Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Down And Still Down It Came

American International Pictures made so much money with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, studio heads Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff quickly hired director Roger Corman to film another Edgar Allan Poe story in 1961. Since "The Pit and the Pendulum" is only 6200 words in length, Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson had to create the first two acts from scratch, saving the pit and the pendulum for the film’s climax.

John Kerr (SOUTH PACIFIC) plays a young Englishman, Francis Barnard (none of the cast speaks with British or Spanish accents), who arrives at the 16th-century castle of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to pay his respects to his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), Medina’s wife. The don, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and the family doctor (Anthony Carbone) are evasive about the manner of Elizabeth’s death, so Francis demands to stick around and investigate.

Anyone who questions Corman’s directorial chops would sing a different tune upon watching PIT AND THE PENDULUM. Let’s face it—not a whole hell of a lot occurs in the film until very late, but Corman’s skillful blocking and gliding camera maintain the viewer’s interest amid the stiff performances and dialogue. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby uses distorted lenses and post-production tinting to add an otherworldliness to the flashback sequences, and art director Daniel Haller’s large, detailed sets provide production value the budget could not.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” was probably chosen because of its highly visual nature (Corman wanted to do “Masque of the Red Death,” which he later filmed in 1964), but stretching Poe’s story to 80 minutes is no easy task. Matheson turns the tale into an old-fashioned ghost story and provides Nicholas Medina with a mental imbalance that shows off Price’s gloriously florid excesses. The other actors, frankly, look amateurish in his presence.

The pendulum finally appears 69 minutes in, and it’s a spectacular example of production design, along with Haller’s set and the matte painting that gives it scale. PIT was also a success for AIP, and Corman directed six more Poe thrillers over the next four years.

No comments: