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.

An island mansion full of secrets and zombies

Released 14 May 1941, King of the Zombies was intended as a vehicle for Béla Lugosi (a role for which he would’ve been perfect). Unfortunately, he was unavailable at the time, and Monogram tried to negotiate for Peter Lorre (who also would’ve been great). Finally, Henry Victor was signed shortly before filming commenced. Because of Mr. Victor’s heavy German accent, he was unable to be a leading man, and instead established himself as a character actor.

James McCarthy (Mac) (Dick Purcell), his buddy Bill Summers (John Archer), and his very funny valet Jefferson Jackson (Jeff) (Mantan Moreland) are flying from Cuba to Puerto Rico when their plane blows off-course and crashes in a storm. The trio end up on a strange island, right in the middle of a cemetery.

With nowhere else to go, they enter the first house which presents itself and meet the acquaintance of owner Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor). Though they heard a faint radio signal while still in the air, Dr. Sangre denies any radio stations on the island. He instead claims they must’ve heard something from one of the many ships passing through, and says the next ship won’t arrive for about two more weeks.

Despite Jeff’s fears and suspicions, particularly regarding creepy butler Momba (Leigh Whipper), Bill and Mac accept the offer to stay as longterm guests. Jeff meanwhile is banished to the servants’ quarters in the cellar, which connects to the kitchen. He’s delighted to make the acquaintance of pretty maid Samantha (Marguerite Whitten), but newly frightened by the ancient cook Tahama (Madame Sul-Te-Wan).

Other residents of the mansion are Dr. Sangre’s wife Alyce (Patricia Stacey) and niece Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury). Jeff, who’s already wise to the existence of the household’s zombies and refuses to believe Dr. Sangre’s rebuttals of their true nature, is even more alarmed by Mrs. Sangre. As Dr. Sangre explains, “She lives, yet walks in the land of those beyond.”

Everyone then gets settled for the night, but Jeff still can’t relax. When a few zombies try to attack him, he flees upstairs and tells his friends what happened. The commotion gets Dr. Sangre’s attention, and he once more insists there are no zombies and that Jeff is just imagining things. However, he does finally permit Jeff to stay in the same room as Mac and Bill.

Jeff freaks out again when he sees Mrs. Sangre coming through a wall. Mac and Bill are finally convinced he’s on the level when Jeff finds an earring she dropped on the bed, and they go to investigate. During the course of the investigation, Mac finds Barbara in the library, researching how to break her aunt’s hypnotic state.

This time, no one believes Dr. Sangre when he finds them and tries to set their minds at ease. They’re determined to get off this island as soon as possible.

These plans, however, are thrown into jeopardy when the zombies come calling again. Will they be able to escape without joining the ranks of the undead?

A sleepwalking strangler

Released 25 April 1941, Invisible Ghost was the first of Béla Lugosi’s nine films with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Despite Monogram’s lack of financial resources, however, they produced a lot of solid films, managed to lure a lot of stars (both current and former) from other studios, and launched a number of new stars. They also won an Academy for Best Short Subject (Two Reeler) in 1947, and were nominated for a number of other Academy Awards.

Lugosi went to work for them when his career was in the doldrums, a consequence of the restrictive Hays Code coupled with a British ban on horror films.

Charles Kessler (Lugosi) seems for all intents and purposes a very nice, respectable man, except for one big flaw—he went half-mad after his wife left him for his best friend a few years ago. She and her lover are believed to have died in a terrible car accident, and now every year on the Kesslers’ wedding anniversary, Mr. Kessler pretends she’s alive. The butler Evans (Clarence Muse) sets the table for two, and Mr. Kessler talks to this invisible presence.

Mr. Kessler’s daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young, older sister of Loretta Young) is aghast when her serious beau Ralph Dickson (John McGuire) visits on this very evening and witnesses the bizarre spectacle. In embarrassment, she draws him aside and explains what’s going on.

Ralph was also secretly seeing the Kesslers’ maid Cecile Mannix (Terry Walker), but broke it off with her because he fell in love with Virginia. Now Cecile won’t accept the fact that it’s over and that Ralph’s heart is no longer hers. After they quarrel that night, Ralph drives off and Cecile retreats to her room.

We then learn Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) is alive, albeit not very well, and living in the cellar, where the gardener (not her lover) takes care of her. She’s terrified to come home, believing her husband will kill her, and anybody else as well. However, she regularly prowls through the grounds at night to appear below Mr. Kessler’s window.

And when he sees her, he goes into a trance and indeed kills someone.

That night, Mr. Kessler strangles Cecile with his overcoat (to avoid fingerprints). Evans discovers her corpse in the morning, and Ralph is accused of the crime. Though he heartily pleads his innocence, it seems an open and shut case of guilt due to the lovers’ quarrel Evans overheard. Ralph gets the death penalty.

Shortly afterwards, a dead ringer for Ralph visits and becomes a longterm houseguest—his twin brother Paul (also John McGuire). Paul is determined to get to the bottom of what really happened. While he believes Ralph was innocent on account of their being brothers, he also is highly suspicious of how several other servants in the household were murdered before that.

The next victim is the gardener, who’s also found by Evans. This time, Evans is accused of the crime, despite having no motive or suspicious behaviour. Mr. Kessler and Virginia also fully stand behind his innocence and good moral character.

Paul is also still determined to get to the bottom of all these mysterious murders, and some unexpected twists and turns may just expose what’s really been going on.

Invisible Ghost was very positively reviewed by The Los Angeles Times, which called it “head and shoulders above the average horror picture” and praised it for evoking a creepy mood more through psychological and psychopathic situations instead of directly showing the horror. They also loved Lugosi’s acting.

Another wonderful aspect of this film is the character of Evans. Clarence Muse always imbued his characters with such fully-realised humanity, dignity, and intelligence, whether they were servants or leading roles. Evans is a very important secondary character, and is never once cast as a stereotype or used for cheap laughs. This was quite refreshingly unusual for the era.

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?

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