Pit and the Pendulum

(USA - 1961)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone
Genre: Horror
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Richard Matheson from Edgar Allen Poe's story
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Composer: Les Baxter

From an artistic perspective, Pit and the Pendulum is Roger Corman’s second best film behind the Nicolas Roeg lensed Masque of the Red Death. Bringing back the same production team that had successfully rendered Corman’s first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, House of Usher, the previous year was likely the primary reason the Poe adaptations wound up becoming a cycle for American International Pictures. Their work in creating a lush, atmospheric, sensual horror provided most of the quality in this exceedingly successful (by AIP standards) box office hit, which grossed 10 times the miniscule $200,000 budget, and influenced the Italian horror scene, including such luminaries as Mario Bava (The Whip and the Body) and Dario Argento (Deep Red).

Roger Corman believed Edgar Allan Poe’s stories were created out of the unconscious mind, so he avoided all realistic settings until the final entry in the cycle, the partially naturally lit and location ship Tomb of Ligeia. Essentially eliminating outdoor scenes (Francis arrival at the potentially haunted mansion is done with a matte background), Corman relies upon the roomy, cavernous multi-level sets of gleaner Daniel Haller and the lushly colored, hazily distorted cinematography of Floyd Crosby to convey Nicholas Medina’s (Vincent Price) twisted and skewed subconscious. Nicholas’ blue toned, red shadowed nightmarish flashbacks are particularly artistic, with Crosby’s tilted angles, thrashing camera movements, and veiled borders representing the hysterical relationship the haunted man has with the world.

Les Baxter’s soundtrack is the standout of the Corman catalogue. His compositions are spare but jarring during the bulk of the film, though atmospheric and moody to carry the otherwise silent flashback scenes. Similar to the story itself, Baxter’s work builds in a manner that creeps up on the audience. When the infamous pendulum is finally unleashed, the music throbs to match Francis’ beating heart.

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If the importance of sound was maintained from Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum, unfortunately little else seems to have been. Screenwriter Richard Matheson maintains the Spanish Inquisition and innocent victims tortured, but essentially Corman and co. Just use the primary torture apparatus as the basis for the stomach churning closing. The rest of the film plays like Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest hits, borrowing bits from Morella, Premature Burial, Fall of the House of Usher, and so on. Poe delved into similar themes often enough that, while hardly matching the quality of his prose of the morbid tension it evoked, it’s at least believable that Poe could have written such a tale if he decided to expand his ideas beyond the short story.

Matheson’s version of Pit and the Pendulum can be seen as something of a companion to Robert Towne’s Tomb of Ligeia. Price’s guilt stricken character is unable to get over the death of his young wife, who may have been buried alive. Wishing, fearing, believing she may still be present, in spirit if not in body, Price might be so disturbed by the situation he’s unaware he’s creating evidence of his wife’s return. Pit and the Pendulum deals with the mourning period directly following her shocking loss, while Tomb of Ligeia tackles his eventual attempt at rebuilding his life through a relationship with another woman.

Remaining in the vain of House of Usher where the past is doomed to repeat itself, causing the environment to weight heavily over the proceedings worked well enough since they greatly improved upon the environment with experience. Unfortunately, the acting went in reverse. Though John Kerr was a once promising young actor, scoring as the outsider student star of Vincent Minnelli’s underrated Tea and Sympathy, he proved to be a flash in the pan with Pit and the Pendulum turning out to be his final major roll. He’s no less wooden than Mark Damon in House of Usher. I’m not one for grand emotions, but if you’ve bothered to make the long journey to find out how your sister died you ought to at least seem as if the loss has altered your personality in some fashion. Kerr doesn’t exactly enhance the film’s somber tone, seeming to persist in his quest for the truth only because the script contains more lines for him to read.

Coming off her signature movie Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, dark beauty Barbara Steele gets third billing despite the fact that as Francis’ dead sister she’s afforded a miniscule amount of screen time. Further reducing her role, she was dubbed because her British accent sounded too much different from the not so Spanish sounding accents the American actors put little effort into. Corman stock player Antony Carbone is solid as he was in A Bucket of Blood and Luana Anders is fine too, but Vincent Price is at his worst.

Vincent Price is the only actor in the Poe cycle who can speak Poe’s verse in a manner that does it justice. He’s wonderful doing the audiobooks of Poe, but he simply puts too much into his performance in Pit and the Pendulum. Making sweeping transitions from eye-rolling frenzy to sinister sadism, Price veers well into the realm of camp. Richard Matheson stands by his quickie Poe scripts, but I didn’t get into this story as much as House of Usher. I expect it’s more due to the acting failing to put it over, and secondarily the fact that Usher was the first of several I watched in short period of time so the themes were familiar only from Poe. Corman and co. use similar elements in most of the cycle to fill out the running time to feature length, so even though this was only the second, it didn’t seem as fresh because I saw Tales of Terror, The Raven, and Tomb of Ligeia first.


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