Pit and the Pendulum


Year 1961

Vincent Price as  Nicholas Medina
John Kerr as Francis Barnard
Barbara Steele as Elizabeth Barnard Medina  
Luana Anders as Catherine Medina
Antony Carbone   as Doctor Charles Leon
 
Director - Roger Corman
Screenwriter - Richard Matheson

This one epitomizes the American International Pictures' horror library. It's campy and creepy at the same time.

For starters, even though the title is Edgar Allen Poe's Pit and the Pendulum, this movie is more of a "based on" than an actual retelling. Oh, both have a pendulum and a deep pit and they mention the Spanish Inquisition, but that's where it ends. To remind you of Poe's story, a captive of the Spanish Inquisition awakens in a room and must either find a way out or be killed by either falling into a deep pit or being sliced by a pendulum.

That was it with Poe. One character and the story was about how he escaped.

In the movie, there's a whole melodrama about the wife of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) dying under suspicious circumstances and how her brother Francis Barnard (John Kerr) has come to satisfy himself that the death was on the up and up. The action takes place around 1550, or about one-hundred years into the era of torture for the sake of religion, i.e. the Spanish Inquisition.

Vincent Price is the main character and he does his typical, endearing job of overacting. I really enjoyed watching him play the role of the sensitive widower who had seen his father torture and kill and his mother for infidelity. It was a good back story to explain his current precarious sanity.

Because that's what it's all about with Vincent. For one-half to two-thirds of a movie, he'll try to convince you that he's a wimp and then he'll suddenly break out like The Hulk of Sorcery. He does just this, and does it well, in this movie.

His supporting cast isn't quite up to snuff, although Luana Anders as his sister Catherine Medina does well in her part. I get this feeling that she didn't listen to Roger Corman because she seemed natural and, based on her résumé, she never worked for Corman again. John Kerr behaved as if he did listen to Corman because his sentences were filled with unnatural pauses and he changed attitudes at the drop of a hat. But then he never worked with Corman again either, so who knows?

Then there's Barabara Steele as Elizabeth Barnard Medina, Nicholas' wife. She may be the first Scream Queen. I compare her to Hedy Lamarr. Both are beautiful, but neither can be considered a serious actress. With Barbara Steele, it's as if the maker of Hedy Lamarr (you know, after they made her they broke the mold) took away a smidgen of beauty and gave her a smidgen of acting talent and produced a Scream Queen. Because she has such a small role, her disadvantages don't hamper the movie. If you want to see her in a bigger role, check out Black Sunday which she'd done the year prior to Pit and the Pendulum.

Then there's the writing. No one can tersely do an effictive back story like Richard Matheson. He's just all around competent. Don't worry about hokey dialog with him around. It'll all seem appropriate. It's all so effortless, that you have to wonder if this wouldn't have been a better movie if the he'd been given greater freedom. Or is this movie a case of the the writer stretching himself to the limit to get out what he did? I favor the former opinion and blame the director/producer for boxing in Mr. Matheson.

What's wrong with the movie? Well, the budget for one thing and Roger Corman for another. It's cheap. The same sets used here are on display in other AIP films like The Raven. You'll know your way around the castle at least as well as the actors if you've seen other AIP horror features. Also, the incongrous outside shots of the residence, from a distant appearing painting to a close up painting, are of different buildings.

What started getting on my nerves though was the padding of running time. There's the beginning of the movie, usually called the title sequence or the opening credits if the title was provided or credits were listed. Here, there is about two minutes of paint streams running over a black surface. No credits, just paint. It's as if it was added to ensure that there would be "a couple of minutes" so that the movie length would hit eighty minutes. As a side note, considering Corman's reuse of film, this may also have been the title sequence in The Raven.

Then there are the waves crashing on a rocky shore. Any time there's a scene change, add about fifteen seconds of waves crashing. Why? To pad the running time. Talk about breaking the pacing, this does it.

Then there's the whole "drive poor Nicholas crazy" scheme which is really the major part of the film. The build-up to it is well done and you can see him crack up slowly. Although when he starts hearing somone call his name it sounded more like "Ricolla" than "Nicholas". But after all of this time spent pushing him over the edge, there's never a reason given for the way he was tortured past the point of sanity. On the DVD it says something about money, but that's never mentioned in the movie. And that doesn't make sense anyway since Nicholas didn't really care about money. He would've parted with it easily, I felt, without resorting to some Byzantine plot.

So why was Nicolas driven insane? I dunno. And that really detracted from the movie. Plus the patented sixties' shock ending, which maybe makes sense if you think about it but doesn't as a knee jerk response. At least as far as karma is concerned, it fits.

There's more good about this movie than bad. Vincent Price always gains the trust of the audience and his fear becomes your fear. The idea of being buried alive is also frightening. The pendulum swinging was believable and provided a tense scene.

Speaking of Vincent Price, he was quite the classy guy, In 1963, AIP embarked on a series of beach movies and Vincent, their biggest star, appeared in a cameo role in Beach Party as Big Daddy. He just sits in a corner of the "gang's" hang-out, incognito with a straw hat over his face until, in one of the last scenes, pops up from under that hat and says, "Bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swinging! "

That alone gave Frankie and Annette credibility.

It's sixties and it's Roger Corman, but it's fun and the surprise ending, if slightly incredible, is pleasant. It's Vincent as you always want to see him. I say watch it, but don't expect "Art".


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