It’s October, of course, and time to get spooky. As those of you who have been around this blog know, I like me some Vincent Price, especially his Poe movies. Last year we looked at American International Pictures’ The Fall of the House of Usher, and this year we’ll see their follow-up, 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum.
A young man, Frances Barnard (John Kerr) rides in a coach along a rocky Spanish shoreline until he comes to a castle. His sister, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) is married and living there, but he wonders why she hasn’t written lately. To his shock and horror, Frances finds out that she died three months before.
Frances draws Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), his sister’s widower, out, and learns Nicholas and Elizabeth had a good life together. She would play the harpsichord for him, and he would try to paint her. They would eat dinner together, sometimes with the doctor and sometimes alone. Ever since her death, her room has been kept just as she left it. Only problem is, everyone is so secretive, from Nicholas (Vincent Price), to Catherine (Luana Anders), Nicholas’s sister, to Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone), that Frances is suspicious when they tell him his sister died of a blood disease.
However, the doctor finally comes clean: Elizabeth died of fright. While she was happy with Nicholas, the secrets of the castle began to creep in on her. Nicholas’s father was a torturer in the Spanish Inquisition, and his instruments are still kept in the basement. Elizabeth becomes obsessed with them, and Nicholas makes plans to get her out of the castle. The night before they were supposed to go abroad, he finds she locked herself in the iron maiden. Right before she dies, Elizabeth tells Nicholas one word, “Sebastian.”
Frances still thinks Nicholas is guilty of something, and Catherine tells him Nicholas is haunted by the memory of his father killing his uncle and torturing his mother to death. Nicholas feels guilt by association about who his father was. Dr. Leon fills out the story: Nicholas also saw his father wall up his tortured mother and leave her for dead.
One night everyone is roused out of bed by harpsichord music. Frances wonders if it’s Nicholas, but he doesn’t know how to play. In fact, he’s standing in the corner freaking out. He freaks out even more when they find Elizabeth’s ring on the harpsichord keys, and faints dead away.
Naturally, other weird things start happening. While a servant, Maria (Lynette Burnay) is cleaning Elizabeth’s room, she thinks she hears Elizabeth whispering to her. Nicholas locks the room up, but then it gets completely trashed. Frances discovers a secret passage between Nicholas and Elizabeth’s rooms and wonders if his sister was buried alive.
Well…yes and no. The group goes downstairs to Elizabeth’s tomb and starts swinging pickaxes, then they open her coffin to find a mummified body with the mouth open in horror and fingers frozen like claws. Hmmmm. Not good. Nicholas can only miserably say, “True,” over and over again.
After that, he’s like a man in a trance. Dr. Leon urges him to leave, but Nicholas refuses. Elizabeth must have had catilepsy and was buried alive. Whatever Elizabeth has in store for Nicholas, he deserves. Meanwhile, Frances prepares to go home. What else can he do? His sister is dead, he can’t figure out the source of the mysterious happenings, and that’s all there is to it.
As it turns out, there’s more to the situation than meets the eye. Nicholas sees the secret passage in his room open, and he thinks Elizabeth wants him. He goes back to the tomb to convince himself that her body is still there, but then she climbs out of the coffin. She’s never been dead. In fact she was waiting for her lover, Dr. Leon to get Nicholas out of the way so she and the doctor could be together.
Unfortunately for their plans, Nicholas snaps, and his father’s array of torture devices come back into play. Who will come out alive? And where is the titular pendulum?
Of Price’s first two Poe movies, I vastly prefer Usher because in my opinion it’s the better film. The Pit and the Pendulum bears little resemblance to Poe’s original story. The film’s characters exist only in the film, and the plot appears slightly clunky. It felt like they were trying to sponge off of the elegantly Gothic Usher as opposed to tackling Poe’s story on its own merits.
Instead, we get a camp-horror mix, with Price making exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. His character goes from pitiable to menacing, and his best moments come after he goes crazy. All the flashback scenes are done in this odd, distorted monochrome color wash, which is too brightly jarring to be very scary, but it still gets the point across. I also thought it was strange that Pendulum recycled Usher’s catilepsy device, which doesn’t appear in the original story at all. It just seems a little bit lazy to me.
I think a better angle for the movie as a whole would have been to imitate Orson Welles’ doomed Heart of Darkness and film in second person. Poe’s story steers clear of a conventional plot arc and dialogue in favor of internal monologue, and it’s intensely frightening. The protagonist is a victim of the Spanish Inquisition, and he literally has no way out of his tortures but death. Having the camera be the protagonist would be an effective method of approaching the story because we could see his torturers from his point of view. Voyeurism was what Poe was going for. It might be a bit sadistic, too, but the whole premise of Pendulum is sadistic. That’s why it works.
Then again, American International Pictures wasn’t known for its innovation–we are talking about the studio which made such gems as Ski Party, after all. Still, I’ve said it before: No one did horror quite like Vincent Price. No one did horror quite like Edgar Allan Poe, either. The two of them go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Too bad The Pit and the Pendulum was such a misfire.
Thanks for reading, all, and see you on Friday…
This film is available to own on Amazon.