The Haunted Palace // The Pit and the Pendulum [thoughts + spoilers]

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Like all Poe/Corman films, the plots of Haunted Palace and Pit and Pendulum are quite similar. We’ll try the lighter of the two first…

Film: The Haunted Palace

Starring: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr, a painting of Vincent Price, interchangeable villagers

Setting: An old American palace

Plot: Several women are zombified and impregnated at Vincent Price’s luxurious American palace, but some of the villagers find out and burn him to death. Before he dies, Price borrows the Bush family strategy and vows revenge via a future relative who will look exactly the same as him.

A hundred and something years later, a relative who looks exactly the same as Vincent Price arrives to claim the palace he just inherited. The villagers tell him not to stay there, it’s haunted, it’s remote, it’s draughty etc., but Price defies them and stays there until his evil ancestor starts to possess him [with the help of the butler].

Subplot: The wife of Vincent Price takes one look at the creepy painting above the fireplace and immediately enquires about the nearest Holiday Inn. On hearing that the village has a pub, a graveyard, a smoke machine and that’s it, she tells Vince they should leave anyway, but he says nonsense, the palace is great and will make an excellent sex den.

Sub-sub plot: Interchangeable villagers ignore the lack of jobs/daylight in the village and focus on something more achievable i.e. the persecution and possible burning of Vincent Price.

Subterranean plot: An unknown monster waits in a hole in the basement of the castle. It waits there, in that exact spot because Vincent Price keeps bringing naked women for it to stare up at, just like those old men who stand under the transparent stairs in the Causeway Bay Apple Store. Yup, the old Gods may be ancient and glorious with powers beyond human comprehension, but they’re still base enough to sit and gawp at some extra’s muff.

Notes:

I watched this film the day after I saw The Pit and the Pendulum. And the week after I’d watched the House of Usher.

A lot of these films blur into one, and it’s especially true of The Haunted Palace + The Pit and the Pendulum.

They both share the same lead actor [obviously], the same plot and the same path it takes to get to the end of the film.

Look:

The Haunted Palace: A relatively innocent guy arrives at a big house with a creepy past and slowly loses his mind.

The Pit and the Pendulum: A relatively innocent guy is already living in a big house with a creepy past and slowly loses his mind.

The only difference is that the Haunted Palace is sillier and more overt…so overt that it’s actually the painting that is possessing Vincent Price’s character, and the butler is aiding the painting in some way I can’t quite remember, but he is, he is aiding a painting, I’m sure of it. An actual painting.

Basically, the possession isn’t really psychological, it is given a real fantastical basis [that obviously makes no sense], whereas the Pit and the Pendulum makes it clear that Vincent Price has lived in the house for a long, long time and witnessed some creative torture methods by his father, including the killing of his mother and her lover.

I think that’s what happened…it’s been a while since I watched them now…maybe 7-8 months…man, where is my life going?

Haven’t written anything decent in ages…

Can’t even come up with my own horror idea to sell and make money from…apart from that one idea about the Slovene witch who kills people using her spine…

So many things to do, so many hours wasted just reading football news and pointless arguments on the internet instead of studying Cantonese and improving my brain…

Never mind, at least I’m writing something now…

And it’s Vincent Price doing Poe so that’s okay…it’s something I’m invested in, it’s something I like…

The painting’s inside his brain!

Yeah, The Haunted Palace possession is a real thing, orchestrated by the dead Price ancestor and the butler, who I think is still alive after a hundred years because…he went to sleep? I can’t really remember, but it’s still the same guy, and there’s something about the painting that can make it possess the new Vincent Price character, which means there’s no real substance behind any of this.

i] Madness runs in the family

Philosophically, I don’t buy this as I’m a socialist and Vincent Price wasn’t born bad, and in this film he’s never heard a thing about his satanic ancestor so he can’t innately have the same insanity within him.

To be fair, I don’t think the film believes it either as, if it did, the director wouldn’t have given the painting supernatural powers.

The Vincent Price main character doesn’t lose his mind, he has it over-ridden by his evil ancestor, a transplant pretty much, so I can’t attach any blame to him. In fact, when he half figures out what’s going on, he tries to get his wife to safety, but he’s just not fast enough.

What about Debra Paget [the wife]?

She’s pretty standard in terms of female characters. She realises the palace is weird and asks to leave pretty much straight away, and we share a kind of helplessness with her as the person she’s asking to leave is the one person who wants to keep them both there, but she doesn’t realise it until the end of the film as it’s the painting that is possessing him and I don’t think any of us would figure that out if we were in her position.

Also, my memory’s a little hazy, but I think it’s implied that the possessed version of Price rapes her at one point and the morning after it’s as if it never happened. It seems like the film is saying it’s okay, it wasn’t really him, it was the evil version of him, which is problematic as that sounds like the kind of excuse a rapist might make e.g. I was drunk, I couldn’t stop, it wasn’t me, but in the context of the film it’s suggested that it wasn’t really him as once he’s possessed, he has no control whatsoever.

I think that’s what it suggests…it would be much more interesting if the possession was more ambiguous, and the good version of Price had some level of control. Then, the rape would make a brutal counterpoint to the cordial naivety of their relationship at the beginning of the film…he’s very polite and there’s a slight implication that they’ve never had sex, which admittedly isn’t really implied, it’s just the reading my head is telling me, but…but it would add so much more psychological depth to the film if they dwelled on this a bit more.

Perhaps, in the same way that sexual repression comes out in Japanese manga with the tentacle stuff, the idea that seeing the painting, seeing the same face looking back at him, hearing the stories about the painting guy’s sex orgies, all that could make Price’s polite character morph into something more animalistic/primal, which would mirror the unseen monster lurking in the basement.

But no, it’s the painting. It literally possessed him every time, it wasn’t his fault.

Anything else?

Not really. It’s a fun film, but the mind transplant concept destroys all depth, which is weird as apparently this was based on a Poe Story and he’s usually more subtle than that.

Wait, I’ve just checked and apparently this just borrowed the title from a Poe poem; the actual plot was taken from a Lovecraft story, the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which explains almost everything I wrote above.

The unknowable monster beneath the Earth that is worshipped by the evil version of Price and his butler, that’s definitely Lovecraftian.

The overt possession of Price’s character…

The only thing really missing is the despicable racism, but maybe that’s represented by those zombie type things roaming through the village. Might not be classified as racist, but could be argued it’s anti-working class…

To quote Sisko from the DS9 episode with the Klingon lawyer, I’m reaching, I know…but in this case there’s probably nothing in this film beyond the idea of something terrifying lurking beneath us and how small and insignificant that makes us. But, like I said, it doesn’t have the psychological depth or subtlety of Poe.

Prime example of Poe subtlety [apart from all the parts in the plot where everything’s melodramatic] = The Pit and the Pendulum

In this film, Vincent Price is the main antagonist, and for the majority of the movie he genuinely does not know what’s going on.

The main character is his wife’s brother…actually I’ve forgotten if the wife is dead or just sick…I’m probably getting it mixed up with the House of Usher where Price attempts to bury his wife alive…no, she is dead in The Pit and the Pendulum, she must be cos she’s dead in one of them and if it’s not Usher then it must be this one.

Ah, and the wife looks like the actress from ‘The Long Hair of Death’, I forget her name, but she has long dark hair and looks dangerous.

I just checked…her name is Barbara Steele and she was in a lot of 60’s Italian horror films, including Black Sunday and two more with ‘castle’ in the title, which means I’m going to watch them asap.

Castle of Blood + Nightmare Castle!

It doesn’t matter what the plots are, as long as there are castles and as long as it’s horror…

And Barbara Steele is such a charismatic actress, as the wife in the Pit and the Pendulum and as one of the main characters in The Long Hair of Death. She has one of those faces that could either be innocent or malicious, though malice is way more interesting in horror, obviously. No one wants to watch an Amelie-type in a Poe adaptation…unless she’s on the ropes…or bi-polar…or her optimism has been severely dented by constant collision with rude fuckers in the street and now she’s gonna punish the worst of them, wearing a Barbara Steele mask.

Barbara Steele was from Liverpool too…ha, I went to uni there. Never met Barbara Steele though. I think she was still alive at the time, so it could’ve been possible. But I never met her, never saw her in a play or in a café or bar, nothing. I did see the uptight guy from Hollyoaks. And another guy who gave me a lift at 3am one night and asked if I wanted to suck him off. Big guy too, could’ve ended badly. Luckily, I know how to open car doors.

The Pit and the…

Okay, so the brother of the dead wife turns up and explores the house a little and hears about the horrible past where Vincent Price’s father used to torture people for the Spanish Inquisition…

Ah, that means the story is set in Spain, and the brother is coming from the UK, but nothing about the acting or the setting really feels Spanish…

I think they re-use the same house exterior shot from ‘The Raven’, but I’m not a hundred per cent sure.

Actually, I think this film pre-dated ‘The Raven’, so it might be the other way round. Either way, it’s still the same shot.

Anyway, it’s spelled out to us that Vince witnessed his Dad torturing people and, if I remember correctly, killing his mother and her lover. I think that happened, because it’s reflected in the plot later on when it’s revealed that the wife isn’t really dead and the doctor that is supposedly helping Vince recover from his madness is really her lover and the two of them have been trying to drive Vince over the edge so they can take his cash and his house and spend the rest of their lives having initially exciting but progressively more and more tedious sex until another, younger doctor comes along and the wife tries the same trick twice.

Luckily, Vince doesn’t take much pushing to go over that edge and, in contrast to The Haunted Palace, there’s nothing supernatural about it at all.

It’s a mix of human scheming and repressed memory, though you could argue that the same violent madness that lurked in the father was passed on genetically to Vince.

But I don’t really believe that.

I think it’s much easier to say that a baby is born pretty much blank and it’s the secret torturing done by the father and witnessed by Vince as a kid that turns him into a replica of the same madness.

If it weren’t gained from exposure then why does Vince use the same methods as his father to get his revenge?

It seems like simulation to me, and the fact that his own wife and doctor are doing to him what his mother and her lover did to his father makes the comparison even more complete.

The simple sum is: Little Vince sees his father torture people and kill his mother in his scary basement, so the idea is rooted in Vince’s brain that it’s the way you deal with betrayal from your loved one.

Because the memory was repressed means it was never challenged, so deep down Vince always believed that killing, within that room, was perfectly acceptable.

The Pendulum!

It’s an interesting way to torture/kill someone as they can see the blade swinging down slowly towards their chest, but I’m not sure it has any symbolic meaning.

Possible symbolism:

i] It’s the inevitable, final reveal of his repressed memory

But it’s the first torture room where the mother is killed, far as I remember…so it doesn’t make sense that the pendulum room would represent it.

But, but…the wife is trapped in the sarcophagus at the end, and in the first torture room too, so…I’m not sure what that means…the pendulum room and the warning not to go in there were red herrings and it was the first torture room where the repressed memory lay? If that’s credible then it means Price’s memory wasn’t so repressed after all, he just knew how to deal with it as he shows the brother the torture room when he first arrives at the castle, and there’s no problem.

ii] It’s the bleak representation of life + death

The Pit below the Pendulum is the space of life that seems to offer endless opportunity i.e. space is there to be filled, but realistically, because of our physical limitations, we can’t fill that space, and the Pendulum is the inevitability of death hanging over us all.

iii] It’s a representation of madness

When you really think about it, how much control do we have over our own minds? If you’ve ever experienced anxiety or depression and really thought about the amount of things we do on autopilot and what if we suddenly switched to manual, wouldn’t we be overwhelmed instantly and isn’t that the way to insanity…if you’ve ever felt that even a little then you’ll know what I mean.

In short: the pit is insanity and the pendulum [death] is the only way out of it

iv] It’s a cool way to make your victim feel terrified

A symbol of power, of course, is the most logical representation as it’s used by a torturer and not only does the victim stare up at his/her fate, he/she is also aware that there is a pit surrounding them, and the strongest feeling a pit can give you is despair, cos even if you untie yourself and roll away from the blade, there’s nowhere to go but down.

To be honest, this one best fits the actual building of the pit/pendulum by the Spanish Inquisition, but doesn’t really match Price’s character in this film.

You know, it could be any of these things, but it’s pretty clear that the whole basement of torture concept is just a way to represent Vince’s repressed childhood. What the Pendulum room on its own symbolizes is completely up for grabs.

Really, it can’t represent Vince’s repressed memory as that wouldn’t be consistent. His mother did not die there and neither did her lover…did he? I can’t remember. He might’ve, but the mother is the more important one. Did she die in that room? I really don’t think she did, but I could be wrong. It’s been 7-8 months and my memory is often patchy.

I can’t remember a lot of my own childhood…

I know my house didn’t have a basement, and I never lived with my father, so it should be okay, but there could be other repressions I don’t know about.

In the film, Vince does show the brother the torture room before he goes nuts. He can function in there without killing anyone, so it’s not just the place itself that drives him insane. It’s the replication of events, of his wife’s adultery…

I could also be able to function in places where bad things could’ve happened without losing my mind…

But then losing your mind doesn’t rely only on repression…

I can lose it in a mundane way too…

I mean, if you really do open your thoughts up enough and analyse things and let in all the things that you never tell anyone…if you’ve ever held a knife and thought about putting it through your own neck…

Or thought about how exactly you think and why you get up every day and how potentially unpredictable you are…and then you think about the other seven billion people in the world who are also potentially unpredictable…the thoughts that could be going on in those brains, the directions they could be going in, the hate and love they’re trying to control…all of these things, if you give them enough time and isolate yourself…

…it can really fuck you up.

What else?

I don’t know how I would get it, but I’d really like to have the Vincent Price painting from the Haunted Palace hanging on my wall.

Though my wife would never allow it.

She freaked out when I showed her that Cambodian carving I got from a friend, and the time we watched The Darkest Hour…don’t know how she’d react to satanic Vincent Price staring down at us.

Maybe there’s a miniature version I can get somewhere…

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