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Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone

Written By: Richard Matheson, Edgar Allan Poe (story) Directed By: Roger Corman

The Short Version

It’s the second film in Corman’s Poe series.

Vincent Price + Roger Corman + Edgar Allan Poe = Always worth your time.

Just remember that a lot of time will pass before you see the razor swing.

It’s about atmosphere and a great lead actor more than it is about plot.

Pit and the Pendulum is cozy autumn afternoon horror.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


From Spain: tasty, flavorful, nutty, and crumbly.  That’s Pit and the Pendulum, all right.

Pairs Well With...


A dark, bloody Spanish red.

“How can I spare myself?  Was he not my father?  Am I not the spawn of his depraved blood?”

Ah.  There’s just nothing like listening to Vincent Price talk about depraved blood, especially when it happens during the course of one of Roger Corman’s “at least part of one of the three acts is really based on an Edgar Allan Poe story” Edgar Allan Poe stories.  Indeed, perhaps some of the easiest math in all of cinema can be found in the equation:

Vincent Price + Roger Corman + Edgar Allan Poe = Win.

Pit and the Pendulum marks the second entry in Corman’s classic Poe series, and while it cannot be called the greatest of the lot, it nevertheless makes for worthwhile viewing, thanks in largest part to its leading man.

Our story takes place in Spain in the year 1546.  Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr, South Pacific) is dropped off at a lonely castle perched along the sea coast.  He is there to inquire about his sister, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele, Piranha), who had been the castle’s mistress until her recent death: a death which was not explained through correspondence to his satisfaction.  He suspects something foul, and he has no intention of leaving Spain until he’s uncovered the truth. 

Meanwhile, her husband, Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price, Tower of London), is a grieving wreck, and his own sister, Catherine (Luana Anders, Easy Rider), can barely keep him calm.  It seems that Don Medina now believes the castle to be haunted by the spirit of Elizabeth… but is it really haunted by her, or is it instead haunted by the guilty conscience of Don Medina himself?  And what does all of this have to do with the ominous torture apparatus from which the film gets its title?

You may think you know, but then again, maybe you don’t…

Just don’t expect to see said torture apparatus until the final fifteen minutes of the movie.

For filmmakers, one of the great challenges presented by most of Edgar Allan Poe’s work is that it is, by and large, short.  A few pages of prose can make for a truly intense reading experience, but they rarely provide enough material to fill anything even remotely close to an hour and a half of film.  With that in mind, Roger Corman’s instructions to the writers of his Poe flicks were generally to try to craft the third act of the screenplay around the story from which a film would get its title, and build backward from there to get a feature length plot, hopefully incorporating bits from other Poe stories in the process, or at least getting at some of the author’s favorite themes.  So it is with Pit and the Pendulum, though when all is said and done, the root story doesn’t even fill the entire third act; it only fills up one extended scene.  Prior to that, screenwriter Richard Matheson (himself an accomplished author of short stories and novels; perhaps you’ve heard of “The Box” or “I Am Legend”) busies himself and the audience with a post-Spanish Inquisition tale centered on three classic Poe themes: gnawing guilt, haunting, and premature burial.  By the time the pendulum shows up, it feels like an afterthought, and the one hint the audience gets with regard to its existence early on plays rather ham-handedly (and doesn’t really make sense by the time the story’s done, either).  Come to think of it, a lot of the dialogue is rather ridiculous, too; and it’s really obvious on several occasions that the plot is just spinning its wheels for the sake of runtime.  But you know what?  That’s all okay.  Why?

Because Roger Corman has once again deployed his not-so-secret weapon, Vincent Price; that’s why.

To say that Vincent Price is one of the all time great acting geniuses of the horror genre is an understatement; he is, indeed, one of the all time great acting geniuses, period.  He automatically lends class and stature to any film he touches, and to the great fortune of horror fans anywhere, despite having the talent to have been at the top of the A-List had he so chosen, his heart was with the likes of shadowy stories and characters such as those imagined by Edgar Allan Poe.  This proves to be especially fortunate for people who decide to spend a cloudy autumn afternoon with Pit and the Pendulum, because it’s his performance that keeps things interesting while the script looks down at its watch.

His portrayal of Don Medina is more than a tad melodramatic, but given the script, that’s exactly what the character requires.  After all, the guy is – from a modern pop psychology standpoint – suffering from a major case of double-whammy Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with side orders of Depression , Paranoia, and Gnawing Guilt.  However, the genius of Vincent Price is that while he plays the notes of melodrama, he never takes them over the top.  This allows him to absolutely own every second of screen time that’s given to him without ever tiring out the audience, and to sell lines of dialogue that would sound asinine coming from the lips of almost any other actor.  As is so often the case with Price’s low and medium budget fare, he brings to the picture a level of talent that’s several cuts above most of that which surrounds him.

Case in point: John Kerr, whose performance is best described as “stiff and defensive.”  To be certain, he doesn’t have the best material to work with from the very start – his character can politely be described as a demanding, disagreeable jerk who becomes rather lost once he loses his relevance as a plot device – but Kerr’s response is to blurt out his lines like an upper crust bully while trying to do his best physical impression of a man made completely out of starch.  Not that I can wholly blame him for that, either, simply because one would have expected Roger Corman as a director to tell the guy to stop steamrolling the other actors and maybe see if a trip to the restroom might help him relax a little bit.  Meanwhile, the strength of Vincent Price’s performance manages to offset Kerr’s flaws while at the same time magnifying them… and the end result, for the savvy, is that a character that would otherwise be unbearable – Kerr’s – instead becomes almost funny.

Hmm… maybe Corman had it right with this guy after all.

What he definitely gets right – as he does throughout his Poe series – is the atmosphere, which is genuinely creepy throughout, providing a sense of unease to the proceedings which mirrors that haunting Don Medina’s soul.  Angles, shadows, small details; along with Price’s performance, these minutiae keep Pit and the Pendulum interesting even as its story starts to drag.  And when it comes time for the ending… all I’ll say is that the final frames of this film may be some of Corman’s finest work ever.

As for the rest of the it… it’s good enough for what it is, and in the end, “what it is” is a vehicle for Vincent Price to show the audience how it’s done.  Pit and the Pendulum is, if there is such a thing, “comfort horror,” and there are few better ways to enjoy a cloudy October afternoon indoors than to enjoy movies like this.  Is it perfect?  Not a chance.  Without Vincent Price to bolster it, I don’t think that Pit and the Pendulum could scratch the level of “good,” even with those fabulous final frames, but he is there, and that, my friends, makes all the difference.

Bottom line, if you’re look for some old fashioned horror, you could do much worse than Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum.  Sure, it’s got flaws, but as is so often the case for the man who made over a hundred movies and never lost a dime, those flaws end up being part of what makes the movie fun.  Those flaws, and that Price guy.

[Ziggy’s note: Though Poe’s original story is called “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the title card within this film reads just Pit and the Pendulum, minus the initial “The.”  Even though most promotional materials released in conjunction with the film use the five word title, I have chosen to refer to the movie by the truncated title it gives itself.]

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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