THE PIT AND
THE PENDULUM

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E.C.McMullen Jr.
The Pit and the Pendulum
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THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM - 1961
American International Pictures, Alta Vista, MGM
Ratings: USA: N/A

A year after the wild success of FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Producer and director Roger Corman (THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, TALES OF TERROR, PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO!, DEATH RACE 2000) was looking to repeat his success. Perhaps even recreate it note for note. So he stuck with Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Matheson for his screenwriter, Vincent Price for his actor, Les Baxter for his composer, and pretty much everyone else. This is basically the same team.

Basically, this movie also starts the same way. Young man passing through a blighted landscape? Check. The coach driver won't come any nearer to the great castle on the towering cliff, overlooking the sea, far below.

When the man has nearly reached his destination on foot, the high cliff is inexplicably gone and the high castle is merely looking out at beach front property. Where's the continuity I ask you?

Yes, you!

Young Man knocks on a castle door with a huge knocker? Check.
Young man wishes to see a woman? Check.
Butler tells him to go away? Check.
Young Man demands entrance to the castle? Check.
Butler forced to submit? Check.

About five minutes in and so far I feel I'm watching a template and not a movie. It's not giving me a good feeling, and I wonder what audiences were thinking about all this back in 1961. Corman is not living up to his own high standards, and in 1961, he had just created them!

Still, I know this movie stars Vincent Price (THE FLY, THE RETURN OF THE FLY, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN!, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS) and Barbara Steele (BLACK SUNDAY, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE GHOST, THE CASTLE OF BLOOD, TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE, NIGHTMARE CASTLE, SHE BEAST, THEY CAME FROM WITHIN, PIRANHA [1978], THE SILENT SCREAM) so I've just got to be patient.

It did have a very cool opening courtesy of visuals by Ray Mercer (REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, SEVEN DOORS TO DEATH, THE PHANTOM OF 42ND STREET, DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER, THE SKY DRAGON, FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO!, THE SINISTER URGE) and Butler-Glouner, Inc., with composer Les Baxter being his usual experimental self!

John Kerr, who plays the Young Man Francis Barnard, does a remarkably bad job in a serious role. People who have watched 1960s and 1970s TV shows will recognize him as a comedic actor who could be quite funny. But as a serious actor, he wasn't that good in his youth. Dona Catherine (Luana Anders: NIGHT TIDE, DEMENTIA 13, THE MANIPULATOR, THE KILLING KIND) leads him through the castle on his way to view the remains of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), interred within the castle's family crypt. On their way down, they hear an awful caterwauling of machinery and Vincent Price makes his abrupt appearance.

Angry as a territorial rooster? Check.
Immediately genial and apologetic? Check.

Francis is pompous and arrogant and to a large extent he has every right to be: he is investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding his sister Elizabeth's untimely death. Vincent Price, as Nicholas Medina, was apparently madly, deeply in love with her. Oh. He was married to her? Got it. So he and Francis are in laws and they have never set eyes upon each other before? Hmm.

That night at dinner, Nicholas' friend Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone: A BUCKET OF BLOOD, LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA) comes to visit. Dr. Leon, cheerful and sunny, was the same Doctor who determined Elizabeth's death. It turns out that Elizabeth was scared to death.

But what caused it all? For that we must visit... the torture chamber!

The castle and family hold a malignant secret? Check

The curse is visited upon the remaining children? Check.

The whole setup at the castle seems pretty suspicious and Francis isn't sure he believes what he's been told. There is a good reason for that and Nicholas goes through a very long expositional monologue to explain the circumstances of Elizabeth's death.

Sigh.

Francis isn't sure he believes Nicholas. The man just seems so guilty. There is a good reason for THAT and Catherine tells him in another very long expositional monologue.

Hoo boy.

Fortunately these are also related in flashbacks so it isn't someone merely droning on at the screen. The upshot of all of this long-winded backstory?

One f*cked up family. Check.

The thrills and creeps finally enter the picture with mysterious harpsichord music at night (sans Lurch). Only Elizabeth knew how to play the harpsichord, and she's dead... er... right?

Nicholas begins to freak and judging by his reaction, he might be the next to die of fright.

What next? Sweet Cthulhu on a popsicle stick! Still MORE sinister family secrets come to light. In fact, they're worse than anything said so far.

Why aren't there any GOOD family secrets?

You know, like: Your Dad is actually Santa Claus! But Shh! It's a family secret!

Your Mother is actually Madame Currie! The radiation had unexpected side effects! But Shh! It's a family secret!

Those would be some awesome family secrets! I dare you to have a bad childhood after learning that!

Anyway, soon screams pierce the night. Soon the maid is hearing Elizabeth speak to her and Nicholas is about to go off his freaking nut.

Francis is a one note character and so is Catherine and Leon. Vincent is channeling his inner ham and Barbara Steele is woefully under used. Corman appears to be phoning this one in.

So yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. Bring on the Pit and the Pendulum already.

The Pit and the Pendulum - 1961

It's no surprise to me that, shortly after THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, Roger Corman began making fun of Edgar Allen Poe's stories with The Black Cat, and Poe's most respected poem, THE RAVEN (1963), before he got his groove back with THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Vincent, while grateful to Corman, sought out other directors at other studios.

At least THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM ends with one kick-ass final shocker, but you know what would have been even better? If Matheson and Corman brought forth the horrors that Poe wrote about. Not as past tense Spanish Inquisition, but the fall of the Inquisition and this fictional tale of one of its last victims. That would have been outstanding, which is why this story needs a remake!

Corman's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM gets three barely earned Shriek Girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2012 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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