The Greatest Terror Tale Ever Told!
16th-century Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) is a haunted man: he fears his late wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) was prematurely interred and now stalks his gloomy seaside castle as a vengeful spirit. But he’s mistaken. Elizabeth is very much alive and is using a childhood trauma – Nicholas witnessed his mother being entombed alive by his inquisitor father as a child – to drive him insane. But her sick plan works only too well – Nicholas goes over the edge and becomes his own raving mad father, which puts the lives of Elizabeth’s brother Francis (John Kerr) and the rest Medina household in mortal peril…
Roger Corman’s second stab at Edgar Allan Poe, 1961’s Pit and the Pendulum, is a wilder, darker, more violent ride than the previous year’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Aiming to repeat that film’s success, Corman used the same team and stylistic design, even the same story. But he ended up crafting a Gothic masterpiece that’s definitely its own beast and another commercial success in his Poe/Price cycle of films.
Again Richard Matheson was called on to flesh out Poe’s original 1842 tale, which essentially was a monologue about the torments suffered by a prisoner at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. While not pure Poe (you have to watch the great extra on this release for that), the film certainly has a Poe-esque atmosphere about it: all dread and madness draped in mauve cobwebs and rococo furnishings.
Floyd Crosby captures this with some wildly fluid camerawork and rich colour cinematography, while Daniel Haller’s art direction comes to satanic fore in the scenes involving the titular rat-infested pit and blood stained pendulum (which was 18ft-long and weighed over a ton). Les Baxter’s minimal electronic score, meanwhile, lends the film a schizophrenic air – beginning with the film’s lurid liquid sky opening titles, which makes you think you are entering a terrifying acid trip.
While Crosby’s camera has full reign of Haller’s superb castle interiors, Vincent Price really lets loose with a performance that’s become as iconic as the film’s nightmarish set-pieces. Watching him go from morbidly depressed to murderously deranged while spewing Matheson’s fruity dialogue is a hoot. It’s also what made audiences want to come back year after year. If 1960’s House of Usher officially launched Price’s Master of Menace persona, Pit and the Pendulum most certainly crowned him the new king of Horror. This was what seeing ‘a Vincent Price’ movie was all about.
Price, whose first appearance in the film is ‘like a ghost in an amusement park funhouse’ according to Tim Lucas in his audio commentary, certainly outshines the likes of the stiff John Kerr (who later ditched acting to become a doctor), Luana Anders (who looks lovely, but that’s all) and Antony Carbone (who looks too much like Kerr to bother with), while Barbara Steele shows her mettle as the new horror queen with her sleek feline-like performance as Price’s scheming ‘dead’ wife. While some critics felt Price overdid it, director Corman thought his star was on the mark: ‘He was able to convey the intensity and the madness of the character, bringing it to its fullest extent without going over the top’.
[SPOILER’S AHEAD] The sequences which follow Price being lured down into the crypt to the grisly, heart-stopping finale (Steele gets locked up in an iron maiden, Kerr is almost cut in half by the razor-sharp pendulum, and Price tumbles into the pit) are the film’s visual highlights. And the final shots of Price glaring up out of the pit with his dead eyes open and Steele’s eyes peering helplessly from within the iron maiden have stayed with me for years. They also had a huge impact on other fans, including director John Landis, who said: ‘It scared the shit out of me! The ending is amazing… I’ve deliberately never seen that movie again. Not so much because it scared me, but because I know it couldn’t possibly be that good, you know?’
On its original release, the film, which was made in just 15 days on a budget of US$300,000, earned close to US$2million and became a hit with both critics and audiences alike, with the plaudits ranging from ‘a physically stylish, imaginatively photographed horror film’ (Variety) to ‘a thoroughly creepy sequence of horrors’ (New Yorker) and – my favourite – ‘Engagingly cornball insanity-in-the-castle hokum, with Vincent Price in fine eyeball-rolling, scenery-chomping form.’ (Joe Dante, Castle of Frankenstein). Even American International Pictures chief, Sam Arkoff praised it, saying: ‘I thought it was really good – the best of the Poes’.
THE 2014 ARROW BLU-RAY RELEASE
Arrow Video’s high definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation is transferred from original film elements by MGM, featuring original uncompressed PCM mono audio, optional isolated music and effects track and optional English SDH subtitles. According to the experts over at DVD Beaver, its a robust transfer with a much higher bitrate than the US Shout! Factory edition, smoother and superior, supporting an excellent 1080P image despite some frame-specific damage, while the replication of the original production audio has noticeable depth.
• In Roger Corman’s audio commentary (which is also on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray release), the maverick producer/director looks back at the making of the film, revealing the visual tricks he employed in his ‘Freudian-inspired’ horror. Who knew that doors represent the vagina and the dark corridors are an initiation into sexuality? You’ll certainly read the film differently after listening to this.
• The other audio commentary, by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas, is packed with juicy nuggets (I always wondered why those castle matt shots ended up in The Monkees). And when it comes to the film’s technical minutia, Lucas really knows his stuff. Film buffs will lap this up.
• Behind the Swinging Blade – This new documentary on the making of The Pit and the Pendulum features interviews with Roger Corman, Barbara Steele and Victoria Price, while director Brian Yunza, who is a big fan of the film, also pops up. (43-min)
• Added TV Sequence – Shot in 1968 for the longer TV cut, this scene features star Luana Anders and is set in an asylum. Its a real curio, but for the life of me, I couldn’t work out where it would have been placed in the storyline. If you know, please enlighten me. (5-min)
• An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe – This terrific 1970 TV special, shot on video, gave Vincent Price the chance to do Poe unplugged, reciting The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum as he always wanted to do. The transfer quality here is on par with the 2003 MGM DVD release. But did you know, the period costumes were all designed by Price’s second wife, Mary? (53-min. With optional English SDH)
• Original Trailer
• Limited Edition SteelBook packaging featuring original artwork (SteelBook only)
• Reversible sleeve featuring artwork by Gilles Vranckx (Amaray release only)
• Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by author Jonathan Rigby, illustrated with original archive stills
The Films of Roger Corman: Shooting My Way Out of Trouble, Alan Frank, 1998