Friday, July 29, 2016

Roger Corman Dives into the Pit (and the Pendulum)

This year The Pit and the Pendulum is 55 years old. And Roger Corman? He’s 90. I saw both the film and its director this past week, in the posh Goldwyn Theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was part of the “Archival Revival” series, celebrating 25 years of the Academy Film Archive. The film I watched was a beautiful 35 mm. print, one of several Corman flicks that the Academy has lovingly restored. (Others include The Intruder, The Student Nurses, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, and Ron Howard’s debut film as a director, Grand Theft Auto. Coming soon: House of Usher and X—The Man with X-ray Eyes. )

Before the screening, an Academy representative interviewed a genial Roger, who looked and sounded terrific. His only concession to his advanced years was that he now uses a cane to walk. He talked smartly about the advantages and disadvantages of CGI, which he noted (based on his experience with films like the upcoming Death Race 2050) considerably slows down the editing process. Given that his early movies took only 10 days to shoot, and that the more elaborate Poe films (like The Pit and the Pendulum) took a mere 15, Roger is a man accustomed to speed. He also discussed his famous alumni, put in a plug for wife Julie’s success with family films, and explained how he brought art-house masterpieces by the great Ingmar Bergman to drive-in movie theatres. Bergman wrote a letter of thanks, explaining that he’d always wanted to reach a wider audience. It’s a letter, nicely framed, I’ve seen many times on the wall leading into Roger’s office.

But a man in his 90s may be excused a few memory lapses. Prompted by the interviewer, he talked about his Stanford days, when he wrote movie reviews for the campus paper. He remembered giving John Ford’s My Darling Clementine an especially strong review. Sorry, Roger! My research for my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, led me to read through all the Stanford Dailies from Roger’s time on campus. As a sports editor, he wrote regular columns, but I never came across a movie review with his name on it. It’s possible that one or two slipped by me, but My Darling Clementine didn’t open until around the time he graduated.

No matter. I enjoyed seeing The Pit and the Pendulum on the big screen. It is far from my favorite of the Poe films: I give that crown to the macabre and elegant Masque of the Red Death, made in England on more sumptuous sets. Yes, I can see why that lethal pendulum would have scared the daylights out of youngsters years ago. But to me Pit’s storytelling seems convoluted and much of its acting stiff. Some in the Academy  audience actually laughed at the highly theatrical (OK, hammy) acting style of Vincent Price. When I recently screened Masque for a community event, no one had the slightest inclination to titter: some who had assumed it would be campy expressed surprise afterward at the movie’s power.

One big plus in The Pit and the Pendulum was the reliably creepy Barbara Steele. I also much enjoyed seeing Luana Anders on screen. Decades after this film was made, she had modest success as a screenwriter. I worked with Luana on the script for Fire on the Amazon (1993), a jungle drama best remembered for a hot nude scene featuring a then-unknown Sandra Bullock. Luana and I talked about how her name often showed up in crossword puzzles. She loved the recognition.    

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