This was apparently one of Louis Heyward’s most important contributions t the script, and it’s obvious why everyone else involved with the film thought the guy was a jack-ass. It’s just another way to pad out a really threadbare script. It seems like Bennett got a great concept but quickly wrote himself into a corner, possibly because of budgetary constraints — but I’m not going to buy that considering how many exciting and imaginative films were done with as little or even less money.
Not being able to come up with anything for anyone to do, the movie falls back on repetitive dialog scenes in which Vincent Price explains to us that the glowing,pulsating volcano is a threat (because we wouldn’t have figured it out after the first warning) or in which Tab Hunter and the guy with the chicken ask other people if they remember how to get to the surface. The sudden presence of a beautiful woman who is to be the sole property of the captain amid an undersea kingdom populated entirely by men lends itself to potential conflict, but that’s never bothered with. Or the use of the dim-witted gillmen as thugs and sacrificial lambs who perhaps begin to resent the captain’s manipulation of them? But no, it never goes in that direction either. Like the characters in the movie, it just sort of half-heartedly wanders around the same caverns over and over, until the volcano finally erupts.
Still, as dull as this film turns out to be, there are some redeeming qualities. Well, there’s one. The sets are really nice. And the gillmen are kind of cool looking, even if they end up having very little to do. Tourneur — accustomed to working in black and white and employing shadows to great effect — turns out to be equally adept at manipulating th candy colored Technicolor hues. Although War Gods of the Deep isn’t a good film to watch, it’s a great film to look at. Tourneur’s direction coupled with cinematography by Stephen Dade is gorgeous to behold. And as with the sets, War Gods of the Deep has excellent costumes and the look of a much more expensive production than it actually was.
But that’s precious little to go on, especially when you could be spending your time with far superior aquatic adventures, like the aforementioned Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Japanese film Atragon (from which this film steals some scenes, incidentally). This is also a sad film to end up being the last in Tourneur’s career. If only a giant squid had attacked the city or something, but no. That would have been something interesting, and this film is committed to making sure nothing interesting happens. It’s all, as I said, a tremendous disappointment given the talented cast and crew assembled. But it’s one misstep after another, making War Gods of the Deep the extremely rare crappy fantasy film I actually can’t recommend. Well, maybe watch it once…but just once.
Release Year: 1965 | Country: United States and England | Starring: Vincent Price, David Tomlinson, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, John Le Mesurier, Harry Oscar, Derek Newark, Roy Patrick | Writer: Charles Bennett, Louis Heyward | Director: Jacques Tourneur | Cinematographer: Stephen Dade | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: George Willoughby | Alternate Titles: City Under the Sea
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.
Anyone claiming that Spirits of the Dead isn’t a good movie is probably only just saying that because Vadim’s contribution to this anthology of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations as conceived by three of Europe’s maverick directors is so sloppy and unengaging. Vadim’s contribution, “Metzengerstein,” is certainly not the way you’d want to start a film. As was par for the man, Vadim casts his current sexy main squeeze in the lead, which just happened at the time to be Jane Fonda. The duo were fresh off Barbarella, and this story was originally envisioned as a feature film follow-up to that piece of sci-fi pop art. How they could have every stretched this thing out to a full running time is beyond me, though it’s not as if Vadim wasn’t a pro at stretching out thin-to-nonexistent plots and pasting them together with eye-popping, mind blowing costume and set design. Fonda plays the Countess Metzengerstein, heir to a vast fortune she squanders by throwing lavish orgies and torturing the underlings. Actually, they’re rather dull and lifeless orgies. You know, orgies always seem like a good idea until you try and hammer out the logistics of the whole thing. As for me, I’d be too worried about people knocking stuff over. Anyway, she delights in hurling barbs over the fence at her more modest cousin, played by none other than Jane’s brother, Peter. Eventually, she becomes sexually obsessed with him — kind of, well, you know, but then this is Roger Vadim we’re talking about, and it was the sixties — until he rebuffs her advances. I mean, heck, Henry was probably already pretty steamed at the both of them for being a coupla hippies. Incest would have really set him off.
As revenge, the mad Ms. Metzengerstein burns down his stables, and he in turn dies in the fire trying to save his horses. Or so it would seem. A big black stallion bursts through the flames and gallops to safety, but there is no record of such a horse in the stable. Metzengerstein becomes convinced that the horse is the reincarnation of her beloved cousin, and her obsession with the horse crosses into madness and, frankly, borders on bestiality. Despite all the weird stuff thrown into the mix, this is a decidedly dull and uninspired way to kick off the film. The costuming, usually one of Vadim’s only strong points, is relatively without shock or beauty. Jane dons some navel-exposing Little Lord Fauntleroy type outfits, but everything else looks like it’s on loan from the local community theater. The cinematography is listless, and Vadim’s usually striking composition of scenes is non-existent. In addition, everything is shot in soft-focus “Playboy-o-vision.” The English speaking actors are dubbed into French in the currently available version, which means the only way we can judge their performances is through body language, most of which consists of them staring half-stoned at the camera.
The tone of the film is all wrong too, at least in my opinion. A tale of mystery and the bizarre, as this is meant to be, should have some sense of menace and the macabre, some sort of tension. There is none of that here, and the film instead unfolds like a languid, ethereal, and intensely boring dream. Fairy tales and Cocteau Twins songs conjure up more darkness and dread than this supposed Edgar Allen Poe tale. There are some nice crumbling castles and decaying seaside scenery, but Vadim doesn’t seem to understand how to take thematic advantage of it or relate it to the decaying morality and mental state of his central Nero/Caligula-like figure (though I must say I bet Jane Fonda’s figure is better than Nero or Caligula’s). When you fail to match even someone as hit-or-miss with similar atmosphere as, say, France’s Jean Rollin, you know you’re way off the mark. It’s like Vadim wasn’t even trying here. The hilariously silly ending was repeated in Vadim’s 1973 film Don Juan (Or if Don Juan Were a Woman), which we covered right up there at the very beginning of this journal.
Things pick up, but only just, for the second story in the trilogy. Luis Malle directs “William Wilson.” Malle is probably most infamous for flirting with child pornography when he introduced the world to Brooke Shields in his 1978 film Pretty Baby. Before that, he was a member of the French New Wave, which helped get him this gig. He’s pretty far off his game for this outing, though, turning in an entry that manages to be less ponderous and a little more tense and eerie than Vadim’s meandering hunk of nonsense, but it still just doesn’t play out the way it should, perhaps because the story itself has been done so many times and this one offers nothing new. French heartthrob Alain Delon stars as the titular Wilson, whom we meet as he stumbles into a confessional and claims to have killed a man. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the history of Wilson, who in every regard is a grade-a prick. As a young boy attending a military school where his classmate was no doubt Damien from The Omen II, he encounters a boy with the same name as he who seems dedicated to countering everything he does. He encounters this double, who even grows to look exactly like him, throughout various points in his life until, ultimately, they face one another in a fencing duel.
There’s very little to surprise here. The man fighting his doppleganger, and by killing it killing himself, is nothing new, and Malle’s approach is so straight-forward and by the books that the story, while decent for a single viewing, has nothing more to offer. Like Vadim, Malle seems to almost be phoning it in just to collect his paycheck. The primary difference is that the performers, native French speakers, are better and the story is, as I said, OK at least for the first go-round. Brigitte Bardot shows up briefly in a gambling scene. All in all, the segment isn’t bad. Direction is nice, acting is good, and it moves at a fair clip. There are also a few effective moments, chiefly the scene of a young Wilson lowering a new student into a barrel full of rats and a later scene in which Wilson, now a medical student, seeks to practice his dissection technique on a living subject. So OK, it’s not bad. It’s just not that interesting.
If you make it through the awful first story and middling second, they pay-off is Federico Fellini’s entry, the final piece in the trilogy and easily one of the most delirious, grotesque, and utterly insane forty minutes of film you’ll ever come across. Fellini was known for a lot of things, not the least of which was his fondness for the absurd. If you’re familiar with the director, and you should at least try to be, then try to imagine everything about him and his style distilled down and concentrated in one forty-minute sequence. Quite frankly, it’s almost too much, and that’s simply divine.
His story is “Toby Dammit,” based loosely on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” A wild-eyed, completely mad looking Terence Stamp stars as Dammit, a drunken, wild British film actor who seems to be hovering on the brink of a career collapse. He travels to Italy to star in a film in which Jesus is reincarnated as a pioneer in the American West, but nothing about his trip to Rome is the least bit ordinary. Fellini saturates his film in colors, and they’re all the wrong ones for what should be going on. Think of film that has been cross-processed. The world of Toby Dammit is awash in red and yellow, billowing orange clouds and dust, like driving through someone’s hallucination of the end of the world. Given the Biblical nature of the film Dammit is to be starring in, it wouldn’t surprise me if Fellini’s own inspiration for the look of the film came straight from the Book of Revelations.
Dammit’s biggest problem, besides his addiction to and disdain for fame, is that he is haunted by visions of a smiling young blonde girl (shades of Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill) who he believes to be The Devil himself. We follow Dammit onto a bizarre talk show, an even more bizarre awards show, and finally a manic, out of control car ride as he attempts to escape the increasingly bizarre and artificial landscape around him (people on the street are frozen in mid-motion, and eventually become mannequins).
The difference between the two French directors and the Italian Fellini couldn’t be more obvious. He seizes his story with gusto, indulging every bizarre notion that crosses his mind and throwing it all onto the screen with a madcap zeal totally lacking in Vadim’s entry and an absolute lack of predictability as seen in Malle’s. Nothing is the slightest bit real. It’s all highly stylized and has its grotesque alien factor cranked to the very top. Everyone is grossly overdone. Their make-up is outrageous; their movements are more the movements of stage props and puppets. Lights flash and glitter from every angle, and a non-stop of psychedelic detail and sheer lunacy require that you watch the segment several times just to catch everything that goes on in each scene.
And standing above this gaudy, gorgeous horror show, this gleeful dissection of fame and the film industry (or rather, the industries that affix themselves to the film industry) is Terence Stamp, white-faced and genuinely looking like he’s just come of a weeklong binge. He’s haggard and sweaty and pasty and looks utterly spent, while at the same time seeming completely and utterly hysterical. Although in the currently available version all his dialog has been dubbed into French, unlike the Fondas in the first segment, he gives you plenty more by which to judge his frenzied performance. He’s a whirlwind of agitated energy, and it’s one of the best performances in the career of one of England’s best actors. It’s impossible not to compare him here to Malcolm McDowell’s equally cracked performance in 1971′s A Clockwork Orange. I’m no expert on the film, but I’m willing to bet Stamp’s turn as Dammit (right down to the wild driving scene) was a major influence on both Kubrick as director and McDowell as actor. Spirits of the Dead is owned by Fellini’s segment, and Stamp owns that segment. It is sublime, and a must-see.
Where Vadim and Malle try, or we assume they try, to invoke dreamlike and Gothic horror atmospheres respectively, grounding themselves in historical settings and costumes, Fellini sets his film in a warped and twisted version of the present, a fever dream where the mood he goes for is more one of psychosis and hysteria than creeping dread (or oozing boredom, in Vadim’s case). “Toby Dammit” is as funny as it is warped. It is a celebration, in it’s own way, and by dispensing entirely with the “typical” Poe setting, Fellini seems to have achieved the only truly eerie Poe feeling in the entire anthology, though it might be Poe on one of his famous drug binges. Every scene drips with the promise of menace, albeit a completely absurd one, and his ending is as comical as it is spooky. And those images of the maniacally grinning little girl/Satan? Positively brilliant. The whole thing is an orgy of a psychotic, surreal Hell on Earth populated by annoying comedians and glittering women in gigantic false eyelashes.
So skip the first segment. Sit through Malle’s middle segment, but for the devil’s ball-bouncing sake, don’t miss Fellini’s finale. It’s the sort of lunatic filmmaking that makes you happy to be watching a movie. It’s a five-star segment trapped in an otherwise two-star film, but more than justifies the effort of getting through the film.