The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Pit and the Pendulum, the 1961 thriller which was the follow-up to Roger Corman’s surprisingly successful House of Usher, and the second of what would ultimately be eight of Corman’s Poe-based independent features. Once again starring horror film stalwart Vincent Price, and shot on an elaborate set built from cannibalized pieces rented from other studios, it was an even bigger hit than its predecessor and achieved a substantial amount of critical acclaim, despite its low budget, becoming a classic staple of later TV “creature feature” programs and providing considerable influence over the future of horror films, particularly those produced in Italy through the late ’60s and ’70s.

The original short story by Edgar Allan Poe is a brief, moody affair, more or less the description of a prisoner’s experience as he is tortured by the Spanish Inquisition with the swinging, bladed contraption of its title. This being clearly insufficient as the basis for a feature-length film, Corman re-hired Usher screenwriter, Richard Matheson- a respected wordsmith responsible for, among other things, numerous well-known stories and several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone– to fashion a suitable narrative that could feature Poe’s horrific scenario as part of a longer tale. Matheson’s solution is the 16th-Century tale of a young Englishman who travels to the remote Spanish castle of Don Nicholas, son of an infamous Inquisitor, seeking an explanation for the unexpected death of his sister, who had been the Don’s bride. Though his host is cordial and consumed with sorrow over the loss of his love, the young man’s suspicions begin to deepen as dark secrets are revealed surrounding the castle and its lord- including the presence of a horrific torture chamber which lies beneath it. The common threads of Poe’s work- madness-inducing grief, untimely death, premature burial- are intricately woven into Matheson’s script, giving it a strong feeling of authenticity, though there is little resemblance to anything in the author’s actual story; even the original setting within the Spanish Inquisition has been distanced, if not quite removed, by an intervening generation- though the connection has been maintained enough to provide the means of replicating Poe’s vision for film’s climactic sequence. Matheson was (and is) a highly renowned writer, and it is probably not an exaggeration to say that it was ultimately his contribution, more than any other, that raised The Pit and the Pendulum, as well as many of the other Poe features, above the level of the usual cheap exploitative fodder for which Corman was known; his fabricated storyline includes compelling situations and characters, clever and intricate plotting with a heavy sense of irony, and rich thematic layering which touches on our most universal fears and subconscious concerns.

It’s not prestige-picture material, though, make no mistake. Many of the conceits Matheson puts into place to facilitate the developments of his melodramatic plot do not hold up to even the most cursory logic. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the dialogue has a jarringly modern, banal sound to it, especially against the gothic backdrop and in comparison with some of the more florid passages in his script; coupled with the contemporary bearing and mannerisms of most of the performers, who seem vaguely uncomfortable and out of place in their period costumes, it makes for a certain low-brow quality that reminds us just how far-fetched the whole thing is. But that, of course, is part of the fun; The Pit and the Pendulum is a no-brainer, designed to keep its audience on edge not because of some vague intellectual idea of horror, but in anticipation of the inevitable gruesome shocks promised by its premise. Corman’s filmmaking agenda as a producer was always about knowing what his audience wanted and giving it to them, and he knew that what they would want was no different with these Poe films than from any of his other shockers, despite their literary pedigree. His goal was to provide a good hour and twenty minutes of chills and thrills, and that is what he delivered, with little concern for stylistic considerations that would make for a more erudite filmgoing experience.

This is not to say, however, that Corman the director eschews all artistic concerns; on the contrary, his work here is remarkably polished and coherent, with a highly effective visual style that goes a long way towards creating the film’s luridly baroque air. He adheres to a conceptual notion in which the events of the film, like Poe’s fiction, represent the contents of the subconscious, welling up to manifest in his woeful tale; consequently, he takes pains to establish his setting as isolated from the real world, surrounding the seaside castle with endlessly crashing waves and stormy skies. Further underlining the psychological nature of the drama, he depicts various memories and perceptual experiences in heightened style, shooting some sequences in deep monochromatic hues, using extreme distortion and camera angles, and steeping everything in a garish, dramatic palette- starting with a psychedelically surreal opening sequence featuring swirling pools of liquid color. Beyond his deliberate visual touches, he also delivers a well-paced, savvy piece of cinematic narrative, keeping the aura of tension and impending menace quite tangible despite the fact that much of the film contains no overtly horrific content. To be sure, when it’s there, he lays it on as thick as the cobwebs which cover the walls of the castle’s secret dungeon, which of course, as has been noted, is precisely what we want; and when we reach the payoff, the final sequence in which our young hero is subjected by his now-demented brother-in-law to the titular torture device, Corman’s efforts come to their fruition. It’s a genuinely hair-raising scene, enhanced by weird and stylized filmmaking, which truly captures the core of what makes this concept horrific- the psychological terror of awaiting the inevitable, grisly doom that methodically descends like clockwork, an imagined outcome that is ultimately far more disturbing than any blood-soaked act of dismemberment that might actually be shown onscreen.

Corman’s success at cashing in on popular trends with his cheaply-made quickies (he famously shot one of his most lucrative earlier films, The Little Shop of Horrors, in two days and one night) had by this point in his career afforded him the opportunity of securing bigger-name talent to help hedge his bets at the box office. Vincent Price, well established as a popular horror star, had taken on the lead role in Usher, and here returns once more, as he would continue to do throughout Corman’s “Poe cycle.” This time around he plays Don Nicholas, a sensitive soul living in the shadow of his father’s cruel public image and even crueler private deeds, and driven to the point of madness by the tragic death of his beautiful wife. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will eventually lose his sanity, of course; and Price plays with that boundary like the pro that he is, giving us a doe-eyed, fragile gentility that contrasts- and yet nevertheless offers frequent glimpses of- the roaring monster he will become by the end, with lots of overwrought moments of soul-shaking despair and horror thrown in throughout. It’s a flamboyantly campy performance, really- almost, but not quite, over-the-top; but after all, this kind of vaguely hokey melodrama requires a bit of hamminess in order to keep the emotional pitch high, and Price certainly provides it. Upon the film’s release, his work was roasted by several critics as laughable; in retrospect, however, it’s precisely the right blend of the serious and the ridiculous to keep us engaged and entertained, and the sense of gentle self-parody it suggests has come to be seen as one of the familiar hallmarks of this particular style and era.

It’s a good thing, actually, that Price’s work here is so gleefully theatrical, for his co-stars are considerably blander. The ostensible leading man, John Kerr, was a Tony-winning actor who started his Hollywood career as one of the most promising young actors of the late ‘50s; by the time he made this film, his star was almost faded. He is handsome and capable, but there is a lack of passion here that makes him far less interesting or sympathetic than his supposed antagonist, and he has a certain frat boy quality that hampers his believability as an early Renaissance nobleman. I’m not saying his performance is weak- indeed, he is more than adequate and far more convincing than many of the actors who filled this type of role in other Corman films, and by the time he gets strapped down under that swinging blade in the finale we definitely care about his fate- but he is far less compelling or memorable than Price. More interesting is Barbara Steele, fierce and beautiful as the doomed, not-quite-innocent young bride- though Corman dubbed her lines with another actress, fearing that Steele’s coarse English accent would not jibe with the sound of the other players. Luana Anders exudes kindness and refreshing normalcy as Price’s younger sister and Kerr’s obligatory love interest; and Anthony Carbone is fine as the family friend and doctor, though he would be likely be more convincing as a Vegas mobster in a slick suit. On the whole, unquestionably, it’s Price’s show- but that, perhaps, is as it should be.

No doubt due to the fact that, by the time of The Pit and the Pendulum, Corman and his crew were well-schooled in the art of movie-making on the fly, the film overall has fine production values. Considering it was filmed in three weeks with a reported budget of $300,000- a third of which was Price’s salary- it has a surprisingly polished and professional look. The sets are truly impressive, executed by Daniel Haller and Harry Reif on a large soundstage and using, as mentioned above, rented set pieces from other studios to patch together the interiors of the Don’s foreboding castle. For the exterior shots, process shots featuring matte paintings create a decidedly artificial look (it should be remembered that these kind of effects looked considerably more convincing, somehow, on a big screen) which nevertheless contributes to the film’s dreamlike- or should I say nightmarish- effect. The cinematography by Floyd Crosby is rich and weighty, and the score by Les Baxter (who was a well-known singer and arranger of jazz and popular music) is serviceably eerie, if not exactly memorable.

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of those movies that has become a classic despite itself, a monument to a particular era of filmmaking that contains numerous influential elements; these elements were not intended, necessarily, to be groundbreaking, just to be scary- such as the shots of a desiccated corpse frozen in the agony of trying to claw free of a premature grave, an iconic moment which has been echoed countless times over the subsequent decades. The movie’s status is partly to do with its exposure on television, where a whole generation of impressionable young people was acquainted with its fruity frights. Just because it’s a classic, however, doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece; it’s still an example of hack-work elevated by the contributions of a few ringers, and boosted by the self-assured confidence that comes from being on a roll, as Corman and his team certainly were. Still, even if it’s not a great movie, it’s a damn good one, with a respectable commitment to quality and a strong dedication to good story-telling. If that story is ultimately more than a little cheesy, it is nevertheless engaging and- more to the point- undeniably spooky and disturbing, even as it generates laughs (which may not be as unintentional as one might think. This is no small feat, and it doesn’t happen accidentally; The Pit and the Pendulum succeeds thanks to the skill of the artists behind it, whose sole purpose was to stir up the uncomfortable corners of the psyche, and in the end, that’s about as close to the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe as any filmmaker could hope to get.

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Today’s cinema adventure: Death Race 2000, the 1975 fantasy-adventure exploitation film, produced by B-movie king Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, about a gladiatorial motor race taking place in a futuristic America ruled by a totalitarian government. Marked by its clearly low budget and campy sensibilities, it was (of course) lambasted by critics upon release- but has since become a bona fide cult classic, spawning numerous spin-offs in other media, countless imitators, and a big-budget Hollywood remake.

Wanting to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the then-upcoming film Rollerball, Corman found suitable source material in a short story, by sometime colleague Ib Melchior (who has a fascinating history in his own right, which you can read about here), called The Racer. Adapted into a screenplay by Robert Thom, then rewritten by Charles Griffith at the insistence of director Bartel, it visualizes a not-too-distant future in which America has been devastated by economic collapse and is under the control of an Orwellian regime (headed by a smarmy figure known simply as “Mr. President”), possessing the combined authority of church, state and media, and dedicated to a policy of “minority privilege.” Sponsored by the government is a yearly cross-country race in which contestants- paired with “navigators” who are apparently also designated sex partners- not only vie to be first across the finish line, but are awarded points for killing hapless pedestrians. Televised and spun for mass consumption, this ritualistic slaughter is further complicated by the interference of a group of rebels bent on sabotaging the proceedings and kidnapping the star driver, a mythic figure known as Frankenstein, whose survival of previous races has left him half-man/half-machine- or at least, according to his P.R.

Corman had always targeted the youth audience with his trend-savvy drive-in fodder, and by the 1970s had become associated with the counter-culture movement; Death Race 2000 struck just the right blend of anti-establishment sentiment and testosterone-fueled fantasy for his purposes. Using mostly re-bodied Volkswagens to stand-in for the souped-up fantasy roadsters driven by the race contestants, filmed on public roadways without permits, and starring David Carradine for box office insurance, the film was shot for a budget of $300,000 and ended up earning $5 million- critical derision notwithstanding.

The disapproval of 1975 critics was perhaps easy to understand. Death Race 2000 is a prime example of quickie low-budget movie making designed to attract a young and unsophisticated audience by titillating them with gratuitous violence and nudity. However, though that audience of pot-smoking drop-outs (and wannabe drop-outs) may have responded to these elements- which the movie certainly delivered- they also responded to something the establishment critics didn’t seem to notice: wrapped up in its lurid, ridiculous premise and its cheap, exploitational thrills is a core of smart social satire and subversive anarchy that captured the zeitgeist of these disillusioned flower-children; the darkly zany vision of the future presented here was clearly an over-the-top parody of the present-day world they lived in, from which the only real possibility of escape was to destroy the system from within- and this, of course, is exactly the scenario of Death Race 2000. While the movie’s well-intentioned revolutionaries are largely ineffectual in their war against the established order, and its media-hypnotized masses are willing lambs to the slaughter, its darkly wisecracking anti-hero- a trusted tool of the government and the best player in their monstrous game- is the only one who has the power to bring an end to their reign of deceit and oppression. It’s anti-authoritarian wish-fulfillment fantasy at its most unapologetic, and the sentiment that drives it is arguably even stronger today than it was then.

Despite this heavy-sounding sociopolitical subtext, the primary reason for watching Death Race 2000 is the same today as it was 37 years ago: it’s a hoot. Director Bartel brings his brand of dry whackiness to the table here, making the most of the story’s frequently ludicrous conceits with tongue-in-cheek self-parody; we don’t have to take the movie seriously because he reminds us throughout that it doesn’t take itself that way, allowing us to shut down our brains and just enjoy the absurdities onscreen. As for all that gratuitous nudity and violence, it certainly is gratuitous- and gleefully so; the movie revels in its tawdriness, delivering glossy, seventies-flavored sex and gore as often as possible without any attempt to justify it. The bloody parts, in particular, are highlighted with great delight, and they are somehow all the more satisfying for being so clearly fake; indeed, most of the carnage borders on slapstick comedy, and the truly graphic stuff is so fleeting you can miss it if you blink- because if it lasted any longer the bargain-basement trickery being employed would be even more obvious than it is already. It’s just more of the ridiculousness that gives the movie its deliberately mindless appeal; and it probably goes without saying that, by today’s standards, what we see in Death Race 2000 is pretty tame. At any rate, what 1975 critics found objectionable seems today like a pretty good recommendation for the film.

The acting here is more or less what you might expect- which means, actually, that it’s pretty good, all things considered. Each performer brings exactly what is required to their character, and in many cases adds a substantial portion of their own personality to it as well, fleshing out these formulaic ciphers and giving them a life over-and-above their roles in this twisted Wacky Racers-style scenario. Some of the faces are familiar, such as future Love Boat-and-U.S.-Congressional lacky Fred Grandy and former Warhol “superstar” Mary Woronov, the latter in particular being one of the film’s highlights with her surprisingly multi-faceted performance as one of the race’s contestants- although, in truth, Woronov’s presence in such films is always a delight, due to her ability to bring so much of her smart, sexy and sweet self into the mix, so her performance here is not that surprising, after all. For many, the biggest surprise will be the presence of Sylvester Stallone as Frankenstein’s chief rival in the race, a swaggering braggart in a gangster persona who takes everything way too seriously; Stallone, who was doubtless working on the screenplay for Rocky even as he filmed this, shows the charisma and ability that would soon make him a star, even though it’s hard to tell, sometimes, if his effectiveness here is due to his actual work or to the foreshadowing of his future screen persona. As for the movie’s star, David Carradine, he was fresh from his success on TV’s Kung Fu, and he was anxious to shed the image he had gained from it (though Corman had initially wanted anti-establishment icon Peter Fonda for the role); he gives a performance that, in another context, would probably have gained him a lot of critical acclaim, investing his brooding, bitter, bad-ass character with the depth, intelligence and humor necessary to make him not only interesting, but likeable- and, importantly, though perhaps incidentally, creates a persona that adds weight to the underlying elements that give Death Race 2000 its unexpected substance.

As for the film’s technical aspects, it manages to find a fairly coherent visual style despite its low budget, injecting its fruity satirical elements into the design in such a way that the cheapness actually seems to enhance the final effect. The costumes are a blend of cock-eyed futuristic imagining and modern-day tackiness, though its worth noting the striking resemblance between Frankenstein’s intimidating black outfit with the iconic design for Darth Vader, who would first appear on the screen a good two years later. The scenic elements are handled with a similar hybrid approach. The tinselly, cartoonish trappings of the futuristic setting are grafted onto the obviously contemporary surroundings, making its satirical connection to the present more obvious; the garish, cartoonish designs for the cars smacks of adolescent male automotive fantasy, and the fact that these re-purposed vehicles actually seem to perform is impressive in itself- in reality they were usually filmed rolling downhill after being pushed into motion, and the cameras were sped up to make it look like they were moving faster than they really were. The more elaborate effects- such as the single matte painting used to create the future New York skyline- are laughably shoddy, which of course only adds to the overall appeal, as do such obvious earmarks of the grade-Z budget as the undisguised exit door in Frankenstein’s “hotel suite” and the amateurish graphics of the various signage used throughout.

Death Race 2000 was remade a few years back, boosted with big Hollywood money but no doubt targeted at this generation’s version of the same audience. I confess I haven’t seen it; but I must say I find it difficult to believe that an A-list production would have quite the same effect as the original. Watching Corman and Bartel’s film gives the impression that you are somehow participating in an underground revolution, poking fun at “The Man” under his oblivious nose. With real money and studio backing, it seems to me such a film would have a different kind of phoniness to it, one far more insidious and subtle than the cardboard backdrops and obvious stage blood of the original- but that’s a review I haven’t written yet, though perhaps one day I will. In the meantime, I can heartily endorse the low-rent thrills of this cult-classic gem from the past; though the future it foresees is a little behind schedule, it still may come- but if it does, at least we can say we were warned.\