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)

Roger Corman’s Electric Kool-Aid Tangerine Dream: THE TRIP (AIP 1967)

“You are about to be involved in a most unusual motion picture experience. It deals fictionally with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Today, the extensive use in black market production of this and other so-called ‘mind bending’ chemicals are of great concern to medical and civil authorities…. This picture represents a shocking commentary on a prevalent trend of our time and one that must be of great concern to us all.” – Disclaimer at the beginning of 1967’s THE TRIP

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“Tune in, turn on, drop out”, exhorted 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary. The hippie generation’s fascination with having a psychedelic experience was a craze ripe for exploitation picking, and leave it to Roger Corman to create the first drug movie, THE TRIP. Released during the peak of the Summer of Love, THE TRIP was a box office success. Most critics of the era had no clue what to make of it, but the youth of suburban America flocked to their theaters and drive-ins in droves to find out what all the LSD hubbub was about.

Corman also wanted to know, so he and some friends dropped acid one balmy night and headed to Big Sur to trip. Having had a good experience, Corman sought to translate it into film (and make a buck in the process, no doubt). He solicited his pal Jack Nicholson , who’d experimented with LSD himself, to concoct a screenplay depicting what it was like to do acid. Nicholson came up with an acceptable script, and Roger went to work translating it for the big screen.

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It begins as TV commercial director Peter Fonda, in the midst of a divorce from wife Susan Strasberg , decides he want to try acid to “find out something about myself”. Pal Bruce Dern brings him to drug dealer Dennis Hopper’s pad, they cop and return to Fonda’s place, where he takes a 250 microgram dose, Dern staying straight to act as his guide.

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Dern advises Fonda to “turn off your mind, relax, and just float down the stream” (paraphrasing The Beatles), and soon he’s off on a journey to the center of his mind. THE TRIP then turns into a visual and aural assault on the senses filled with kaleidoscopic imagery, stunning light-show effects, and hallucinogenic nightmare sequences as Fonda gets deeper and deeper into his trip. The plotless structure now becomes pure film, with quotes from Fellini, Bergman, and Corman’s own Poe films. The “Psychedelic Special Effects” credited to Charlatan Productions, bold cinematography by Arch Dalzell (in ‘Psychedelic Color’), rapid-fire editing by Ronald Sinclair, and Corman’s knowing way behind the camera, combine to dazzle the viewer and, if it doesn’t quite truly capture what it’s like to trip, comes pretty damn close.

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The music soundtrack is provided by The Electric Flag, a 60’s San Francisco-via-Chicago band featuring Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, Barry Goldberg, and Nick Gravenites. Their trippy raga-rock sound serves as the perfect backdrop for Corman’s visual feast. They are not the group shown at the club, though; that’s Gram Parson’s International Submarine Band, whose music Corman didn’t feel was  “far-out” enough. Corman regulars Dick Miller (as a bartender), Barboura Morris (hilarious as a woman Fonda meets at a laundromat), Salli Sachse, Luana Anders, and Beach Dickerson all appear, as do (briefly) Angelo Rossitto , Michael Blodgett (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ), and Tom Signorelli. Look fast for Peter Bogdanovich, Brandon DeWilde, and rock scenemaker Rodney Bingenheimer.

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Fifty years later, THE TRIP remains a film lover’s delight, something that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. AIP honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson tacked on that opening disclaimer, as well as superimposing a “cracked glass” effect over Fonda’s face in the film’s final shot, implying he’d been permanently damaged by the experience. This pissed Corman off, and after they later butchered his 1969 satire GAS-S-S-S!, he struck out on his own and formed New World Pictures, where he and others could enjoy artistic freedom (on a low-budget, of course). Whether you’ve ever tripped or not, this film is worth seeing for its technical mastery and daring concept. Also, it’s downright groovy, man!

   

Halloween Havoc!: A BUCKET OF BLOOD (AIP 1959)

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We can’t have Halloween without a good Roger Corman movie, and A BUCKET OF BLOOD is one of my favorites. This 1959 black comedy is a precursor to Corman’s THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and I actually prefer it over that little gem. A BUCKET OF BLOOD skewers the pretentiousness of the art world, the 50’s beatnik scene, and the horror genre itself with its story of nerdy Walter Paisley, a busboy at a hipster coffee house learns making it as a famous artist can be murder!

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Walter’s a no-talent nebbish longing to be accepted by the pompous clientele at The Yellow Door, especially beautiful hostess Carla. When he accidentally kills the landlady’s cat, Walter covers it in clay (with the knife still protruding in poor little Frankie!), and brings it in to work. The grotesque sculpture causes a stir among the patrons, and Walter is congratulated for his brilliant work ‘Dead Cat’. Beatnik chick Naolia is so impressed, not to mention hot for Walter, she gives the innocent busboy some heroin to celebrate.

But undercover cop Lou, staking out the joint, sees the transaction and follows Walter home, arresting him for possession. Walter reacts by crowning the cop with a frying pan and stashing the body in his ceiling, blood dripping down as he thinks of a way out of this mess. Thus a new masterpiece, ‘Murdered Man’, is born! Meanwhile over at the Yellow Door, owner Leonard discovers Walter’s gruesome secret when he accidentally drops ‘Dead Cat’ and cracks the plaster. Leonard’s horrified, until an art collector offers him $500 bucks for the piece, and his greed takes over.

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Walter invites Carla and Leonard over to view ‘Murdered Man’, complete with split skull, and while Carla hails him as a genius, Leonard’s a nervous wreck! Walter shows up at work all artsy, dressed in a tam and ascot, long-cigarette holder dangling from his lips. House poet Maxwell composes an ode in his honor, but stuck-up model Alice still treats him with distain. Guess who becomes Walter’s next objet d’art? After Walter cuts off a workman’s head with a buzzsaw for his newest work, Leonard’s had enough, and arranges a showing of Walter’s bizzare statues. All the local hipsters are on the scene giving the boy raves reviews, but Walter’s depressed when Carla tells him she just wants to be friends, so weirdo Walter decides he’ll use her as his latest creation…

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Character actor Dick Miller will be forever identified as Walter Paisley, so much he’s used the character name on six different occasions, including HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, THE HOWLING, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, and CHOPPING MALL. Miller was one of the key players of Roger Corman’s stock company, appearing in 17 of the director’s films, from THE OKLAHOMA WOMAN to THE TRIP, and a host of others with Corman as producer. Miller was introduced to a  new generation of filmgoers in the 80’s as neighbor Murray Futterman in GREMILINS and GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. Happily, Dick Miller is still with us as of this writing at age 87, and occasionally acts in small roles.

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Other Corman regulars in the cast include pretty Barboura Morris as Walter’s crush Carla, Anthony Carbone as Yellow Door owner Leonard, Ed Nelson as vice cop Art Lacroix, and Bruno VeSota as the art collector. Future game show host Bert Convy (billed here as Burt) plays the unfortunate undercover cop, while sexy Judy Bamber is the doomed Alice. Julian Burton is great as beatnik poet Maxwell, and John Shaner and John Brinkley are hilarious as a pair of hopheads who frequent the coffeehouse.

The legend goes that Corman and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith spent an evening prowling the beat scene in Los Angeles trying to come up with a story, when they met up with struggling actress Sally Kellerman, working as a waitress to supplement her income. The trio sat down as the coffee shop was closing and concocted the wild tale. A BUCKET OF BLOOD has since become a true cult classic over the years, an original black comedy that takes the MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM /HOUSE OF WAX premise and turns it on its ear, satirizing Corman’s more conventional movies in the process. Its warped worldview makes A BUCKET OF BLOOD a must for your Halloween watch list!

 

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #6: IT’S A BIKINI WORLD (Trans-American 1967)

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IT’S A BIKINI WORLD is one of the lowest of the low-budget “Beach Party” ripoffs you’ll ever see. Yet it has a certain charm to it, a likeable little “battle of the sexes” soufflé featuring some great 60’s rock acts and the undeniable appeal of beach bunny Deborah Walley.

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Beach stud Mike Samson goes gaga for knockout new redhead Delilah Dawes (Samson and Delilah, get it?). She thinks he’s an egotistical jerk and gives him the big freeze-out, telling him she prefers the “serious type”, so Mike dons a pair of thick glasses and some nerdy duds, passing himself off as intellectual brother “Herbert”. Herbert takes her to museums and zoos, while Mike competes with her in skateboarding and boat races run by local customizer Daddy, owner of hangout The Dungeon. Delilah discovers Mike’s scam, and they compete in a final Cross Country Race that consists of car racing, motorcycles, swimming, and even riding camels! Mike throws the race, and the two finally get together, as if there were ever any doubt.

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The extremely loose plot is just an excuse to have a bunch of classic Sixties rocker lipsynch some of their hits. Pat and Lolly Vegas, the Native American brothers who wrote P.J. Proby’s hit “Niki Hoky” and later formed the band Redbone, sing “Walk On”. R&B girl group The Toys perform their minor hit “Attack!”. Memphis garage rockers The Gentrys, featuring future WWF manager Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart as lead singer, do the frat rocker “Spread It On Thick”. Minnesota’s The Castaways jam out to their smash hit “Liar Liar”. And finally, British Invasion blues rock stars The Animals, with a bored looking Eric Burdon, do the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil classic “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, which is what Burdon looks like he wishes he were doing!

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Can I get a shout out for the ever-delectable All-American girl Deborah Walley! The cute, perky Miss Walley made her film debut as every surfer’s dream in 1961’s GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN, and quickly became a teen flick favorite. Deborah appeared in several AIP “Beach” movies (BEACH BLANKET BINGO, SKI PARTY, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI) and was married for a spell to “Beach” regular John Ashley. She was a drummer in Elvis Presley’s band in SPINOUT, and co-starred for two seasons as Eve Arden’s daughter on the sitcom THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW. Deborah’s costar here is Tommy Kirk, former Disney star (OLD YELLER, THE SHAGGY DOG, SON OF FLUBBER) who was fired when Disney was informed Kirk was gay. Moving over to AIP, Tommy did PAJAMA PARTY and GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Walley). After getting busted for marijuana, Kirk’s career and life slid downhill. He made MARS NEEDS WOMEN for Larry Buchanan and  BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR for Al Adamson, and developed a vicious drug habit that rendered him unemployable. After getting clean and sober, Tommy Kirk left show business, running a successful carper cleaning business. He returned “home” in 2006 when he was named a ‘Disney Legend’ by the company, and does the occasional fan convention.

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Kirk’s pal is played by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett, who would’ve been better used lipsynching his hit “Monster Mash “, because he sure can’t act! Daddy is played with gusto by the great Sid Haig , hamming it up and peppering his speech with phrases like “It’s a gas” and “Groovy, man”. Director Stephanie Rothman was a Roger Corman protégé and one of the only women working in the exploitation field besides Doris Wishman. Corman financed IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, and clips of his ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS are shown when the gang goes to the movies! Rothman and husband Charles Schwartz (who produced and cowrote the screenplay) later left Corman and formed Dimension Films, where she became noted for THE VELVET VAMPIRE and TERMINAL ISLAND. Rothman’s decidedly feminist point of view is evident in this one, pitting Walley against Kirk in physical sporting competitions, something you didn’t see in AIP’s Frankie and Annette features.

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Let me be honest though: IT’S A BIKINI WORLD is cheap, low budget nonsense geared for the teenage drive-in crowd, made to separate kids from their allowances on the weekend. It’s full of corny jokes and dumb slapstick gags, and most of the money spent on it probably went to get the rock’n’rollers to appear. That being said, it’s hard not to like this little time capsule of the Swinging Sixties. It does what it’s supposed to; it keeps you entertained for an hour and a half. Plus, it’s got those classic rock acts in it, and Deborah Walley to look at. Sounds like a win-win to me!!

 

A Fast Look at THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (AIP 1955)

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I’ve never seen any of those FAST AND FURIOUS movies with Paul Weller, Vin Diesel, and The Rock (yeah I know, Dwayne Johnson, but he’ll always be The Rock to me). Nope, not even one. I just never had much interest in them. I’d heard of the 1955 THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, an early Roger Corman production, but never watched it either, until now. Seems I wasn’t missing anything.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is Corman’s second film as producer, and first release for American International Pictures, under the moniker American Releasing Corporation. It’s an inauspicious debut for the company, to put it mildly. The story concerns escaped con Frank Webster, who kidnaps sports car racer Connie Adair and her white Jaguar (which is a nice car, by the way). They bicker with some tough-talking dialogue, as Frank plans on crossing the border to Mexico by driving the Jag in a road race to Mexico. The movie only comes to life during the racing scenes at the end. Otherwise, it’s pretty dull going.

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Corman wrote the story because of his love for racing. Allegedly, he does the driving of the car racing neck and neck with Webster. Corman got John Ireland to star as Webster by promising him the chance to codirect. Ireland handled the dramatic scenes, while editor Edwards Sampson did the racing action. It’s Ireland’s second stint as a director. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get a third. Roger Corman figured he could do much better, and took the director’s chair for his next film FIVE GUNS WEST, beginning a long and prosperous career.

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Dorothy Malone  adds sex appeal as Connie, if nothing else. Not her fault, as the script isn’t all that good. Iris Adrien, the poor man’s Joan Blondell, as a bit as a brassy diner waitress. Corman regulars Bruno Ve Soto and Joanthan Haze appear, as does Roger in a Hitchcockian cameo as a state trooper. Silent comedy star Snub Pollard has a role as a caretaker. Hmmm, what else… oh, did I mention the racing scenes are cool?

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t very impressed with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. It’s historically important as AIP’s first film, and Roger’s second, but it’s lackluster thanks mainly to Ireland’s uninspired direction. Maybe I should give those newer FAST AND FURIOUS flicks a chance. What do you think, Rock?

“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!: Lon Chaney Jr in SPIDER BABY (American General 1964)

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SPIDER BABY is probably my favorite horror-comedy ever, and I include ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in that statement. This gruesome tale almost didn’t see the light of day, as the original producers went bankrupt, but independent auteur David L. Hewitt (THE WIZARD OF MARS, MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY) picked it up for his American General distribution company in 1968. Hewitt then used it as the second half of double feature bills. Known variously as CANNIBAL ORGY, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD, and THE LIVER EATERS, SPIDER BABY has become a cult classic.

We learn in the beginning that the descendants of Ebeneezer Merrye are dying out due to the dreaded  “Merrye Syndrome”- a rare affliction causing it’s victims to regress to a sub-human, cannibalistic state. The always welcome Mantan Moreland is seen delivering a package to the creepy old Merrye house. Mantan does some of his tried-and-true “scaredy cat” schtick while looking around the deserted joint. He sticks his head in a window….and then the window slams shut, as young Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner) pops in, brandishing a net and knives. “I got you”, she gleefully yells, then procedes to hack and slash the hapless messenger to death. It’s a jolt, as the viewer expects Mantan to see a ghost or something and do his “feets don’t fail me now” routine. The violence immediately grabs the viewer’s attention, letting us know this isn’t your garden-variety horror spoof.

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Virginia’s sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) enters the scene. “Look what you did!”, she taunts. “You’re bad, bad! Bruno’s gonna hate you!” Just then an ancient Dusenberg pulls up to the house. Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr) is the family chauffer/caretaker. Elizabeth rats out her sister, telling him Virginia was “playing spider” again. Virginia dashes to the car to greet her brother Ralph (Sid Haig), a bald, mute, drooling man-child. The exasperated Bruno calmly explains to Virginia it’s not nice to “play spider”, people will talk. Ralph discovers the message near Mantan’s corpse, causing Bruno more concern. It’s from a lawyer named Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) stating two distant relatives of the kids are coming, seeking legal guardianship.

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Emily Howe (sexy Carol Ohmart) and her brother Peter (Quinn Redeker) are Merrye cousins, and greedy Emily is looking to take control of the Merrye fortune. Peter waits in the car while bitchy Emily goes to the house. When she comes face-to-face with Ralph, she hightails it back to her brother! Bruno has picked up Schlocker and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel), but they’re delayed by the Highway Department “blasting” their way to a new road. Now everyone gets to meet the children, and Bruno explains about Merrye Syndrome. “It’s a regression of the brain”, he solemnly intones, “The unfortunate result of inbreeding”.

Schlocker tells Bruno the plan is to spend the night, then put these “retarded” Merryes in an instituation. Bruno objects, but is outnumbered. The kids concoct a dinner of bugs, weeds, a dead cat, and possibly poisonous mushrooms. All the guests pass save Peter, who’s pretty oblivious to the bizarre goings-on. Dinner conversation turns to horror films, as Ann and Peter discuss their favorites. “Dracula, Frankenstein..I love The Mummy. Step, scrape, step, scrape”. Chaney as Bruno is hilarious as someone mentions the Wolf Man. Looking out the window, he echoes his Larry Talbot character, warning, “There’s a full moon tonight”.

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Peter and Ann head to a local motel since there aren’t enough beds available. Emily and her lawyer stay, thinking the whole thing is a hoax. Later that evening, Emily strips down to some sexy lingerie and dances alone in her room, unaware that Ralph is spying through the window. Schlocker takes a look around the house and finds a secret passageway to the basement. Things take a definite turn for the worst, as the children commit murder and mayhem. Peter and Ann return, and are placed in danger. They’re allowed to go free as Bruno has scored some dynamite from the construction site, promising the kids they’ll be together “forever and ever”. Bruno’s final solution blows the Merrye mansion and its occupants to smithereens, and the curse of the “Merrye Syndrome” is gone forever. Or is it??

Lon Chaney Jr. gives a poignant performance as Bruno. He’s gentle and kind to the demented children, loyal til the end. Chaney’s funny in the role, too, proving to his critics he wasn’t just a one-note actor. This was his last good film, as the remainder of his career consisted of B Westerns and Grade-Z crap. While Lon was on his way down, director Jack Hill was on his way up. A former UCLA film student, Hill became friends with fellow student Francis Ford Coppola, who introduced him to Roger Corman. Hill directed parts of The Terror  for Corman, then debuted with SPIDER BABY. After shooting four Mexican horror movies with Boris Karloff, Hill ushered in the “Women-in-Prison” genre with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. His 70s Blaxploitation films with Pam Grier, COFFY and Foxy Brown are classics of the era. spider5

SPIDER BABY is that rare low-budget gem where everything works to perfection. The kids are genuinely scary in their roles, and Hill gets a moving performance from the declining Chaney. The rest of the cast shines as well. It’s unlike any horror comedy before or since, and should be on everybody’s Halloween watch list.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt1: Five Films from Five Decades

I record a LOT of movies. Probably around ten per week, more or less. And since I also have to do little things like work, exercise, cook, clean, breathe,  etc etc, I don’t always have time to watch  them all (never mind write full reviews), so I’ve decided to begin a series of short, capsule reviews for the decades covered here at Cracked Rear Viewer. This will be whenever I find my DVR getting cluttered, which is frequent! I’ll try to make CLEANING OUT THE DVR a bi-weekly series, but there are no guarantees. Monthly is more realistic. Anyway, here are five films from the 1930s to the 1970s for your reading pleasure.

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