United States. 80 minutes. Directed by Roger Corman, 1961. Starring Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders.
Spain, the sixteenth century: Englishman Francis Barnard has arrived at the castle of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina; his sister (and Medina’s wife) Elizabeth has recently passed away under mysterious circumstances, and Barnard wants answers. Medina and his sister Catherine claim that Elizabeth died from a rare blood disorder, but family physician Dr. Leon has another explanation, and Barnard grows ever more suspicious–especially when he learns about Medina’s secret dungeon full of torture devices and his debilitating fear of premature burial. Soon, a series of strange events plague the household, events that suggest that the castle is perhaps haunted by Elizabeth’s restless spirit…but what’s really going on?
When you go into one of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, you have some idea of what to expect: production design whose lush beauty is counterbalanced by wobbly sets and obvious matte work; not a lot of fidelity to the source material; trippy camera work; and usually Vincent Price. That’s not to say that all of the adaptations are created equally, however; and if 1960’s House of Usher and 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death are the strongest in the series, then The Pit and the Pendulum is, sadly, one of the weaker efforts.
Making a feature film out of any of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of terror requires a certain amount of embellishment on the part of the screenwriter, as most of Poe’s work in the genre focuses on mood, characterization and overall effect over plot. “The Pit and the Pendulum” provides the late Richard Matheson, who wrote the screenplay, more work to do than many other Poe stories by dint of having almost no plot and very little back-story, and roughly half the text is dedicated to the narrator’s attempt to survive the titular torture devices.
To make up for this, Matheson constructs a psychological horror tale from a number of Poe-esque elements, including premature burial, and motifs from other Poe stories such as “The Cask of Amontillado.” The idea of having a bunch of Poe-type characters walk around a world made up of images from Poe stories doing the sorts of things that Poe wrote about people doing, but not actually having much grounding in the story that actually gives the film its title, isn’t necessarily a bad one–in fact, it’s pretty much the basis of all of Corman’s Poe adaptations (with the exception of The Haunted Palace, which is actually based on Lovecraft).
Matheson’s efforts toward this end certainly aren’t bad, per se, but they’re not all that strong either and they’re certainly not distinct. There’s very little that marks the film as being based on “Pit/Pendulum” except maybe the torture chamber, and even the pit and pendulum don’t show up until the very end of the movie (and are never referenced beforehand). You could turn it into an adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” with very little effort. For that matter, you could just change the film’s title to The Premature Burial and it would make about as much sense. (Hell, you could change it to The Haunted Palace and it would make even more sense.)
Corman doesn’t help matters with the cast he’s assembled. Vincent Price is excellent, as he almost always is, and his sensitive, puppy-dog-eyed approach to Medina is a welcome respite from his more familiar cartoony villain and ranting madman modes. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t ham it up here: by this point in his career, theatrical performances (or, in layman’s terms, “overacting”) is what Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson were paying him to do. He does it well, he appears to be enjoying himself immensely, and he’s never not entertaining.
The supporting cast isn’t up to Price’s level, but that’s not a problem in and of itself because at this point in his career the supporting casts never are up to Price’s level unless they’ve teamed him up with Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and/or Peter Lorre. But the problem here is that almost all the supporting players put in flat performances. John Kerr (Barnard) and Luana Anders (Catherine) belong to the “reading cue cards” school of Method under-acting. (And that’s entirely apart from the difficulty of having to buy the 23-year-old Anders as the sister of the 50-year-old Price!) Antony Carbone (Dr. Leon) tries on about five different accents over the course of the film and can’t seem to maintain any of them for more than about two sentences. The unnamed, uncredited carriage driver who delivers Barnard to Castle Medina makes more of an impression with one scene and no lines than Patrick Westwood and Lynnette Bernay (as the Medina servants) do in the entire rest of the film. Where are Hazel Court and Dick Miller when we need them?
And to add insult to injury, shocking little use is made of the legendary Barbara Steele: while her image looms large over the film thanks to flashbacks and one particularly hideous Chinese Girl-style portrait, she gets maybe three or four scenes in total and only a couple of lines. It’s impossible to say whether she’s good or bad in this movie, because she’s simply not in it much, and Corman and Matheson don’t effectively utilize Elizabeth as a character who is omnipresent by her very absence.
The saving grace here, aside from Price, is in the design and Corman’s direction. Yes, the movie looks cheap, because even at the height of his classic era, Corman never was very good at making a low budget look like a moderate one. And it must be admitted that Pit/Pendulum looks significantly cheaper than its $300,000 budget implies (even considering nearly half that went into Price’s pocket). The sets are lush even when they wobble, and the matte paintings are gorgeous even when they don’t match the rest of the scenery. What the production design lacks in ability to convince the audience it makes up for in sheer beauty. Corman, as always, makes great use of Technicolor even though it’s not as bold as some of his other color efforts.
It can’t be denied that The Pit and the Pendulum has its charms, but it also must be admitted that it’s not one of Corman’s stronger efforts in this particular mode. It’s enjoyable enough if it’s the sort of thing you’re into, but also requires a lot of patience–even I got frustrated with it on a regular basis, and this is the sort of thing I normally adore. For AIP/Corman or Poe completists only.