Pit and the Pendulum

Barbara Steele in Pit and the Pendulum (dir. Roger Corman, 1961).

Larry Turner as the young Don Medina.

Vincent Price.

The second of Roger Corman's eight or so Poe adaptations (depending on which ones you count as actually having anything to do with Poe). Richard Matheson again supplies the script, as he did for House of Usher the previous year.

Corman's Poe films have been celebrated often and vigorously, and for good reason. They are models of just how much visual and emotional power can be generated on a relatively low budget, and without worrying too much about things like logic, continuity, or decent acting. Barbara Steele (star of such horror-sleaze milestones as The Maniacs, Terror Creatures from the Grave, , etc.) is perfectly cast for such an enterprise: nearly rangeless as an actress, and creepy looking in a really hot way. And Vincent Price, of course, transcends conventional definitions of talent altogether. As the tortured Nicholas Medina, he gives a masterful portrayal of simpering guilt that slides abruptly into psychotic mayhem. The rest of the cast could be replaced by bookshelves wearing clothes, but the total effect is so good it doesn't matter.

The title contraption is all that remains of Poe's story (actually, that's all there really is to Poe's story). The rest is stock gothic plot elements woven into a flimsy and familiar shape: Nicholas's beautiful young wife Elizabeth (Steele) has died suddenly, and there are fears that she may have been buried alive. Elizabeth's brother (Michael Kerr) arrives from England laden with suspicions. Nicholas's doctor (Antony Carbone) and sister (Luana Anders) supply additional occasions for purple dialogue and advancement of the narrative, such as it is. But from start to finish, somehow, it offers everything one can reasonably ask of it, and the final shot is one of the great moments in horror cinema.

One more thing I have to add, speaking from purely poetic interest: I love the way the film omits the first article in the original title ("The Pit and the Pendulum") while retaining the second. It defies grammatical sense, and should by all rights never have made it past whoever was in charge of looking out for those things (well, there you go, I guess). And it's perfect. Any parallels out there that anyone else can think of?

The colorful title effects.