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THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Anthony Carbone
Director:  Roger Corman
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Director’s Commentary, Theatrical Prologue, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  80 Minutes
Release Date:

Film ***1/2

Roger Corman in his heyday made a number of pictures based on the legendary works of Edgar Allan Poe, and some of them were darn good.  Which is no small compliment, considering how much the stories of Poe affected and haunted my young mind when I first started reading them.  Filled with atmosphere and inescapable imagery, one might say that the writing style of Poe was cinematic enough as it was…to actually film these works and turn them into tangible visual images seemed almost superfluous.

But Corman used these works as a springboard for his movies; keeping enough to establish the connection but indulging in a bit of his own imagination to create a picture that was usually a little different, but almost equally and effectively entertaining.

Take The Pit and the Pendulum, a short story told from the point of view of a torture victim at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  Though a true American literary classic, one’s first instinct might be to protest that there’s not enough material there to make a feature film.  A correct assumption, which is why screenwriter Richard Matheson and Corman left in the pit and the pendulum, but constructed a different story, with more cinematically dramatic substance and new characters to build their own brand of horror out of Poe’s unique vision.

After a bizarre, unexplained and instantly intriguing series of abstract opening images, the story begins with a young man named Barnard (Kerr) traveling to a great house atop a cliff overlooking the ocean.   The house belongs to the Medina family, whom he has come to for answers regarding the death of his sister, Elizabeth (Steele).   He meets her grief-stricken husband Nicholas (Price) and his sister, Catherine (Anders), but finds their initial answers less than satisfying.

With the aid of a visiting doctor (Carbone), the mystery begins to make sense.  Elizabeth, he explained, died of heart failure resulting from her obsession with an expansive and terrible torture chamber in the bowels of the house.  It used to belong to Nicholas’ father, one of the most feared and wicked officers of the inquisition.  Her body has been sealed in the family tomb for three months, but the fragile Nicholas cannot shake the suspicion that he had buried her alive.

Soon, a strange series of events start to suggest that Nicholas’ fears are true…but are they?  The suspicious Barnard at first believes that Nicholas himself is responsible for the unnerving incidents.  Yet, as the story progresses, there are surprises of betrayal and madness in store.  Oh, yes, the pit and the pendulum to (a masterpiece of set design and using filming techniques to draw the most out of it).

As a horror fan, I have to say The Pit and the Pendulum is a thoroughly satisfying experience.  Though obviously many liberties were taken with Poe’s original text, I felt the choices were correct and the new storyline intriguing, suspenseful, and fun despite the macabre nature of the story.  The cast is good, particularly Price, who is one of my favorites.  His angular appearance and haunting voice singled him out as a horror film icon, but for me, it was his ability to convey grief, mental anguish, and slow burning madness, not to mention his gift for inspiring sympathy, that made him so great in roles like these.

But the main star of the picture might just be the house itself, and the incredible set design.  The house belongs to Nicholas, but it also seems to be symbolic of his state of mind.  As the house was explored, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a ravaged brain, with the dining area and lived-in bedrooms indicative of the vital, automatic systems still functioning, but the remote areas, particularly the vast torture chamber, seemed like giant areas of a mind rotted away, where even memory no longer exists.  

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of Roger Corman’s finest offerings…creepy, unsettling, and vastly entertaining.   It’s a horror movie that proves (ready?) that you ain’t got a thing if you ain’t got that swing!

Video **1/2

Overall, this is a satisfactory non-anamorphic widescreen offering from MGM, but with a few problems worth noting.  The level of detail and sharpness is extremely good, from the wide angled panoramic shots of the house on the cliff and the ocean and shore below to the delicate intricacies of the interior design…no complaints.  Colors, however, show their age a little bit and appear slightly washed.  Neither flesh tones nor reds seem to achieve their full, honest shades.  There are occasional bits of debris on the print and a scratch here or there, but nothing too distracting given that the movie is 40 years old.  None of the aforementioned problems are distracting, nor do they detract from the overall enjoyment of the presentation…but they are worth noting from a critical point of view.

Audio ***

This is a mono recording with some style and pizzazz, with lots of creepy sound effects from the distant screams to the rumblings of the cursed machinery in the torture chamber, not to mention a very strange, dissonant and effective musical score by Les Baxter.  This is a picture where the audio really enhances the movie experience, and this DVD reproduces that very nicely.

Features ***

The highlight of the disc is a Roger Corman commentary track…a pleasant and informative listen, if occasionally a bit sparse.  He reveals, among other things, that two of his actors, John Kerr and Luana Anders went on to become respectively a highly successful doctor and writer!  There is also the original theatrical prologue (in full frame), which suggests that Corman had an even darker fate in mind for his characters than the ending of the film displayed.  In addition, there is an original trailer.

Summary:

Poe, Price and Corman combined their talents for a few memorable horror films, and The Pit and the Pendulum is one of the best.  If you like your films creepy, atmospheric and fun, enjoy this Midnite Movie offering on disc from MGM/UA.  Just watch that first step…it’s a doozy.