Halloween Havoc!: THE BLACK CAT (Universal 1934)

THE BLACK CAT has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe , but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this thoroughly dark, twisted film. Not only is it the first teaming of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi , it’s their only movie together that plants the two stars on equal ground. It’s also the best film ever made by cult director Edagr G. Ulmer , who’d never again get the opportunity to work at a major studio, or the chance to work with a pair of legends like Boris and Bela in one film.

Bela is Dr. Vitus Verdegast, eminent Hungarian psychiatrist, returning after 15 long years in a Russian prison camp to “visit an old friend” at Marmaros, “the greatest graveyard in the world”, where tens of thousands died during WWI. Vitus is forced by chance to spend the train ride with American honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison, he a “writer of unimportant novels”. They share a cab through rocky terrain during a blinding thunderstorm that causes the car to crash, injuring Joan. Vitus and the couple, along with Wedegast’s manservant Thamal, are forced to seek refuge at the fortress home of Vitus’s “friend”, Engineer Hjalmar Poelzig.

Boris is Poelzig, looking like the devil himself, whip thin and moving as slow as the living dead. The Austrian architect sold out his countrymen during the war, and has returned to the scene of his crimes. Vitus believes Poelzig has his wife and daughter, both named Karen, and has come for revenge, but his deathly fear of black cats paralyzes him. Poelzig is also the High Priest of a Satanic cult, and soon has designs on Joan, leading to a deadly game of chess for her immortal soul…

The Twin Titans of Terror play off each other well, with Bela the Avenging Angel to Boris’s Demonic Deacon. The censors had a fit when they read the script by Peter Ruric, demanding many changes, though Ulmer does gets away with a lot here. Poelzig’s home is a bizarre, Art Deco shrine to decadence, featuring a hall of dead women suspended in glass cases (including Vitus’s wife), a masterpiece of the macabre by Art Director Charles D. Hall and an uncredited Ulmer. The penultimate scene where Vitus, having tied Poelzig to his embalming rack, begins to skin the engineer alive, “slowly, bit by bit”, with a gleefully mad bug-eyed Bela, is shown in shadow, punctuated by Boris’s agonized screams, and is without a doubt one of the most gruesome of the 1930’s horror cycle.

David Manners of DRACULA and THE MUMMY plays Peter, and though many deride him in this I thought he did a fine job. Jacqueline Wells as Joan was a stalwart of Universal ‘B’ films; she did much better when she moved to Warners in 1941 and changed her name to Julie Bishop. Others in the cast are Harry Cording (Thamal), Lucille Lund, Henry Armetta , and Egon Brecher. Familiar Faces in the devil’s cult include King Baggot, Symona Boniface, Lois January, and Michael Mark , as well as a familiar back of the head… that’s Ulmer’s future BLUEBEARD star John Carradine playing the organ!

THE BLACK CAT is the first horror film to feature a continuous music score, as Heinz Roemheld incorporates pieces from Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and that old Universal stand-by “Swan Lake”. The music adds to the film’s atmosphere, and though Carl Laemmle hated it, Ulmer insisted upon it, and would utilize classical music throughout his career. But it wasn’t the director’s stubbornness that caused him to be banned from the major studios, nor was it THE BLACK CAT’s graphic for their time scenes of horror, or the perverse nature of the material… it was love. Ulmer met and had an affair with Shirley Kessler Alexander, wife of Laemmle’s nephew Max, and the scandal landed Ulmer on Poverty Row for the rest of his life. Edgar and Shirley married in 1936, and together they collaborated  on all of Ulmer’s films until the end of his days. THE BLACK CAT is a masterpiece of the macabre, and a must for this Halloween season!

 

 

Creature Double Feature 5: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (AIP 1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (AIP 1965)

Boston’s WLVI-TV 56 ran it’s ‘Creature Double Feature’ series from 1972 to 1983. Though fans remember it mostly for those fabulous giant monster movies starring Godzilla and friends, CDF occasionally featured some monsters of a different kind… 

Roger Corman and Vincent Price had teamed to make five successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, beginning with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER (there was a sixth, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, that starred Ray Milland rather than Price). Studio execs James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, joined forces with Britain’s Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (makers of the CARRY ON comedies) and shipped Corman and company to jolly ol’ England for the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Both turned out to be high points in the Corman/Price/Poe series.

1964’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is a sadistic, psychedelic nightmare of a film, with Corman ably assisted by ace cinematographer and future director Nicholas Roeg. Price plays Italian nobleman Prince Prospero, a Satan worshipper and dabbler in the black arts, who locks the lords and ladies of his decadent court in his castle while the plague of the Red Death ravages the villagers. He’s kidnapped local beauty Francesca, her lover Gino, and her father to amuse himself and his guests, trying to force the two men to battle to the death while also attempting to seduce the innocent Francesca. Prospero’s lady Julianna is scheming to make herself the bride of Satan, while guest Alfredo humiliates the diminutive paramour of dwarf Hop-Toad.

Julianna, jealous of Prospero’s fondness for Francesca, gives her the key to the dungeon to free Gino and her dad, only to be stopped by Prospero. This ends badly, as the men are made to slice their arms with daggers, one of which is poisoned, then Father is killed by Prospero’s hand, sending Gino out to face the Red Death. Julianna pays for her treachery against Prospero (following a weird sequence of her in a dreamlike state, surrounded by dancing demons and giving herself to Satan) by being pecked to death by a raven. Hop-Toad gets revenge of his own by giving Alfredo an ape costume to wear to the Masquerade, then tying him to a chandelier, hoisting him up, and burning him alive! The Masquerade itself is a bacchanalian orgy of decadence, interrupted by an uninvited guest… the Red Death personified!

Price is a malevolent force of evil, a sadist who degrades the members of his court and delights in his devilish cruelty. He also gives a powerful soliloquy  on the nature of terror: “Terror? What do you know of Terror, Alfredo?… (a clock ticks in the background) Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few”. Jane Asher (then-girlfriend of Beatle Paul McCartney ) is good as the peasant Francesca, as are horror vets Hazel Court as Julianna and Patrick Magee as Alfredo. The wildly vivid color scheme, shocking debauchery, and pervasive aura of death and decay make THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH a horror classic, and a fan favorite.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last in the Corman/Price/Poe cycle, and in my opinion the best in the series. It’s a melancholy mood piece with supernatural and psychological overtones, and an overwhelmingly gloomy sense of dread. Beautiful Rowena Trevanian (Elizabeth Shepherd), out on a fox hunt, is thrown off her horse, landing at the gravesite of Ligeia Fell. She’s startled by Ligeia’s widowed husband Verden (Price), a sinister sort decked out in dark glasses (“I live at night, my vision is painfully acute”). He takes her to his neglected, cobwebbed abbey home to nurse her wounds, where his only companion is ancient servant Kendrick (Oliver Johnston) and a mysterious black cat.

Rowena’s boyfriend Christopher (John Westbrook) and father Lord Trevanian (Derek Francis) come calling to retrieve her, but Rowena feels strangely attracted to the sorrowful Fell. The attraction is mutual… Rowena is a dead ringer for the deceased Ligeia. Soon the two are married, the abbey is spruced up, and the happy (?) couple give a dinner party, at which Fell gives a demonstration in hypnotism. The results are terrifying, as Ligeia’s spirit temporarily possesses the body of Rowena. The wedded bliss is short-lived, as Rowena is locked away in her room, and Verden is prone to taking long midnight walks. Rowena confides to Christopher she believes Ligeia is still alive, and he unearths her body, only to discover a wax effigy….

Price is appropriately moody, and his slow descent into madness is glorious to behold.  The ending features a battle between Price and that darn black cat ending in one of Corman’s patented frightening, flaming finales. The Vaseline-lensed, slow-motion nightmare sequence with Rowena chased through the abbey by her feline foe is Roger at his trippiest! The whole production looks more expensive than it was, and takes Poe’s story outdoors for the first time in the series. The screenplay by (all in one breath) future-Oscar-winner-for-CHINATOWN-Robert-Towne is dead on point (no pun intended!), and the movie’s score by Kenneth V. Jones is what I consider the best in the series. After THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, Corman grew tired of the horror genre in general, and the Poe pictures in particular, and moved on to more contemporary films. AIP wasn’t quite ready to give up on their cash cow however, and produced a handful of other, lesser Price/Poe outings. With the exception of THE CONQUEROR WORM (which really has nothing to do with Poe), none of them matched the dark, disturbing tales of terror concocted by Roger Corman from 1960 to 1965. Edgar Allan Poe may not have recognized some of them, but I’m sure America’s original Master of the Macabre would approve.

More “Creature Double Feature” posts –

THE BLACK SCORPION and THE KILLER SHREWS

IT CAME FROM BENEATHE THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD and THE GIANT CLAW

RODAN and MOTHRA

 

Halloween Havoc!: Vincent Price in THE CONQUEROR WORM (AIP 1968)

British director Michael Reeves cemented his reputation in horror with three films before his untimely death from a barbiturate overdose at age 25, all featuring icons of the genre. The first was the Italian lensed THE SHE BEAST (1966) starring beautiful Barbara Steele. The second, 1967’s THE SORCERERS , headlined none other than Boris Karloff. Reeves’ third and final production, 1968’s THE CONQUEROR WORM (also know by the more apt WITCHFINDER GENERAL), saw Vincent Price give one of his greatest performances as the cruel torturer Matthew Hopkins.

1645: England is engaged in a bloody civil war between Charles I’s Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s army. Amidst this unrest, Matthew Hopkins and his assistant Stearne roam the countryside, hunting down, torturing, and killing accused witches for profit. It’s “The Lord’s work and an honorable one”, states Hopkins, as he and Stearne commit acts of atrocity upon the helpless innocents. They arrive in Brandeston and target the local priest, accused of being in league with the devil. The priest is jabbed with sharp needles and abused by the sadistic Stearne in hopes of gaining a confession when his niece Sara Lowes rushes in. She offers herself to Hopkins in order to stop the torture. The jealous Stearne rapes her when Hopkins leaves town, and upon his return he wants no more of Sara, condemning the priest and two others to be hog-tied, drowned in the moat, then hung.

Richard Marshall, betrothed of Sara, is away at war during all this. He hears of the news and rides back to Brandeston, where Sara tells him of the horrors inflicted on her and her uncle. Marshall marries her, and vows before The Lord to avenge Sara. He tracks down Stearne in a tavern and they engage in a vicious brawl from which Stearne escapes. Stearne reunites with Hopkins, and they plot to “prove” Marshall and Sara are witches. Getting an obliging citizen to do the accusing, Marshall and Sara are taken prisoner and brought to a castle to be “interrogated”… that is, tortured by Hopkins and Stearne into confessing their sins!

Price etches a subtle portrait of evil as Hopkins, his imperious visage dominating the proceedings. He’s sinisterly serious, whether imposing his will on frightened young maidens or devising new, more nefarious ways to torture and kill, such as burning the accused alive in one particularly gruesome scene. Reportedly, director Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance to play Hopkins, but the powers that be at American-International insisted on Price (in order to link the film with their Poe series), and since they controlled the purse strings, Vinnie was in. This didn’t sit well with Reeves, and the director and his star were constantly at odds during the shooting, with Price wanting to play the role in a more bombastic manner. Yet when Price saw the final release, he understood what Reeves was going for, and praised the young tyro’s efforts. The two were scheduled to make THE OBLONG BOX together before Reeves’ demise; it’s a pity, since Reeves would’ve handled the material a lot differently than his replacement, Gordon Hessler.

Reeves’ childhood friend Ian Oglivy, who also played in his other two films, does him proud as Marshall. Oglivy looks dashing riding horseback through the English countryside, and his final violent revenge (which I won’t spoil for those unfamiliar with the movie) is ferocious and intense. Hilary Dwyer (also know as Hilary Heath) made her film debut as Sara, and her screams echoing throughout the castle at film’s end is one of horror’s iconic moments. She also appeared with Price in THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE before becoming a successful talent agent and producer. Robert Russell (Stearne) is one of the most repulsive characters in any genre, and one of the most sadistic sons of bitches you’ll ever see. Hammer vet Rupert Davies plays Sara’s unfortunate priest uncle, and there are cameos by Partick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell) and Wifred Brambell ( A HARD DAY’S NIGHT ) as a horse trader.

THE CONQUEROR WORM is a unique and highly influential film in the horror canon, opening the floodgates for a new subgenre with titles like BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, Jess Franco’s NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER, and the gross-out classic MARK OF THE DEVIL. A hell of a swan song for Michael Reeves, with a darkly disturbing performance by Vincent Price, THE CONQUEROR WORM is must-viewing for your All Hallow’s Eve feast.

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Universal 1932)

We can’t have a proper ‘Halloween Havoc!’ without inviting Bela Lugosi to the party, now can we? After all, his 1931 hit DRACULA practically invented the horror movie as far as ‘talking pictures’ go. Both Bela and director Robert Florey were slated to work on producer Carl Laemmle’s next horror opus FRANKENSTEIN, but Laemmle wasn’t satisfied with their version, handing it over to James Whale, who hired a bit player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster of science, and the rest is history. Lugosi and Florey were instead given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, to bring to screen life. This was the first of Bela’s “mad doctor” role, a part he would essay twelve more times in films of varying quality.

It’s Carnival Night in 1845 Paris, and med student Pierre Dupin takes his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye to make merry watching exotic belly dancers, “wild” American Indians, and other ‘oddities’. Oddest of all is the grotesque Dr. Mirakle and his ape Erik, “the monster who walks upright… the beast with a human soul”. The sophisticated, imperious Mirakle espouses his theory that  man is descended from apes, leading to cries of “Heresy!” from the gathered masses. Erik seems to take a shine to Camille, grabbing then caressing her bonnet, and gripping Pierre by the throat in a jealous pique. Mirakle apologizes to the mademoiselle, yet sends his henchman Janos to follow her.

Later, Mirakle’s carriage comes across a knife fight by two ruffians over the affections of a prostitute. Both men die on the fog-shrouded, dimly lit waterfront, and the frightened hooker is scurried away by Mirakle, taking her to his hidden lair, where he puts her in bondage on a makeshift tilted cross, determined to make her “the bride of science”, mingling Erik’s blood with her own to see if she’s worthy. Under the microscope, Mirakle screams the prostitute has “rotten blood” (what did he expect?), and she dies on the cross, a martyr to mad science, released through a trap door into the River Seine.

Pierre, besides being a med student, is also an amateur sleuth, and has been investigating the murder of the girl and two other “ladies of the evening”. He discovers a mysterious “foreign substance” in their blood samples, and learns it is ape’s blood. He tracks down Mirakle at the carnival, who answers curtly to Dupin’s questions, telling Pierre he’s about to leave for Munich. Pierre discovers this to be a lie, and follows Mirakle and Janos to an abandoned warehouse down by the docks.

Soon Mirakle comes calling on Camille, only to be rebuffed at the door. Never one to take no for an answer, he sends Erik to kidnap the girl, killing her mother in the process and stuffing her up the chimney. Pierre happens to be in the vicinity, and hearing the screams, he rushes upstairs. The police prefect conducts an inquiry, receiving three different answers from three different witnesses (and an excuse for some ethnic comedy relief). Pierre is exonerated when Madame L’Espanaye is found up the chimney, her hand clutching ape hair, and they race to Mirakle’s secret lair. He’s about to inject Erik’s blood into Camille when the simian escapes his cage and throttles his master to death, scooping up Camille and escaping via the rooftops of Paris, where brave Pierre finally shoots the beast and saves his lady-love from certain doom.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has it’s good and bad points. The best is obviously watching Lugosi at the height of his acting prowess, his continental charm not quite masking his unibrowed, demonic countenance. Bela’s startling performance as Dr. Mirakle ranks among his finest film roles, and you’ll be mesmerized once again by his talent as an actor. Karl Freund’s cinematography is a marvel of nourish lighting, accentuating the eeriness of the expressionistic sets. A scene set with Camille on a swing pushed by Pierre, the camera positioned in her lap, is quite innovative, and that aforementioned scene involving the prostitute (who’s played by Arlene Francis, later of TV’s WHAT’S MY LINE? fame) is one of the darkest in early horror cinema, a scene that could only be made during the Pre-Code era, as is much of the material here.

Among the film’s bad points, holding it back from being a true horror classic, are the cloyingly sweet lovers Pierre and Camille. Their romancing is sickeningly sappy to behold, and Sidney Fox (Camille) has such a squeaky voice you wonder what Pierre sees in her. Leon Waycoff was just starting his film career, and quite frankly he isn’t all that good; the actor got better as time went on, after changing his name to Leon Ames . The rest of the cast is hit and miss; Noble Johnson and D’Arcy Corrigan among the hits, Bert Roach, Torbin Meyer, and Herman Bing the misses.

Charlie Gemora once again donned his “gorilla suit” to portray Erik, as he did in countless other films: SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, BLONDE VENUS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, SWISS MISS, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, WHITE WITCH DOCTOR. I’ve no complaints about Gemora; however, close-up stock footage of Erik features different species of apes at different times, negating the effect. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE didn’t do well at the box office, as apparently audiences were turned off by all the talk of evolution and interspecies mating. Florey went on to an interesting career as a ‘B’ auteur, while Lugosi… well, we don’t have to rehash his descent into lower-case pictures again. We all know whatever script he was handed, Bela gave his all for his art. That’s why, 86 years after beguiling the world in DRACULA, Bela Lugosi still reigns supreme in Hollywood’s Horror Valhalla!

Halloween Havoc!: THE RAVEN (AIP 1963)

Let’s kick off the third annual “Halloween Havoc” with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, young Jack Nicholson , director Roger Corman , screenwriter Richard Matheson , and an “idea” by Edgar Allan Poe. How’s that for an all-star horror crew? The film is THE RAVEN, Corman’s spoof of all those Price/Poe movies he was famous for, a go-for-the-throat comedy guaranteed to make you spill your guts with laughter!

Sorcerer Erasmus Craven (Price ), still pining for his late, lost Lenore, hears someone gently rapping on his chamber door… er, window. It’s a raven, a talking raven, in reality Adolpho Bedlo (Lorre ), who’s been put under a spell by the Grand Master of magicians, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff ), who like Craven is adept at “magic by gesture”. After Craven mixes up a potion to reverse the spell, Bedlo tells him he’s seen Lenore alive at Scarabus’s castle.

The two wizards decided to make the trek to Castle Scarabus so Craven can learn the truth. Daughter Estelle Craven (Olive Sturgess) insists on accompanying them, as does Bedlo’s inept son Rexford (Nicholson). The Grand Master, a former rival of Craven’s father, greets them warmly at the door, a seemingly kindly old gent who clears up the matter by introducing his servant, who’s pretty but not Lenore. Scarabus invites the entourage to a convivial dinner, where Bedlo drunkenly challenges him to a duel of magic. The soused mage’s magic backfires, and he’s turned into a pool of raspberry jam!

A storm is brewing outside (because of course it is!), and Scarabus invites them to spend the night. Rexford suspects foul play, telling Estelle he saw Scarabus use his hand gestures during the duel to put the kibosh on his dad. During the storm, Craven sees what he thinks is Lenore looking in his window. He’s right… Lenore (Court )is alive and well, deviously plotting with Scarabus to learn the secrets of Craven’s powerful magic! Soon we discover Bedlo’s alive too; the treacherous wizard has been in on it all along!

All four (including the duplicitous Bedlo) are captured by the evil Scarabus, and Bedllo, begging to be freed for his loyalty, is turned back into a raven. Grand Master Scarabus threatens Estelle, forcing Craven to engage in a magical “duel to the death”, a comical, special effects-gimmicked battle of prestidigitation. The younger sorcerer is ultimately victorious, and they escape as Castle Scarabus is consumed by flames.

Price gets to show off his slapstick skills, continually walking headlong into his large telescope, and his acting opposite the bird is, well, Priceless! Lorre is just naturally funny, whether taking a pratfall, going off-script with some ad-libbing, or exclaiming as the raven in his accented voice, “Ooo, these feathers itch!” Karloff, as the villain of the piece, doesn’t get much in the comedy department, but manages to get off some good one-liners, calling Lenore “my little viper”, for example. Young Jack isn’t as bad here as some critics have pointed out, and he and Lorre are a funny father/son act. Les Baxter’s score, complete with whimsical music cues, adds to the fun, as does Pat Dinga’s special effects bag of tricks.

There are plenty of film references and in-jokes crammed in by Corman and Matheson. The name on Craven’s dad’s coffin is Roderick, Price’s character name in FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER . That film’s ending is also referenced in the final destruction of Castle Scarabus. And when Craven defeats Scarabus, it’s the symbolic passing of the terror torch from Grand Master Karloff to the new King Price. The raven itself was trained by Mo Disesso, who later provided the trained rats for both WILLARD and BEN. THE RAVEN is more fun than a barrel of spiders, a creepy and kooky Gothic send-up with the Three Titans of Terror in rare form, and will delight genre fans of all ages. Except for maybe poor Poe, who’s probably still spinning in his grave!!

Happy Birthday Vincent Price: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (AIP 1960)

I’ve covered Vincent Price’s film work 17 times here, which must be some kind of record. Can you tell he’s one of my all-time favorite actors? Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was born May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri. The elegant, eloquent Price was also an avid art collector and gourmet cook of some note. He’s justifiably famous for his film noir roles, but Price etched his name in cinematic stone as one of filmdom’s Masters of Horror.

Price starred in his first fright film way back in 1940 with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS . But it wasn’t until 1953’s 3-D outry HOUSE OF WAX that he became tagged as a horror star. Later in that decade, he made a pair of gimmicky shockers for director William Castle ( THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL , THE TINGLER), and in 1960 began his collaboration with Roger Corman on movies based (loosely, mind you) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first in the series, 1960’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, helped usher in (sorry!) a whole new genre of horror…  Vincent Price Movies!

The story: a rider approaches a fog-shrouded, gloomy, decaying mansion. He’s Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon), betrothed of Madeline Usher, come to fetch his fiancé. Bristol, the Usher’s faithful servant (Harry Ellerbe), tells him Miss Madeline is ill and confined to her bed by brother Roderick. Enter our star, a blonde Price, as Roderick, a sensitive, tortured soul who suffers “an affliction of the hearing… sounds of an exaggerated degree cut into my brain like knives”. Roderick warns Phillip to “leave this house” and forget about Madeline, for “the Usher line is cursed”, afflicted with madness.

Madeline (Myrna Fahey) arises from her sick-bed to greet Phillip. The beautiful but haunted girl is “obsessed with thoughts of death”, and leads Phillip downstairs to the family crypt, filled with dead ancestors and two coffins waiting for the last living Ushers. Roderick appears, and upstairs he later explains to Phillip the wicked legacy of his forbearers, whose macabre portraits hang on the walls of the house of Usher. He intones that “the house itself is evil now”, the sins of his family “rooted into its stones”.

Madeline dies following an argument with Roderick, dies, unable to take the strain of her situation. She’s buried in the family crypt, finally at peace… or is she? Bristol lets slip that Madeline suffered from catalepsy, and a frantic Phillip rushes down to the crypt to find her coffin locked! He takes an axe to the lock, only to discover the casket’s empty! The angry suitor, axe in hand, confronts Roderick, demanding to know where she is. Roderick confesses she lives, telling Phillip, “Even now, I hear her, alive, deranged, in fury… twisting, turning, scratching at the lid with bloody fingernails… can you not hear her voice, she calls my name!”….

A subdued, understated Price left his trademarked ham at the table to play the tortured Roderick Usher. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when Price hams it up (see the Dr. Phibes films  , for example), but he could tone things down when the role warranted it. The cultured actor was a Poe aficionado, and his performances in this and the subsequent Corman/Poe films rank among his best work. This was also Corman’s first movie with scenarist Richard Matheson, who does a bang-up job despite taking some liberties with the source material. Surprisingly (or maybe not), American-International honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff didn’t like the idea, wanting Corman to stick to their profitable low-budget double features. “There’s no monsters”, he complained, and Corman had to explain that “The house IS the monster” before being given the green light*. The rest is horror history.

If Boris Karloff was the King of Horror and Lugosi its Dark Prince, surely Vincent Price has an exalted rank in the horror hierarchy as well. High priest, perhaps? He and his British compatriots Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who was also born on this date) kept the torch of Gothic horror burning well into the 1970’s, before gore and slasher shockers started dominating the marketplace. Happy birthday, Vinnie, and thanks for the nightmares!

(BTW, those weird paintings of the family Usher were done by Burt Shonberg, a little known artist whose feverish works have never been truly appreciated. Since Vincent Price was an ardent collector of art, here’s a sampling of some of them. I think Vincent would approve!)

*according to the book “The Films of Roger Corman” by Alan Frank, pg. 88 (BT Batsford Ltd, 1998)

“and then all is madness”: PIT AND THE PENDULUM (AIP 1961)

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How have I ignored Roger Corman here for so long, save for a short “Cleaning Out the DVR” review of THE TERROR ?  The King of the Low Budget Quickies has long been a favorite filmmaker of mine, and has probably had more impact on American cinema than people realize. Well, now that TCM is running its month-long salute to AIP, I’m about to rectify that oversight. (By the way, Corman himself is cohosting the retrospective every Thursday night along with TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz!)

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American International Pictures scored a hit with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price and directed by Corman. Studio honchos James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff looked at the box office numbers and, realizing they had a cash cow on their hands, asked Corman to produce a follow-up.  Rapid Roger decided on PIT AND THE PENDULUM, shot in 15 days for less than a quarter million dollars. The result was one of the series best, a moody piece that reportedly influenced Italian horror maestros from Mario Bava to Dario Argento.

Poe’s original story was very short, so screenwriter Richard Matheson concocted a new framework, using Poe’s torture tale for the final act. Matheson was a giant of horror fiction himself, a prolific writer of novels (“I Am Legend”, “The Shrinking Man”, “Hunted Beyond Reason”), short stories (“Death Ship”, “Steel”, “Button Button”), teleplays for THE TWILIGHT ZONE (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), TV Movies (“Duel”, ‘The Night Stalker”, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, “Trilogy of Terror”), and films (including five Corman/Poe collaborations and DIE DIE MY DARLING, THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, SOMEWHERE IN TIME, JAWS 3-D, STIR OF ECHOES).

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PIT AND THE PENDULUM begins with Francis Barnard arriving at the Spanish castle of Don Nicholas Medina. Francis’ sister Elizabeth has recently died, and he’s come to find out what really happened. He’s greeted at the door by Nicholas’ sister Catherine, who’s reluctant to let him enter. Francis demands to see her brother, so Catherine takes him “down below”, into the catacombs of the castle. Weird noise are emanating from behind a large, foreboding door. Undaunted, Francis approaches the door, just as it opens and….

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…out pops Vincent Price as Nicholas, startling both Francis and the audience! It’s a grand entrance, and another showcase role for Price. He’s subdued at first as Nicholas, slowly building over the course of the film as he’s tortured by Elizabeth’s memory, finally descending into full-blown madness as only Vincent Price can. Price’s Nicholas Medina is a tour-de-force performance that stands tall among his pantheon of great horror depictions (HOUSE OF WAX, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, etc, etc). Price plays it low-key in the beginning but, once Nicholas snaps, out comes the ham he’s so famous for slicing. And here, it’s spicy and delicious!

Back to the story: Nicholas tells Francis his sister died from “something in her blood”. Francis is skeptical, and will stay the night (“and more, sir”) in order to get to the truth. At dinner, a caller drops in, Dr. Charles Leon, who lets the black cat out of the bag, that Elizabeth “literally died of fright”! They take Francis below again, and the secret behind that door is revealed: it’s the torture chamber of Nicholas and Catherine’s father, Don Sebastian Medina, the infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition.

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Flashbacks saturated in blue and red show happy couple Nicholas and Elizabeth living a serene life. But soon she begins to change, obsessed with Sebastian’s chamber of horrors, hearing strange voices call to her. Nicholas plans on taking her away from the castle, but on the day they’re to depart, he hears “the most hideous, bloodcurdling scream I have ever heard in my life”. Rushing to the dank basement, Nicholas is shocked to discover Elizabeth has locked herself inside the iron maiden. Before she dies, she whispers a name to him: “Sebastian”.

A second flashback sequence shows us that Nicholas, as a young boy of 10, wandered into the dungeon to witness his father accuse his mother Isabella and Uncle Bartolome of adultery, then murder them both in his insidious torture devices. Later that night, harpsichord music is heard playing from the parlor. Her ring is found on the keys. “It was Elizabeth”, says Nicholas in a state of shock. They put him to bed, then Leon has another revelation: Nicholas fears that Elizabeth was “interred prematurely”, as his mother was, walled inside her tomb while still alive.

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A scream from Elizabeth’s room sends everyone running, finding the frightened maid Maria there, the place trashed. Maria insists she heard Elizabeth’s voice, and while they comfort her, Francis finds a secret passageway leading directly to Nicholas’ room. Francis accuses Nicholas, but he denies it, while beginning to doubt his own sanity. Dr. Leon suggests they exhume Elizabeth’s tomb to soothe Nicholas’s dread, and they do, only to discover her body frozen in horror, buried alive after all. “True!”, Nicholas repeats over and over, having crossed the threshold of madness. “True! True!”

Nicholas, alone in his room, hears Elizabeth calling out to him. He trudges down to the dungeon, and recoils in terror as a bloodied Elizabeth rises from the grave. His mind has gone, and we learn Elizabeth and Dr. Leon planned this all well in advance; like his father before him, Nicholas is a victim of his wife’s adultery. But something’s happened to Nicholas: he now believes he’s his father Sebastian, and history is about to repeat itself. “I’m going to torture you, Isabella”, he proclaims as he traps Elizabeth in the iron maiden. Leon falls into the pit unseen by Nicholas, and when Francis barges in on the commotion, Nicholas transfers his evil intentions, believing Francis is Bartolome. Strapping Francis to a cold stone slab, he puts the razor-sharp pendulum into motion, the blade slowly swinging back and forth, inching closer and closer toward Francis’ prone body…

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Corman and his crew created a psychedelic nightmare of a movie with PIT AND THE PENDULUM. DP Floyd Crosby and set designer (and future AIP director) Daniel Haller work their magic within the budget limitations, giving it an expensive look. Les Baxter contributes another moody score, as he did in many an AIP production. The cast features another horror icon, beautiful Barbara Steele as Elizabeth. While her role is brief, Steele conveys the evil of Elizabeth in her scenes with Price (watch out for that final shot!). John Kerr (Francis) was known for more mainstream films like TEA AND SYMPATHY and SOUTH PACIFIC; he later dropped out of movies and became a successful lawyer. Corman regulars Luana Anders and Antony Carbone round out the cast.

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PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a must-see film for horror lovers. Corman and Price would go on to make five more Edgar Allan Poe shockers together before Corman tired of them, and moved onto more experimental works, eventually becoming a mini-movie mogul by founding New World Pictures. Nicholson and Arkoff, not willing to put the Poe cash cow out to pasture, hired other directors, and persuaded Price to star in more Poe offerings. While THE CONQUEROR WORM (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) is considered a modern-day classic, THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE suffered without Roger Corman and his band of merry moviemakers, and the AIP/Poe series ended in 1970. All of the Corman/Price/Poe pictures are worth watching today, and if you’re late to this Poe party, PIT AND THE PENDULUM is an excellent place to start.

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Halloween Havoc!: Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN (Universal 1935)

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Universal’s “Twin Titans of Terror” teamed up for the second time in THE RAVEN. Their 1934 pairing in THE BLACK CAT was the studio’s top grossing film that year, so it was only logical to reteam the two stars in another Poe based outing. But while in THE BLACK CAT they were evenly matched, here Boris plays second fiddle to Bela’s mad Dr Vollin. Lugosi takes center stage and creates one of his nastiest villains, a sociopath out to avenge his unrequited love.

Young Jean Thatcher loses control of her car and crashes off a cliff. The doctors, including her boyfriend Jerry Holden, agree only Dr. Richard Vollin can save her. Vollin refuses over the phone, stating he’s retired from practice, so Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher, travels to Vollin’s estate and, appealing to his vanity, convinces the doctor to do the surgery. He does so, and falls in love with his young patient in the process.

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When we first meet Vollin, he’s in his study with a representative from the local museum, reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (as only Bela can!), while a staute of the bird casts an ominous shadow on the wall behind him. “The raven is my talisman”, he says. “Death is my talisman”. Vollin isn’t interested in donating any of his large Poe memorabilia to the museum; in fact, he tells the gentleman he’s building the torture devices made famous in Poe’s tales. When told that’s an interesting hobby, Vollin replies (again as only Bela can), “It is mooore…than just a hobby”. The thin veneer of sanity is already beginning to give way to Vollin’s madness.

Jean has recuperated well enough to give a dance recital in Vollin’s honor. Her interpretive dance “The Spirit of Poe” is accompanied by an actor reciting the poem, music swirling while she performs her ‘danse macabre’ for the audience. Vollin is enraptured, but the Judge is worried about where this is all heading. Confronting Vollin at his home, he realizes the doctor is more than just infatuated. Warning him away from Jean adds fuel to the madness burning within Vollin. Fugitive criminal Edmund Bateman shows up unexpectedly at Vollin’s door. Bateman’s been told the doctor can “change my face” to avoid the police, but Vollin has other plans. He operates on the criminal’s “nerve ends” causing Bateman to become a grotesque looking monstrosity. When his face is revealed to him before a wall of mirror, Bateman angrily shoots them out (Welles’ inspiration for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, perhaps?) Vollin tells Bateman he’ll turn him back if Bateman’s willing to “torture and kill” for him. Reluctantly, Bateman agrees to assist in Vollin’s demented scheme.

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Karloff’s Edmund Bateman, though a killer, is played for  sympathy. Born with an ugly mug, Bateman felt driven to “do ugly things”. Like the Frankenstein Monster, Bateman’s been battered and beaten by a world he never made, lashing out at the injustice of his lot in life. Boris always gave his best characters a touch of humanity (the monster, Grey in THE BODY SNATCHERS, Elman in THE WALKING DEAD), and makes us feeling sorry for the brutish Bateman.

Vollin invites Jean, her father, Jerry, and two other couples to spend the weekend at his estate. A storm is brewing outside, but inside Vollin it’s already raging. Bateman abducts Thatcher and hauls him down to Vollin’s basement, where his torture devices are set up. Strapping Thatcher to a slab, Vollin gazes up at the blade hanging above the judge’s prone body. He flips a switch and, like in Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum”, the blade slowly descends, swinging to and fro aimed at Thatcher’s midsection. “Try to be sane, Vollin”, Thatcher pleads, but it’s far too late for that. Laughing manically (as only Bela can!), he replies with glee, “Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!”

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Another switch is flipped, and Jean’s entire room drops to basement level. Jerry and one of the couples (the other is fast asleep) hear Jean’s screams and find a panel leading to the basement. Vollin orders Bateman to throw Jean and Jerry in a steel-walled room, and locking them in, the walls begin to close in on them. Now completely insane, Vollin rails the two “will never be separated, never!…What a torture! What a delicious torture!” Bateman, realizing Jean’s about to be crushed to death (she was kind to him earlier despite his hideous kisser), shuts the switch off, but not before Vollin gut-shoots him. Struggling to his feet, Bateman overpowers the doctor and, in a last heroic feat, drags him in the room and pulls the lever, causing Vollin to be crushed by his own devious torture chamber.

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Lugosi’s descent into madness is one of the great accomplishments in horror. Building slowly, by the end he’s completely over-the-top deranged. I don’t think anyone could pull off the role of Richard Vollin the way Beal Lugosi does, and it’s one of his top acting jobs. Karloff gets the most out of his subservient role, and milks it for all the sympathy he can. Irene Ware (Jean) makes a fine damsel in distress (she worked with Bela before in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN), while stalwart Lester Matthews (Jerry) plays the romantic lead (Matthews also was in the bizarre Savage Intruder with Miriam Hopkins). Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Thatcher) is no stranger to horror movie buffs, appearing in MAN MADE MONSTER and SON OF DRACULA, while Ian Wolfe (Snuffy, one of the guests) made over 300 appearences in a career that stretched from 1934 to 1990.

Director Louis Friedlander moves the film briskly along from a top-notch script by David Boehm. Friedlander would change his name to Lew Landers, a workhorse of a director who did everything from Gene Autry Westerns to Boston Blackie mysteries. Landers worked again with Karloff on THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) and Lugosi on RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Grinding em out quickly was Landers’ forte, and though he worked strictly in the B-realm, his films were generally well received. Television called in the 50s, and Landers made a home there, most notably on KIT CARSON, HIGHWAY PATROL, and RIN TIN TIN.

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Karloff and Lugosi made eight films together (including their cameo in 1934’s GIFT OF GAB), and while most genre fans rate THE BLACK CAT as their best pairing, I’m kind of partial to THE RAVEN. Neither film is literally based on Poe (“suggested by” the title cards say), but this one is more close to the “Spirit of Poe”. It’s a showcase for the talents of Bela Lugosi at the peak of his acting powers, with Boris Karloff lending good solid support. If you can only see one Karloff/Lugosi team-up this Halloween, I highly recommend you make it THE RAVEN.