The Pit and the Pendulum

10/28/2021 06:18

Film: The Pit and the Pendulum

Year: 1961

Director: Roger Corman

Writer: Richard Matheson

Starring: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele and John Kerr



This is a movie that fell into a blind spot of mine. I’ve seen quite a few of Vincent Price films, but for whatever reason, these Roger Corman ones alluded me. I have seen the likes of The Masque of the Red Death and The House of Usher but to my knowledge that it is. It is even more shocking to see that Richard Matheson wrote this and Barbara Steele co-stars, as I’m a fan of them as well. The synopsis here is in the sixteenth century, Francis Barnard (John Kerr) travels to Spain to clarify the strange circumstances of his sister’s death after she married the son of a cruel Spanish Inquisitor.

Much as the synopsis stated, we start here as Francis takes a carriage to the castle of the Medina family. He is coming along a beach and we see in the distance the castle is located on a cliff over the water. Arriving there, he is met at the door by the butler, Maximillian (Patrick Westwood). Since Francis wasn’t expected, he is stopped at the door until Catherine Medina (Luana Anders) appears. She allows him to enter, learning he is the brother of the late Elizabeth Barnard Medina (Steele).

Francis seeks an audience with Nicholas (Price), but she informs him that he is resting. He came all this way out of concern. The letter he received stated that his sister passed away, but it is lacking details. It is relayed that she passed away three months ago and is interred in the crypt below the castle. Catherine agrees to take him down there and they run into Nicholas. He was below testing out some of the old torture devices that belonged to their father, Sebastian. Going back to the synopsis, he was a ruthless inquisitor who tortured a great many people, including his brother Bartolome (Charles Victor) and wife, Isabella (Mary Menzies). Isabella is also the mother to Nicholas and Catherine. Her son was a witness to what happened to her and it scarred him, making him not want to be in this room.

The events of what happened to Elizabeth are relayed to Francis. Nicholas believes the atmosphere of the castle got to her and she died of fright. There could also have been an illness of the blood as well. The doctor who cared for her is Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) and he confirms this to Francis. He doesn’t trust Nicholas though. There are strange events happening, like someone playing a harpsichord. Nicholas states he doesn’t know how to play it, but Francis isn’t so sure.

To put everything to rest, they knock down the wall and open up the tomb of Elizabeth. What they find confirms Nicholas’ worst fears. She was buried alive. This sends him into a depression that breaks his mind. There is more to this though than originally thought. The trauma of this might prove to be too much for Nicholas to handle and drives him insane.

That will be where I’ll leave my recap for this movie. Where I’m going to start is that I’ve read the short story that this is based on from Edgar Allan Poe. From my memory, Matheson actually combined a couple of different stories here. It feels a lot like The Fall of the House of Usher and Tomb of Ligeia along with the Pit and the Pendulum. There was a good portion of this that I was annoyed, but how everything falls into place fixed itself for me.

I’ll dive deeper into this a bit. Nicholas is depressed that Elizabeth died. I can’t fault him there. That’s where it feels like Tomb of Ligeia. He is also haunted by her where Francis believes he is the one doing the haunting to scare them. This falls back with that story and The Fall of the House of Usher where this person in question might not be dead. It is mostly the last like 20 minutes that leans into the title story. Once we get there though, I was fully invested.

What makes this story interesting is that we could have something supernatural going on here or there is the possibility of a more logical explanation. This is all hinged on Nicholas. He believes that Elizabeth is haunting him. Francis believes that Nicholas is trying to scare him. We know there could be a history of mental illness here. Sebastian either had paranoid schizophrenia or he was an outright psychopath. Francis is questioning whether Nicholas killed his sister, or is there an actual medical reason here. This movie is definite in its reveal, but I like the take that they did there as how we arrive at the reveal.

I’m not sure if this movie would work as well as not for the acting. Price is a legend and his take here on Nicholas and Sebastian is good. I like seeing what plays out with his father, as that helps to explain what we get in the present of this movie. Steele has a limited role, but she is the crux of the movie. I’m also a fan of her as I said and I thought she fit well. Kerr is a bit wooden if I’m going to be honest. They don’t do much with fleshing out Anders. Outside of that, I thought Carbone was good as this doctor. Aside from that, the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed.

The final aspects to go over would be the effects, cinematography and soundtrack. For the former, we don’t get a lot of them, but it also isn’t that type of movie. The pendulum we get in later in this movie isn’t working as it necessarily should. That is more of a nitpick, if I’m honest. I would like to have seen more with the torture devices though. The cinematography looks good. It feels like we are back in the period it is set. There are a couple of matte paintings with the castle from outside and the torture room. I didn’t mind that though as it feels like charm of the era. The last thing is the soundtrack which fit for what was needed.

So then in conclusion here, this is a solid take on a few Poe stories. I like the depth of the story that we have here where Nicholas seems like he could be hiding something or he could be descending into madness with the truth. It took a bit to get me on board with the story, but once it did, I was sold. The acting from Price and Steele was on point with the rest fitting as needed. Cinematography was good and the effects along with the soundtrack were fine. After this initial viewing, I’d say this is a good movie to me and one I will revisit for sure.


My Rating: 8 out of 10