The Fall of the House of Usher / The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope (dir. Jan Svankmajer): two film shorts of fear, terror and oppression

Jan Svankmajer, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1981), “The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope” (1983)

Both these live action / stop-motion animation films by Jan Svankmajer are quite faithful adaptations of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short stories of psychological fear and terror. In both stories, told from a first-person viewpoint, the terror exists in the minds of the main characters who attribute to their tormentors greater malevolence than these might deserve. The use of black-and-white film in both shorts focusses viewer attention on shadows and the textures of objects and structures around the protagonists, and conveys an atmosphere of decay and retrogression that may be man-made. The live-action film emphasises close-ups of objects and fragments of large structures such as underground tunnels; fear or alienation seems to fill up the available space behind the screen like invisible swirling smoke.

In “The Fall …”, a narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher’s home and both entomb Usher’s comatose sister Madeleine in the Usher family vault in the basement of the mansion. No actors are seen: the action occurs entirely with any figures and stop-motion animation is used to move Madeleine’s coffin as though it were being pushed by invisible hands. Fantasy imagery of clay and soil moving and forming themselves into rows of frills and ridges, or of mound-like cakes is a major highlight of the film as is also the climax in which chairs fling themselves out of windows (a reference to the famous defenestrations that have occurred in Prague throughout its history since 1419 when the first known major one occurred) and sink into a muddy quicksand moat, and other furniture flee a disintegrating building as the coffin bursts open. The unseen narrator speaks throughout the film in a measured, sober voice but the fact that viewers never see him means that the voice sounds very alienated from the events of the film. Unfortunately the version of the film I saw lacked English-language subtitles but in spite of having no actors and all the furniture and soil having to move themselves about, the film carries a strong sense of physical and psychological isolation and the associated strange and deranged mentality that leads Usher to kill his sister but which also maintains the sister’s life and desire for revenge. There is something of an incestuous relationship implied for Roderick and Madeleine: the two may have had the hots for each other in the past, and if both are mad, that in itself might suggest their parents were also close relatives and had unwittingly passed on a defective gene or two.

“The Pit …” is more conventional in its story-telling approach: a silent, trapped prisoner is condemned to death by being cut in two by an overhanging pendulum suspended from a portrait of a leering God skull on the ceiing above; the pendulum sweeps ever lower to the prisoner, to cut him in two eventually. The man, noticing rats about, grabs meat from bowls with bound hands and smears them over his body’s bonds. The rats grab the food and take the pendulum’s sharp ends, the man is soon able to escape the ropes. Next, moving walls of metal demon puppets that thrust knives and belch fire through eye and mouth apertures menace the prisoner and force him to fall into a pit. He manages to escape and at this point the Poe story ends and another short story “A Torture of Hope” by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam takes over: the man runs through labyrinths of tunnels, panting and panicking as he spies the prison wardens in their hooded cloaks walking from one tunnel to another. He finds a way out of prison but is met by an unpleasant surprise.

Those not familiar with Svankmajer’s way of telling a story might find “The Pit …” easier to follow though no less frightening and filled with dread; if anything, it is highly claustrophobic, panicky and paranoid. The fear is of a dread theocratic regime as suggested by the appearance of the sinister hooded monks who run the prison. The prisoner’s bid for freedom and the fate that awaits him suggest that no matter how far and how long you run, the system will always find you and imprison you again.

The suggestion that machinery and simple household objects, even small items like nails, and natural objects and phenomena like soil and stormy weather might have a life of their own is played for sinister and terrifying effect. There are messages about how people can be manipulated by others through suggestion and religious belief into torturing others or being forced to undergo torture. Svankmajer creates a unique world in which natural or man-made objects can be made supernatural and humans quickly become slaves of their technology and the systems that help produce this technology.

 

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