Thursday, 25 January 2007

Die Schlangengrube und das Pende / Castle of the Walking Dead

The obvious question that you might have is why discuss a German horror film in a blog whose masthead proclaims it to be “about the Italian giallo and director Dario Argento in particular". While I am unsure if I can provide a completely satisfactory justification, here are a few points.

First, a case might be made for the film's director, Harald Reinl, as perhaps one of the most important yet unaknowledged figures in Eurocult as a whole, who made important contributions to the western and krimi in particular and, through them, helped lay many of the foundations for the likes of Leone's spaghetti westerns and Argento's gialli.

Second, while Argento has often proclaimed himself more influenced by Lang than Hitchcock, Reinl made his indebtedness to his countryman explicit throughout his ouevre which includes two Dr Mabuse films and a two-part version of Die Nibelungen.

Third, Castle of the Walking Dead itself is heavily indebted to Italian gothics such as Bava's Black Sunday, Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women and Margheriti's Castle of Blood.

In sum, then, we have a film-maker and a film that intersects with our area of interest in a number of ways.

A storyteller's naive, yet macabre representation of Regula's demise

Mont Elise examines a Bosch-inspired mural

In truth, however, the most important thing is that Die Schlangengrube und das Pende - i.e. the Pit and the Pendulum, though the faithfulness of the film as a Poe adaptation is signalled by the way the English version here describes the short story as a novel - is simply too good a film to ignore, its many virtues coming through even on the Aikman Archive's quite frankly horrible looking Castle of the Walking Dead DVD.

The film opens with an overt nod to Black Sunday as Christopher Lee's Count Regula has a spiked metal mask placed on his face and is sentenced to be quartered for his heinous crimes, too horrible to really describe (at least in this version). He does not seem unduly concerned, however, and instead proclaims that he will have his revenge on the Von Marienberg and Brabant families.

Thirty-five years later Lex Barker's square-jawed hero Roger Mont Elise arrives in town, seeking the whereabouts of Regula's castle and receiving a distinct lack of assistance from the locals in time-honoured gothic horror tradition.

Nevertheless, Roger and a bluff priest manage to determine the location of the castle and even get a coachman, however reluctantly, to take them there.

As the journey continues they take on board Lilian von Brabant (Karin Dor) and her maid Babette, whose own coach has broken down, before things take a distinct turn for the grotesque, with the trees of the mist-enshrouded forest being liberally festooned with human bodies and body parts.

Neither this nor the terrified coachman's demise is sufficient to faze Mont Elise, however, leading him, von Brabant and company directly into the awaiting Regula's trap. For – quelle surpriseMont Elise is actually a von Marienberg and Brabant the 13th virgin the undead Regula needs to complete the ritual interrupted 35 years before...

A selection of images justifying The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism and Pit and the Pendulum AKAs for the film

While the film is a collection of cliché moments and the top-billed Lee largely confined to the opening and closing moments, the production design and visuals are truly astonishing even here, making one wonder what it must have been like on the big screen. Interested parties are advised to seek out the new German DVD for an approximation; those who already have the likes of Aikman Archive's version will know that it is a film that warrants a double-dip.


stephen grimes said...

Some great imagery in this especially the forest of bodies and the vultures at Count Regula's castle,i was quite surprised at how bloody it was for its time.
The German EMS dvd is beautiful and one of my favorite dvd releases ever,highly recommended.

elliot james said...

And Lee's butler is Dieter Eppler, the vampire from the magnificent Slaughter of the Vampires!

Major Mike said...

I'm hoping for a restoration of this movie (I remember seeing it when it was little on the weekly "Creature Feature") with a fresh master and in the original aspect ratio. It would also be cool if someone would give the movie a brand-new music score; the elevator music during some of the scenes is pretty lame.