Today’s cinema adventure: The Pit and the Pendulum, the 1961 thriller which was the follow-up to Roger Corman’s surprisingly successful House of Usher, and the second of what would ultimately be eight of Corman’s Poe-based independent features. Once again starring horror film stalwart Vincent Price, and shot on an elaborate set built from cannibalized pieces rented from other studios, it was an even bigger hit than its predecessor and achieved a substantial amount of critical acclaim, despite its low budget, becoming a classic staple of later TV “creature feature” programs and providing considerable influence over the future of horror films, particularly those produced in Italy through the late ’60s and ’70s.
The original short story by Edgar Allan Poe is a brief, moody affair, more or less the description of a prisoner’s experience as he is tortured by the Spanish Inquisition with the swinging, bladed contraption of its title. This being clearly insufficient as the basis for a feature-length film, Corman re-hired Usher screenwriter, Richard Matheson- a respected wordsmith responsible for, among other things, numerous well-known stories and several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone– to fashion a suitable narrative that could feature Poe’s horrific scenario as part of a longer tale. Matheson’s solution is the 16th-Century tale of a young Englishman who travels to the remote Spanish castle of Don Nicholas, son of an infamous Inquisitor, seeking an explanation for the unexpected death of his sister, who had been the Don’s bride. Though his host is cordial and consumed with sorrow over the loss of his love, the young man’s suspicions begin to deepen as dark secrets are revealed surrounding the castle and its lord- including the presence of a horrific torture chamber which lies beneath it. The common threads of Poe’s work- madness-inducing grief, untimely death, premature burial- are intricately woven into Matheson’s script, giving it a strong feeling of authenticity, though there is little resemblance to anything in the author’s actual story; even the original setting within the Spanish Inquisition has been distanced, if not quite removed, by an intervening generation- though the connection has been maintained enough to provide the means of replicating Poe’s vision for film’s climactic sequence. Matheson was (and is) a highly renowned writer, and it is probably not an exaggeration to say that it was ultimately his contribution, more than any other, that raised The Pit and the Pendulum, as well as many of the other Poe features, above the level of the usual cheap exploitative fodder for which Corman was known; his fabricated storyline includes compelling situations and characters, clever and intricate plotting with a heavy sense of irony, and rich thematic layering which touches on our most universal fears and subconscious concerns.
It’s not prestige-picture material, though, make no mistake. Many of the conceits Matheson puts into place to facilitate the developments of his melodramatic plot do not hold up to even the most cursory logic. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the dialogue has a jarringly modern, banal sound to it, especially against the gothic backdrop and in comparison with some of the more florid passages in his script; coupled with the contemporary bearing and mannerisms of most of the performers, who seem vaguely uncomfortable and out of place in their period costumes, it makes for a certain low-brow quality that reminds us just how far-fetched the whole thing is. But that, of course, is part of the fun; The Pit and the Pendulum is a no-brainer, designed to keep its audience on edge not because of some vague intellectual idea of horror, but in anticipation of the inevitable gruesome shocks promised by its premise. Corman’s filmmaking agenda as a producer was always about knowing what his audience wanted and giving it to them, and he knew that what they would want was no different with these Poe films than from any of his other shockers, despite their literary pedigree. His goal was to provide a good hour and twenty minutes of chills and thrills, and that is what he delivered, with little concern for stylistic considerations that would make for a more erudite filmgoing experience.
This is not to say, however, that Corman the director eschews all artistic concerns; on the contrary, his work here is remarkably polished and coherent, with a highly effective visual style that goes a long way towards creating the film’s luridly baroque air. He adheres to a conceptual notion in which the events of the film, like Poe’s fiction, represent the contents of the subconscious, welling up to manifest in his woeful tale; consequently, he takes pains to establish his setting as isolated from the real world, surrounding the seaside castle with endlessly crashing waves and stormy skies. Further underlining the psychological nature of the drama, he depicts various memories and perceptual experiences in heightened style, shooting some sequences in deep monochromatic hues, using extreme distortion and camera angles, and steeping everything in a garish, dramatic palette- starting with a psychedelically surreal opening sequence featuring swirling pools of liquid color. Beyond his deliberate visual touches, he also delivers a well-paced, savvy piece of cinematic narrative, keeping the aura of tension and impending menace quite tangible despite the fact that much of the film contains no overtly horrific content. To be sure, when it’s there, he lays it on as thick as the cobwebs which cover the walls of the castle’s secret dungeon, which of course, as has been noted, is precisely what we want; and when we reach the payoff, the final sequence in which our young hero is subjected by his now-demented brother-in-law to the titular torture device, Corman’s efforts come to their fruition. It’s a genuinely hair-raising scene, enhanced by weird and stylized filmmaking, which truly captures the core of what makes this concept horrific- the psychological terror of awaiting the inevitable, grisly doom that methodically descends like clockwork, an imagined outcome that is ultimately far more disturbing than any blood-soaked act of dismemberment that might actually be shown onscreen.
Corman’s success at cashing in on popular trends with his cheaply-made quickies (he famously shot one of his most lucrative earlier films, The Little Shop of Horrors, in two days and one night) had by this point in his career afforded him the opportunity of securing bigger-name talent to help hedge his bets at the box office. Vincent Price, well established as a popular horror star, had taken on the lead role in Usher, and here returns once more, as he would continue to do throughout Corman’s “Poe cycle.” This time around he plays Don Nicholas, a sensitive soul living in the shadow of his father’s cruel public image and even crueler private deeds, and driven to the point of madness by the tragic death of his beautiful wife. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will eventually lose his sanity, of course; and Price plays with that boundary like the pro that he is, giving us a doe-eyed, fragile gentility that contrasts- and yet nevertheless offers frequent glimpses of- the roaring monster he will become by the end, with lots of overwrought moments of soul-shaking despair and horror thrown in throughout. It’s a flamboyantly campy performance, really- almost, but not quite, over-the-top; but after all, this kind of vaguely hokey melodrama requires a bit of hamminess in order to keep the emotional pitch high, and Price certainly provides it. Upon the film’s release, his work was roasted by several critics as laughable; in retrospect, however, it’s precisely the right blend of the serious and the ridiculous to keep us engaged and entertained, and the sense of gentle self-parody it suggests has come to be seen as one of the familiar hallmarks of this particular style and era.
It’s a good thing, actually, that Price’s work here is so gleefully theatrical, for his co-stars are considerably blander. The ostensible leading man, John Kerr, was a Tony-winning actor who started his Hollywood career as one of the most promising young actors of the late ‘50s; by the time he made this film, his star was almost faded. He is handsome and capable, but there is a lack of passion here that makes him far less interesting or sympathetic than his supposed antagonist, and he has a certain frat boy quality that hampers his believability as an early Renaissance nobleman. I’m not saying his performance is weak- indeed, he is more than adequate and far more convincing than many of the actors who filled this type of role in other Corman films, and by the time he gets strapped down under that swinging blade in the finale we definitely care about his fate- but he is far less compelling or memorable than Price. More interesting is Barbara Steele, fierce and beautiful as the doomed, not-quite-innocent young bride- though Corman dubbed her lines with another actress, fearing that Steele’s coarse English accent would not jibe with the sound of the other players. Luana Anders exudes kindness and refreshing normalcy as Price’s younger sister and Kerr’s obligatory love interest; and Anthony Carbone is fine as the family friend and doctor, though he would be likely be more convincing as a Vegas mobster in a slick suit. On the whole, unquestionably, it’s Price’s show- but that, perhaps, is as it should be.
No doubt due to the fact that, by the time of The Pit and the Pendulum, Corman and his crew were well-schooled in the art of movie-making on the fly, the film overall has fine production values. Considering it was filmed in three weeks with a reported budget of $300,000- a third of which was Price’s salary- it has a surprisingly polished and professional look. The sets are truly impressive, executed by Daniel Haller and Harry Reif on a large soundstage and using, as mentioned above, rented set pieces from other studios to patch together the interiors of the Don’s foreboding castle. For the exterior shots, process shots featuring matte paintings create a decidedly artificial look (it should be remembered that these kind of effects looked considerably more convincing, somehow, on a big screen) which nevertheless contributes to the film’s dreamlike- or should I say nightmarish- effect. The cinematography by Floyd Crosby is rich and weighty, and the score by Les Baxter (who was a well-known singer and arranger of jazz and popular music) is serviceably eerie, if not exactly memorable.
The Pit and the Pendulum is one of those movies that has become a classic despite itself, a monument to a particular era of filmmaking that contains numerous influential elements; these elements were not intended, necessarily, to be groundbreaking, just to be scary- such as the shots of a desiccated corpse frozen in the agony of trying to claw free of a premature grave, an iconic moment which has been echoed countless times over the subsequent decades. The movie’s status is partly to do with its exposure on television, where a whole generation of impressionable young people was acquainted with its fruity frights. Just because it’s a classic, however, doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece; it’s still an example of hack-work elevated by the contributions of a few ringers, and boosted by the self-assured confidence that comes from being on a roll, as Corman and his team certainly were. Still, even if it’s not a great movie, it’s a damn good one, with a respectable commitment to quality and a strong dedication to good story-telling. If that story is ultimately more than a little cheesy, it is nevertheless engaging and- more to the point- undeniably spooky and disturbing, even as it generates laughs (which may not be as unintentional as one might think. This is no small feat, and it doesn’t happen accidentally; The Pit and the Pendulum succeeds thanks to the skill of the artists behind it, whose sole purpose was to stir up the uncomfortable corners of the psyche, and in the end, that’s about as close to the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe as any filmmaker could hope to get.