The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

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Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone

“Do you know where you are, Bartolome? I will tell you where you are. You are about to enter Hell. The netherworld. The infernal region. The abode of the damned. The place of torment. Pandemonium! Abaddon! Gehenna! The Pit….and the Pendulum!”

Following the unexpected success of their first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, 1960’s Fall Of The House Of Usher, AIP were keen to go back to what was obviously a winning combination.

Director Roger Corman would be reunited with star Vincent Price and scriptwriter Richard Matheson, as well as most of his original crew, to bring another of the legendary horror author’s works to life – his 1842 short story The Pit And The Pendulum.

Matheson would have to take serious liberties with the classic tale, which doesn’t amount to much more than a brief, first-person account of an unfortunate prisoner’s torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.

Instead, it would become a story that would echo its cinematic predecessor, exploring similar themes of family, grief and the sins of the father, while saving Poe’s original story for its disturbing finale.

After getting word of his sister Elisabeth’s (Steele) untimely demise, Francis Barnard (Kerr) travels from his home in England to a remote castle by the sea in Spain to learn more about the exact circumstances of her death.

He finds her husband, Nicholas Medina (Price) in a deep state of grief, but alongside his sister Catherine (Anders), offering only a vague explanation to what happened to his sister. Dr Leon (Carbone) later suggests that she was literally frightened to death, but Barnard is still not satisfied, resolving to stay at the castle until he discovers the full truth.

Medina meanwhile, is not coping with the loss of his beloved wife to the extent that his sanity is beginning to falter. His father was Sebastian Medina, a notorious torturer of the Spanish Inquisition and the tools of his trade still lie in the depths of his castle. It was these that Elisabeth became obsessed with and led to her doom, leaving Nicholas plagued with guilt.

Worse, he is now haunted by the presence of his wife, who may not have been dead when she was interred in the family crypt after all…

Right from the off, there’s a dreamlike and often nightmarish quality to The Pit And The Pendulum.

Barnard’s arrival at the castle, being dropped off on an unwelcoming beach by a coach driver who will go no further (a trope more common in Transylvania) feels ominous and otherworldly. It’s broad daylight and the rolling waves are a long way away from a dense forest, but the effect is no less oppressive. This is a place of evil and no good can come from our protagonist’s visit.

Corman and his DP Floyd Crosby really make the most of art director Daniel Haller’s design work, horribly bringing to life a house of horrors that still bears the psychic scars of its previous owner. It’s a wonderfully gothic design, with every room and corridor dripping with menace, so much so that the idea it’s being haunted by the ghost of Elisabeth isn’t remotely surprising.

Naturally Haller saved his finest work for that chamber of horrors under the castle. It’s a huge, cavernous space, filled with the tools of the elder Medina’s trade, its walls adorned with hooded figures that call to mind both demons from hell and the real-life monsters of the Inquisition. As for that centrepiece of the titular pendulum? It’s absolutely marvellous in its elaborate grotesquery. With its victim strapped down on a huge raised platform and its 50-foot arc, it’s a massive contraption, slowly but surely lowering with each swing, making the anticipation of its blade almost more frightening than the impact itself.

The great Vincent Price is in his absolute element here, both as the troubled Nicholas and his monstrous father Sebastian. For ten most part he’s a broken man, plagued with guilt over his wife’s apparent death, while being haunted by his “depraved blood” and the memories of the evil he grew up around. Indeed, the hallucinatory flashback of him seeing his own mother being tortured to death by her husband is truly the stuff of nightmares and makes his fragile sanity all the more believable.

Price imbues his man with no small amount of pathos here, giving us a character who’s slow descent into madness feels like a tragedy more than anything else. He’s almost as much of a victim as any of the 1000 unfortunates who found themselves at the mercies of his father. Almost.

It’s when he is channeling Sebastian that Price really lets himself cut loose, though. The former Inquisitor is a holy terror, the blackest of villains and surely one of the most evil monsters Price ever brought to vivid, terrifying life. It’s an incredible performance, made all the more impressive by the relatively small amount of screen time he gets to make an impression with him. Of course, that jaw-dropping closing set-piece helps somewhat, but it’s a masterclass in horror acting nonetheless.

The remarkable Barbara Steele is equally arresting in her even-shorter screen time too. She’s as captivating a screen presence as ever, playing up her natural charisma as the duplicitous wife who’s plotting has graver consequences than anyone could have anticipated. Despite not having many lines, it’s a testament to her talents that she’s makes such an impression, particularly when acting opposite a Vincent Price in full flow and ensuring her wordless, horrified gaze that is the last thing we see hits home as hard as any horror we have seen previously.

As the supposed hero though, John Kerr is the one weak link here. There’s no real warmth to him, making it difficult to empathise with his situation as much as we should, while his delivery is perfunctory at best. It’s not a big thing, but he holds the film back from being the flawless classic it could have been.

It’s not far off that perfection though. The Pit And The Pendulum is an undoubted high-point in horror fiction and Roger Corman’s big-screen retelling is a fitting adaptation, expanding Poe’s story while losing none of his distinctive atmosphere and character.

Flawless? No. A classic? Most definitely.

Rating: 4.5/5.


The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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