Pit and the Pendulum is the second in director Roger Corman’s cycle of eight Edgar Allan Poe movies, most starring Vincent Price. Others in the cycle I’ve also reviewed include The Raven, Tales of Terror, and The Tomb of Ligeia. Of the eight, this one and Tomb of Ligeia are supposed to be the best, with Pit and the Pendulum allegedly a big influence on Italian horror directors of the day. I don’t know if I agree. This certainly had atmosphere and some powerful, shocking scenes, but the film was of highly uneven quality.
It’s set in Spain in 1547, where Don Nicholas Medina resides with his sister, Doña Catherine, in an old castle upon a cliffside promontory overlooking the Atlantic. Nicholas’s English wife, Elizabeth, passed away three months previously. As the film opens, Elizabeth’s brother, Francis Barnard, has traveled from England to look into his sister’s death, for Don Medina’s letter was quite short on details.
Francis is suspicious, and becomes even more so when confronted with the bizarre and close-lipped behavior of the Medina family. At first, the butler does not even want to admit Francis, and Don Nicholas and Doña Catherine are maddeningly vague. Eventually, Don Nicholas shows Francis a cellar full of torture instruments which belonged to his father, an investigator for the Spanish inquisition. Don Nicholas’s story is that Elizabeth became fascinated with the torture devices, and eventually succumbed to a blood ailment related brought on by the melancholy atmosphere of the castle. Francis doesn’t believe a word of it, pointing out that his sister was a strong-willed woman.
Not until Don Nicholas’s physician, Dr. Leon, comes to dine does Francis learn some more details. In a private conversation between Francis and Dr. Leon, Dr. Leon reveals that as a child, Don Nicholas used to sneak down to the forbidden torture chamber. One time when he did so, his father entered with his mother and uncle, appearing to give them a bizarre tour of the facility. His father then accused Don NIcholas’s mother and his brother of engaging in an adulterous affair. He attacked and killed the uncle, then tortured the mother and buried her alive. Since then, Don Nicholas has believed his home to be cursed.
Noises from Elizabeth’s bedroom interrupt the story, and all rush to the room. The place has been ransacked, but nobody present could have had access to the room, including the servants. Don Nicholas is convinced it is the spirit of Elizabeth, come to haunt him because they buried her before she was truly dead, like his mother. Francis and Dr. Leon point out this is ridiculous, but Don Nicholas cannot be consoled. Finally, Dr. Leon suggests they disinter Elizabeth to put Don Nicholas’s mind at ease. They descend the stairs to the crypt, only when they open the sarcophagus, they find…
Well, you’ll have to watch it yourself, as this starts a bravura sequence of truly shocking scenes, each topping the last, for an incredible final third of the movie, one of the best in horror history. Unfortunately, as we’ll see in the breakdown below, the movie has some real flaws that prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending it.
Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Story/Plot/Characters— The story is a loose adaptation of Poe’s tale and Richard Matheson’s script is effective, though perhaps could have used another round of polishing. But the acting, my lord, the awful acting. Except for Vincent Price, who’s wonderfully over the top, the other actors are unbearably wooden. John Kerr, who played Francis, was especially atrocious, giving a performance that would have been bad in a high school production. (He soon after switched careers to become a lawyer.) I’ve seen plenty of B-grade horror flicks and wasn’t expecting Orson Welles or anything, but wow, the acting is terrible even for the genre–it nearly derails the whole thing. The first two-thirds of the movie feels slowly paced, but I can’t tell if it’s the fault of the direction or just the poor acting that makes it seem long. (1.5 points)
Special Effects— Not a lot of special effects, at least until the end. The final scenes make full and effective use of Corman’s limited budget. (1 point)
Scariness— Not scary, exactly, but fairly macabre for the time period. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— The gloomy Spanish castle, the torture chambers (later proving to be more extensive than we’re originally led to believe…), the beautiful period costumes and scenery. Hard to believe this was all done on a low budget. This movie maxes out on both atmosphere and freakiness. (2 points)
Total=5.5 points (Okay)
Vincent Price at his best and a masterful third act rescue a movie that nearly collapses under the deadweight of a slow start and wooden performances by everybody who’s not Vincent Prince. This is a movie of extreme highs and lows. Still, the uneven quality comes out to a high Okay.