Friday, October 7, 2011

Octoberfilms: "House of Usher" & "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1960, '61) — Poe-try in motion

It's another DVD double-discer this time. We're talking not just a veritable pair of Vincent Price performances, but American International Pictures' first two of eight moody, broody films adapted from (actually, more "kind of inspired by, a little, sort of, if you squint") Edgar Allan Poe's atmospheric horror tales.

Sharing the marquee lights with Price is their producer/director, B-maestro Roger Corman, probably Hollywood's most capable director to ever squeeze blood from a long line of low-budget turnips. It's Corman who convinced AIP's cost-conscious chieftains, Sam Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, that for the price of two of the black-and-white drive-in monster flicks that had been Corman's stock in trade in the 1950s — It Conquered the World, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Teenage Cave Man, multiple etceteras — they could instead shift gears and increase their butts-in-seats quotient with a full-color Panavision widescreen macabre chiller "based on" a higher-browed commodity.

At first, Arkoff and Nicholson balked, stuck thinking that there's no way these rock-and-roll kids would drop their dollars to see a movie derived from a dead poet their teachers forced them to read in school. However, Corman's shrewd move of bundling his proposal with established star Vincent Price and successful novelist-screenwriter Richard Matheson sweetened the package. Besides, over in the U.K. newly revamped versions of Frankenstein and Dracula had just put Hammer Films and a goosed-up horror-film biz on the map, so why shouldn't AIP be the American outfit to mine the gold in costume gothic frights?

Courtesy Greenbriar Picture Shows
Especially now to our horror-jaded eyes fifty years on, House of Usher (aka Fall of the House of Usher and The Mysterious House of Usher) and its follow-up The Pit and the Pendulum are modest efforts, talky and downtempo, arch and affected. But Corman seemed to congenitally know how to fill a frame and touch our deep-down buttons, and each film is a noteworthy landmark in shoestring-budget filmmaking. Watch them one after the other and you can see the sharp amping-up of Corman's talent and his demonstrable ability to make a dollar look like ten. Or at least seven.

His reward was a level of critical and, more importantly, commercial success that convinced AIP to continue the series with even better movies yet to come over the next five years, meanwhile launching not just careers but an entire "look and feel" of creeps-and-chills suspense cinema.

The script behind Corman's House of Usher owes less to Poe's original story than to screenwriter Matheson, who remains deservedly well known for The Incredible Shrinking Man, the groundbreaking I Am Legend, episodes of The Twilight Zone (such as "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"), Duel (Steven Spielberg's feature film directing debut), 1999's Stir of Echoes, and other genre high points. In fact, he's represented right now on our mall movie screens by Real Steel, based on Matheson's 1956 short story "Steel," which in its time became a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone.

Poe himself stands to the side, like a maître d', while Matheson and Corman send handsome young swain Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon, from Mario Bava's Black Sabbath) to the titular spooky New England house with hopes to wed beautiful Madeline (Myrna Fahey), the fragile sister of isolated, physically hypersensitive castellan Roderick Usher (Price, of course, splendid in his cool aristo mode):

"Madeline and I are like figures of fine glass. The slightest touch and we may shatter. Both of us suffer from a morbid acuteness of the senses. Mine is the worst for having existed the longer, but both of us are afflicted with it. Any sort of food more exotic then the most pallid mash is unendurable to my taste buds. Any sort of garment other then the softest, is agony to my flesh. My eyes are tormented by all but the faintest illumination. Odors assail me constantly, and as I've said, sounds of any degree whatsoever inspire me with terror."

Philip finds himself marrying — unless desperate Roderick can prevent it to quell the Usher bloodline — into a decadent family cursed to madness. The Usher mansion is itself inherently evil, Roderick says, reminding me of Hill House, the New England monstrosity that was "born bad" in The Haunting. By the time Philip arrives, the place is literally cracking up, brick by brick, along with the psyches around him.

Add a little premature burial — "Did you know that I could hear the scratching of her fingernails on the casket lid?" — plus a ghostly presence, a creepy dream sequence, buckets of dry ice, dark passageways, shadowy baroque chambers, and a climactic firestorm using footage repeated later in the series, and you get one of the prime reasons Corman became a cult favorite subgenre unto himself.

Corman shot House of Usher in 15 days — the longest shooting schedule he'd had to that point — and on a budget of only $200,000, his largest to date. He devoted his team to getting the most out of every moment and nickel. To shoot the opening sequence, for instance, of Mark Damon riding toward the Usher mansion, Corman sent his crew to burned-out acreage blackened by a recent fire in the Hollywood hills, which provided an eerily desolate, skeletal, blasted landscape that was both effective and economical. Each interior scene is carefully composed and shot on sumptuous labyrinthine sets for maximum ambience. For that reason, don't watch any of the Poe series except in their original widescreen versions (MGM's "Midnite Movies" DVDs are an easy source). The old pan-and-scan "adapted to fit your TV" versions are like looking at a Turner painting with the left and right thirds sawed off.

House of Usher marked the beginning of one of Hollywood's great collaborative teams: director Corman, elegant gentleman villain Vincent Price, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, production designer Daniel Haller, and score composer Les Baxter. Corman's colleagues took notice. The Producers Guild of America awarded Usher the Golden Laurel (now the Producers Guild Award) for Sleeper of the Year.

Certainly some elements feel dated now, and as usual Price's fellow actors can't hold a candle to his subdued performance that vibrates gloom, menace, and sympathy altogether like a set of harmonized tuning forks. (That said, character actor Harry Ellerbe as Bristol, the family's loyal and sensible retainer, is also quite fine.)

Usher still holds up admirably as an example of stately suspense that doesn't resort to gore, monsters, or overuse of shock effects. So don't watch it looking for Scream-style frights, but do watch MGM's DVD edition twice — once for the movie, then a second time for Corman's engaging commentary track: an 80-minute Film School crash course in getting things right the first time.

Which brings us to...

Courtesy Greenbriar Picture Shows

This time around we get another eerie castle complete with torture chamber, murder, insanity, adultery, the ghastly look of premature burial, that huge swinging blade, and the refined camp of Price chewing the scenery like a gourmand.

Not at all surprisingly, Poe's tale contributes only to the final act of The Pit and the Pendulum, with once again stalwart genre screenwriter Richard Matheson giving Mr. Poe a creative assist and a plot. Still, several of Edgar Allan's themes and images are on hand here, particularly his fear of the nasty death.

Set in 16th-century Spain just after the Inquisition, this opulent mood piece is practically a remake of Usher in narrative, tone, and style — as you'd expect given that Pit saw the return of Corman's production team, including art director Haller. Again Corman had a restrictive budget and only two weeks to shoot, but this time around he had a little more money and a broader creative canvas to work with.

Even synopsizing the plot risks giving away too much, so let's just say that when a young man (John Kerr) journeys to the cliffside castle of Don Nicholas Medina (Price) to visit the grave of his sister, Nicholas' wife Elizabeth ("scream queen" fan fave Barbara Steele), he discovers more than he bargains for — a devious plot built on a ghastly event from years before, certain proclivities (and a fully equipped dungeon) that convivial Medina inherited from his father the Inquisition torturer, and a lovers' secret that ends in madness and more than one unpleasant demise.

Much of what can be said about House of Usher applies to The Pit and the Pendulum. It's proof that suspense is created by things more elemental than production dollars. It again dispels the notion that Corman was (only) a schlockmeister, instead showcasing a clever, striking visual panache wedded to Daniel Haller's lush production design. It reminds us that flat, colorless character actors — namely wooden boy John Kerr and negligible Luana Anders as Price's sister — come off really flat and colorless when sharing a scene with Price when his swooping, grand operatic melodrama dial is turned to 11. Fortunately, Corman's camera relishes Price's precisely modulated histrionics like an approaching lover. (The down side is that the film's momentum stops cold when Price is off the screen.) And Pit shows us that just when the audience thinks the story's over, that's when you pull out the creepy final surprise.

Stephen King, in his treatise on horror in radio, TV, and film, Danse Macabre, had this to say about a crucial scene in The Pit and the Pendulum: "Following the Hammer films, this becomes, I think, 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 use any means at hand to do it."

Like its sibling DVD of Usher, MGM's "Midnite Movies" edition of The Pit and the Pendulum comes with an illuminating audio commentary by Roger Corman, whose extraordinary memory supplements any film school's how-to-direct syllabus. Also here is a pointless "rare prologue" that spoils the movie's ending, so watch it last, if at all.

This second entry in Corman's Poe series kept his success on solid tracks that reached a memorable zenith with The Masque of the Red Death, which I'll be getting to here shortly.

Near at hand: My second favorite coffee mug