Director: Roger Corman
By Roderick Heath
When you want to talk about Roger Corman, you have to take into account that there is at least three of him. The most famous is the low-budget film director and producer whose name became a by-word for cheap and tacky movies, building small empires from the stray audiences and industrial detritus of the movie business, and whose career has stretched from providing screen filler for drive-ins to VHS shelves to VOD. The second, the won who received a special Oscar, fostered the careers of dozens upon dozens of actors and filmmakers, some of whom went on to have major Hollywood careers, by giving them jobs in his low-rent domains, trusting young on-the-make talent in the same way that he, lucky in his time, got unexpected breaks and became a film director before he was 30.
The third Roger Corman is perhaps the most controversial, insofar as many deny he exists, and yet has been acknowledged elsewhere ever since Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival: the important American filmmaker. Corman’s ingenious touch and wily acumen as a director, perpetually motivated by the most nakedly mercenary wonts and yet somehow always characterful and idiosyncratic, had been apparent since his early work like The Day the World Ended (1956), and his first work in the horror genre, if a rather jokey one, The Undead (1957). Those films were made at a time when Corman’s place on the lowest rung of Hollywood belied his status as one of the few filmmakers in town tackling the psychic underside of modernity via perfervid little fantasias designed to tap the tastes and wallets of young audiences. This he essayed through a brand of cinema that seemed, through its very sparse and straitened creativity, to approximate the mind-space of Elizabethan theatre: even something as magnificently absurd as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958) has the kind of delightful quality to it that suggests a play put on by talented kids after raiding the old chests laden with forgotten potential props in the attic. Usually working with screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, Corman’s films, for all their diverting lacks in production values, often had rich conceptual cleverness and an impudent take on storytelling niceties that often legitimately strayed into the territory of the post-modern. Just as a crudely lettered sign could fill in for a forest in Shakespeare’s day, a man in a tatty monster suit could be the hinge for Corman’s films to become little fugues and bonsai myths.
In 1960, Corman made a move up-market. American Releasing Corporation, the company run by B-movie specialists James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had morphed into American International Pictures, thanks in part to Corman’s gift for penny-pinching and money-spinning, and their seizure of the nascent youth market. Corman sold them on the idea of making a more ambitious type of product to what they had so far done: to make a relatively classy horror movie in colour, to try and reach the same market Hammer Studios had recently uncovered. Needing a subject to go up against Hammer’s repertoire of Gothic literary sources, Corman chose as a subject a specifically American source of horror fare, one that was also, conveniently, in the public domain: Edgar Allan Poe. The first film he adapted from Poe, House of Usher, proved such a hit that AIP immediately became a dominant force in the new, wide-open post-studio era of exploitation cinema, and Corman made a slew of Poe adaptations in the next four years: Pit and the Pendulum and Premature Burial (both 1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (both 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964), as well as two films that fit thematically if not pedantically into the series, the famously, hastily assembled The Terror, and The Haunted Palace (both 1963), named for a Poe poem but actually the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Corman turned from his usual writing team and commissioned a screenplay for House of Usher from well-regarded sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Matheson was contributing scripts to Rod Serling’s epochal TV show “The Twilight Zone” at the time, and Corman also used scripts by another of the show’s writers, Charles Beaumont, for the Poe series. But the true key to the success of the series was gained when Corman obtained the services of Vincent Price, a stage and Hollywood actor who had a frustrating career in movies for fifteen years, usually playing smarmy upper-crust playboys or menacing Byronic types, until House of Wax (1953), one of the few major American horror films of the decade, had turned him at last into a niche star. Price started drifting towards becoming a full-time horror actor as the decade wore on but many of the films didn’t know what to do with him, for instance The Fly (1958) which cast him as straight man: Corman however offered him roles that stretched his gifts and played on his capacity to shift from avuncular to menacing on the drop of a hat, and offer facially and vocally expressive performances influenced by theatrical melodrama perfectly attuned to the stylised, expressionistic needs of Gothic horror. Price starred in all of the Poe films except for Premature Burial, which featured Ray Milland, lending his inimitably over-large style in cunningly pitched variations that confirmed his second career as a cult figure. In Pit and the Pendulum, the second of Corman’s Poe films, Price plays two parts which merge towards the end, conjoining those two poles of his personality.
Pit and the Pendulum opens with a desolate and eerie vista traversed by a lonely coach, setting the film’s toey, tense mood in motion. Poe’s original story, one of the most brilliant examples of the writer’s gift for composing what seem like remembered nightmares recorded in lucid detail, was a tale of sadistic suffering anticipatory of Kafka and Orwell, set in a Spain where the terror of Inquisition becomes a cosmic force, and the hero is only rescued in the last few sentences by an avenging army. Corman’s budget couldn’t cope with that, so he and Matheson stuck close to the template that had worked on House of Usher, sticking with the Spanish setting and theme of the Inquisition but shifting the location to a remote castle and revisiting the gambit of an outsider, this case John Kerr’s invasive Englishman Francis Barnard, entering a family house dominated by an intense and morbid air of familial guilt. Worked into the story is a greatest hits-like collection of Poe themes like burial alive, personality possession, erotically-tinged guilt and melancholic obsession. Francis comes to Spain in search of facts about a woman, in this case his sister Elizabeth, who had married Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price), but has recently died in mysterious circumstances.
Arriving on the blasted, Salvador Dali-esque shoreline where Medina’s castle teeters on the edge of a sonorously rolling sea, Francis bangs on the door and demands admittance with a haughty, bullish determination to learn why his sister died. He soon finds himself up against a thicket of confused explanations, with the mood of distrust heightened by Nicholas’ bleary sense of responsibility, and the sketchy details of Elizabeth’s demise which prove to have been partly covered up. Soon Francis pries from Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and family physician Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) the truth as they know it, that Elizabeth died from a heart attack, caused by her accidentally sealing herself into an iron maiden in the torture chamber conveniently located in the castle’s basement, which morbid allure had drawn her to: the chamber had been constructed by Nicholas’ father Sebastian, an infamous torture artist employed by the Inquisition.
Unlike the mostly mood-driven House of Usher, however, Pit and the Pendulum develops an inwardly spiralling mystery with the classic Gaslight (1940) theme of machinations to drive a person mad for worldly gain. The characters try to solve strange portents infesting the castle, including signs that Elizabeth may well have risen from the grave, a possibility that touches Nicholas deeply. The trauma behind Nicholas’ quivering anxiety and specific fear of burial alive is rooted in an anecdote Catherine has to relay to Francis: Nicholas secretly witnessed Sebastian (also played by Price in flashback) luring their mother (Mary Menzies) and her lover, his brother Bartoleme (Charles Victor) into his torture chamber, where he bashed Bartoleme’s head in and tortured their mother before walling her up alive. Although Leon assures them that Elizabeth was quite dead, the mysterious sounds of her beloved harpsichord being played in the night, a whispering voice shocking the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) whilst cleaning Elizabeth’s room, and Francis’ discovery of a network of secret passages, begin to suggest the true situation is stranger. Francis eventually theorises that Nicholas is creating the disturbances himself, because he’s mentally unbalanced and suffering dissociative fits. Acting on the possibility that Nicholas’ own belief that Elizabeth might still be alive or at least to satisfy Nicholas’ obsessive anxiety, the men break their way into the sealed crypt below to investigate. In her coffin, they find a gnarled and twisted body that does indeed seem to have died in screaming agony whilst sealed in alive.
The blend of firmly geographical realism with an undertow of obsessively morbid style that steadily eats into the texture of the film until it breaks out in hallucinogenic blooms, exemplified by Pit and the Pendulum, became Corman’s specific touch. Amongst Corman’s Poe films, this one had probably the most evident, immediate impact on some of Corman’s rivals, particularly Italian brethren including Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, from whom he in turn stole Steele: Freda remixed the plot of Pit and the Pendulum for L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock (1962). As Paul Leni and Tod Browning had done years before, Bava would accomplish so masterfully on Operazione Paura (1966) and John Carpenter would manage on Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), Corman transforms environment and the absence of people and action into a dramatic element key for creating tension and mystery, as cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera restlessly probes the Medina castle in the night, the camera suggesting a lurking intelligence in spite of the absence of human presences, long before the eerie sounds of Elisabeth’s harpsichord begin to echo about the castle.
Author Stephen King has said the moment of the discovery of Elizabeth’s entombed body marked the start of a trend towards ever-more-intense shock-effect horror in the genre, and it is arguable that the film provides the bridge between the lip-smacking sadism of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and the eventual sub-genre based around torture as source of horror that flowered regrettably in the last decade or so. Where Hammer had effectively drenched its horror films with Technicolor to paint them in illustrative verve that made them stand out at a time when the genre was usually too cheap to afford colour or still essaying mood through Expressionist lighting, Corman was the first filmmaker since Michael Curtiz’s work with two-colour Technicolor in the early ‘30s to really seize on the format as an expressive tool, carefully employing costuming and décor in commentary. In spite of the cramped budgets, Corman’s eye for talent snared him two collaborators with years of experience in studio cinema, Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. The palette they created for Pit and the Pendulum grips the actors in a world of musty browns and greys, the dust and dirt of the grave infesting the frames, except for carefully coordinated splashes of colour.
Corman was fond of blurring the boundaries between distant past and future, and even dramatized the idea in Teenage Caveman (1958), as time eats itself, ouroboros-like. Even the land around the castle has been desiccated as thoroughly as by nuclear fallout, one way in which Corman manages to link the threat of desolation he had explored with real fascination in his scifi, with its nuclear age angst, with Poe’s timeless psychological realm. In a similar way, Les Baxter’s scoring, the most inventive of the composer’s work on the Poe series, utilises electronic sounds and strange, almost musique concrete effects throughout, throbbing and droning in weird, echoic manner, recalling the score of Forbidden Planet (1956) but with futurism replaced by atavistic dread. When Steele’s Elizabath finally appears, rising like a wraith from the shadows, she is nonetheless wrapped in brilliant white with blood-stained fingers, a perverse angel crawling her way out of the fetid psychological trap her husband’s obsessions inadvertently forced on her and which she has now turned into a weapon. Corman would get to work out this concept most fully in the colour codings of The Masque of the Red Death, where he gained Nicholas Roeg as a collaborator. It’s hard not to read Corman’s background as a trained engineer – a career he abandoned after two weeks – in the precision of his use of space and elements, as well as the on-time, on-budget ethic he stuck to as a filmmaker.
The Poe series tends to take pre-eminence in serious appraisals of Corman’s oeuvre, understandable considering their higher budgets and concomitant, relative smoothness and vivacity, although they do lack to a certain extent the antic humour, self-reference and self-satire that define so many of Corman’s cheaper early films, which shone out particularly bright in the knowing burlesques on Poverty Row enterprise and minor entrepreneurial artistry in A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors, the multi-genre send-up in Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), and his mini-epic of meta-humour, Rock All Night (1957). But the bare-boned, apocalyptic morality plays he was also good at – The Day the World Ended, Gunslinger (1956), The Last Woman on Earth (1961), The Intruder (aka Shame, 1962) – provided a basis for the conceptually hermetic, sparsely populated, intensely oneiric worlds he conjures in the Poe films. One of the most interesting aspects of Corman’s works lay in how, even in his cheapest films (indeed, sometimes particularly there), he was one of the few directors of his era who incorporated visual art as both an element in the films and as stylistic guide, in a fashion similar to how other filmmakers were leaning on Saul Bass to inject their work with the same veneer of stark, modernist quintessence. The pretences to classical integrity in the Poe series stymied his playfully deconstructive instincts his early films often displayed, but Corman compensated by turning the films in referential pieces, quoting Poe on screen during the films to provide literary bookends to his visualisations. The opening and closing credits depict seething colours, a simple effect rendered with paint running in oil, making everything in between some like the feverish product of a mad artist. Artworks that seem to contain the remnant personalities of their subjects becomes a recurring motif in Corman’s films, here manifesting first when Nicholas shows Francis portraits of his father and of Elizabeth, rendered in anachronistic styles, and later, in the waking-nightmare finale, ghoulishly stylised paintings of hooded monks glaring down at the tortured hero, turned into twisted, elongated icons with a faint of echo of Eisenstein’s perversion of medieval Russians into human illustrations in Ivan the Terrible (1945-57), breaking down the barriers between set, décor, costuming, and camera effect. Reality starts to melt on the edge of mortality as the paintings are doubly distorted by lens effects and screen-flooding colours.
Corman’s later, brief shift into semi-experimental, psychedelic film with The Trip (1967) notably followed on from both the technique and themes he was exploring here and elsewhere in the series, presenting the mind unfettered experiencing past, present, and dream-state in a melange. Moreover, a theme that threads through much of Corman’s oeuvre, a portrait of the attempt to create as a process involving eternal frustrations and cruelty to both self and others, blithely portrayed in stuff like Rock All Night, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, but more seriously engaged repeatedly in the Poe films, The Trip, and elsewhere, here crystallises as Nicholas laments his incapacity to transcend through art in his attempts to capture Elizabeth’s face on canvas, and so, again like many of Corman’s antiheroes, recreates himself to cope. Corman’s noted admiration of Ingmar Bergman, again expressed more completely in Masque of the Red Death, feels most acute in this theme with similarly obsessed the Swedish master, if essayed in far more high-falutin’ ways. True to the intensely psychological understanding Corman and Matheson both shared in relation to Poe’s tales, they relentlessly link the dank, mysterious abodes beneath the castle with the fetid areas of the mind, the castle a mimetic map of that mind, and signal that in spite of Nicholas’ surface vulnerability he maintains a dangerous and obsessive link with his father’s world. When Francis first enters the dungeon, Nicholas appears suddenly from a closed door – a trick Corman repeats when Elisabeth bursts into the film – behind which the sounds of machinery working have startled Francis and Catherine: all Nicholas will say is that “machine needs constant repair.” Why on earth Nicholas needs such a machine we only learn in the climax.
The deliberate, patient, neurotic tempo of Pit and the Pendulum tightens a spring that won’t release until the finale, but punctuated with brief outbursts of hysteria and intensely rhythmic fulcrums, including the sequence where the men break into Elizabeth’s tomb that sees the hacking pickaxes becoming time-keepers counting down to their own entrance into the tomb, and the later scene where Nicholas finds himself exploring hidden passages. He’s drawn on by the siren call of what sounds like his dead wife, the dazed and terrified man becoming steadily more distracted, at first cringing as he touches thick cobwebs and then stumbling through them without noticing. When Nicholas follows this labyrinth to the opened tomb and sees something climbing out of his wife’s coffin, Corman doesn’t shift the beat, but watches just as calmly as Nicholas retreats in panicky fear and finally collapses until Steele’s Elizabeth suddenly erupts from the shadows screaming his name, turning her husband, or her prey, into a scurrying animal and then catatonic cuckold. Nicholas survives however by going constructively mad, as it becomes clear that Leon and Elizabeth are lovers who have plotted to destroy Nicholas by driving him mad. Nicholas then arises, his own personality subsumed by his murderous, tyrannical father, closing the very circle of inevitably inheritance Nicholas had feared but also armouring him against evil.
Price gives a quintessential example of his gift for oversized, expressive style, perhaps indeed one of his most florid, although his showiness, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of grand barnstorming melodrama actors as Tod Slaughter, disguises his skill. Price shifts between personas with consummate ease and provides the film with its dramatic nexus, telegraphing Nicholas’ quivering boy-man fear and anguish striated with fixation, his constant worry that he might inevitably inherit his father’s evil dooming him to just that. Next to him, everyone else except for Steele looks stolid and strained. Kerr, whose big claim to fame prior to this was appearing in Tea and Sympathy (1958), has the relatively thankless job of playing Francis, who mostly comes on as obnoxiously insensitive, but he’s effective enough as sounding board for Price’s spectacke and plays the character with admirable chilliness that makes Francis seem, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, to be something like its villain, relentlessly pounding on vulnerable and empathetic Nicholas’ fragile nature. Francis proves however to more a hapless interloper, in a vein that renders him intriguingly close in function and identity to the “final girl” as that figure would arrive in the ‘70s horror genre, as he loses all agency and undergoes terrible suffering and has to be saved by a woman and servant: here Corman and Matheson clearly signal something changing in the genre. Anders, who also appeared in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide the same year, had a kind of raw, slightly uncertain charm that suits her character, who retains innocence amidst the emotional wreckage that is her family legacy and has avoided her brother’s neurosis but certainly feel the weight of experience, staring blankly into her own imagined version of family horror as she narrates it to Francis.
For horror fans the undoubted appeal of Pit and the Pendulum acting-wise lies in seeing Price and Steele together. That promise was partly hampered, as Steele had her speaking voice post-dubbed by another actress, because her regional English accent sounded oddly out place amidst the mid-Atlantic brogues everyone else in the cast adopted to play Spaniards. Nonetheless Steele’s physicality blazes for her few minutes on screen in her first major movie after being promoted to genre stardom by Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), her remarkable face, the very image of the femme fatale capable of shifting between modes of porcelain doll-like beauty and utter evil, leering gleefully over Price’s prone form, sweetly mocking him with the litany of people who have betrayed him or sinned in his immediate life. Gloating pleasure turns abruptly to queasy fear as Nicholas starts laughing back at her, and grasps her as if the most intimate lover’s embrace as Elisabeth squirms fearfully in his arms before gagging her and shutting her in an iron maiden. Transformation via psychotic breakdown unleashes demonic sexuality as Nicholas/Sebastian gives Elisabeth a voracious kiss. This wonderful moment nails down the base erotic element in so much of the horror genre, the alternations of power within sexuality, the broken wall between desire and hatred, as well as the performative skill of the duo.
Nicholas’ insanity next leads him to chase down Leon, who plunges to his death in a secret pit, and so Francis, who stumbles down into the dungeon in search of Nicholas and finds him now entirely subsumed by the personality of Sebastian: Nicholas knocks out Francis and substitutes him for Leon as stand-in for Bartoleme, and subjects him to Sebastian’s ultimate torture machine – the pendulum. Nicholas/Sebastian gloats over his tethered victim before setting the torture machine in motion and memorably welcomes Francis to his zone of nullification of reason, giving it names from a panoply of cultures and describing it as the ultimate metaphor for the state of human kind before setting the gears in laborious motion and the machine begins lowering the blade remorselessly towards Francis’ stomach. Price goes gleefully for the rafters here in one of his bravura shows of theatricality, but both he and the film also, finally reach the point of crisis they’ve been working to with sneaky skill, both filmmakers’ showmanship and torturer’s converging to offer a spectacle of torment that allows perfect summation of both the plot and the obsessions of the characters, from Nicholas’ torment/fascination to Francis’ obsession with knowing the whole truth and being given an intimate lesson in fate.
The final action is entirely riveting, as Catherine and servant Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) break into the chamber: when finally they gain entrance, Maximillian battles Nicholas whilst Catherine tries to halt the pendulum, resulting in Nicholas falling to his death beside Leon and Francis only saved by the thinnest of margins. This is thanks in no small part to Catherine’s pluck and awareness, which up until then have been neglected, another of Corman’s most integral themes. The ending is technically happy as the good guys stumble away unharmed, and yet Corman saves up one of the most coldly ironic final shots in horror film history, as Catherine, Francis, and Maximillian leave the dungeon. “No-one shall enter this room again,” Catherine vows, only for Corman to veer his camera back to the iron maiden from which the gagged Elizabeth stares in silent mortification, doomed to the nastiest possible punishment for her crime. The ritualistic final quote direct from Poe that ends the film ironically fills in a description of the very sound Elizabeth can’t make: the primal scream of purgative fear.