Archive for The Pit and the Pendulum

Fear of Falling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2019 by dcairns

11pm Halloween is when we were supposed to plummet from the European Union but that’s not happening — YET.

Here to mark the non-occasion is Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London, the silent film blog for everybody, not just cockneys. It’s an interesting week for silent film as a major moviemaker just dropped an entirely wordless short film into the BBC2 TV schedule. I can only imagine how this thing affected the unwary — reminds me of reports I’ve heard from those who stumbled on ERASERHEAD or O, LUCKY MAN! after a night at the pub…

Read it here.

Next up, guest Shadowplayer James Silk, who tweets as @afterglow2046, addresses a classic piece of Italian Gothic, a film set on Halloween night and therefore ideal for you to experience RIGHT NOW, knowing that as you do, the ghosts in the story will be going about their business…

For “Project Fear” I chose to write about the 1964 French/Italian Horror film Danse Macabre (or Castle of Blood to use its international title).

Danse Macabre had pretty inauspicious origins. It was made by Sergio Corbucci to reuse sets from a “Toto as a monk” comedy and cash in on the early 60s horror craze. When Corbucci became too busy, his friend Antonio Margheriti (or Anthony Daisies to use his international title) took over.

The film, shot in 12 days, on reused sets, by an affable journeyman, should be a trifle, a piece of hackwork. Yet I find it has some strange and beautiful things to say about time, death and sensuality.

I’ll try and explain why, although trying to explain an Italian horror film is often like trying to describe a lurid & disorganised dream.

Firstly Danse Macabre has one of the best opening credits imaginable “Based on a tale of Edgar Poe.”

Which leads one to ask “Which tale?”

Poe wrote about 70, and the story that unfolds bears little resemblance to any of them. A cynic might claim that the filmmakers were just trying to cash in on the popularity of Poe adaptations, but as we’ll see, there’s no place for such scepticism here…

The film opens with our protagonist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière ) walking down a studio street in what we’re told is London, England. He approaches an inn, where a gently swinging sign reads “Four Devils” (invoking Murnau?)

Foster enters, and beholds Edgar Allan Poe himself (Silvano Tranquilli) reciting “Berenice.”

It’s quite a suprise to see Poe here, both in “London” and in his “own story” (he wasn’t one for authorial cameos).

After Poe has finished, Foster introduces himself as a journalist, one who has been hounding Poe for an interview since he arrived in England. (and considering, historically. Poe never visited England, he must have been quite hard to find).

Foster immediately marks himself out as sceptic, someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. One of the most dangerous things to do in horror film, besides profess happiness.

Poe then remarkably claims that he is the same. He’s not a fiction writer at all, but a reporter like Foster, and every one of his stories are true. Poe is a mere observer of the real world, powerless against the horrors he witnesses. He can’t help it if the real world he keeps witnessing is incredible.

(Foster avoids asking “Then how the hell did you witness The Masque of Red Death??” because the film has the language of a nightmare, and because he is polite).

This is the first of many games with reality played throughout the film. In the film’s world:, fiction is true, reality is a dream, characters will lie throughout about their histories, their feelings, even their states of corporeal being.

A third man introduces himself: Lord Thomas Blackwood (played by the permanently pained looking Umberto Raho).

This being an inn, at night, in a horror film, Lord Blackwood quickly offers Foster a deadly wager: He challenges him stay in his castle that same night, until the morning of November 1st and win £100 for his troubles.

He explains it has to be this night, because during these hours “the dead come back again and re-enact the tragedies that cost them their lives.”

He also warns Foster that many others have tried to win the bet, but none have survived.

The “truth” of this film is everything explained here. Other characters will later question this, call Blackwood a liar, and they will all be proven to be deceivers.

Our sceptic (and cash-strapped) hero quickly accepts and, a brief carriage ride later, he is left at the castle until morning.

What then follows is 10 minutes of pure cinema. Wordlessly, Foster wanders around the house, exploring, finding decaying furniture and the odd piece of discarded clothing, occasionally startled by cats or slamming doors. Autonomous slamming doors are a recurring motif in the film, forcing Foster’s passage through the house, maintaining tension and punctuating scenes.

While watching the film, an accidental moment of utter eeriness occurred during this sequence, when my automatic subtitles interpreted the film’s eerie music as a voice saying “you”

Just as we’re settling into this strange, gentle rhythm, a new character enters: Elisabeth played by the legendary Barbara Steele (perhaps playing a distant descendant of her character “Elizabeth” in Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum).

Barbara Steele, the ultimate gnostic actress: the division of body and voice. So many times we see her in European films, her voice nearly always dubbed by others, yet her ethereal appearance shines through. Her incredible eyes & the spirit behind them always overwhelm these attempts at vocal possession. Steele’s remarkable appearance inadvertently evokes the theme of the film: sensuality as an overwhelming force.

Elisabeth tells him that she is Lord Blackwood’s sister, and that Foster has been deceived. The house is not abandoned, she lives here, hidden by her brother, because of a scandal. However every year, he sends her a visitor for company (and if you believe that, congratulations on your first ghost story.)

However Foster, the great sceptic, is completely taken in, enraptured by her presence.

Elisabeth asks him for news of the outside world, having been trapped here for so long. Foster cynically replies: “There is nothing new. People are born, others die every day, business seems as usual. In fact the world goes on and remains the same.”

A remarkable response.

Firstly this reminds me of Luis Bunuel’s poetic words on his death ”I’d love to rise from the grave every 10 years or so and go buy a few newspapers. Ghostly pale, sliding silently along the walls, my papers under my arm, I’d return to the cemetery and read about all the disasters in the world before falling back to sleep, safe and secure in my tomb.”

Secondly this strikes me as the best possible thing you could ever tell a ghost who has been trapped in a castle for years: basically, you’ve missed nothing.

Foster and Elisabeth are clearly besotted with each other, and as in a dream, within minutes they are confessing their passions and embracing.

As they make love, she cries out:

“Maybe your warmth can save me from this cold that imprisons me hopelessly. Alan, I’m alive only when I love.”

This line is the film’s core. This film is not about horror, but eroticism. The conventions of the Italian Gothic have the living fall in love with the dead (and vice-versa) but unlike say, Poe’s tales & poetry, this love is not platonic, but often an erotic love.

However this eroticism is interrupted by a very different kind of passion: To everyone’s surprise, a big half-naked muscular man bursts into the room and seemingly kills Elisabeth. Foster chases and shoots him, but then finds that both bodies have disappeared.

This big half-naked muscular man will haunt the rest of film, lurking in the shadows, bursting into rooms, attacking victims and stalking Foster with a leering smile. He is like passion personified: powerful, intense, and slightly ridiculous.

Margheriti actually dubbed him “The Macho.” This makes me wish for a whole franchise of “Macho” films, this mute burly figure invading every genre whenever things get dull.

Poor Foster, just as he is beginning to lose all grip on reality, the rational world (or a version of it) tries to reassert itself. The spectral figure Dr Carmus (Arturo Dominici) appears.

He tells Foster that he has just witnessed the presence of ghosts, but assures him that he, Dr Carmus is very much alive. By now you should be getting wise to these games, but Foster gratefully believes this.

Foster asks how Elisabeth can be a ghost when he touched her, felt her warmth Carmus takes Foster down to the library, and explains “the rules.”

“Three forms of life exist together in every human being: That of the body is the most fragile form.

Next, there is the spirit, which is indestructible (Thank you Italian Catholicism). Finally, there are the senses, which are not eternal, but which can survive long after death.

So in this film, if a human being is killed when their senses are undergoing an intense emotion, these senses live on, in a strange form, neither dead, nor alive.

It’s no wonder then, that we see these ghosts fight each other, even squabble throughout the film. Usually in horror films, ghosts are united (nothing to lose but their rattling chains) But here, all that remain of these beings are their senses, their jealousy, their violence, their pettiness are all that keep them in existence. So of course they’re always fighting amongst themselves.

As with any horror film, the good doctor is the voice of reason. Only here, because we are in a nightmare, his rational explanations are weirder than anything we’ve heard before.

This curious explanation accepted, Carmus (obviously dead himself) and Foster then wander through the castle’s empty forgotten ballroom. They stand at the top of the stairs and Carmus looks down, uttering the incredibly cinematic line ~

“It is the hour. Words have no meaning.”

And suddenly, before Foster and Carmus’ eyes, the ballroom suddenly lights up with dancers and (a kind of) life!

This is my favourite scene in the film: a scene where one kind of ghost watches a different kind. Spirits kept alive by their senses watch bodies trapped in time.

When atheist Mike Hodges made his supernatural masterpiece “Black Rainbow” he protested it wasn’t a ghost story at all, but a tale of quantum mechanics. He said that because particles can be in several places in the same time, it was possible to experience time slippage, to see events before (or long after) they happen, and interpret that as an afterlife.

So perhaps what we’re seeing here is quantum mechanics, but witnessed by ghosts.

We see this ball from long ago. Everyone is having a splendid time, saying things like “magnificent party” and “the castle seems so full of life” (irony in European horror often has the force of a guillotine).

Elisabeth is here in the past, with her husband. He has an interesting line about how impressed he was with America “much more vitality than France or Italy.” Considering this film is a French/Italian co-production, this seems to be a comment on the work itself and Margheriti’s decision to ape the “vital” Americans Roger Corman and Poe.

If I can talk about European Horror for a moment., I was always fascinated by how many of the British Hammer Horror films were set in other European countries, and what this said about Britain’s perception of Europe. The continent as “other”, a place of blood, sex and old world mythology. All those RP accents trying to pronounce “Burgomeister.”

But what of this Italian/French horror film set in England? What does this say about their perception of the English?

It portrays the English as prizing respectability above all: Foster instantly believes that Elisabeth would be locked away in her castle because of a scandal. We’re told that Lord Blackwood’s original name was “Blackblood” because he was descended from lowly, overenthusiastic hangmen. Respectability is everything.

It also shows the English as deeply repressed and show what this repression conceals: At the respectable dance, everyone is curtseying & bowing, while the Lady’s lover, a lowly groundskeeper taps on the window, asking for a rendez-vous (the origin of The Macho).

Within minutes, the formal ball descends into an orgy, with seductions interrupted by murder, interrupted by further seductions and even more murder, resulting in 4 half naked corpses.

Foster now finds himself unstuck in time. The film is apparently a linear situation: its supposed to be one night in the castle, but Foster finds himself falling through different time periods, forced to watch as these spirits of passion attack various visitors in the castle’s past.

Foster watches as victims succumb to the half-naked muscled man. He witnesses happy newly-weds killed on their wedding night (shades of Shelley’s Frankenstein).

Dr Carmus, seen long ago, is attacked, receiving a particularly homoerotic bite to the neck from The Macho. Reason has not only departed, it was never really there. The man who explained death, as dead the whole time.

And Foster, once the cool distanced sceptic, becomes the engaged audience of a horror film. He screams at the victims from the past, trying to warn them as they re-enact their doom. But this is like a film, it all happened long ago and he can do nothing. Perhaps this is his salvation: in a world where senses defy death, he’s actually starting to feel something.

This is the real danse macabre, repeating the same murders year after year, a whirling, circular dance “The dead come back again and re-enact the tragedies that cost them their lives.”

And as these people from the past are murdered in moments intense emotion, their senses will also live on as spirits. The ghosts of passion create more ghosts. The castle will soon be full.

Finally The Macho, and all the other spirits of passion come for Foster himself, and pursue him across the castle. They want to feast on his blood, so they can live on, and argue, and watch themselves die for another year.

But Elisabeth returns and breaks the chain. She tells Foster she has fallen in love with him as she never could when she was alive. It’s a hopeful moment-the dead can learn. She shows him a safe passage out of the castle, so that he can escape as the sun rises.

In the end, however, Foster is felled by one more slamming door. He is struck on the head by a particularly nasty spiked gate, just before dawn. It seems all is lost.

Blackwood & Poe arrive to discover Foster’s corpse waiting for them. In a nice touch, Lord Blackwood quietly takes his winnings from the corpse’s pocket.

Finally we get an explanation of the mysterious opening credit as Poe sadly observes, “When I’ll tell this story, no-one will believe me” (and 100 years later, when Margheriti claims that this film is a lost tale by Poe, no-one will believe him either.)

Poor Poe has been trapped in his own story the whole time, unable to act, just to witness.

So was it all for nothing? Did Elisabeth just perpetuate the cycle of eros & death? Are she and Foster like the carnal lovers of Dante’s Inferno, forced to whirl & spin in a circle of lust forever?

I don’t think so. Foster didn’t survive but he didn’t get his blood drunk by the big muscular man either. He’s between two worlds. Hanging on the gate, between the mansion and the outside world.

At the beginning of the film, his attitude to life was “There’s nothing new. The world goes on and remains the same” so he was practically a ghost already, just trapped in a much larger castle.

The image of morning sun and the final lines offer some hope:

“Did you stay for me, Alan?”

“Yes, Elisabeth.”

Now his senses will be united with her Elisabeth. They’ll stay at the castle, and it seems a lovely property in the daylight. Hopefully their senses will be very happy together. “All that is solid melts into air.”

Repetitions in Repetitions.

The film had a middling reception and Antonio Margheriti had mixed feelings about the result. He later said: “When today we rediscover and screen these things of the past I don’t think they’re any good in themselves, they may be good to those of us who experienced them back in their own time.”

Spoken like a true haunted spirit, looking back at his past: it was good at the time.

He remade the film six years later as Web of the Spider (or Dracula im Schloß des Schreckens to use its ridiculous German title).

The story remained the same but was now in colour, with Klaus Klinski as Poe and gratuitous bloodletting. Margheriti regretted this version even more.

The film became like one of his spirits, endless repeating itself, needing more blood to live.

One can imagine Margheriti carrying on. endlessly reliving and remaking Danse Macrabre making it increasingly violent, over and over.

But instead, fortunately, he found peace making Yor: Hunter of the Future.

James Silk

“Try to be sane.”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2008 by dcairns

“You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.” ~ Karloff in THE BLACK CAT.

You couldn’t get a more obvious Fever Dream Double Feature than the pairing of Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT and Lew Landers’ THE RAVEN. But nor could you get a more feverish or dreamy one.

The films are a matching pair, each using Karloff and Lugosi and each “suggested” by an “immortal classic” by Edgar Allan Poe. So immortal and so classic that the filmmakers have thrown away all but the title, as was customary in Olde Hollywood (oh, to read Preston Sturges’ treatment for THE INVISIBLE MAN, set in Revolutionary Russia “The director said it was a piece of cheese.”)

THE BLACK CAT is clearly the superior film, mainly because it came first and set the pattern, and THE RAVEN is a blatant attempt to follow that pattern exactly: a mixture of the horrible, the downright bizarre and the seriously silly. The mix of humour and horror in these Universal horrors is if anything more disturbing and strange than that in James Whales’ more famous classics: when Ernest Thesiger or Una O’Connor go into their thing, it’s pretty clear there’s intentional humour afoot and we the dazzling sophisticates in the audience are invited to share in it (while turning up our noses at those louts who see only ham and grue), but Ulmer’s film repeatedly hits us with moments pitched at some unknown region between serious and hilarious. Plus there’s the discomfort of Lugosi. Laugh with Lugosi! But somehow we cannot, without the fear that maybe he really means it. Karloff used to laugh at himself and say “Here comes the heavy,” as he entered a scene, so that Ulmer’s biggest job with the actor was to keep him in character. “Not the Hungarian, of course. You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously, to cut him down.” Lugosi’s horrified reaction to the titular pussy is pure Spike Milligan, a kind of melodramatic spasm so far over the top it punches a hole in the sky.

And by the way, who is John Belton? His little book in the Hollywood Professionals series, Howard Hawks Frank Borzage Edgar Ulmer, is very good. Shoehorning three major filmmakers into one slender volume prevents a serious in-depth analysis, but Belton’s good at the snappy summary (he’d make a fine blogger). Here he is on Ulmer:

‘The world around Ulmer’s characters has no fixity and is incomprehensible. Ulmer’s world, like Poelzig’s (Karloff’s) house in THE BLACK CAT, stands upon a battlefield, is surrounded by a graveyard of the soldiers who died there and is undermined with dynamite. As one character, remarking on the presence of the dynamite, points out, “the slightest mistake by one of us could cause the destruction of all.” Ulmer’s characters, living on the brink of insanity, constantly run the risk of making that one mistake and of unleashing fantastically chaotic forces that will hound them to their own destruction.’

Beautiful — that one paragraph serves as a key to Ulmer’s best films, unlocking the meaning of their nightmarish scenarios and settings, as well as binding them together thematically into a coherent body of work (sort of like a key with a length of twine attached, or something).

That instability is only emphasised by the fact that many of Ulmer’s landscapes are tabletop miniatures, tiny and vulnerable. I particularly like the Scottish scenery of THE MAN FROM PLANET X — an arrangement of soil and twigs reminiscent of the “sculpture” Henry Spencer keeps in his bedroom in ERASERHEAD.

THE BLACK CAT throws a disparate throng of characters together in the Bauhaus castle of of Karloff (influenced by Ulmer’s conversations with author Gustav Meyrink, whose work loosely “inspired” an earlier horror classic, Paul Wegener’s DER GOLEM), leading to a black mass in cod Latin (“In vino veritas”, Karloff intones solemnly) and a flaying alive.

Ulmer’s masterstroke is the modernist design of the “castle”, a neo-brutalist affair with a concrete bunker down below (floating female corpses provide a feminine touch) and a sort of Ginger-and-Fred elegance in the living quarters. Ulmer’s background in German cinema appears to have had to do with production design, although it’s hard to work out exactly what his uncredited contributions to films like METROPOLIS and SUNRISE may have consisted of. The inspired futuristic approach here makes THE BLACK CAT look quite different from every other horror film of the period, and is responsible for much of the uncanny, oneiric ambience. Ulmer’s camera abandons the cast to drift unmoored through haunted, near-abstract spaces that retain some of the specificity of nightmare.

Further weirdness is induced by the haphazard but endlessly creative plotting. The film is great at presenting freaky ideas, weaker on follow-through, but that actually helps. Just when you expect the idea of a chess game with human lives at stake to be developed, it’s abandoned and a new wrinkle is introduced. The film jolts along like an dodgem car powered by defibrillator pads.

The goofy names (Hjalmar Poelzig and Vitus Werdegast), incongruous classical score, lumbering comedy relief and genuine eeriness — impossible to enumerate or explain the many plot turns and tonal shifts, which leave one disorientated — add up to an impossible crime of the cinema, the kind of thing no film-maker can expect to get away with. Means, motive and opportunity simply do not present themselves for a movie like this. Stumbling across it is like finding a vicar decapitated at close range in a snowy field with no footprints.

And, incredibly, Universal attempted to do it again, shamelessly, with THE RAVEN. With a peculiar approach to adaptation, this film starts by nodding its head in a friendly-but-distant manner to Poe’s poem, then proceeds to make off with most of The Pit and the Pendulum instead. Lugosi, a more-or-less sympathetic species of lunatic in THE BLACK CAT, here plays a Poe-obsessed, lovelorn neurologist with a torture chamber in his cellar. A curious hobby, someone says. “Much more than a hobby,” replies Lugosi, with sinister emphasis, and then, brightly, “Goodbye!”

“Much more than a hobby.”

“Goodbye!”

A casual, cheery line-reading is always lurking around the corner with Lugosi, ready to knock us all sideways. He gives it the sepulchral creep for three lines, then flattens you with a chirpy aside. My favourite example is heard in THE INVISIBLE GHOST (directed by Joseph H. Lewis, this is a stone-cold masterpiece assembled from stray bits of crap) — describing to his family over breakfast how a murder victim came back to life in the morgue, only to die of shock upon seeing his killer, Lugosi shrugs, “It was horrible!” with the tone of one describing a bad omelet.

Karloff shows up as a wanted man desperate for a new face. Lugosi is intrigued by the notorious maniac’s history of iniquity — blasting a bank teller in the eyes with an oxy-acetylene torch, for instance. “Well, sometimes you can’t help…things like that,” grumbles Karloff, rather weakly. Turns out the fugitive loon wants not only a new mug, but a total change of identity — Karloff theorises that a more handsome kisser might make him a better guy all round. Lugosi, accepting this logic with surprising ease, decides to instead wantonly disfigure Karloff and use the resulting depraved freak to revenge himself on those who have blighted his putative love-life.

It’s not one of the better ’30s horror makeups. Reminds me a little of the unintentionally comic lopsided look Karloff sported in GRIP OF THE STRANGLER, decades later. But the mutant Karloff actually proves nicer than the original version, and Lugosi’s bestial plans gang aft aglae. The ending involves a room with walls that close in, supposedly recreating a Poe story, though the script acts shifty around the question of which story exactly…

My fave bit in Landers’ film (he made many many B-movies and TV episodes — the IMDb lists 163), asides from the line “Try to be sane!”, spoken to Lugosi in a fit of wild optimism by the chap above, is a moment when Lugosi is surprised, then indignant, at being caught emerging from his secret bookcase passageway by his manservant, who in turn also looks surprised, then indignant. The effect is hilarious in a curiously abstract way. Was it intended to be funny? There is no way to be sure. But it feels as if something genuinely unexpected has just happened and nobody knows what to do.

Both films are short (THE BLACK CAT was much hacked about by censors, due to its Satanism and sadism), around an hour apiece, making them ideal double feature material. Ulmer’s film is the real deal, a demented journey into warped inner space, while the follow-up is a too-obvious attempt to follow up with the same elements, differently configured, but both are hugely idiosyncratic entertainments from an era when the job of the horror film was not to recycle genre elements but to deliver the new and freakish and unfathomable, logic and taste be damned.

“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”