After receiving notice of his sister Elizabeth’s death, Francis Barnard (John Kerr) leaves England for Spain, to visit her widowed husband, Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price). Upon arrival at Don Medina’s grand castle teetering on the edge of a cliff, Francis is greeted by Don Medina’s sister, Catherine (Luana Anders). Pressing for answers about the circumstances around his sister’s death, Francis is not satisfied with the explanation Nicholas provides. As it turns out, Francis has a right to be suspicious, Nicholas has been keeping the real reason a secret in hope not to upset his brother-in-law. Though they are both sure she is dead, along with Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone), doubts begin to fill Nicholas’ mind when strange whispers and unexplained harpsichord playing fills the rooms of the castle. Could Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) be haunting Nicholas from the grave?
The second of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, the first being The Fall of the House of Usher, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM ups the tension as scriptwriter Richard Matheson fleshes out Poe’s short story into something much jucier and terrifying. All-time horror great Vincent Price stars as Don Nicholas Medina, and is absolutely captivating as the tormented widower. His condition worsens when he fears his beloved Elizabeth, played by horror icon and beauty Barbara Steele, may have been buried alive, something which he witnessed of his own mother by his Spanish Inquisitor father Sebastian when he was just a child. South Pacific‘s John Kerr as Elizabeth’s brother Francis doesn’t believe in Don Medina’s theatrics and believes that the widower is lying and playing everyone for a fool, particularly him. Headstrong in his own right, he refuses to leave the Medina residence until he knows EXACTLY what happened to his dear sister.
From the moment the film starts, with Francis’ arrival at the Medina home, we know something isn’t quite right. The beginning of the movie feels a lot like Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher, in respect to an outsider gracing the home of Price’s character, who is clearly keeping secrets under his roof. As the film progresses, the viewer begins to wonder if the castle is actually being haunted or not, or whether Nicholas, or even his staff, are to blame for the mysterious disturbances. What unravels is a tense and mysterious affair, culminating in a shocking climax that is up there with all the great horrors, with a masterclass of performances to boot.
There’s lots to admire about Roger Corman’s filmmaking. From the grand set design to the dramatic score from composer Les Baxter which sets the scene perfectly. A bold blue tint to the film helps to depict Nicholas’ memories of himself and Elizabeth together prior to her tragic death. This is quite surreal and refreshing to see, as most people opt for either fade-out transition into clarity or blurred haze for memories, rather than being washed over in a primary colour.
One of the most shocking scenes of the film, apart from the titular pit and pendulum, involves the opening of Elizabeth’s tomb. Just two split second glances are given, but it is enough to be absolutely horrifying. The designers ought to give themselves a pat on the back, as even now, 50 years later, it still has the uneasiness and power to chill the viewer.
After a slow build up for two thirds of the film, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM enters the third act, which is the part of the movie directly inspired by Poe’s short tale. Everything about this final section is powerful, from Vincent Price’s tremendous performance to the ultimate set-piece within Sebastian Medina’s torture chamber – Sebastian having been a torturer within the Spanish Inquisition, where “eyes gouged from bloody sockets” and “flesh burned black”. The final 10 minutes are quite frightening as the tension mounts and the swinging scythe swings ever closer to the flesh.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is classic gothic horror at its finest. As someone who enjoys all kinds of horror movies, both old and modern, these types of movies starring Vincent Price and directed by Roger Corman are utterly timeless. A must-see for any horror fan.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release is one to be proud of. With a crisp transfer and clear audio, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM can be viewed in all its colourful beauty. Two audio commentaries, one with director Roger Corman and the other with critic Tim Lucas, grace the special features, along with an insightful making of with interviews with Vincent’s daughter Victoria Price, Barbara Steele, Roger Corman, Brian Yuzna (Re-Animator producer) and film historian David Del Valle. Other features include extra footage that was shot for and aired on television, who requested that the film be 100 minutes long rather than the 80 minutes running time, as well as the film’s trailer and Vincent Price narrating a few tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s.
A collector’s booklet, with snippets of reviews from when The Pit and the Pendulum originally received its theatrical release, is an addiitonal bonus to the release. it features writing from author Jonathan Rigby alongside illustrations of stills from the film.
Finally, the Blu-Ray comes with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is also available as part of the Six Gothic Tales box set from Arrow Films, which contains six Edgar Allan Poe movies starring Vincent Price. The Six Gothic Tales boxset includes a 200 pages Collector’s book containing new writing on the films, an interview with Roger Corman, extracts from Vincent Price’s autobiography and full reproductions of tie-in comic books for Tales of Terror, The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia