How have I ignored Roger Corman here for so long, save for a short “Cleaning Out the DVR” review of THE TERROR ? The King of the Low Budget Quickies has long been a favorite filmmaker of mine, and has probably had more impact on American cinema than people realize. Well, now that TCM is running its month-long salute to AIP, I’m about to rectify that oversight. (By the way, Corman himself is cohosting the retrospective every Thursday night along with TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz!)
American International Pictures scored a hit with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price and directed by Corman. Studio honchos James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff looked at the box office numbers and, realizing they had a cash cow on their hands, asked Corman to produce a follow-up. Rapid Roger decided on PIT AND THE PENDULUM, shot in 15 days for less than a quarter million dollars. The result was one of the series best, a moody piece that reportedly influenced Italian horror maestros from Mario Bava to Dario Argento.
Poe’s original story was very short, so screenwriter Richard Matheson concocted a new framework, using Poe’s torture tale for the final act. Matheson was a giant of horror fiction himself, a prolific writer of novels (“I Am Legend”, “The Shrinking Man”, “Hunted Beyond Reason”), short stories (“Death Ship”, “Steel”, “Button Button”), teleplays for THE TWILIGHT ZONE (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), TV Movies (“Duel”, ‘The Night Stalker”, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, “Trilogy of Terror”), and films (including five Corman/Poe collaborations and DIE DIE MY DARLING, THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, SOMEWHERE IN TIME, JAWS 3-D, STIR OF ECHOES).
PIT AND THE PENDULUM begins with Francis Barnard arriving at the Spanish castle of Don Nicholas Medina. Francis’ sister Elizabeth has recently died, and he’s come to find out what really happened. He’s greeted at the door by Nicholas’ sister Catherine, who’s reluctant to let him enter. Francis demands to see her brother, so Catherine takes him “down below”, into the catacombs of the castle. Weird noise are emanating from behind a large, foreboding door. Undaunted, Francis approaches the door, just as it opens and….
…out pops Vincent Price as Nicholas, startling both Francis and the audience! It’s a grand entrance, and another showcase role for Price. He’s subdued at first as Nicholas, slowly building over the course of the film as he’s tortured by Elizabeth’s memory, finally descending into full-blown madness as only Vincent Price can. Price’s Nicholas Medina is a tour-de-force performance that stands tall among his pantheon of great horror depictions (HOUSE OF WAX, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, etc, etc). Price plays it low-key in the beginning but, once Nicholas snaps, out comes the ham he’s so famous for slicing. And here, it’s spicy and delicious!
Back to the story: Nicholas tells Francis his sister died from “something in her blood”. Francis is skeptical, and will stay the night (“and more, sir”) in order to get to the truth. At dinner, a caller drops in, Dr. Charles Leon, who lets the black cat out of the bag, that Elizabeth “literally died of fright”! They take Francis below again, and the secret behind that door is revealed: it’s the torture chamber of Nicholas and Catherine’s father, Don Sebastian Medina, the infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition.
Flashbacks saturated in blue and red show happy couple Nicholas and Elizabeth living a serene life. But soon she begins to change, obsessed with Sebastian’s chamber of horrors, hearing strange voices call to her. Nicholas plans on taking her away from the castle, but on the day they’re to depart, he hears “the most hideous, bloodcurdling scream I have ever heard in my life”. Rushing to the dank basement, Nicholas is shocked to discover Elizabeth has locked herself inside the iron maiden. Before she dies, she whispers a name to him: “Sebastian”.
A second flashback sequence shows us that Nicholas, as a young boy of 10, wandered into the dungeon to witness his father accuse his mother Isabella and Uncle Bartolome of adultery, then murder them both in his insidious torture devices. Later that night, harpsichord music is heard playing from the parlor. Her ring is found on the keys. “It was Elizabeth”, says Nicholas in a state of shock. They put him to bed, then Leon has another revelation: Nicholas fears that Elizabeth was “interred prematurely”, as his mother was, walled inside her tomb while still alive.
A scream from Elizabeth’s room sends everyone running, finding the frightened maid Maria there, the place trashed. Maria insists she heard Elizabeth’s voice, and while they comfort her, Francis finds a secret passageway leading directly to Nicholas’ room. Francis accuses Nicholas, but he denies it, while beginning to doubt his own sanity. Dr. Leon suggests they exhume Elizabeth’s tomb to soothe Nicholas’s dread, and they do, only to discover her body frozen in horror, buried alive after all. “True!”, Nicholas repeats over and over, having crossed the threshold of madness. “True! True!”
Nicholas, alone in his room, hears Elizabeth calling out to him. He trudges down to the dungeon, and recoils in terror as a bloodied Elizabeth rises from the grave. His mind has gone, and we learn Elizabeth and Dr. Leon planned this all well in advance; like his father before him, Nicholas is a victim of his wife’s adultery. But something’s happened to Nicholas: he now believes he’s his father Sebastian, and history is about to repeat itself. “I’m going to torture you, Isabella”, he proclaims as he traps Elizabeth in the iron maiden. Leon falls into the pit unseen by Nicholas, and when Francis barges in on the commotion, Nicholas transfers his evil intentions, believing Francis is Bartolome. Strapping Francis to a cold stone slab, he puts the razor-sharp pendulum into motion, the blade slowly swinging back and forth, inching closer and closer toward Francis’ prone body…
Corman and his crew created a psychedelic nightmare of a movie with PIT AND THE PENDULUM. DP Floyd Crosby and set designer (and future AIP director) Daniel Haller work their magic within the budget limitations, giving it an expensive look. Les Baxter contributes another moody score, as he did in many an AIP production. The cast features another horror icon, beautiful Barbara Steele as Elizabeth. While her role is brief, Steele conveys the evil of Elizabeth in her scenes with Price (watch out for that final shot!). John Kerr (Francis) was known for more mainstream films like TEA AND SYMPATHY and SOUTH PACIFIC; he later dropped out of movies and became a successful lawyer. Corman regulars Luana Anders and Antony Carbone round out the cast.
PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a must-see film for horror lovers. Corman and Price would go on to make five more Edgar Allan Poe shockers together before Corman tired of them, and moved onto more experimental works, eventually becoming a mini-movie mogul by founding New World Pictures. Nicholson and Arkoff, not willing to put the Poe cash cow out to pasture, hired other directors, and persuaded Price to star in more Poe offerings. While THE CONQUEROR WORM (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) is considered a modern-day classic, THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE suffered without Roger Corman and his band of merry moviemakers, and the AIP/Poe series ended in 1970. All of the Corman/Price/Poe pictures are worth watching today, and if you’re late to this Poe party, PIT AND THE PENDULUM is an excellent place to start.