A chamber of horrors in a Spanish castle

Released 12 August 1961, The Pit and the Pendulum was the second of seven American International Pictures horror films loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe works. This one, of course, is based on Poe’s 1842 story of the same name, which had been adapted a number of times prior, with varying degrees of accuracy.

Here, the pendulum only appears in the final reel and third act, though the film’s first two acts were intended to feel like they could’ve come from a real Poe story. Given that the story is all of two pages long, every film based on or inspired by it necessarily had to employ many creative liberties to fill in the many blanks and create a feature-length story.

In 1546, Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) pays a visit to the Medina castle in Spain after hearing of the tragic, sudden death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). At first, doorman Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) refuses to let him inside, but Francis is finally allowed entrance when Catherine Medina (Luana Anders) sees him and recognizes him. (I suppose an authentic Spanish name like Catalina sounded too foreign for 1961 audiences.)

When Francis asks to see Elizabeth’s widower Nicholas, Catherine says her brother is resting, and hasn’t been well since Elizabeth passed. Francis then asks to see the grave, and Catherine says she was entombed, in the family custom. On the way to the tomb, Catherine lets the bomb drop that Elizabeth died three months ago. Francis is stunned he wasn’t notified earlier.

Nicholas (Vincent Price) turns up In the cellar, coming out of a room with a bizarre noise. He claims Elizabeth died after a long sickness of the blood, but is evasive about the details. This doesn’t satisfy Francis, who vows to stay till he learns the whole truth.

During dinner, family physician Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) admits she truly died of a fright- and shock-induced heart attack brought on by the castle’s creepy atmosphere. Francis demands to see proof, and Nicholas obliges by showing him a torture chamber in the cellar. It was built by his Inquisitor father Sebastian, whose painting hangs in the guest room.

Nicholas recounts their happy life together, which was derailed when Elizabeth became obsessed by the torture chamber and fell into a bad mental state. He was making plans to leave the castle and begin a new life elsewhere when a horrific scream came from the cellar. When Nicholas ran to the scene, Elizabeth fainted into his arms and whispered “Sebastian” with her dying breath.

Francis still refuses to believe Nicholas is on the level, but Catherine tries to convince him by telling the story of how Nicholas trespassed into the torture chamber as a boy. He wasn’t supposed to be there ever, but his curiosity trumped his fear of discipline. Nicholas hid when his parents and paternal uncle Bartolome came in.

At first it seemed his father (also Price) was giving a macabre, unnaturally cheerful tour of these torture instruments, but then the true reason for the visit came out. Sebastian turned on Bartolome and began beating him, calling him an adulterer. After torturing his brother to death, he accused his wife of adultery and tortured her to death too.

Ever since that day, Nicholas has been haunted by what lurks in the cellar.

That night, mysterious harpsichord music plays, and Nicholas is convinced it was Elizabeth. He knows her playing, even without seeing who did it. A ring belonging to Elizabeth also turns up on top of the instrument.

After Nicholas returns to bed, Dr. Leon reveals the secret that Nicholas believes Elizabeth was entombed alive. Contrary to the official story, his mother wasn’t tortured to death, but entombed alive after her torture. Ever since, Nicholas has been terrified by the idea of premature burial, so much so it drives him to convulsions of horror. Nicholas also believes Elizabeth walks the corridors and calls his name.

Dr. Leon believes someone found this out and is using the information to drive Nicholas insane, possibly a servant. This theory is given credence when Elizabeth’s room is found ransacked in the morning, while maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) was cleaning. Maria claims Elizabeth spoke to her.

Francis has another theory, that this is all an elaborate ruse by Nicholas. Worried he might unconsciously be doing all these things due to his fear Elizabeth may have been entombed alive, Nicholas demands an exhumation.

But the macabre discovery waiting inside the tomb doesn’t solve this haunting mystery. Instead, it unleashes a parade of even more horrors.

Humanity snatched by giant seed pods

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released 5 February 1956, was based on Jack Finney’s 1954 sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers (originally serialized in Collier’s magazine). To avoid confusion with the 1945 film The Body Snatcher, the title was changed first to They Come from Another World, then run through four different alternatives. The final title was chosen in late 1955. However, it’s still known as Invasion of the Defilers of Tombs in France, due to a mistranslation.

The film opens in a psych ward, where a hysterical Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) demands the other doctors believe his wild tale and take his dire warnings about oncoming danger seriously. At last, Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) has compassion and agrees to listen to his fantastic story. We then enter flashback mode.

Miles has been summoned home to Santa Mira, California (Mill City in the book) by his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes). En route to their clinic, Miles suddenly brakes to avoid hitting a little boy, Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark, now going on 77 years old). Despite what it looks like, Jimmy isn’t trying to avoid school or bullies. Instead, he’s terrified because his mother supposedly isn’t his mother.

The second such case Miles encounters is that of Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who’s insistent her uncle Ira, who raised her, isn’t Uncle Ira anymore. She says everything else about him is exactly alike, right down to his memories, but the emotions aren’t there. He seems dead inside.

In the middle of dealing with these strange cases, Miles rekindles his relationship with his old high school sweetheart Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), Wilma’s cousin. Both of their first marriages ended in divorce, but they’re now both older and wiser, and eager to begin fresh.

Though Miles’s colleague Dr. Dan Kaufmann (Larry Gates), a psychiatrist, assures him these people are just suffering from a mass psychosis and can’t possibly be telling the truth, everything Miles thinks he knows about medicine, psychology, and reality is shattered when he visits his friends Jack and Teddy Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones) that evening.

Out of nowhere, a body appeared on the Belicecs’ pool table, wrapped in a sheet and with blank facial features, like a coin that hasn’t been struck yet before leaving the mint. He leaves no fingerprints either. Things go from bizarre to hair-raising creepy when they realize he has the same height, weight, and general features as Jack. Then a bleeding cut appears on his hand, exactly matching the cut Jack just got.

Miles takes Becky home, but is so disturbed by the feeling that she’s in grave danger, he presently returns. Becky’s father is emerging from the cellar, which strikes Miles as odd. When Miles goes into the cellar, he finds Becky’s incompletely formed double. In terror, he rushes upstairs and carries the sleeping Becky into his car.

Dr. Kaufmann is called to investigate the two doubles, but they’ve both vanished by the time he arrives on each scene. He believes the one at the Belicecs’ house was real, and that Miles was so jittery about it, he hallucinated seeing Becky’s double. Police Chief Grivett presently reports a body matching the description of Jack’s double was seen on a funeral pyre.

The next day, Miles finds Jimmy happily reconciled with his mother and asking to go home soon (after staying overnight with his grandma). Wilma likewise cancels her psychiatric appointment and reports she no longer thinks Uncle Ira is a phony.

In the evening, Miles discovers giant seed pods on his property, which presently open to reveal more bodies, surrounded by foam. These bodies look like Miles and his friends. In terror, he phones the FBI and is informed all the lines are dead. Every operator reports this, in every city he tries.

Miles takes a pitchfork to these pod people and sets them on fire, then tells the Belicecs to flee and get help. He and Becky will take another route and try to reach someone, anyone, who can stop this menace in its tracks.

After stopping by a gas station, Miles discovers two pods in his car. He immediately destroys them, but it’s like fighting a mighty enemy army with pebbles and shoestrings. One by one, everyone Miles knows is turning into a pod person, and more are constantly being brought in.

Miles and Becky go on the run, trying their best to evade capture and sleep. If they fall asleep for even one minute, they’ll be replaced by an emotionless pod person. But if they manage to make it to another town, there just might be hope to save humanity.

When the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright

Released 12 December 1941, The Wolf Man introduced moviegoers to a brand-new monster from Universal. For years, many of the studio’s horror films had been sequels and spin-offs with Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. Now, with the addition of the Wolf Man, the Universal horror franchise got a breath of fresh air.

Werewolf films were nothing new, but The Wolf Man was the very first film to fully realize such a story and richly develop the tortured character. The film widely considered the first werewolf film, the 1913 short The Werewolf, was sadly lost in a 1924 fire at Universal Studios.

The earliest surviving werewolf film, 1925’s Wolf Blood, takes forever to broach the idea of a man transmogrifying into a wolf, and shows no transformation at all. The filmmaking is also said to be awful even in the context of that era. And in the first proper werewolf film, Werewolf of London (1935), the character doesn’t evoke much sympathy or human warmth.

All that changed with The Wolf Man.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to the family castle in Wales after 18 years in California. As much as he enjoyed his life in the U.S., duty obliges him to assume the position of heir after his older brother John’s death in a hunting accident. Larry also needs to rebuild his relationship with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains).

One of Larry’s interests is astronomy, and he wastes no time in testing out a new telescopic lens in the big telescope in the top-floor observatory. While looking around at the surrounding buildings and streets, he gets an eyeful of pretty Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom directly across the way.

Larry likes what he sees very much, and sets out to visit the Conliffes’ antique store (which is run out of their house, like many businesses used to be). He first asks to see some earrings, but rejects all the beautiful jewelry Evelyn shows him. Though Larry is always depicted as a genuinely nice guy, it’s pretty creepy how he asks to see the pair of earrings he saw Gwen putting on in her room while he was spying on her (fully-clothed).

Larry settles for buying a cane, though he initially balks at the price of £3 ($15). Gwen showed him a number of nice canes, but Larry was only interested in one with a large silver handle in the shape of a werewolf’s head, with a pentagram on the side. (Side note: The so-called pentagrams which occur throughout this film are just ordinary five-point stars without any lines forming an upside-down pentagon in the middle.)

Larry then tries to make a date with Gwen for eight that night, and she repeatedly refuses. He leaves in good spirits, assured no really means yes and that she’ll be there waiting.

Gwen does happen to be standing outside when Larry returns, but this is to be no true date. There’s a third wheel, Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm), who goes along with them to get her fortune told by some Gypsies passing through.

Jenny goes into the tent first, but this fortunetelling session doesn’t last long. A pentagram appears on her hand, which makes Bela (Béla Lugosi) freak out and order her to leave. Shortly afterwards, Jenny is attacked by a wolf, and Larry kills it with his new cane. Before the wolf dies, it bites Larry.

The wounded Larry is carried home with help from Bela’s mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who mysteriously vanishes as soon as he’s safe with his father. 

The morning after, Larry discovers in astonishment that the bite wound on his chest is fully healed. Not a trace of it is left. Though everyone saw the blood and how injured he was, Larry’s story now falls into question. Particularly when it comes out that Bela was killed, with no wolf’s body in sight. Larry’s father and other people believe he may have been confused and overexcited in the dark and fog.

Larry goes back to the Gypsy camp to try to get answers, and Maleva tells him Bela was a werewolf. She also says Larry is now a werewolf, and gives him a pentagram necklace to wear over his heart for protection.

Larry has already heard a bunch of werewolf lore from other locals, including Gwen, and tries his best to brush it off as nonsense and fairytales.

But then Larry starts changing into a werewolf and sneaking out of the house to prowl through the night, leaving a lot of mayhem in his wake and causing him to doubt everything he thinks he knows about science and reality.

Can Larry’s lycanthropism be cured before he goes on another deadly rampage, or will he forever be cursed with this strange sickness?

A Vampyric femme fatale stalks London

Released 11 May 1936, Dracula’s Daughter was the last of Universal’s classic horror films until the franchise restarted in 1939. It was very loosely based upon Bram Stoker’s 1897 short story “Dracula’s Guest,” originally intended as the first chapter of Dracula. Some scholars also believe it was loosely based upon Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla.

Béla Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Jane Wyatt, Colin Clive, and Cesar Romero were slated to star in this film, but the only one who ended up appearing in any capacity was Lugosi, in the form of a wax dummy seen near the beginning. Of the Dracula cast, the only one to reappear was Edward Van Sloan as Prof. Von Helsing (yes, his name was changed from Van Helsing).

Prof. Von Helsing is arrested for the murder of Count Dracula, which he admits he did and passionately defends. At Scotland Yard, he further explains his reasoning, and adds that since Dracula has been dead for over 500 years, it’s not real murder. He also decides to enlist the services of psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) instead of getting a lawyer. Jeffrey was one of his best students, and Von Helsing feels a kinship with him.

There was another body discovered near Dracula’s, a murder Von Helsing says was committed by Dracula. Both of these bodies are moved to the police station for overnight watch, but one of the cops is called away on official business. The remaining officer is hypnotized by the ring of a femme fatale (Gloria Holden). The next day, he’s found dead and in a trance.

The strange woman, meanwhile, made off with Dracula’s corpse and ritualistically burnt it in the woods, throwing salt on the fire. She’s desperate to be cured of Vampyrism, an unusual theme we also find in the dreadful House of Dracula. Since when do Vampyres feel unhappy or conflicted about their integral nature?!

Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if she immediately got her wish. Sandor (Irving Pichel), a servant who assisted her in the corpse theft, tells her Death is in her eyes, and that she shouldn’t try to resist who she was created to be. She soon succumbs to temptation and goes on the hunt for fresh victims.

Dracula’s daughter introduces herself to society as Countess Marya Zaleska. Jeffrey attends one of her parties, and is quite taken with her. His fiancée and secretary Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), however, isn’t very happy to see the obvious mutual attraction, and begins scheming to try to nip this affair in the bud.

Jeffrey pays no heed to Janet’s objections, and goes to meet the Countess at her home at night. She claims she needs his expert psychological help for a terrible influence being exerted over her from beyond the grave.

While in the house, Jeffrey notices in surprise that there are no mirrors. He’s used to ladies having mirrors all over, and makes a joke about Vampyres not seeing their own reflection. Jeffrey also tells her about how people with addictions can overcome them by being close to the source of their weakness and summoning up the willpower to ignore it. We must confront our demons and become masters of ourselves.

Towards that end, the Countess dispatches Sandor to find a would-be victim. He spots a young woman, Lili (Nan Gray), about to take her own life by jumping into the river, and tells her to come with him for some money, a warm house, and food. At first, Lili thinks he wants to take her into white slavery, but Sandor convinces her this is on the level, that his mistress wants a model to paint.

The scene that follows is famous for its quite overt lesbian overtones, so much so it was among the films featured in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. While it’s shocking this slipped past the strict Hays Code, it also portrays the Countess’s lesbian desires as predatory and perverse, and Lili as a sweet little victim who bravely resists. Sadly, this was par for the course in mainstream films with gay or lesbian characters or overtones for decades.

The Countess hypnotizes Lili with her ring and sucks blood from her neck. Lili ends up in hospital, unable to remember anything about the attack. To try to get to the bottom of this, Jeffrey puts her into a trance and takes her back to the night of the incident. Lili gives enough testimony for him to figure out the Countess did it.

Then the Countess hypnotizes Janet, absconding with her to Transylvania. There are more lesbian overtones in a scene of Janet lying dazed on a bed as the Countess hovers over her, described as “the longest kiss never filmed.”

By now, Jeffrey’s skepticism at Von Helsing’s claims has completely melted away, and he believes Vampyres do indeed exist. Towards that end, he sets out for Transylvania to confront the Countess and bring an end to her reign of terror.

An invisible menace from the mists of time

Released 20 January 1936, The Invisible Ray was the third of the eight films Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi made together. Initially, their next teaming had been planned as Bluebeard, but the script wasn’t ready in time. The powers that be put Bluebeard on the back burner and instead found a different film.

Director Stuart Walker didn’t like John Colton’s script for The Invisible Ray, and asked for a three-day break to fix it. When Universal refused, Mr. Walker left, and was replaced by Lambert Hillyer.

The initial budget was $166,875, considered fairly lavish for a B-movie. The production went over by $68,000, as well as going over schedule (17 September–25 October 1935). According to Stuart, “The director who did the picture started nine or ten days after I was ordered to start and finished 25 or more days after I was ordered to finish.”

Dr. Janos Rukh, like many mad scientists in the tradition before him, is widely seen as a crank whose obsessive research and unusual theories are an embarrassment and ridiculous vanity project. However, he’s bound and determined to prove his work is on the level and that he’s on the verge of the next great scientific breakthrough.

Towards that end, he convinces two such naysayers, Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) and Sir Dr. Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), to come to his home for a demonstration of a fascinating new telescope. Francis also brings his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), and his nephew Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton).

Predictably, Dr. Rukh’s much-younger and very pretty wife of three years, Diana (Frances Drake), has an immediate and mutual attraction to Ronald. Diana’s father was Dr. Rukh’s assistant, and when he passed away, she dutifully married Dr. Rukh. However, she’s never felt romantic love for him.

When everyone is seated, Dr. Rukh gives a marvellous demonstration of a new telescope, along with narration. The telescope not only gives a great planetarium show, it also projects images from millions of years ago. One of these images is a meteorite striking somewhere in Africa.

Drs. Benet and Stevens are so impressed by this magical telescope, they abandon their former hardened skepticism and agree to accompany Dr. Rukh on an expedition to find the impact site and harvest the material in this ancient meteorite.

The African quest takes far longer than expected, and nothing has been found. Though the others are starting to have second thoughts and planning to return to England soon, Dr. Rukh insists on staying just a bit longer. He feels he’s on the verge of a breakthrough in discovering the impact site, and with it incredible scientific secrets.

Find it he does, with the help of a bunch of natives. As per the unfortunate standards of most films of this era, they’re depicted as easily-spooked and having really cartoonish reactions to their fear.

Though Dr. Rukh is delighted to discover not only the impact site but the actual meteorite itself, his excitement is short-lived. When the meteorite is exposed to daylight again, it explodes and sends out dangerous radiation which sickens him quite badly. Dr. Rukh now glows in the dark, and his touch is deadly.

Dr. Benet compassionately creates an antidote which Dr. Rukh must take at the same time every day. If he doesn’t inject himself religiously, he’ll go back to his fully radioactive state. However, the newly-discovered element Radium X may have permanently altered his brain, and eventual madness may descend. The antidote also isn’t a cure, just a means of keeping the worst effects under control.

After Dr. Rukh returns to base camp, Dr. Benet tells him of the secret romance between Diana and Ronald. Knowing full well Diana never loved him, Dr. Rukh fakes his own death shortly after coming to Paris. He finds a man who very much resembles him, murders him, and makes him look like he died of radiation poisoning.

Dr. Benet returns to Europe with a piece of the meteorite and uses its powers for good. His procedure for curing blindness is embraced as a miracle. He also cures other ailments with a modified form of Radium X.

Though Dr. Rukh also uses Radium X to cure his mother’s blindness, his altruism doesn’t last for long. He presently sets his mind firmly upon revenge, and takes up residence in a boardinghouse across the street from a church with six statues. Each figure represents to him one member of the African expedition, and thus the people he believes ruined his life by getting rich and famous off of his discovery and hard work.

And thus begins a reign of terror from a mysterious invisible force.

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