Roger Corman, 1961
Starring: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders
In 16th century Spain, Francis Barnard travels to learn more about the sudden, unexpected death of his sister Elizabeth. He arrives at her husband Nicholas’s isolated castle to a frosty welcome. He meets Catherine, Elizabeth’s sister-in-law, who tells him that Nicholas is intensely grieving. Francis learns very little about Elizabeth’s death, only that she died from some kind of blood disease. Demanding to know more, Francis sees her tomb in the family crypt and meets the local physician, Dr. Leon. Leon reluctantly reveals that she died of fright after becoming obsessed with the torture chamber in the castle crypt.
Catherine tells Francis about Nicholas’s traumatic childhood. Their father, Sebastian, was a famous member of the Inquisition known for his love of torture. He discovered that his brother Bartolome was having an affair with his wife and Nicholas’s mother. Unbeknownst to the adults, Nicholas had snuck into the crypt. Sebastian murdered Batolome and tortured his wife to death in front of the boy.
Meanwhile, they learn from Dr. Leon that Elizabeth may have been buried alive and this fact is likely to drive Nicholas insane. He already believes her ghost roams the castle and a number of strange events occur. Soon they open her tomb and find a corpse with a scream on its desiccated face, clearly trying to claw its way out of the tomb. That night Nicholas is drawn into the crypt, where he sees Elizabeth, very much alive. She and her lover, Dr. Leon, planned the whole thing and rejoice, thinking Nicholas has died of fright. Instead, he rises totally insane. Leon falls to his death and Nicholas tortures Elizabeth. Francis tries to intervene, but in his madness, Nicholas thinks he is his father and Francis is his Uncle Bartolome. He ties him up under a razor edged pendulum device and waits for him to be cut in half. Catherine saves him just in time, but Nicholas falls to his death. They shut up the tomb, forgetting that Elizabeth is alive inside an iron maiden.
After the success of House of Usher (1960), director Roger Corman’s first Edgar Allen Poe themed film starring Vincent Price, they repeated the formula for Pit and the Pendulum, based loosely on Poe’s story of the same name. Other collaborators from House of Usher returned, including script writer and famed horror/sci-fi author Richard Matheson, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, art director Daniel Haller, and composer Les Baxter. One of those most beloved and finest films in Roger Corman’s Poe series, Pit and the Pendulum is essentially responsible for the rest of the series. Due to its unexpected success, American International Pictures gave the green light for more films in the series. It was also a major influence on Italian horror, which was emerging during this period with directors like Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, and Antonio Margheriti.
Pit and the Pendulum is absolutely beautiful from the opening credits with swirling paint to the impressive castle set to Floyd Crosby’s lively cinematography and use of color. As with House of Usher, the film is more about a sense of dread and a Gothic tone rather than surprise scares or gore. There is some ridiculous dialogue and the plot occasionally drags along, but those flaws barely matter alongside the impressive visuals and Price’s film stealing performance. While he was wonderful in House of Usher, here his performance is more varied, ranging between a sympathetic, grief stricken victim and scenery chewing, teeth gnashing maniac. It is definitely one of his best early roles.
This was the last major performance from John Kerr (South Pacific, Tea and Sympathy) as Elizabeth’s brother Francis. His performance is stiff and almost angry, but he is limited by a role that functions as little more than a plot device - first to introduce us to the Medinas and later to unveil the titular pendulum. Barbara Steele had her second major role in a horror film here after Bava’s Black Sunday (1960). Though she is given little screen time (and was dubbed, due to her heavy English accent), she is, as always, memorable and lovely. Luana Anders (Dementia 13, Easy Rider) is likable as Medina’s sister Catherine, though there is not a lot of meat to her role. Anders was one of Corman’s regular company of actors along with Antony Carbone (A Bucket of Blood, Creature from the Haunted Sea), who is good as the duplicitous Dr. Leon.
Grander and more confident than House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum is also a natural progression from Usher. There is an almost identical plot structure and many of the same themes. A young man, an outsider, travels to an isolated home to discover the fate of a woman. While in Usher the heroine was suffering from some invisible disease, here Elizabeth allegedly died of it. Both films are concerned with past trauma and troubling family backgrounds and are obsessed with the fear of being buried alive. Both plots are awash in psychosexual elements with an eventual, though sudden descent into madness. As with Usher, due to the brief length of Poe’s story, Matheson was forced to veer from the original plot material, only really including Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” during the film’s conclusion.
Pit and the Pendulum comes highly recommended and is one of the best films in Corman’s Poe series. It is available on DVD as part of MGM’s wonderful Midnite Movies series, which released many more Vincent Price and Roger Corman films.