Monday, November 17, 2008

Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (1967)

... aka: Blood Demon
... aka: Blood of the Virgins
... aka: Castle of the Walking Dead
... aka: Snake Pit, The
... aka: Snake Pit and the Pendulum
... aka: Torture Chamber
... aka: Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, The
... aka: Torture Room, The

Directed by:
Harald Reinl

Beautifully photographed, fast-paced, unique, colorful, atmospheric and even surreal at times, this combines elements from Gothic films popular at the time (not only limited to Bava, but stretching into Roger Corman's Poe series and the Hammer costume / period horrors of the day), but somehow manages to distinguish itself entirely. Definitely not a movie to be judged on literary faithfulness (it is based - very very loosely - on Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum'), then again it doesn't really need to be. The film open with a standard prologue where hateful-looking Satanist/sadist/scientist Count Frederic Regula (Christopher Lee) is in prison awaiting execution for killing 12 virgins and using their blood in his experiments. He has a spiked gold mask slammed onto his face by a red-hooded executioner (shades of Black Sunday), is dragged into a small town's city square, tied to four different horses and then drawn-and-quartered (pulled apart). Before dying, he promises to get revenge on the descendants of both the judge who sentenced him (Lex Barker, who was a big star in Germany at the time) and the woman who managed to escape from his torture chamber and warn authorities (Karin Dor, the very lovely former wife of the director).

Thirty-five years later, strapping manly-man Roger Mont Elise (Lex Barker again) arrives in the same town to claim an inheritance. Said inheritance is Castle Andomai, a remote, crumbling castle far from the main town. Superstitious townspeople try to warn him not to go near the place, but he shrugs them off and decides to hire an apprehensive coachman (Dieter Eppler) to take him there. Accompanying them on the trip is a very strange priest named Father Fabian (Vladimir Medar) who claims he just needs a ride. And what a strange coach trip it turns out to be! At first, the countryside is serene and picturesque with a clear blue sky, moss-covered trees and quiet ponds. Suddenly, black-hooded men on horseback blaze the trail. They attack another coach, steal it and leave behind two female passengers; the beautiful Baroness Lilian von Brabant (Karin Dor again) and her cute blonde servant Babette (Christiane Rücker). Roger learns that Lilian is headed to the same exact location he is (she and Roger being, of course, the two descendants of the 'cursed' people from the opening segment) so he gives the two ladies a lift. And then things get really weird; almost fairy-tale like in the dark imagery. The carriage marches across a blood red sky... Every house on the way seems to have been burned to the ground... The fog grows thicker and thicker... At dark, the trees take on a sinister life of their own, with body parts protruding from the trunks, squawking ravens lining limbs and corpses hanging from the branches. It's all too much for the harried coachman, who promptly keels over from a heart attack! A strange man named Anathol (Carl Lange) also shows up long enough to kidnap the women and steal the carriage.

Roger and Fabian finally come across Castle Andomai and find Lilian and Babette unharmed inside. The four then discover why it has been nicknamed "The Bloody Castle." Inside is a virtual treasure trove of visual beauty and horrific set design, with prominent shades of blue, purple, green and gold in the backdrop. The art direction is exceptional. Many walls are covered with demonic, abstract paintings. Others are made entire of skulls. There are tons of secret passageways and every room is sealed off by razor sharp gates when characters enter or exit. Vultures line corridors. Many of the rooms are designed solely for torture, including one with a rack over a bed of spikes, one where the floor slowly pulls back to reveal a pit of poisonous snakes underneath and another where a huge pendulum emerges from the ceiling. All kinds of creepy crawlers (snakes, scorpions, rats, lizards, tarantulas) make appearances, and so does an undead-looking Christopher Lee again; at least long enough to explain his attempts to create a special "life elixir" and how he needs a virginal thirteenth victim to accomplish his goal. And Anathol, the guy who stole to coach/girls, turns up once again as Lee's ghostly accomplice.

Aside from the production design, the make-up effects are also good and there are several surprising visual effects using stop-motion animation. There's also some non-obtrusive comedy elements; both dark humored and lighthearted. Former "Tarzan" Lex Barker's (dubbed) performance is tolerable enough, even though these romantic male leads in Gothic horrors are easily forgotten when the other crazy cats pop up. Future Bond girl Karin Dor (who'd star in Hitchcock's Topaz the following year) does very well as the heroine, Vladimir Medar is a little broad, but amusing, comic relief and Lee does an equally fine job with limited screen time as the dour, blue-faced, cross-hating Regula. However, the movie is pretty much stolen by Carl Lange as Lee's gleefully sinister over-the-top sidekick.

Anyway, I totally loved every second of this one. It's very underrated, has awesome sets/art direction, great cinematography, a great cast, a great score, is wonderfully atmospheric and has the best Pendulum scene of all time; much better than the one Corman's crew staged in 1961. Anyone who loves Bava, Hammer Horror, Corman's Poe series, Gothic horrors, etc., should really enjoy it.


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