Tuesday Terror – The Pit and the Pendulum

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
No one shall ever enter this room again.

pit-and-the-pendulum-1961-movie-barbara-steele-iron-maiden
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

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.

pitpaint
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

 

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.

pitbro
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

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.

pitmad
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

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.”

mgm pit pendulum
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Tuesday Terror – Black Sunday

Black Sunday (1961)
Sometimes Satan, with his capacity for doing evil, even plays tricks with the dead.

blacksunday barbara steele
 Black Sunday ©Kino International

After following in his father’s footsteps, cinematographer Mario Bava made his directorial debut with 1960 gothic horror, Black Sunday, aka, The Mask of Satan, about a witch named Asa Vajda from Moldavia, who vows revenge after she and her apprentice are condemned to death by her brother, the crown prince. Two centuries later, on Black Sunday, the day Satan walks the earth, a traveling physician and his assistant unwittingly bring the witch back to life. After turning her apprentice into a vampire, Asa immediately sets out to fulfill her cursed prophecy, by terrorizing her brother’s descendants.

 

Production started in late March 1960 and took less than two months to film, releasing in Italy in August of 1960. The film was a modest success, bringing in $140 million lire, earning back its production costs, but performed much better in Europe and the US. Despite being low-budget, Black Sunday was praised for its originality and vivid imagery, however, the gore and gruesome violence shown in the film drew much criticism and was even banned in the UK until 1968, when a heavily censored version, retitled as Revenge of the Vampire, was finally released. The uncut version wouldn’t be shown until 1992!

 

In the US, Black Sunday was shown as a double feature with Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors in February 1961. In order to make the film less objectionable, American censors edited the movie down three minutes, excluding such violent scenes as, the burning and branding of flesh, eyeball impalement, and blood spewing out from the mask as it was hammered onto witch’s face in the opening sequence.

 

Unknown British actress Barbara Steele was cast in the lead duel role of the evil witch vampire Asa and her innocent descendant Katia. Even though her voice was dubbed by another actress, audiences swooned over Steele’s haunting beauty and loved her villainous portrayal of the vengeful Asa. Barbara Steele reportedly had a hard time on set and gained reputation for being difficult, mostly due in part to the lack of communication and language barrier.

BlackSundayposter
©Kino International

What was once shocking to audiences of the early sixties, holds the same magic to influence numerous artists and filmmakers over the years, including Francis Ford Coppola, who is said to have recreated several scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as a homage to Bava, and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, which borrowed imagery, namely, the iconic death by iron maiden scene. The horrifying story of revenge and all its extreme violence and sexual suggestions actually helped Black Sunday become a cult classic.

Black Sunday
©Kino International