I was sick, sick unto death, with that long agony, and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.
--Edgar Allen Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum
Zombos Says: Very Good
Having grown up on TV shows like Davey and Goliath and Gumby, stop motion animation is an enjoyable form of storytelling for me. From the simplicity and witty fun of Gumby, to the richness of design found in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the stories are often magical and the characters always imaginative. Stop motion techniques can be used with clay, puppets, and realistic-looking articulated models like Willis O'Brien's emotive King Kong or Ray Harryhausen's creepy fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts.
Stop motion has been skillfully and shoddily used with many traditional and avant-garde horror and science-fiction films since around 1908, and lends itself to the short subject rather well, especially when the setting is simple, and the actions straightforward. Marc Lougee's stop motion adaptation of Poe's, The Pit and the Pendulum, is a good example of this. Poe's story is a straightforward narrative of despair, desperation, and horror. The anonymity of the villains, the delirium of the victim, and the increasingly horrific situations he confronts is ripe for a short film that captures this singular time frame of struggle against increasingly dire odds.
While Poe's story is required reading for many college kids, this visualization of the torments suffered by the unnamed prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition would be a welcome addition to the curriculum. While a bit of license is used for dramatic visual effect (the prisoner doesn't have a metal helmet locked around his head in the original story), the short seven-minute film adheres to and captures the essence of terror with vivid detail in its CG-enhanced miniature sets and stylized puppets.
There's an exaggerated character-movement inherent to stop-motion. It can either breathe dramatic life into the actions of its diminutive characters, or create a cartoonish-effect that hinders more serious storylines. Poe is deadly serious here, and animators Weiss and Fairley create movement that conveys much of the drama and tension without whimsical or absurd motions. The robed tribunal members, murmuring and motioning with their heads and hands in a condemning way, and the prisoner's halting steps, exhausted posture, and fearful exploration of the dungeon, visually portray the literary tone of the short story with their painstaking and time-consuming attention to detail.
Dwayne Hill narrates the inner thoughts and feelings of the confused and fearful prisoner, condemned to the dark dungeons, without maudlin overtones. His voice is of a rational man in irrational circumstances; a man trying to reason through his predicament in hopes of finding an escape from his tormentors, and their fiendish instruments of torture and death.
One ray of hope and beauty written into the film, and not in Poe's gloomy tale, is the entrance of a brightly-colored bird fluttering around the solitary window of the cell, high up out of reach. The cheerful scene contrasts with the somber browns and blacks of the walls and floor. It is a nice foreshadowing of hope as the prisoner looks up toward the feeble light, entering through the bars, illuminating the red feathers of the bird flying about carefree. It fortifies the visual storytelling in a simple but majestic manner.
Though not based on historical accuracy, the fictional pit and pendulum of the story heighten the fearsome depravity and inhumanity of the prisoner's death sentence. In true horror story fashion, death is not the worst part, but getting there is. While reason keeps the prisoner from succumbing to the razor sharp blade of the pendulum, it can't stop the heated iron walls of his cell from forcing him ever closer to that infernal pit in the middle of the room. What horrors await should he fall down into the deep darkness?
It's hard to capture Poe's narrative detail, the rush of terror-filled thoughts overwhelming the long-suffering prisoner in his final moments before succumbing to the foul-smelling pit, especially in a six-to-seven minute film. But the climax here, with its carefully framed arm darting down to rescue him as he descends into oblivion, pulling him back to sanity and safety, is thrillingly done.
The Pit and the Pendulum's stop motion artistry proves old techniques, when combined with creativity and a touch of new technology, still have much to offer.