Through the first half of the 1960s, Roger Corman directed a string of films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Colourful, macabre, and rich embroiderings of Poe’s short tales, they were among the strongest films in Corman’s long and varied career.
His second (arriving one year after The Fall Of The House Of Usher) 1961‘s The Pit And The Pendulum was one of the best, roping in all the classic elements from the Corman-Poe cycle: a castle, premature burial, and most importantly, Vincent Price as a furtive and possibly mad nobelman.
Here, Price plays Nicholas Medina, a ruff-wearing and despairing man haunted by his Spanish castle and grim ancestry. When Medina’s wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) dies suddenly and mysteriously, her brother Francis Barnard (John Kerr) journeys from England to find out what exactly happened.
Medina’s castle is a shadowy morass of rugs, bad oil paintings and maniacal harpsichord playing. Francis’s sister, he’s told, had succumbed to the building’s “miasma of barbarity”. Medina’s father, Sebastian (played in flashback by Price himself) was the most infamous torturor in the Spanish Inquisition, and had even used his evil skills on his own (supposedly) adulterous wife while Nicholas was still a boy.
Understandably, all of this fervour and badness has seeped into Nicholas’ blood, and he plods around the castle like a velvet-clad ghost. Weirdly, the castle’s bad memories seemed to get to Elizabeth too. Having become obsessed with the old torture devices mouldering in the castle’s basement, she went screaming mad one day, and was found wild-eyed and very dead inside an Iron Maiden.
All of this is related with wonderfully florid prose (written with style and knowing humour by the great Richard Matheson) and flashbacks as luminescently purple as the dialogue. Price, needless to say, is brilliant, swooning and staggering through each scene as he crisply enunciates every line – there’s something addictive about the way Price utters the name “Sebastian” over and over again in one memorable moment.
John Kerr, on the other hand, acts with all the gravitas of a man ordering a kebab at two in the morning. There’s an early scene where his character asks how and where his sister died, and it’s only the dialogue itself that tells us he’s even vaguely concerned: neither his body language nor his expression portray an iota of grief or suspicion.
Fortunately, The Pit And The Pendulum isn’t really about Barnard, but about Nicholas Medina and the unpleasant secrets in his castle. The title probably gives at least one of those secrets away, but the unspooling melodrama is entertaining to watch in any case – and there’s a terrific twist in the tale, too, which sees the castle’s history repeat itself in Poe-worthy fashion.
Corman never had a huge budget to play with even in these relatively lavish Poe films, but they always looked superb: the set designs (courtesy of Daniel Haller) are appropriately gothic and imposing (Corman, frugal to the last, often used the same ones in multiple films), and Floyd Crosby’s cinematography is rich and bathed in luxurious colour.
As we’ve come to expect from Arrow Films, this new Blu-ray edition is beautifully packaged, with Crosby’s lensing given a chance to shine in 1080p (and proving a revalation for anyone who last saw the film on a 4:3 television, as your humble writer did). There’s also a healthy range of extras, including a new Making Of documentary with contributions from Barbara Steele and Roger Corman himself, audio commentaries, and, as a bonus, a 52-minute special in which Vincent Price reads some of Poe’s classic tales in that unforgettably grave voice of his. This is a great edition of a lip-smackingly macabre film.
The Pit And The Pendulum is out on Blu-ray now from Arrow Films.
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