Both of the Poe films are filmed in a grainy black and white with real actors and NO puppets. Although no spoken dialogue is used, Usher has a subtitle narration, and both films have the usual Svankmajer sound effects... plenty of creaking, rusty grates and squeals.
This nightmarish version of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum", filmed in beautiful black and white and almost utterly devoid of dialogue, is both the best Poe adaptation I've ever seen and probably the closest I've ever seen a film come to evoking a nightmare. A good deal of this effect comes from the fact that the film is shot from a first-person view. You are the star.
Be forewarned: what follows is a complete synopsis of the film.
The film begins with a candle being blown out, and you immediately hear the creakings of something nasty as you are apparently being led through a dungeon.
The screen quotes Poe:
"The last words I heard was the death sentence. Then the inquisitor's voices fused into a single nightmare of sound. The fatefull throb of the mill wheel."
(Poe's story is about a victim of the Spanish Inquisition)
Click here for a 6.2 meg quicktime of your awakening...
(Yes, this is a huge download, but it's worth it)
Gradual light reveals that you are lying down under a huge painting of a skeleton, which covers the ceiling and flows down the walls. The head is huge, and directly over us. What is that hanging from the mouth? A tongue? It looks sharp...
As you look around more, you see that you are tied spread-eagled to a slab of some sort. Your hands and feet look filthy. There is a plate of nasty-looking food by your right hand, and a big pit in the corner.
A sand bag hangs from a chain... you follow the chain with our eyes through a network of pulleys... it leads to your hand.
You give it a pull.
The pull causes a machine to go into motion... a spike pokes a hole in the sand bag, which starts leaking and rising.
You follow the chain some more to see...
The skeleton's tongue is a razor-sharp pendulum, which is started in motion and is attached to the sand bag. As the bag rises, the pendulum sinks lower, directly over your midsection.
At this point, some rats crawl out of the pit, interested in your plate of nasty food.
Thinking fast, you spread some food on the ropes.
The rats slowly go for it... the pendulum splits one open and throws it across the room, and some other rats devour it.
The pendulum starts hitting the wall on both sides, swinging hard. Marks in the wall show that it has gone much further down in the past.
You break the rat-weakened ropes and roll off of the slab just in time...
Only to see a new nightmare. A burst of flames illuminates one end of the room. The entire wall is a clockwork tableau of hell, complete with animated demons munching on people and each other, and real flames pouring from the demon's mouths and eyes.
The wall starts moving towards you.
Of course, it intends to push you into the pit. You try desparately to hold the wall back... it keeps going, and it's quite hot. You jerk back in pain as a knife pierces your right hand completely... the demons have darting knives for tongues!
Click here for a 2.8 meg quicktime of the advance of the wall...
Mind the tongue!
You're getting closer to the pit, and the wall isn't slowing. You step on something... that tin plate that your "food" was on! You jam it into the track that the wall is rolling on... and it stops! Just before the pit, of course. You see that you can carefully slide around one edge (the room is irregularly shaped).
You slide cautiously, around, and see the clockwork of the wall from the other side... there are some barrels of fire behind the wall, too. You are panting in mortal fear, but trying to keep it quiet... and you see an opened door.
You go through it, and proceed cautiously through the dungeon, hearing the songs of torture all around. You look into one room and see someone on the rack... you duck back out as you see a monk turning its' wheel, as the victim screams...
You continue down the hall, more cautious, more terrified... you see a spot in the wall which has decayed a bit... sunlight is coming through. You dig frantically at the hole, making it bigger.
You climb out, and look around. You see, in front of you, a sandaled foot... attached to a robe. You look up. A shrouded monk opens his arms and encloses you as you collapse in fear.
"But my son, tomorrow could bring salvation... and you wanted to leave?"
"During 350 years, the Holy Inquisition destroyed 500,000 people in Spain and Portugal alone. The total number of victims was never published".
Note: A special thanks to Alan Andres for finding a VHS copy of this for me!
I saw this once in about 1988, and am relying on memory. It is mostly a mood film,
and the mood of impending doom is strongly effective. Svankmajer's House of Usher
is more of a decaying ruin than he usually uses (which is saying A LOT)... the expected
"fall" conveys true tension throughout the film, so when it does come,
it is almost a relief.
Once again, if anyone knows where I can get a copy of this, PLEASE e-mail me!
Check out the Svankmajer pages that I have completed; these include stills and many quicktime movies:
This page was created 7/14/96.
All content compiled/edited by Tim Fitzpatrick, except where noted.