The Pit and The Pendulum (1961)

A diabolical…shave.

3.5 stars out of 4. Delicious.

The Poe story is only used for the last act of the film. Vincent Price gets to do much more in this film than House of Usher. Pit virtually has the exact same structure as  Usher, but allows itself some creative freedom to weave a story that will entertain and try to remain faithful to the spirit of Poe. This freshens things up and livens the proceedings so that Roger Corman’s second Poe film is among the best films of his career.

Written by Richard Matheson (of Duel, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Twilight Zone fame), Pit and the Pendulum incredibly atmospheric for such a low budget production. Spurred on by the unexpected success of House of Usher, American International rushed another Poe film into production and obviously threw a little bit more money at it. Poe’s story is now set in 16th century Spain, where Francis Bernard has arrived at the castle of Nicolas Medina to discover why his sister Elizabeth died.  Elizabeth was the wife of Nicholas, who vaguely mentions that she died of a blood disease. This is not enough for Bernard and he decrees his intention to stay until he finds out the truth. (This doesn’t sound in anyway familiar does it?)

Family friend Doctor Leon arrives for dinner and reveals that Elizabeth died of heart failure, essentially dying of sheer terror. They go to where she was found in the dungeon locked inside an iron maiden. This was Sebastian Medina’s (Nicholas’s father) torture chamber, used during the Spanish Inquisition. Elizabeth had become obsessed by it and inadvertently locked herself inside the maiden. (Although having done this would have killed her instantaneously due to the nature of the maiden’s design-but no matter.) Her dying words were “Sebastian”.

In talking later with Nicholas’s sister Catherine, Bernard is told of the night Nicholas saw his father kill his brother and torture his mother while hidden in the dungeon. Sebastian believed his wife guilty of infidelity and after killing brother Bartolome with a fiery poker, with a slow pleasure brings about her death. Catherine believes this to be the reason why Nicholas feels so much guilt over Elizabeth’s death because her untimely demise hearkens back to his childhood trauma.

This gives some much needed backstory and allows the audience to really question Nicholas’s motives. Slowly but surely Elizabeth’s presence begins to sweep through the castle. Is it her vengeful spirit, or someone trying to drive Nicholas mad?…

Everything is more confident in Pit. The camera moves with a definite assurance that was never present in Usher, and the story is unfolded at a pace that keeps the viewer entertained with events. We never fall out of the atmospheric trance as happened in some dry moments in the House. The set design far outstrips the previous film, and instead of the meager house we are treated to a cobweb infested dreary cavernous Spanish castle. (Although there seems to have been a massive closeout sale on red candles in all of these films.) None of these sets look recycled (which is common in Corman/AIP films) and this allows the viewer to enter a new place mystified at its various dark corridors and torture chambers.

The characters are more defined, especially the lead character who is played much more like a human being and less like a cardboard plot pawn. Vincent Price is given much more screen time and chews away with glee as the timid Nicholas. This furthers the film’s twist ending where the evil receive their just desserts. It just feels more alive than House of Usher. The first film can be forgiven for staying close to the source and having such a small budget, but the degree to which Pit comes alive onscreen on a limited production is to be commended.

Pit and the Pendulum is a much more confident film than House of Usher and it is this factor that really makes the film a success. Combined with a deeper performance from Price and a larger budget, it is clearly the superior film. It never has received the reputation it deserves, for Usher is better remembered because it was the first film. Of all the Poe cycle, this is really one of the few that stands out even though it essentially disregards the Poe story. (And this coming from a Poe nut.) It is simply a fun yet refined ride. Only Masque of the Red Death (1964) and possibly Tomb of Ligeia (1965) are better.

MGM’s single layer 1.85:1 letterbox transfer is rather outdated, but presents the film’s Panavision frame well. Color is represented well and the Dolby 2.0 mono is clear. Unfortunately this is a non-anamorphic transfer. (Laziness.) Repackaged with House of Usher (this edition goes out of print frequently) and coming soon in a new packaging from Image Entertainment. (Likely to be a large recycling of many MGM owned horror films in their old transfers. Again.)

EDIT 10/29/12: The MGM transfer is actually quite bad. Viewed today it is easier to see all of the over-digitalization and grain reduction. Artifacts abound across the letterboxed image, that despite being framed a bit better than the LD reveals far too much tinkering. The cheap TGG Direct/Image DVDs floating around are sourced from the wonderful HD transfers that aired on MGMHD and elsewhere a few years ago. They do look better than these outdated ones, but the releasing company decided to place them interlaced SD three films to a disc. Stupidity. We will just have to wait for the complete series to leak out of Europe on Blu-ray.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman, Vincent Price

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