In 1961 Roger Corman did the world a favor when he decided to make the second, in what would turn out to be a series of five movies, based on the writings of Edger Allan Poe.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, starring horror icons, Vincent Price and Barbara Steele, and produced and directed by, the aforementioned legendary horror director, Roger Corman, is a gripping and riveting journey into the realm of psychological and physical horror and a winner from start to finish.
The movie opens with Francis Barnard, played by John Kerr, riding in a carriage, on his way to the Medina castle – a dark and foreboding structure, high atop a hill, overlooking the ocean, and surrounded by a dark and dead looking forest. A standardized ploy, seen in many horror movies, is used, and quite effectively, when the carriage stops halfway to the castle and the driver instructs Francis to get out and go the rest of the way on foot. This starts setting the tone of the movie, letting the viewer know that there is something about that castle that should be avoided at all cost. Francis’ trek up the hill, is when we get a chance to see the dead, spooky and haunted looking forest, and Corman’s use of downward angle shots, giving the scene an ominous sense.
Here is a, not so brief, synopsis of the plot, as obtained from Wikipedia. In sixteenth century Spain, Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) visits the castle of his brother – in – law Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to investigate the mysterious death of his sister, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). Nicholas and his younger sister, Catherine (Luana Anders) offer a vague explanation that Elizabeth died from a rare blood disorder six months earlier; Nicholas is evasive when Francis asks for specific details about the disease. Francis vows that he will not leave until he discovers the true circumstances surrounding his sister’s death.
During dinner with the family physician, Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone), Francis again asks about his sister’s death. Dr. Leon tells him that his sister died of massive heart failure, literally “dying of fright.” Francis demands to be shown where Elizabeth died. Nicholas takes him to the castle’s torture chamber. Nicholas reveals that Elizabeth, under the influence of the castle’s “heavy atmosphere” became obsessed with the chamber’s torture devices. After becoming progressively unbalanced, one day she locked herself into the iron maiden, and died after whispering the name, “Sebastian.” Francis refuses to believe Nicholas’ story.
Francis tells Catherine that Nicholas appears to feel “definite guilt” regarding Elizabeth’s death. In response, Catherine talks about Nicholas’ traumatic childhood. Their father was Sebastian Medina, a notorious agent of the Spanish Inquisition. When Nicholas was a small child, he was exploring the forbidden torture chamber when his father (also played by Price) entered the room with his mother, Isabella and Sebastian’s brother, Bartolome. Hiding in a corner, Nicholas watched in horror as his father repeatedly hit Bartolome with a red hot poker, screaming “Adulterer” at him. After murdering Bartolome, Sebastian began torturing his wife slowly to death in front of Nicholas.
Catherine and Francis are later informed by Dr. Leon that Isabella, in fact was not tortured to death, rather she was entombed behind a brick wall while still alive. Dr. Leon explains, “The very thought of premature interment is enough to send your brother into convulsions of horror.” Nicholas fears that Elizabeth may have been interred prematurely. The doctor tells Nicholas that “If Elizabeth Medina walks these corridors, it is her spirit and not her living self.”
Nicholas believes his late wife’s vengeful ghost is haunting the castle. Elizabeth’s room is the source of a loud commotion, and it is found ransacked and her portrait slashed to ribbons. Her beloved harpsichord plays in the middle of the night. One of Elizabeth’s rings is found on the keyboard. Francis accuses Nicholas of planting the evidence of Elizabeth’s haunting as an elaborate hoax. Nicholas insists that his wife’s tomb be opened. They discover Elizabeth’s putrefied corpse frozen in a position that suggests she died screaming after failing to claw her way out of her sarcophagus.
Nicholas runs off screaming repeatedly, “True.”
That night, Nicholas – now on the verge of insanity – hears Elizabeth calling him. He follows her ghostly voice down to her tomb. Elizabeth rises from her coffin and pursues Nicholas into the torture chamber, where he falls down a flight of stairs.
As Elizabeth gloats over her husband’s unconscious body, she is met by her lover and accomplice, Dr. Leon. They had plotted to drive Nicholas mad so that she could inherit his fortune and the castle.
Leon confirms that Nicholas is gone, his mind destroyed by terror. Elizabeth taunts her insensate husband. Nicholas opens his eyes and begins to laugh hysterically while his wife and the doctor recoil in horror.
Believing himself to be Sebastian, he replays the events of his mother and uncle’s murders. He overpowers Dr. Leon, believing him to be Bartolome, and Leon falls to his death in the pit while trying to escape. Nicholas seizes Elizabeth, and repeats his father’s promise to Isabella to torture her horribly.
Francis, having heard Elizabeth’s screams, enters the dungeon. Nicholas confuses Francis for Bartolome, and knocks him unconscious. He straps him to a stone slab located directly beneath a huge razor-sharp pendulum. The pendulum is attached to a clockwork apparatus that causes it to descend fractions of an inch after each swing, ever closer to Francis’ torso. Catherine arrives just in time with Maximilian, one of the servants. After a brief struggle with Maximilian, Nicholas falls to his death in the pit. Francis is removed from the torture device. As they leave the dungeon, Catherine vows to seal up the chamber forever. They slam and lock the door shut, unaware that Elizabeth is still alive, gagged and trapped in the iron maiden. The movie ends with a horrifying close up of Barbara Steele’s eyes.
As you might expect, Vincent Price gave a tour de force performance as Nicholas Medina, a man haunted by the sins of his father, and in the end engulfed and taken over by those sins. A bit of an apparent departure from the usual roles Vincent plays in the horror genre, being that of the villain, he is the innocent victim in this film, only to mentally transform into Sebastian due to the inadvertent prompting of his unfaithful and vindictive wife, for the climactic scene. I watched this movie twice in order to give it a proper review, and the first time around I thought that the movie needed a bit more of evil Vincent, but on the second viewing I changed that opinion. The proportions are right. They are exactly what was needed.
In the role of Elizabeth Medina, Barbara Steele was perfectly cast. She played the part of the greedy, evil and unfaithful wife flawlessly. The only thing I would have liked to have seen done differently about her performance, is that I wish there was more of it. As the synopsis stated, the movie starts out with Elizabeth already dead, and then strange things begin to happen which are attributed to her ghost, Steele is not seen. Apart from short, bluish tinged, black and white flashback scenes, without dialogue, the end of the movie is the only time we see her. But when she is on screen, she is a joy to watch.
John Kerr gave a well-acted performance as Elizabeth’s brother, Francis. He conveyed the right amount of emotion and disbelief at the proper times and kept the story moving along.
Antony Carbone provided a finely-acted performance as Dr. Leon, the Medina family physician, friend and confidant to Nicholas and Elizabeth’s lover and coconspirator. A good bit of casting in my opinion.
Luana Anders gave a nice, and for the most part, well-acted portrayal of Catherine Medina, sister of Nicholas. In a few places her acting seemed a bit stilted to me, but overall a good job.
The music of a movie, as I said in my last review, can help or hurt the movie tremendously. Here I don’t think it did either. Let me state a bit clearer. It definitely didn’t hurt it, but I don’t think it did anything to help set the mood. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the music, but it didn’t stand out. Purely a minor criticism. One point of potential interest, at least to me, the music was reminiscent of the music from the original, 1968 Planet Of The Apes.
The plot and the story were tight and well-written, and for that we owe a big thank you to Richard Matheson, one of the best screen writers the movie industry has known. Sadly, some years back the world lost this great talent.
Set design is spot on excellent in this movie, and crucially important in a period piece. Here are two images of the castle’s exterior and one of its torture chamber.
It is also important to note, especially for literature geeks, that this is a Poe story in pretty much name only. In fact, most, if not all, of the Corman/Price Poe movies are name only scenarios. With THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, the climactic scene is based on the Poe short story (too short to build a whole movie off of) and everything that came before was all Matheson.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM movie statistics:
Running time: 85 minutes
Directed by Roger Corman
Produced by Roger Corman
Production Company: American International Pictures
Screenplay by Richard Matheson
Cinematography by Floyd Crosby
Music by Les Baxter
Vincent Price as Nicholas Medina/Sebastian Medina
Barbara Steele as Elizabeth Medina
John Kerr as Francis Barnard
Antony Carbone as Dr. Leon
Luana Anders as Catherine Medina
Patrick Westwood as Maximilian
Lynne Bernay as Maria
Larry Turner as Nicholas as a child
Mary Menzies as Isabella Medina
Charles Victor as Bartolome Medina
THE PIT AND THE PENDDULUM should be on every horror fan’s must watch list. It’s a great movie; finely-acted, well-directed and just a top drawer production all the way; one which well deserves a 5 monster rating.
And now here is a photo gallery from the movie; some of which you have seen throughout this review and some you have not.
The two above are of Nicholas seizing Elizabeth before locking in the iron maiden.
Reviewed by Paul Pappas
Question: Which of the five Price/Corman Poe movies would you like to see remade or rebooted; ideally by Roger Corman, himself?
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM
MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
THE HAUNTED PALACE
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA
Still coming, my review of season one of PENNY DREADFUL
And the next movie I review will be Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS.