Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bald Mountain Night 13: the Pit and the Pendulum

Each day in October, intrepid blogger Alex Boivin will watch a horror movie. These movies are all new to him and are part of his month-long effort to fill in his gaps in the horror canon. If he doesn't die from fright, you just might get to read about about his exploits in cinema during the Halloween season.

After a somewhat disappointing trial run, I've decided to give Vincent Price's filmography another try. Last time, I watched House on Haunted Hill, which underwhelmed me with its lack of actual haunting but impressed me with it's star, Mr. Price. I've moved forward a few years to 1961, to tackle one of Price's collaborations with Roger Corman's American International Pictures, the kings of Hollywood B-movies. For those of you not familiar with the history of crappy American films in the years between 1956 and 1980, AIP made a fat profit by creating low budget genre movies marketed to those wanton disposers of income, teenagers. Many of these are best remembered as fodder for Charge Shot!!!'s beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000. In the early-to-mid Sixties, Price made a big splash in a series of commercially and critically successful films based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, and today's movie is the second of those: the Pit and the Pendulum.

I'm no Poe scholar but from what I gather this movie is a bit of a departure from the original story. Francis Barnard (John Kerr, in a challenging role) is a sixteenth-century Englishman who voyages to Spain to visit the castle of his brother-in-law Don Nicholas de Medina (Price) in the wake of his sister's sudden death. Nicholas is in a deep state of mourning and is apparently near the edge of insanity, he claims to hear the voice of his late wife Elizabeth calling to him form the walls of the castle (this has been a bad week to visit seaside Spanish estates). Even more disturbing is the bloody history of the castle: Nicholas' father was one of the foremost butchers of the Spanish Inquisition and the grim devices of torture in the castle's nether reaches hold a grim fascination for him. Could Nicholas' insanity, Elizabeth's death, and the subsequent haunting have something to do with this? I'll save you an hour and a half: yes, yes, and yes.

Before I go on, I should point out the many glaring historical inaccuracies in this depiction of early modern Spain. I am something of an amateur scholar of Spanish history and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that there were no portraits of the Duke of Freaking Marlborough in any sixteenth-century Spanish castle!

As far as borderline campy horror pictures go, this one's alright. There are some genuinely spooky moments (including a creepy shot of a corpse) and Poe's personal favorite subject of premature burial really freaks me out, personally. Price of course is the highlight of the film, I found myself yawning or shifting restlessly in my seat whenever he wasn't on screen as his trademark sinister/tortured gentleman character. The last ten or so minutes of the film are pretty close to classic, with Price going full on batshit insane and tormenting all the other characters with the various tools of the Inquisition at his disposal, including the titular device. This movie has made me realize that the appeal behind the films of Vincent Price isn't so much the films themselves, they run the gamut from passable to shitty, but rather Price himself, who always turns in a great performance. These movies are just vehicles to deliver his awesomeness.

Final verdict: 40 Congos