rivers of blood
war on Christmas
stranger in my house
According to German folklore, December 5th is the day that Krampus visits all the naughty children and whips them for misbehaving, gives them lumps of coal, or steals them away to eat them later. You gotta be really, really bad to have the latter happen. You might not agree with the methods of Santa’s evil twin, but you gotta admit, he gets results, even the adults act a little better during the holidays. Besides, Santa doesn’t really like being the bad guy, and all that coal weighs down the sleigh. Better to outsource a job like that.
These days, we hold annual balls and festivals in honor of Krampus, who’s now more a whimsical dark hero to us misfits.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
No one shall ever enter this room again.
Pit and the Pendulum was a film of many seconds for director Roger Corman. It was the second film adapted from an Edgar Allan Poe story, written by author and screenwriter Richard Matheson, who penned such successful novels such as I am Legend and the Incredible Shrinking Man. It was second big hit for distributor American International Pictures, grossing over $2 million USD from a measly $300,000 budget. It was also the second time that Corman would work with Vincent Price and Barbara Steele, each of whom would go on to become horror icons based on their work in numerous horror films.
Loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe of the same name, the story revolves around a tenacious Englishman Francis Barnard who goes to foreboding castle in Spain, after hearing word that his sister Elizabeth has died. He confronts his brother-in-law Don Nicholas Medina, demanding to know how she died. While there, Barnard finds the grieving don is slowly losing his mind, convinced that his late wife is haunting the castle, a site once used in the Spanish Inquisition. The don’s sister and personal physician try to sooth Barnard’s suspicions that Nicholas had anything to do with the sister’s death by revealing the tragic childhood trauma (shown in color-tinted vignette style flashbacks) that inflicts the don, but as the dark night drags by, it becomes apparent that a more sinister plot is afoot.
Richard Matheson creates magic here by fleshing out the Poe’s torture chamber story bringing in the doomed Don Nicholas Medina, who already believes he’s cursed with same madness that drove his father to inflict unspeakable horror on the Spanish population, as well as his own family. In some ways, Matheson’s story is better than Poe’s gothic tale, giving audiences a backstory into understanding the horror the Poe wrote about.
The Merchant of Menace, Vincent Price, is at his best here, playing both a grieving man losing his sanity and his sinister father in flashbacks. His acting is somewhat melodramatic but entirely encouraged by dark dreamy orchestral score by Les Baxter. The always beautiful and haunting bright eyes of Barbara Steele turn in another wicked performance, cementing her legacy as a horror vixen, and John Kerr, Luana Anders and Antony Carbone also give strong memorable performances.
Despite the low-budget, Corman’s gothic adaption looked like million dollar film, with its vibrant color, gorgeous costuming, intricate set design, and carefully planned wide-angle shots by Floyd Crosby, the lusciously filmed Pit and the Pendulum only took 15 days to film. Shot entirely on a sound stages in California, Corman’s meticulous pre-production with his team, in particular, set designer, Daniel Haller, who created a real pendulum for the movie’s nightmarish ending sequence. The imposing pendulum was 18-feet long, weighed over 2,000 lbs and hoisted thirty-five feet in the air at the top of the sound stage above the actors. The blade was made of rubber, but a real metal blade covered in steel paint was switched out for the close shots, giving John Kerr some serious anxiety, which shows in his perspiring face during the final scenes.
This is my favorite Roger Corman and Vincent Price collaboration. It’s the scariest and best overall production, an absolute epitome of gothic horror, inspiring dozens of other filmmakers, from Hollywood to the Italian gallo films of the 60s. Horror at that time was changing in a way that the scares were no longer implied. Horror master Stephen King remembers the Pit and the Pendulum scene which Price’s don Medina finds the decayed corpse of his dead wife, as having changed the horror landscape, King says “the most important moment in the post-1960 horror film, signaling a return to an all-out effort to terrify the audience…and a willingness to sue any means at hand to do it.”
serve the master
children of the night
Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
I’ve harmed nobody, just robbed a few graves!
Hammer Film’s first incursion into the Frankenstein mythos, Curse of Frankenstein, spawned several sequels, all of them starring soon-to-be horror icon Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein. Directed by Terence Fisher, in what would be the first of many films that Fisher would make for Hammer Films, the film also starred a young Christopher Lee, playing the Monster, before he would go on to don Dracula’s cape for the next three decades.
Universal Films fought vehemently to protect their own Frankenstein film and its rights, which reflected heavily on many decisions Hammer made during filming. Make-up artist Phil Leaky created a brand-new look for the monster, and several key scenes from the novel were cut due to a limited budget. Despite its limitations, Curse of Frankenstein impressed many with its art direction, costuming, camera work, and the stellar cast, which also included English actor Hazel Court, (just starting out in her lengthy career as a horror queen), and Scottish stage and TV actor Robert Urquhart.
This story revolves around Frankenstein himself, rather than his creature, choosing to show the Baron as a more ambitious, egotistical and ruthless man; at the start of the story, he awaits execution for several murders. Hammer’s version of Dr. Frankenstein is a villainous man, willing to commit crimes, set up a man’s accidental death, aka murder, to obtain the parts he needs to create his creature, and even use the poor creature to kill opponents standing in the way of greatness. Since, the brain was damaged, it becomes apparent quickly that the monster has little intelligence and is too far too violent to control, thus, Frankenstein is forced to destroy his greatest creation. With the evidence gone, fate comes down to his younger associate Dr. Paul Krempe, the only witness to the experiments.
Colin Clive may have had the most memorable line in horror history, but it was Peter Cushing who was highly praised for the truly unforgettable performance of Victor Frankenstein, for fleshing out the character that audiences deemed charming and intriguing, in spite of his villainy. It was Cushing that helped inspire the mad scientist archetype and motivated Hammer to continue his story all the way into the 70s.
Curse of Frankenstein was Hammer’s first color film and considered by many to be the first truly gory film. The deep red blood and guts appeared gorier on screen than any other horror film of its time, causing a bit of uproar and scathing reviews. It even received an X rating for a time, when it opened at the London Pavilion in 1957. Despite receiving the lukewarm reviews from critics, audiences seemed to really like the film, grossing nearly $8 million, thus, putting Hammer Films squarely on the map.
a lover, taken too soon
The Black Cat (1932)
“Did you ever hear of Satanism, the worship of the devil, of evil?”
Today’s black and white classic is the horror-thriller The Black Cat from Universal Pictures. Horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff square off for the first time in a movie about a traumatized doctor with a cat phobia named Werdegast and an American newlywed couple, who seek medical aid at the home of the doctor’s nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, the dark high priest of a devil-worshipping cult. The doctor’s original plans of revenge on Poelzig are changed when it is revealed the priest plans to sacrifice the young bride at the dark of the moon.
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., the young studio head believed in director Edgar G. Ulmer’s vision enough so the man had free rein over the pic. Although presumed to be loosely based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe, there are not too many similarities here. It’s a bit strange really because the movie is good enough to stand on its own merits. This perhaps one of my favorite classic films. The story is excellent, with strong performances from the entire cast. David Manners and Julie Bishop pile on the melodrama with their romance, which is now part of the charm in some of these old films, but let’s be honest, they weren’t who we’re here to see anyway. Lugosi playing the tortured Werdegast against Karloff’s evil Poelzig in a battle for screen supremacy is one of the best horror face-offs ever found in horror. I’d say Lugosi is the clear winner, due to a more fully fleshed-out character and more dialogue to offer, but Karloff does manage to say quite a lot with just a creepy stare. Madness and secret motivations are the whole reason why this film is so scary. Clearly, something evil has hold of these men.
The film escaped the Pre-code guidelines but Ulmer’s first cut of the film, which included several scenes of satanic worship and skinning alive of Herr Poelzig, was deemed too dark and violent for the Laemmles (father and son). Between that and Bela Lugosi’s complaints that he appeared to be too villainous, Ulmer reshot several scenes, downplaying the gruesome last scene, and added some sprinkling of humanity in the tragic Dr. Werdegast. In a touch of irony, while cleaning up the film’s ending, Ulmer snuck in some extra shots of Poelzig’s necrophilic menagerie. Already heavy with a dark look and satanic theme, studio execs managed to miss The Black’s Cat’s seriously taboo subject matter, or perhaps they ignored it.
The eerie movie score runs 80 minutes contains many classical selections, including the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, only the second time a horror film featured the now cliched song. The set of Poelzig’s mansion is considered somewhat of a masterpiece in the industry, part art deco, part haunted house. In contrast to The Old Dark House, this film is well-lit, casting defined shadows in a way that you’re unsure if you’re watching a horror film at all.
The Black Cat is considered to be the first movie to use psychological horror, capitalizing on public interest in psychiatry at that time. Despite the audience’s distaste for the dark subject matter, it was the biggest box office hit for Universal that year, due in part to the popularity of its stars. What didn’t work then is exactly why it works now. The Black Cat is creepy, scary, and a masterclass in great classic horror.
death is no cure for madness