93. The Pit & The Pendulum (1961)
dir. Roger Corman
"Do you know where you are Bartolome? You are about to enter hell."
Plot: 1546 in Spain. Upon the news of his sister Elizabeth’s death, Francis Barnard goes to pay respects to her husband, nobleman Nicholas Medina. He decides to stay on, dissatisfied with Medina’s lack of explanations as to what happened. But Medina, who as a child watched his grandfather, a member of the Spanish Inquisition, torture his mother and uncle to death, is verging on madness, believing that he buried Elizabeth while she was still alive. Things happen to suggest that Elizabeth may be still alive and/or haunting the castle. Barnard must decide whether the hauntings are real or the result of Medina’s tormented mind. But when the ghost of Elizabeth reappears, Medina snaps and goes completely over the edge. Believing he is now his grandfather, he imprisons Barnard in a bladed pendulum torture device.
Pit and the Pendulum was the second of Roger Corman’s celebrated Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, following The House of Usher/The Fall of the House of Usher (1960). (See below for Roger Corman’s other Edgar Allan Poe titles). Corman has reunited most of the creative team behind Usher including Vincent Price, screenwriter Richard Matheson, photographer Floyd Crosby, production designer Daniel Haller and musician Les Baxter. This time he has also recruited Barbara Steele, who made a striking appearance as the reincarnated witch around the same time that Usher came out in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).
Pit and the Pendulum is usually the fan favourite among Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films. But Pit and the Pendulum does feel overshadowed by the success of The House of Usher, as though Corman and Richard Matheson felt like they were under pressure to make another Usher. The plot draws heavily draws upon Usher – the young man travelling to Vincent Price’s foreboding castle, talk of the physical presence of the house, family secrets, premature burial, the past’s hold over Price’s tormented character, characters crushed by the weight of their fears. (Not that this is that different from the rest of the series really – at times it seemed like Roger Corman and Richard Matheson just shuffled around the themes and gave the characters different names). Notedly in contrast to the film, the 1850 Poe short story is a single scene mood piece that only consists of the unnamed narrator finding himself in a cell after sentence by The Inquisition where he is slowly tortured by a descending bladed pendulum. All the rest of the plot in the filn has been invented by Richard Matheson. And to such extent the title is really a cheat, the actual ‘pit and the pendulum’ has not very much to do with the film and only seems attached as an afterthought. In fact the big story twist makes it almost seem as though Corman and Matheson were attempting to graft Poe onto a Les Diaboliques (1955)-styled psycho-thriller. The plot of Les Diaboliques with its elaborately staged contrivations to drive someone mad and steal their inheritance was just starting to be imitated by the likes of William Castle and Hammer Films. But incorporated here, such a plot sits somewhat at odds with Poe’s brooding, tortured mood.
Roger Corman drums up a good deal of thunderous atmosphere. The sets are expectedly lush – the doom-laden labyrinthine house interiors are good, the colour and set dressings are so drenched in midnight blue that it almost seems to be running down the screen. But despite this Pit and the Pendulum is slow moving – it takes three-quarters of the running time before it fully gets going. Nevertheless when Corman finally plays his hand in the last quarter, the film works well – Barbara Steele’s emergence from the tomb and pursuit of Vincent Price is good. The pendulum makes for a good climax and the darkly ironic final shot is a strong shock. Barbara Steele is certainly an interesting casting choice, her Romantic looks and alabaster beauty hide a nice otherworldly chill – unfortunately Corman fails to make substantial use of her in the film in the way that the Italian directors who turned her into a cult figure during the 1960s did.
Roger Corman’s other Edgar Allan Poe films are The House of Usher/The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), the Poe-titled but H.P. Lovecraft adapted The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964).