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The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

"You are about to enter Hell, Bartolome - Hell!...The nether world, the infernal region, the abode of the damned...The place of torment. Pandemonium, Abbadon, Tophet, Gehenna, Narraka...the Pit!...And the Pendulum. The razor-edge of destiny." -
Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price in Pit and the Pendulum [1961])

Edgar Allan Poe may have been an unlikely source of inspiration for director Roger Corman who specialized in low-budget genre films for the youth market and drive-in crowd. Yet when his 1960 film adaptation of Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" became a surprise box office hit he returned to the literary legend's work repeatedly for a series of atmospheric costume thrillers headlined by veteran horror star Vincent Price.

For Corman's House of Usher, screenwriter Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957) kept the bare bones of Poe's narrative while taking creative liberties with the characters and dialogue but for Pit and the Pendulum, he concocted a completely new storyline while recycling some elements (premature burial, a decaying mansion, a dark family secret) from Usher. The original Poe story was set in 1808 and narrated by an unidentified prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition who is subjected to numerous tortures before being rescued by French army officers. In Matheson's version, the tale revolves around Nicholas Medina (Price) and his sister Catherine (Luana Anders) who reside in the castle where their father Sebastian (also played by Price in flashbacks), the regional inquisitor, once tortured prisoners in his basement. Nicholas is currently grieving over the unexpected death of his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) when her brother Francis (John Kerr) arrives, demanding to know the details of his sister's demise. Soon Nicholas' fragile emotional state is further taxed by strange sounds and disturbances that suggest that Elizabeth has returned from the grave. [Spoiler] It is eventually revealed that Elizabeth faked her death with the help of her lover Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) and together are trying to drive Nicholas insane. They succeed only too well for Nicholas becomes convinced he is actually Sebastian and becomes the adulterers' judge, jury and executioner.

In an interview with Tom Weaver for his book Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes, Matheson revealed that his Poe adaptations were not really a reflection of his own interests. "I was just trying to earn a living off of them. I was raising four children and the first film, House of Usher, did well, and so we went on from there. But as you can see, by the time I got to the third one, Tales of Terror [1962], I couldn't take it seriously anymore and I started adding comedy to it." Matheson added, in another interview, that "Pit and the Pendulum was ridiculous because we took a little short story about a guy lying on a table with that razor-sharp blade swinging over him, and had to make a story out of it...I just imposed a plot from an old suspense mystery on that basic premise." (Allegedly, Matheson lifted the idea of the scheming illicit lovers and their diabolical plan from House on Haunted Hill [1959] for his Pendulum screenplay).

Matheson was also proficient at producing screenplays in record time. "They didn't take me that long," he told interviewer Tom Weaver. "Maybe a month, month and a half. I mean, they shot 'em so fast they were practically standing outside my door waiting for new material so they could take it and run to the cameraman! They always shot them word for word. And I stand by those scripts; what makes me wince is some of the performances!"

Vincent Price, who was more restrained as the tormented Roderick in House of Usher, goes over-the-top in his dual role of Nicholas/Sebastian though some critics felt his florid performance was appropriate for the obsessed and demented characters he was portraying. Denis Meikle in his book Vincent Price: The Art of Fear wrote that "Sebastian Medina was the greatest monster that Vincent Price ever played...Whether snarling in rage at his intended victim or swaying in rhythm to the humdrum of his hellish device...he plies his torturous trade with a gleam in the eye and only the sound of a scream to soothe his savage beast. If proof were needed that Price was indeed the Master of Fright, then it was to be found at the climax of Pit and the Pendulum."

The casting of Barbara Steele in the role of Elizabeth was an inspired touch since her dark features, expressive eyes and unsettling presence are perfectly suited for gothic melodramas and period thrillers. At the time of filming Pendulum, she had just completed Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960) which helped to establish her as an iconic horror star in Europe and led to numerous other Italian horrors which have since gained a cult following. Unfortunately, her screen time in Pit and the Pendulum is brief and it was ultimately an unsatisfying experience for her since her own voice was dubbed (reputedly Corman didn't think her British accent blended in well with the distinctly American accents of her co-stars). Nevertheless, her first appearance in Pit and the Pendulum as she rises from the coffin and pursues Price through the shadowy crypt is still the most chilling moment in the film. In a later interview with Christopher S. Dietrich and Peter Beckman for Video Watchdog, she recalled that "Corman was a master mechanic. He was very shy, I think. I really enjoyed working with him....Vincent Price was extremely supportive. He's extremely intelligent and a very cultured man. I think I was frozen in my own particular panic at the time; I was myopic."

One of the most successful aspects of Pit and the Pendulum is the striking production design and art direction by Daniel Haller who knew how to get the most out of a tiny budget. "The Pit was there and the Pendulum went right up to the roof. It was one of the most exciting sets I've ever seen," Price told David Austen. "And there was this maze of passages I had to sneak through. I said to Roger, 'This is fine...the dark passages are very claustrophobic, but nothing happens. Now there's one thing that men are really afraid of, something they absolutely hate, and that's cobwebs. Let's rig some up.' The props man spun a really glorious creation. And then as I walked into the camera a whole cobweb plastered on my could literally hear the men go 'Ugh!'" (from Vincent Price: The Art of Fear by Denis Meikle).

Pit and the Pendulum was shot over a sixteen day period at a small complex in Hollywood known as the Producer's Studio. It was previously known as Raleigh Studios and had once been the site of such silent films as Douglas Fairbanks's The Mark of Zorro [1920] and The Three Musketeers [1921]; in later years, its sound stages were used for TV series such as Perry Mason and Have Gun Will Travel.

Like House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum was equally successful at the box office and some Corman admirers believe it is his finest achievement among the Poe adaptations. It certainly garnered impressive reviews from most of the nation's top critics. Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote "Atmospherically at least - there is a striking fusion of rich colors, plushy decor and eerie music - this is probably Hollywood's most effective Poe-style horror flavoring to date." Time magazine called it "a literary hair-raiser that is cleverly; if self-consciously, Edgar Allan poetic" and The Hollywood Reporter deemed it "a class suspense-horror film of the calibre of the excellent ones done by Hammer."

Roger Corman would follow up Pit and the Pendulum with his 1962 production of Poe's Premature Burial starring Ray Milland but he still has fond memories of this second Vincent Price collaboration. "I enjoyed The Pit and the Pendulum because I got the chance to experiment a bit with the movement of the camera during the final sequence. There was a lot of moving camera work and interesting cutting in the climax of the film." And for those who have seen it, the final zoom in on Barbara Steele's eyes, wild with terror, peering from her confinement in an iron maiden, is unforgettably haunting.

Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Roger Corman, James H. Nicholson
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Edgar Allan Poe (story)
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Film Editing: Anthony Carras
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Music: Les Baxter
Cast: Vincent Price (Nicholas/Sebastian Medina), John Kerr (Francis), Barbara Steele (Elizabeth), Luana Anders (Catherine), Antony Carbone (Doctor Leon), Patrick Westwood (Maximillian).
C-80m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford



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