The night Vincent Price died, television stations across the country ran the Pendulum scene from Pit and the Pendulum as a collective memory his audience would instantly recognize as the screen persona of Vincent Price. This is as it should have been because if any film could act as an homage to Price’s popularity, not only as a “Horror Icon” but a pop culture icon as well. It was more than likely that his producers at AIP felt the same way since he lampooned the role not only the aforementioned Beach Party film where he does a sly cameo as “Big Daddy” but literally revisits the set in the first of two appearances as the title character in the Dr Goldfoot films of 1965.
The dual role of Nicolas Medina and his evil father Sebastian left a lasting impression on anyone who saw it, as the on screen incarnation of all things Edgar Allan Poe. This was especially true of 12 yr olds and movie fans with only a passing reference to the literary Poe. In his first performance, in a Poe adaptation House of Usher, Price hardly spoke above a whisper as the hypersensitive Roderick Usher within his bleached out visage and white hair. In Pit, Price is totally over the top creating his most extravagant performance with all his soon to be trademark facial tics complete with wide-eyed cringing in terror at the many cobwebbed set pieces thrown at him by Daniel Haller. Vincent received some truly nasty reviews from the critics of the day and for once he actually sat down and began to write a letter to one of them only to tear it up when he finished, knowing by then it was all in vain to try and explain your style to someone who never acted in their lives. It is somewhat ironic that Price would endure bad notices for Pit when the critics would only have to wait another year to have real cause for concern when Price was cast as Richard III in Tower of London which may contain Vincent Price’s worst screen performance.
I can still remember the first time I saw this film as a 13 yr old at the old Fox theater in Sacramento, they built a giant makeshift pendulum which was made to swing back and forth above the Marquee. All this ballyhoo made for an unforgettable experience for a monster kid in the making, however it was watching Price at the film’s climax dressed all in black with that hood masking his face (which was for me the ultimate in evil), possessed by his torturer father Sebastian confusing poor John Kerr with his late brother who had been put to death for his adultery with Sebastian’s wife.. This was such an all powerful image watching Vincent Price manipulate those cords which lowered the pendulum itself lower and lower until it drew blood on John Kerr’s chest; no wonder that night of October 25th 1991 America chose to remember this actor with a scene like this one—a tour de force by one of the country’s leading masters of the macabre.
Several years later while Vincent and I were taping my Sinister Image show dedicated to his career in Horror films, we watched the pendulum scene together on a small monitor on the set. Vincent stared at himself saying lines like “You are about to enter Hell the neither regions, the abode of the dammed” he looked over at me and said “this is just too hokey for words David” we both laughed since I did not disagree except in telling him that it was that very “hokeyness” that made his films remain contemporary and fun decades later. As far as I am concerned the main reason the Poe films directed by Roger Corman are still remembered today is primarily because of Price and his baroque acting style. If you can re-imagine all eight of the Poe film directed by Corman but starring say Ray Milland instead, would we still be watching them with the same degree of enjoyment? I think not, yet Milland’s only Poe film The Premature Burial is not without it’s charms but one still regrets Price not being able to do it in the first place.
It is fascinating to me that Vincent’s co-star in Pit the equally iconic Barbara Steele would only work together with Vincent the one time. It was like a bad joke that whenever Barbara found the perfect muse or mentor for her persona in films she quickly moved as far away from success as possible. I mean after she is launched by Mario Bava in Black Sunday she never again places herself under his direction whether by chance or design. Now she finds the perfect on screen partnership with Vincent Price in these Poe films and still refuses to be in any of the films that would follow. I know she was offered The Raven and perhaps Tomb of Ligeia. Corman told me he remembered asking her to be in the non-Price Poe film as well.
|Roger Corman (center), and crew, line up a shot of John Kerr, lying on the stone slab. Cinematographer, Floyd Crosby, stands next to the camera. Pit & the Pendulum, 1961. Click to enlarge|
I did find a moment to ask Barbara about making Pit and she had this to say “At the time everyone I spoke with in Hollywood told me I would enjoy working with Vincent, yet nothing prepared me for the man himself. He is one of those unique personalities, definitively an old soul, cultivated, intelligent, sensitive, exuding an occult presence on film which of course is why Vincent became such an icon to this particular genre. More importantly for my taste Vincent possesses a wicked sense of humor, which got us through the material we had to work with panache and style. My entire part was nearly silent filled with reactions of either shock or horror what else? Roger was on a roll at this time having had such success with the first Poe film and this one would prove no exception, the sets were draped in cobwebs and mold, which suited Vincent to a tee. Corman is a bit like Bava in that he is private, shy and unobtrusive with his actors, yet demanding in terms of the crew, when Roger is on the floor he is the master in charge. Roger was patience itself when it came time for my confrontation with Vincent in the castle dungeon, as he lay there in the dust, we did the most takes trying to find just the right emotion for my character. Vincent’s concentration is total when the cameras are rolling. When he grabs me by the throat and then kisses me I no longer thought I was acting, as he began in earnest to choke the life out of me. When the scene was finished he immediately returned to being Vincent Price again, genuinely concerned for the remainder of that day’s shooting. I am glad you saved these contact sheets from the film to show me now because I could not have remembered as much as I have without them. I can now recall the pendulum chamber which was a work of art. During our few breaks between set-ups I would tell Vincent about these amazing Italian lunches at the local trattoria we enjoyed while working on the Bava film. One afternoon Vincent dropped by the make-up room and suggested we have an “Italian lunch” together, which translated into two bottles of red wine and a loaf of his home made bread along with wonderful cheeses. We both got delightfully plastered right there in the pendulum chamber while a photographer recorded the event, none of which has seen the light of day until now David! I remember Vincent escorted me onto the set by saying ‘Isn’t this the most phallic thing imaginable?’ It was his saying this as I was staring up at this long pendulum that seemed to reach beyond the set itself, that just reduced me to gales of laughter and mind you it was mostly the way he delivered those lines. He managed to top even himself by taking advantage of the moment to add, ‘Don’t worry my dear they will put a rubber on it for our moment when dear John is under it'”
|AIP president James H. Nicholson, Vincent Price, and Barbara Steele, on the back lot of Pit & the Pendulum, 1961. Click to enlarge|
“Not long after the dungeon incident Vincent and I were doing yet more publicity stills on the castle staircase overwrought with cobwebs—the staircase being in reality nothing more than a mock up of less than 50 steps—I was in full regalia in my well worn risen from the casket shroud while Vincent had on his floor length silken dressing gown. During a break from the two of us lying in every imaginable position of disarray on those steps Vincent rose to his full height and then lifted his gown to display a pair of shocking pink socks. ‘I have them in baby blue as well…this helps me from getting a bit too morbid while doing these kinds of films. I believe you cannot be too careful; one could easily take yourself so seriously that you wind up walking down Hollywood Blvd in a cape!'”
“We shot stills all over the place. Vincent really did try to strangle me towards the end of the film and I was so paralyzed with fright during the whole experience that I forgot we were making a movie…Vincent was so sweet after he came to his senses of course I had bruises on my throat for a week. I must confess I kind of got off on the whole thing which of course shocked our young director who was so straight laced he could have passed for a CPA…(CERTIFIED PUBLIC ACCOUNTANT)”
Barbara loved working with Price as these comments point out. Later I was able to ask Vincent about his memories of working with her. Vincent recalls “Barbara Steele was a natural for this particular role as my evil wife Elizabeth; I remember how shy she was the first day of work. Barbara arrived on the set barefoot and ever so Malibu. She had a quick mind and knew something about art so we passed the time between takes discussing that, not that there was really that much free time on a Roger Corman set to begin with. The scene where she taunts me into madness down in the vaults took some time to block out properly for the cameras and I am sure she never forgot what happened when we actually shot the thing I had a moment where I did unfortunately got a little too carried away while in character so when I grabbed her by the throat and then planting this violent kiss right on her mouth I really did start to strangle her in earnest…all the while Roger is sitting there watching all this go down without making a sound…then he looked at us very oddly I might add finally calling out ‘cut print it.’ As soon as I realized what I had done I began apologizing to her immediately and as I remember it she asked if we needed another take..she was certainly a pro after that. I recall asking Roger to give her more to do in the film since she was photographing like a character out of a Goya painting with that amazing face. She had a true sense of the macabre which is as I well know essential to making this kind of film work.”
The on-screen chemistry of Price and Steele was instant since both performers have this connection to the extravagant. Years later Barbara was asked by channel one in Italy to do a documentary on her status as the “Queen of Horror” The producers used my apt to film her scenes and they brought all the equipment to do a feature film, i.e. laying down tracks to run a camera on etc….I phoned Vincent to see if he could be persuaded to come down for a reunion of sorts. The Producers were over the moon because his name alone could get them better exposure outside of Italy. When Price really thought about it he finally said “no” because from his point of view they really did not know each other outside of her four days on the film and felt awkward trying to connect with her after so many years. I was of course very disappointed that I could not make this happen especially for Barbara. Later on I discovered that Price had been very close to Barbara’s ex-husband screenwriter James Poe whose first wife was also named Barbara and they both were part of Price’s inner circle during his long marriage to Mary Price. I imagine now that Vincent felt Jim might feel somewhat negatively if he did something like that, although I can’t imagine Price thinking that since Barbara Steele was still years away from meeting and then marrying James Poe when they made Pit and the Pendulum.
One of the fascinating things about watching Pit several times is the way the two personalities of Price and Steele seem to subvert one another. It is almost as if Barbara’s character of Elizabeth only exists in Price’s mind since all her scenes with him until the finale are in soft gelled flashbacks that seem so much like a dream. It is also obvious that Price’s character, her husband Nicolas, has never consummated the marriage thus making Barbara’s motivation to sleep with Dr Leon even more understandable. This situation comes up again in The Haunted Palace where Price is also in a dual role. As Debra Paget’s husband Charles he never touches her, so when he becomes the warlock Joseph Curwen one of the first things he tries to do is bed his ancestor’s wife. Her reaction to this speaks volumes about her relationship and once again we have a Vincent Price movie where he plays an emasculated man, weak and unmanly, another bizarre, outre performance in a catalogue of work that goes all the way back to his contract days at 20th Century Fox playing similar roles in Leave Her to Heaven and Shock. All these films have a fascinating neuroticism about them that is due in part to the persona of Vincent Price himself. The creme of the jest would come in 1962 when Price would play perhaps the most foppish role of his entire career as Fortunato Lucresi in the Black Cat segment of Tales of Terror. In Richard Matheson’s script the overwhelmingly gay wine connoisseur is a total “ladies man” wooing and bedding Peter Lorre’s lonely wife played by the ever camp Joyce Jameson. A complete reversal of stereotypes. Price would not attempt to play an openly gay character until he impersonated a hairdresser named “Butch” in Theater of Blood in 1973.
Pit and the Pendulum has more than stood the test of time. The six films that came after, all benefited from the world wide box office success of Pit, which in reality created the persona that established Barbara Steele as a Horror star in Europe instead of the popular belief that it was Black Sunday that launched her career. It was her work in Pit that created the buzz that lead to her making more of these films in Italy. For Vincent Price this film forever cemented his name with that of Edgar Allan Poe, his tour de force performance set the standard for how far an actor could go in a horror film as long as you really were Vincent Price, in fact it is not unlike what happened to Anthony Perkins with his signature performance in Psycho, the two men shared a florid acting style that in certain films could always be relied on to deliver the gods. In Ken Russell’s outre production of Crimes of Passion we can see a certain homage to Price in Perkins’ histrionics as the demented reverend, who does channel a bit of Sebastian Medina in the final reel.
Pit and the Pendulum is a nearly perfect example of what has come to be known as a “Corman-Poe film” with its bizarre landscape of melancholia, catalepsy and red candles illuminating dank corridors leading to crypts containing prematurely buried ancestors. A dominion where bedeviled noblemen dine in great halls while suffering thunderstorms through stained glass windows enhanced of course by a decidedly lavender decor. All this showcased by the overwhelming presence of Vincent Price a screen actor of perverse energies and flamboyant gestures so perfectly suited to this kind of film that it has taken us a full decade after his death to realize just what an undisputed master of the macabre he really was, unique and one of a kind…
by David Del Valle