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The Pit and the Pendulum, 1961

From the DVD case: Haunted by horrifying childhood memories, the son (Vincent Price) of the Spanish Inquisition’s most notorious assassin teeters on the brink of insanity. But when his adulterous wife fakes her own death to drive him over the edge, she soon discovers that betrayal cuts both ways – as the man she wants to destroy becomes not only her judge and jury – but also her executioner! (1961, color)

Mark says: After The Fall of the House of Usher received both box office success and critical acclaim, American International Pictures was quick to implore Director Roger Corman (The Wasp Woman, Attack of the Crab Monsters) to direct another Poe-based film. The result was The Pit and the Pendulum.

If the look and feel of The Pit and the Pendulum seems familiar, it may have something to do with the shared cast, crew and sets from all the other Poe-inspired films that Corman would later produce. Like The Fall of the House of Usher, the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson (The Night Stalker, Duel) and Les Baxter was responsible for the original music in both films.

The process of adapting Poe’s tales to film is explained by Roger Corman and quoted in The Rough Guide to Horror Movies by Alan Jones:

Most of the short stories were only two or three pages long. They were really wonderful fragments. The method we adopted was to use the Poe short stories as the climax for a third act. We then constructed the first two acts in what we hoped was a manner faithful to Poe.

The final results barely resemble Poe’s stories, but many make for fantastic cinema. The Pit and the Pendulum is one of my favorite Poe adaptations.The look of Corman’s Poe pictures is conspicuously Hammeresque, but this is more of a compliment than a complaint. These movies proved Corman wasn’t just some schlockmeister, and that he could produce suspenseful, atmospheric pictures both economically and efficiently. I’d still rather watch these inspired works than the bloated blockbuster movies that are so popular today. Of course, I’m a cranky old man, too.

The Pit and the Pendulum stars Vincent Price (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Fly) as Nicholas Medina, a man driven to the edge of madness by his obsession that he may have unwittingly entombed his wife alive. As a child, Nicholas witnessed his father do just this to his mother as a punishment for her adultery. It should be noted that Nicholas’s father was an infamous sadist during the Spanish Inquisition, and even maintained his own torture chamber in the castle’s dungeon.

Luana Anders (Dementia 13, Night Tide) plays Catherine Medina, Nicholas’s sympathetic sister. Nicholas also has two servants, Maria, played by Lynette Bernay (I Bury the Living), and Maximillian (Patrick Westwood). The servants serve as little more than red herrings and are fundamentally peripheral characters.

John Kerr is Francis, the brother of Nicholas’s dead wife, Elizabeth. He arrives at the castle to learn more fully of his sister’s demise, and is quite unsatisfied when he is told her death was caused by “something in the blood.” As viewers, we are suspicious, too. Nicholas acts so peculiar that we are unsure if he is hiding something, or if he is just on the verge of insanity. Ultimately, both prove to be true.

Doctor Leon is played by Antony Carbone (Last Woman on Earth). The doctor plays an important role in the tale, which only becomes evident in the final reel.

Regular readers know that my fondness for Mr. Price borders on bias. However, I don’t think I am out of order when I suggest that Price’s acting is what makes this picture so enduring. Price is sometimes criticized for “hamming it up” in these movies, but he is so enjoyable to watch that we seldom notice or care. His portrayal of Nicholas (and also, in flashback, as his father, Sebastian) is so strong, that the other actors surrounding him seem merely adequate.

Barbara Steele's evil smile in The Pit and the Pendulum, 1961Barbara Steele (Shivers, Black Sunday) in the role of Elizabeth, Nicholas’s dead wife, is the one actress who does not pale in Price’s presence. Steele doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she makes a strong impression in the time she is allotted. I’ve always thought it a shame that these two greats never starred together in another production. They could have been the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of horror.

The final dungeon sequence is unforgettable. As a kid I almost fainted when the blade of the pendulum sliced John Kerr’s shirt. And that final shot of Barbara Steele’s terror-stricken eyes haunted me long after the movie concluded. As an adult, I’m not so easily affected, but I’m still impressed with the masterful building of suspense.

The Pit and the Pendulum can be a little slow at times, but the rich colors keep your eyes satisfied and Vincent Price’s acting will pull you through the rough spots. If you haven’t seen this gem in awhile, I recommend giving it another view. But I say that a lot.

Scene to watch for: That evil, self-satisfied smile that forms on Elizabeth’s (Barbara Steele) face when she realizes she has finally driven Nicholas (Vincent Price) insane.

Line to listen for: “While we were up here mourning her, she was alive, struggling to be free!”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

2 Comments

  1. Mark: It’s interesting to find out that Corman used Poe’s stories, or subject matter, in the third act of his “Poe” films. When I read the original short story, I quickly realized that the filmmakers had to do a lot of padding to fill in the space for a feature length film. I’ve discovered that many times, when a story is converted into a film, very little of the original story appears in the script. I have read many of Poe’s works. Once you get used to the style of 19th century writing, Poe’s stories are quite intriguing. (The same goes for Hawthorn, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft, etc.) I personally like short stories over novels and Poe has a lot to choose from.

    “The Pit and Pendulum” is a great movie. I remember seeing it on the ABC Sunday Night Movie back in the 60s. When they flashed to the scene of the half decomposed corpse, with her mouth open and her hands held up as if scratching at the inside of her coffin, I must have jumped a foot in the air. That scene stayed in my head for a long time. Also, during the resurrection scene, where Elizabeth’s “corpse” is walking around in silhouette, I could almost imagine seeing her bony face in the shadow. As strange as it may sound, with the anticipation of seeing a skull peer out of the darkness, I found it more shocking when her face pops out of the shadows and is revealed to be normal.

    While I have many favorite Vincent Price films, this one, along with “House on Haunted Hill,” is at the top of my list.

  2. Paul: This is one of my favorite Vincent Price pictures, too. I reread Poe’s story again before reviewing this film, and they did use a lot of creative license here. Still, the film seems to preserve the integrity of the story, if not in plot line, at least in mood. I’m not sure Poe himself would agree with me, though.


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