Blu-ray Review: The Pit and the Pendulum

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Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: 7/10

Having already brought us The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), Arrow now turn their attention to the second in Roger Corman’s famous seven-movie Poe cycle. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) is where Corman’s take on Poe really gets into gear. It’s in every way a bigger, bolder film than its predecessor, right from the title sequence which segues from psychedelic abstracts of running paint to an impressive establishing shot of the lofty, sea-mist wreathed castle where the grisly action is to take place.

Screenwriter Richard Matheson stretches Poe’s short but suggestive tale into a warped and convoluted psychodrama. Learning that his beloved sister Elizabeth is dead, a young Englishman (John Kerr, fresh from starring in South Pacific and looking uncomfortable swapping a lei for a lace ruff) comes to find out what happened. But he gets little by way of sense from Elizabeth’s babblingly neurotic widower, Don Medina (Vincent Price), except a vague story that she succumbed to the malign atmosphere of the gloomy old castle, which is kitted out with an elaborate torture chamber that belonged to Don Medina’s father, a notorious inquisitor who obviously brought his work home with him. Don Medina (who is paranoid that he might have committed his wife to a premature burial) is thrown into further paroxysms of guilt when Elizabeth apparently returns from the grave to tinkle the harpsichord at night.

In terms of raw chills, The Pit and the Pendulum seems fairly tame today, but it makes up for it with an involved storyline and some pretty out there Freudian subtexts. Matheson throws a whole psychology textbook of mental illnesses at the story, with sadism, childhood trauma and schizophrenia all battling for elbow room in Don Medina’s pounding head. It’s enormous fun watching Price going through his paces in what is basically the damsel in distress role (he even faints at one point, which must have been alarming for the actors who had to catch him). Barbara Steele also makes a huge impression in a small but telling cameo. There are several intense set-pieces (especially the sequence where they go down to the crypt to exhume Elizabeth – watch Price’s face as they lift the lid of the coffin), and you get some nice optical effects in the exciting finale (although when the pendulum appears, it might seem a bit small and weedy for modern tastes. The much more substantial apparatus in Stuart Gordon’s 1991 adaptation of the tale must surely have given Corman a bad case of pendulum envy).

Maybe the dark Spanish Gothic look doesn’t help, but the HD transfer is just a little less crisp and vibrant than that of Usher, and it retains a few scratches from the negative. The Blu-ray comes with meaty commentaries from the director and heavyweight film critic Tim Lucas. Otherwise, the highlight of the extras is a glossy and informative 43-minute “making of” featurette. Barbara Steele gives us her own unique vantage point on things, colourfully summing up Vincent Price as “like an ancient soul who grew up on cobbled streets in the rain” and Corman as “like a kind of Buddhist wandering through the set.” From Corman himself you learn all kinds of interesting technical stuff – for instance, how they cannibalized flats from Usher and added others to give The Pit and the Pendulum a bigger look. (For overviews of Corman’s Poe cycle, see the excellent extras on Usher.)

There’s also a 50-minute TV show of Price narrating various Poe tales, shot in vintage ’70s blurryvision which might put some viewers off, but it’s a fine showcase for the actor’s talents and a treat for Poe fans.

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