Tuesday, September 8, 2009

All I ever wanted to know about Hell, I learned from Vincent Price

“You are about to enter Hell, Bartolome - Hell!...The nether world, the infernal region, the abode of the damned...The place of torment. Pandemonium, Abbadon, Tophet, Gehenna, Narraka...the Pit!...And the Pendulum. The razor-edge of destiny.”

My mother, no fan of modern horror movies, has always been a Vincent Price horror movie fan. Thus, Roger Corman’s 1961 film "The Pit and the Pendulum" was taped from late night Houston t.v. and watched and re-watched in my house whenever we wanted to see a “scary movie.” (Even scarier were the commercials for the Time Life series of books on the paranormal, with images of specters floating down hallways and demons in the woods, all of which could have been mine to learn about if I would have called and ordered the first in the series.)

“The Pit and the Pendulum” is a child’s nightmare of a movie, filled with the forbidden and the horrifying – and without supernatural elements. Incest, torture, insanity, being buried alive, a huge castle with hidden passageways, and obviously, a pit and a pendulum. The plot, which bears little resemblance to Poe’s original story, is about a young man, Bartolome, who comes to the Medina castle to find out how his sister Elizabeth, wife of Nicholas Medina, died. Nicholas is played by the incomparable Vincent Price, complete with grief-stricken face, bulging eyeballs, looks of despair, and even a fainting spell. We eventually learn that Nicholas’ father was the local inquisitor who conducted his torture sessions in the basement and who tortured and killed his wife and brother on suspicion that they were having an affair, while his son watched. Prior to her death, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) had become increasingly fascinated with these torture devices, and it was believed that the “ghosts” killed her. But Nicholas is haunted by his beloved Elizabeth, and begins to believe that she was buried alive. In one of the most indelible images in the movie, they open her casket to find a decaying face frozen in a scream.

Of course, there is the plot twist: there is no supernatural explanation for the death of Elizabeth, as she did not die in this gruesome manner. She was having an affair with the doctor, staged her own death and is now trying to drive her husband crazy so she can run off with the doctor free and clear. “Nicholas…Nicholas…” she keeps calling to him*, luring him down into the basement, where she hopes he will die of fright. Right when it seems that he has cracked up and died, he turns the tables on Elizabeth and the doctor and assumes the persona of his inquisitor father, torturing his wife and friend. Unluckily for him, Elizabeth’s brother is the one who gets tied to the pendulum torture device. Nicholas’ sister comes to Bartolome’s rescue, and Nicholas ends up dead at the bottom of the pit, an evil grin on his face. But if that isn’t enough, the final scene is of the basement torture chamber being locked up, while Elizabeth is frozen inside the iron maiden.

As already stated, there are no supernatural aspects in this movie. It is all the more terrifying because of that – it is about a descent into insanity and evil, based on the wickedness of others and their ability to deceive. It’s one of the scariest things in the world – that people are not as you thought them to be. (One of my childhood nightmares was that people would shape-shift in the dark, that they could become other people or creatures in a room with no light, and then attack me.)

But even that as not as frightening as how delighted Price – as Nicholas – becomes when he is freed into pure evil. It’s not just a twist on the old saying that bad ‘guys’ have more fun; it’s this passion to act in a newfound way, free of concern and responsibility. It’s appropriate that he cannot recognize anyone as they are. He is oblivious in his desire to complete all his wicked aims. Hell becomes the scariest place possible.

*The way Price calls after her, “Elizabeth? Elizabeth?” reminded my sister and me of the way Macho Man Randy Savage called after Miss Elizabeth, for ‘80s WWF fans.

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