Review: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

The Greatest Terror Tale Ever Told!

The Greatest Terror Tale Ever Told!

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)
Not Rated / Color / 80 minutes
Directed by Roger Corman
Also Known As: El pozo y el péndulo
Purchase it: Amazon.com (DVD) | Amazon.com (Blu-ray)

Between the years of 1960 and 1965, legendary director/producer Roger Corman would set out to create numerous cinematic adaptations of the works of Edgar Alle Poe. These films would later be known as the “Corman-Poe Cycle.” Repeatedly utilizing the same sets, and (mostly) the same creative team, the endlessly frugal Corman crafted eight memorable classics that we’re all stil enjoying today.

After the surprising popularity of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Corman would bring another Poe tale to the silver screen the following year, namely THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. Set in 16th Century Spain, the film centers on a young man named Francis Barnard (John Kerr) who is on a single-minded quest to uncover the details of his sister’s untimely demise. He travels to the castle of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), demanding to know what happened to her.

Soon after his arrival, Francis finds that things aren’t exactly as they seem, and he boldy refuses to leave until he knows the absolute truth. According to Nicholas, and his doctor Charles Leon (Antony Carbone), Francis’ sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) supposedly died of fright. Obssessed with the torture devices of Nicholas’ late father, the vile Sebastian Medina, Elizabeth met her end after locking herself within an iron maiden.

Francis is dubious of this explanation, especially when Nicholas seems to begin losing his grasp on reality. There are strange goings-on at the Medina castle, and everyone is hard-pressed to come up with answers. Did Elizabeth really die of fright? Is her ghost haunting the castle? Or, is someone harboring dark secrets that could unravel Nicholas Medina’s fragile sanity?! All of these questions and more will be answered when you watch THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM!

This was no boating accident!

This was no boating accident!

I must confess that this was my first viewing of this Roger Corman classic, and I’m a bit mad at myself for putting it off for so long. It’s such a great film, and a real treat for fans of Poe’s gothic horror tales. (As is the case with many of the Poe-Corman films, the theme of being buried alive is present here.) The set designs are fantastic, and shot expertly so they don’t actually seem like simple movie sets, and Les Baxter‘s minimalist score lends itself well to the characters’ growing sense of unease.

The cast of PIT is a mixed bag, with Vincent Price (naturally) stealing the show, especially during the final act. Price was such a versatile actor, and he proves it here by smoothly making the transition from tortured soul, to violent madman. The supporting cast members all do a fine job with their roles: Barbara Steele is superb as the cruel, and cold-hearted Elizabeth, and Antony Carbone is also quite good as the ever-helfpul Dr. Leon, whose ulterior motives are revealed during the brilliant climax.

However, I have to admit that I was not a huge fan of actor John Kerr, who portrayed the resolute Francis Barnard. His performance is very dry and monotone, and his character is at times, dull and unlikable. (It’s not a very good sign that I gleefully hoped that Francis would be sawed in half by the titular pendulum.) It is his unexpected appearance and subsequent search for answers that should be the lynchpin of the film; this should be Francis’ story. But in the end, Francis is basically a mere plot device to move things along, while Vincent Price gets to shine in the role of Nicholas Medina.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a fine addition to AIP‘s Poe-Corman cycle: It is atmospheric, beautifully shot, and features one of Price’s best performances. Though the plot takes its time to unravel, the film runs at a brisk eighty minutes, so it never becomes a chore to watch.

I definitely recommend THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, especially to fans of classic horror fare, and I’m pleased to give it a rating of:

BLU-RAY REVIEW

The Packaging: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM comes as part of Scream Factory’s VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION: VOLUME I. This (now out of print) set comes wrapped in a cardboard slipcover with cover art by Joel Robinson. It also comes with a collectible booklet that contains an essay about Vincent Price’s career by author David Del Valle, as well as various photos and posters for the six films featured in this Blu-ray collection.

Audio & Video: The film’s only sound option is 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, but I have no complaints about it. Music, dialogue, blood-curdling screams, and sound effects all come through clearly. The film is featured in 1080p HD in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it looks great. Though it’s a bit grainy at times, this is easily the best that THE PIT AND PENDULUM has looked in some time.

The Extras: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM shares disc one of the VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION: VOLUME I with MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (which has it’s own fair share of special features). Bonus features for PIT include an interview with Director/Producer Roger Corman (that I have not had the pleasure of listening to yet), a video introduction by Vincent Price, the original theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, and finally, the “rare prologue” to the film.

This prologue is a five-minute scene of Sebastian Medina’s wife Katherine, trapped in the dungeons of his castle with a crowd of the mentally insane. It’s interesting, but was wisely excised from the final cut of the film, as it doesn’t really add anything to the story.

Final Verdict: The VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION: VOLUME I is easily a five-star release. But as of my writing this, it is out of print, and there is not a separate Blu-ray release currently available for THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. (Aside from a bare bones Region Free import.) However, based on its own merits, this disc would easily have earned a decent rating from yours truly. The inclusion of a second Vincent Price film, coupled with the more than acceptable audio and video presentation, and the number of extras warrant a rating of: