The Pit And The Pendulum (1961)

Director: Roger Corman

Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, Patrick Weswood

Written by: Richard Matheson and (based on the story) Edgar Allen Poe

Running Time: 80 mins

Original UK Cert: X

Original UK Release: 24th November 1961

There is no greater joy in life than revisiting a good, old-fashioned gothic horror from one of America’s best loved directors and one of Hollywood’s finest horror exponents, Roger Corman. Throughout the early 60’s, Corman made a series of low-budget films based on the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. The Pit And The Pendulum is probably his most famous, purely for the final act, which still manages to send shivers up your spine, even if it is rather tame compared to modern-day standards.

Francis Barnard has travelled to Spain from London after hearing that his sister, Elizabeth, had died. Arriving at the Medina castle, he is told that she had a blood disease but on closer investigation, it was far more sinister. The castle belongs to Nicholas Medina, the son of a brutal torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, and that Elizabeth may have passed away due to fear. Nicholas, a man who refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps, is soon pushed too far when strange things start occurring.

Corman’s film, from a script by Richard Matheson, starts off very, very slowly. In fact, it can be said, that the pace and the continuous scenes of explanation makes it very heavy going indeed. Along with the very mixed array of acting skills, it could be understandable to just walk away but by doing that, you will be leaving behind a very tense finale that is regarded as a horror classic.

Shot in fifteen days, to keep costs to a minimum, Corman keeps the settings to a few rooms in a gothic castle, as well as using a small cast. His main scenes set in the wonderfully dark and disturbing rooms of torture, including the giant pendulum that everyone so patiently waits for to be used and they get their just rewards when it finally arrives in the final act. Up to then only the eerie sound of the swings are heard in the early stages of the piece.

The painfully slow first hour is only saved, really, by the presence of Vincent Price, one of Corman’s regulars in this period and star of several of the Poe adaptations. Price is always value for money and here is no exception, showing off his range of acting skills from the manic to the scared to the evil in the blink of an eye. Joined by female horror actress Barbara Steele, it’s more than a horror fanatics delight to have the two biggest names of the genre together.

With her big and unique eyes, Steele, as Elizabeth, is shown mainly in flashback (with the use of a blue colouring to separate it from the present) isn’t given a great deal of screen time but the scenes she does appear in, she makes the most of. It’s a pity that Price and Steele didn’t make any more films together as they are a perfect couple for this kind of movie. Her with her piercing eyes, him with his Shakespearean style acting.

The off-balance is the pretty terrible John Kerr as Frances. His limitations as an actor get shown up badly when given the scenes opposite Price, who plain and simply acts him off the screen. A stronger leading man, who could face the challenge of working with a master would have made this a far more interesting project. Alas we have Kerr and proof, if proof be needed, that sometimes you shouldn’t cut corners when choosing your actors.

The Pit And The Pendulum, aside from Price and Steele, works mainly for that final, shocking act and a last scene that is probably the most satisfying way to end a picture. If you can handle the prolonged first hour with its very wordy melodrama, then you will get to see how horror really should be filmed, without having to rely on fake scares and buckets of gore.

3/5

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