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.


mercury66 said...


Interesting viewpoint, perhaps a bit harsh? (Barbara Steele - '...nearly rangeless as an actress..') and 81/2 a 'horror-sleaze milestone'?? Now I've heard 81/2 called a lot of things, but never that before ;)


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Um, yeah, I guess I was trying to be "wry" there with the reference.

Lalage said...

What if Pit is a proper noun? What if it's like Gorgon?

phaneronoemikon said...

ooooh, yessssss.

opticalguy said...

It's quite interesting to see how younger film fans react to the Corman Poe films. I caught many of them on their initial release or soon thereafter and I'm afraid that I love them so much that I'm not at all objective about them. The really odd thing is that virtually everybody back then loved them almost as much as I.

Until the local film exchanges were shut down (the last in the late 1970s) and AIP as a company was absorbed by Orion Pictures (making it impossible to get prints of the movies) every drive-in in the country would do at least one "Evening With Poe" marathon and would do great business. They pulled ineveryone from families to stoners to … well … EVERYBODY.

I ran these (back in the pre-homevideo days) in 16mm at my High School and at College and people really loved them! HOWEVER only the shot-in-America films. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEA (both shot in the UK and both considered to be among the best of the Corman/Poe films) never went over as well. Even the one non-Vincent Price film THE PREMATURE BURIAL went over VERY well with audiences.

Any ideas as to why this is?

Spencer Gill