Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Vincent Price stars in the second AIP Horror film, directed by Roger Corman based on an Edgar Allan Poe classic. MGM USA R1 DVD.

The Film

"I was sick - sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence - the dread sentence of death - was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution - perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill wheel."

Edgar Allan Poe - The Pit and the Pendulum

Francis Barnard travels to the castle of Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price). Francis' sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) was married to Medina, but died three months previously, Francis arrives at the castle to discover why she died. Although the death is initially attributed to a blood disease, it soon becomes clear that something is amiss and as the truth behind her death is revealed, it becomes apparent that something is mysterious is happening in the castle...

After the sucessful House of Usher (1960), AIP were quick to commission a second film and brought back Corman to direct, Price to star, Baxter to score and Richard Matheson was once again given the task of adapting a Poe story for the screen. While the previous Poe text, Fall of the House of Usher was a relatively obvious choice for adaptation and was done so relatively faithfully, Poe's original Pit and the Pendulum is almost completely ignored here, with Matheson writing a completely new story around the famous torture device and the connection with the Spanish Inquisition. Although taking a typical gothic horror theme with haunted castles and the unsettled dead, Matheson's script provides a strong story with a deep layer of mystery that keeps you guessing throughout as the film builds to an unexpected climax and a simply perfect ending that ranks among the best closing moments in cinema. It is noticable and unusual that the very lack of exposition at the film's conclusion makes it flow so well - it should be more than obvious to the audience what is going on and the explanations would have just slowed the film down. As with the whole of the AIP horror cycle, the pacing of the film as a whole is relatively slow, although it never drags.

Corman's direction is even better than in House of Usher with some good editing, while cinematographer Floyd Crosby gets to show off with some very strange tints and camera angles and a couple of impressive colour tinted dream sequences that play out like scenes from a silent movie. Unfortunately while Les Baxter's soundtrack for the earlier film really helped to build tension, despite a promisingly unorthodox opening track, the music for the rest of the film is poorly used with a completely inappropriate quiet track under much of the climactic action that ruins what should have been a very scary atmosphere.

Vincent Price was fast becoming a horror icon at the start of the 1960s thanks to House on Haunted Hill (1959) and the first AIP Poe film, so he was the obvious choice for the starring role here. The character of Nicholas is rather different to his normal role, more foppish than menacing, but Price manages to pull it off really well and it is clear that the writer is using the audience expectation of Price to help add an edge to the character - is he really foppish and devistated by his wife's death, or is he merely putting on an act? Barbara Steele had made a big impact in the very popular Black Sunday (1960), the Italian horror debut of director Mario Bava which was distributed by AIP and at the box office, outperformed even House of Usher (1960). She gets a relatively minor role here but looks good when on screen. The rest of the small cast are relative unknowns, but all perform well with John Kerr putting up a good performance opposite Price.

Pit and the Pendulum (1961) is a good gothic horror film but quite let down by the poorly scored climax. Corman's direction is strong, Vincent Price gives a top show in the lead role and Matheson's script is well written despite bearing little relation to the original story. Not as good as House of Usher (1960) but still worth watching. Recommended.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Vincent Price - an American horror icon he also appeared in Corman's Tower of London (1962)
Barbara Steele - The raven haired star of Bava's Black Sunday (1960) and a variety of gothic horrors.
Directed by anyone interesting? Roger Corman - most famous for producing hundreds of low budget horror and sci-fi films, he made a name for himself as a director on the AIP gothic horrors including Premature Burial (1962).
Is it scary? A slightly scary atmosphere in a few scenes.
Any gore or violence ? Some blood.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? Recommended to Price and AIP Horror fans.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print quality is decent, colours and detail are strong but there is speckling print damage throughout.
Audio English language original mono sound. Notable crackling and hiss throughout.
French dub track.
Subtitles French and Spanish.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Audio commentary from Roger Corman. Although a solo track, this flows quite well with a chatty nature and some interesting information, although there are some long silences.
  • Original Theatrical trailer.
  • "Original Theatrical Prologue" - actually an opening scene added to the film's television print to pad out the running time. Presented fullscreen with decent print and sound - it is interesting, but without a commentary or text explanation of what it is, is rather pointless.
Availability Previously available as a single disc release, now only available in a double-bill pack with the House of Usher DVD on a dual-sided disc. Part of the MGM Midnight Movies series.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? A British R2 release, lacks the extra features but has an anamorphic print.
Cuts? Fully uncut. English language print.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 2nd September 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

Please contact: