Although Peter Cushing is my favorite horror movie actor—because Peter Cushing is my favorite actor, period—I bow to the popular wisdom that no performer better fits Halloween season than Mr. Vincent Price, whose elegance of evil combined with the reassurance of an old friend is the right flavor of fun n’ fright that marks the best of October.
When I first wrote about The Pit and the Pendulum, it was for the release of the first Vincent Price Blu-ray set. We’ve since had a second one, making it easier to indulge in the glories of Price during Halloween.
The Pit and the Pendulum, the second of the Corman-AIP-Poe cycle, faced a larger adaptation problem than the first, The Fall of the House of Usher. Where Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” contains enough plot for a beginning-middle-end structure, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is more typical of the author’s adherence to economy in narrative. Essentially, the short story is a great finale for a movie, but has nothing before that. Screenwriter Richard Matheson had to craft an original opening and middle in order to create a full movie. What he devised feels like Poe, with a main character plunging into madness, and it stays within the Spanish Inquisition setting of the short story (although Poe’s timeline is pretty warped) and its emphasis on torture. I don’t believe a better feature length film could be mined from the material.
For those unfamiliar with the original story (it’s public domain, go read it now!), it’s a masterwork of suspense about a single unnamed character trapped in a chamber in the dungeons of the Spanish city of Toledo. The narrator endures three death traps. That’s all. Nobody ever forgets the story, however, because of the agonizing terror of the second trap, a slowly descending blade swinging on a pendulum, coming nearer and nearer to slicing through the heart of the helpless prisoner with each pass. A century and a half of torture-related literature and film arose from this single scene.
Personal note: When I first read “The Pit and the Pendulum” in fifth grade, I thought it took place in Ohio. I had no idea there was an older Toldeo in Spain.
The movie, uhm, executes (sorry) its equivalent sequence brilliantly. The Pit and the Pendulum lacks the fiery close of The Fall of the House of Usher, but seeing Vincent Price in full madman mode, relishing the dropping of the death blade—yes, it’s a blast. And tense, even for modern viewers. The scene also gave Vincent Price his signature image. The actor never had a strong association with a particular character the way horror compariots Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff did (although you could argue for Dr. Phibes), but he had a powerful connection to his look in The Pit and the Pendulum, cowled in inquisitor’s robes beside a devilish torture device.
However, the final shot of the movie is its most shocking and horrifying moment. Nope, won’t spoil it, because it isn’t something originating from Poe. Great touch, Mr. Matheson. Or whoever came up with it. With Corman pics, it’s hard to tell who came up with what.
Matheson’s new tale leading up to the pendulum climax has similarities to movie version of The Fall of the House of Usher. A young man arrives at a castle, searching for a woman. He meets the skittish and strange master of the house, who reveals something terrible has happened, but also acts deceptive. The young man in this case is Francis Barnard (John Kerr, a far better actor than Mark Damon in Usher), and he has come to see about his sister Elizabeth, whom he learned died abruptly. Elizabeth’s husband, Nicholas Medina (Price) warily explains she died a month ago from a blood disease, although Barnard realizes the man is hiding something.
Barnard decides to stick around to dig up the truth. This unfortunately involves Medina going bonkers because of his father’s sadistic history as a master torturer, and a scheming plot between two of the other characters that ends up doing no one a bit of good. Edgar Allan Poe … did you think this was going to end happily?
Price plays an understated role Usher, but he launches into full scenery-chewing here, and that’s just as fun. Although starting as a sympathetic figure, Don Medina eventually throws all that out when the madness takes over and he never looks back. Barbara Steele, in a small but juicy part (she just had her breakout role in Europe with The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday), adds to the fun of the final act. The movie could have used much more of her, but the nature of the role made that impossible.
Although not made on an appreciably bigger budget, The Pit and the Pendulum looks larger and more expansive than The Fall of the House of Usher because the production crew was able to reuse sets from the earlier film while building new ones. This explains why the Corman-Poe films keep looking more expensive as the series progressed. The movie continues the hallucinogenic visual style for the flashbacks and nightmares, and the music score from Les Baxter takes a turn for the atonal and odd. It’s one of the best score Baxter wrote for the series.
Now I’m going to get a touch contrarian. Because despite all I’ve said, I wouldn’t rank The Pit and the Pendulum as one of the best of the Corman-AIP-Poe canon. In fact, I’d put it fourth after The Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligeia, and The Fall of the House of Usher, and maybe tying with The Haunted Palace. That’s hardly a bad place to be.