House of Usher / The Pit and the Pendulum November 23, 2015
To adapt the works of Edgar Allan Poe is no easy task. One can first consider that their lengths cannot generally fill the space of a full-length movie, with the second prominent issue being, of course, the celluloid-matching of the disturbing, seductively macabre tone of the source material. House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), both directed by B-movie superstar Roger Corman and starring the peerless Vincent Price, are among the finest Poe adaptations ever put to the screen — sumptuous in their color and exquisitely madcap in their horror, they are excellent fright fests. The fact that they were made relatively cheaply is highly impressive; though vaguely faithful to their sources, they drip with a richly spooky atmosphere only rivaled by the famed Hammer Horror films of the late 1950s/early ‘60s.
In House of Usher, Mark Damon stars as Philip Winthrop, a handsome young man traveling to the titular manor in hopes to find his fiancée (Myrna Fahey), who, rumor has it, is being held at the mansion by her eccentric brother, Roderick (Vincent Price). It immediately becomes apparent, however, that Madeline is not being kept at the house against her will — the Usher bloodline, it seems, is cursed by a gene that causes every member of the family tree to eventually become afflicted by murderous madness, resulting in massive bloodlust and a consequently untimely death. Madeline is simply trying to protect herself and the man she loves. Philip, too smitten to believe such preposterous claims, plans to ignore Roderick’s warnings and take Madeline back home; but it doesn’t take long for him to find that even the wildest of stories can sometimes contain a hair of truth.
Peppered by a minuscule cast (exclusively including the cast mentioned here as well as Harry Ellerbe as Roderick’s faithful servant), House of Usher plays out like demented Shakespeare, drowned in grand gestures, lip-smacking melodrama, and a slight camp that tickles the senses. Price is a presence unlike any other, capable of going over-the-top while somehow managing to make us laugh at his ghoulishness and still step back in fear of his ever-apparent unhinged demeanor. But the real star of House of Usher is its style. It is everything we could ever want a haunted house movie to be — long corridors, high ceilings, and candlelight characterize every room; wind, lightning, rain, and ghostly moans distinguish the ambiance. Photographed in CinemaScope, it is lush, lavish — it is reminiscent of a 1960s Mario Bava header and then some. While not as admittedly frightening as The Pit and the Pendulum, it finds the middle-ground between camp and authentic horror.
The Pit and the Pendulum, more plot-driven and daring in its style, is widely touted as the finest film in the eight Corman directed Poe films of the early 1960s, and it’s hard to disagree (though I think it's as terrific as House of Usher). Price gives a magnificent performance as 16th-century man Nicholas Medina, a guilt-stricken Spaniard mourning the death of his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), who died during her prime under mysterious circumstances. As the film opens, her concerned brother, Francis (John Kerr), is traveling to Medina’s castle in order to attain some answers, and the latter, along with his sister (Luana Anders), unconvincingly provide a story that paints Elizabeth as a victim of a rare blood disease. Not so — but the truth, shocking and soap-operatic, may be too much for the faint of heart.
Price is so dynamic in The Pit and the Pendulum that he overshadows every single one of his co-stars, who, by another film’s standards, would be perfectly acceptable. But here, perhaps only Bette Davis could rival his scenery-chewing. His performance switches back and forth between humorous and distinctly absurd, and the film is made all the better for it. Its nightmarish tone is fueled by Price’s inability to play it subtle, and the famed climax, which can only be seen to be believed, is one of the most memorable sequences in ‘60s horror.
Most would prefer to point in the direction of Hitchcock when vying for the finest terrormobiles of the Nuclear Age, but forgetting about Corman’s notable Poe-based accomplishments would be a cinematic felony. Criminally underrated and wonderfully batty, House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum are atmospheric delicacies that still hold up. Only six more Corman directed Poe adaptations remain — do I dare journey down their loony paths?
House of Usher A-
The Pit and the Pendulum A-