In 1960, American International Pictures, a low-budget film production house with some genuine talent, released The Fall of the House of Usher. Director Roger Corman, one of the studio’s most valuable assets, had pushed for AIP to extend their usual shooting schedule (from ten days to fifteen!) and shoot the film in color. AIP was wary, but Corman had proven his ability to deliver profitable results for the company over and over, so after hearing his pitch, they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to his risky venture. With Corman as director, Vincent Price as the star, and Edgar Allan Poe as the source material, it seemed like it would be a decent enough success. House of Usher was more than just a hit, though; it was a smash. It convinced AIP to greenlight a second entry into the Gothic horror series, again directed by Corman and starring Vincent Price.
Corman’s initial idea for a follow-up was Masque of the Red Death, but the then-recent release of Ingmar Berman’s Seventh Seal bore several similar images to what Corman was planning for Masque. Considering the reputation Seventh Seal was building for itself, Corman felt it prudent to shelve the idea for Masque for a while. Instead, he decided to adapt one of Poe’s most famous short stories, The Pit and the Pendulum (1842). There was just one small problem: the story was really short. That’s why they call them short stories, after all, and no matter how you sliced it up, there wasn’t enough material in the original story to account for a feature length film.
But never fear! Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay for House of Usher, decided to employ the approach that would work for this and plenty of subsequent Poe adaptations (especially those directed by Gordon Hessler during AIP’s second Poe cycle in the 1970s). They wrapped Poe’s story up inside a story of their own design, written to the best of their ability to feel like Poe material. In the case of Hessler’s later films, this didn’t work too well. For The Pit and Pendulum (1961), however, Matheson and Corman pretty much nailed the tone. If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that the film bears a number of similarities to House of Usher, though those similarities are there primarily because they’re ever-present in the works of Poe.
“The madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things”
Price stars as Don Medina, once again the tortured head of a family cocooned within the walls of a crumbling estate. And like Roderick Usher, Medina believes the house to be the architectural embodiment of evil itself. In Usher, it was because so many of the relatives who lived in the palace were evil. In Pit and the Pendulum, the reason for the lurking sense of dread is Don Medina’s father, a former Grand Inquisitor who used the palace basement as his torture chamber. When young Barnard (Johnathan Kerr) receives a vague letter from Medina informing him that Barnard’s sister—Medina’s wife—has died, Barnard sets out for the decrepit old palace to uncover the details of his sister’s untimely passing. Though frustrated initially, he eventually learns that Medina believes his wife was literally terrified to death by something she saw in the house, and presumably something inside the off-limits torture chamber. Medina is also convinced that his wife was alive when they interred her in her tomb, something the local doctor swears cannot possibly be true.
Barnard is slow to buy into Medina’s “scared to death” explanation, and with no small amount of due reason. Medina, either out of grief, encroaching madness, or dishonesty is consistently aloof and vague in his explanation of things, and though he eventually lets Barnard see the taboo torture chamber, he absolutely refuses to open a sealed door that leads to what Medina pegs as a device of unspeakable cruelty and evil. And as one might surmise, strange and inexplicable spooky goings-on start plaguing the household, so much so that Medina becomes convinced that his dead wife, angry at having been entombed alive, has returned from the grave to seek unholy revenge.
To satisfy Medina’s paranoia and Barnard’s demand for some saner story of his sister’s passing, they decide to open the tomb. Things, as you would guess, only get worse from there, driving Medina to the point of insanity, then right over the edge of the cliff. The action culminates in the infamous pit as Medina, his mind shattered, begins to believe he is his own Inquisitor father, and that it’s high time he got some use out of the old torture implements. It won’t be much of a surprise to fans of Corman’s Poe films to discover that there is a dastardly conspiracy behind the ghostly occurrences.
“The thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave”
Despite the similarity to House of Usher—the evil palace, the wretched ancestors, the premature burial of someone’s sister, and Price as a man at the edge of his sanity—Pit and the Pendulum doesn’t feel like a rehash as much as it does a variation on a theme. Most of Corman’s Poe films would involve, in one way or another, the concept of premature burial and the torment of a man by specters from beyond the grave. But Matheson’s script manages to make it all feel, if not completely different, then at least that it was being looked at from a different angle. Different enough so that the movie still feels fresh.
In many ways, in fact, Pit and the Pendulum emerges as an even better film than its predecessor. There is something more clinging, rotted, and nightmarish about the atmosphere. If Roderick Usher’s house was the very picture of decaying elegance, then Don Medina’s cliffside palace takes it to the next level. Dread lurks in every corner. The set decoration is, as with House of Usher, detailed and gorgeous. Corman departs from the previous film, and from the Hammer films that inspired him, by setting his tale not in the Victorian era, but instead much earlier. During the 1600s, I believe (Hammer’s Twins of Evil would later place itself during the same era, though in a much different setting). The costumes, like the sets, are superb. And like Usher, the ultimate success or failure of the movie rests on the shoulders of Vincent Price.
Unsurprisingly, they prove capable shoulders. Where Roderick Usher was quiet, soft-spoken, and sinister, Don Medina doesn’t suffer from Usher’s peculiar sensitivity to loud noises, and so Price is allowed a little more freedom in his depiction of the main character. Price was an actor who was able to gauge more or less perfectly just how far over the top he has to play a character to make it successful. Medina allows him to push things further than the previous film, but his performance is infused with an amazing degree of pathos. Medina lacks any of the sinister tendencies of Roderick Usher, and so our sympathies are completely with him as we watch him struggle first with the fear that he buried his wife alive, and later that she is haunting him as revenge. Price’s performance is brilliant, and his inevitable breakdown (it is a horror film, after all) is wrenching because he’s such a decent guy.
“The sad visions that the many may not view”
Countering Price’s noteworthy turn is his co-star, the relatively inexperienced Jonathan Kerr. Kerr’s delivery is stiff and at times awkward, and I believe he sets some sort of record for use of the word “sir” in a single film. I don’t know if I’d go quite so far as calling it a bad performance, but compared to the rest of the cast, he’s the obvious weak link. And speaking of the rest of the cast, now would be a good time to mention that Pit and the Pendulum marks the America film debut of horror queen Barbara Steele. Steele first came to horror prominence in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and she quickly became an icon of the genre. She appears here, in flashbacks and during the finale, to torment Price’s Don Medino with her beyond-the-grave beauty. Truth be told, it’s rather a limited role, similar in scope to later horror icon teaming like Price-Lee in Hessler’s Poe films, but then any Barbara Steele is good Barbara Steele as far as I’m concerned.
As with House of Usher, the cast is restricted, though Corman does allow himself one or two more extra characters for a grand total of six—seven if you count the carriage driver from the beginning of the film who has no lines. With such a small cast, each actor counts, even in a small role, and with the aforementioned exception of Kerr, everyone is up to the task. In addition, they’re given gorgeously spooky sets to inhabit, and the script affords some real chills that I found to be much scarier than anything in the previous film. The revelation of what exactly is going on isn’t a complete surprise for us looking back, now that so many films with a similar twist have been made, but it’s still decent if not a little underdeveloped in the motivation category.
Of particular note is the scene in which they open the tomb of Medina’s wife to find her corpse contorted into a hideous shrieking pose. It’s a striking and terrifying image that relies less on being grotesque (though it is) and more on playing to our basic fears, for though we may not obsess about it like Edgar Allan Poe or the characters in these movies, I doubt really that anyone takes too much comfort in the thought of being buried alive. The scene in the tomb capitalizes on our dread. Whispering voices add to the chills, and when the pit and pendulum torture chamber is finally revealed, it is a marvelous sight the likes of which wouldn’t really be topped until some of the wonderfully phantasmagorical scenes in The Masque of the Red Death.
Whether or not Pit and the Pendulum is a better film than House of Usher is a moot question. What is important is that it’s not a disappointment. It maintains the lofty standards set by the first film and proved the success — both artistically and financially — was no fluke. Corman showed he could do it again at the same level and with the same results at the box office, practically guaranteeing that he would be making Poe films for AIP for as long as they could get away with it.