The Pit and the Pendulum is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous and fantastically frightening works. A short story named after the deadly and devious torture device that features in the tale’s climax it describes a prisoner’s torments in incarceration during the Spanish Inquisition.
Terrifyingly tense, Poe perfectly crafts a true sense of fear in the reader emphasizing the reality of the main characters horrific situation describing every detail from the sounds to the feel building to his ultimate entrapment in the menacing machine, a giant swinging scythe-like pendulum which drops closer and closer to the bound victim bringing death ever nearer.
Although immensely atmospheric, one thing The Pit and the Pendulum does not have is a lot of detail about the character, the background story or overall situation making it a superior short piece of prose but seemingly not very appropriate when it comes to a film adaptation.
Thankfully in the hands of director Roger Corman and the legendary Vincent Price the story is transformed with the brilliant script by writer Richard Matheson expanding the tale and offering up what could almost be considered a sequel to Poe’s story.
Opening on the ominous Spanish castle of the Medina family perched at the edge of a cliff over the crashing sea, we are introduced to Francis Barnard (John Kerr) an Englishman who has journeyed to discover the truth behind the death of his sister Elizabeth (Black Sunday’s Barbara Steele), the wife of the castle’s owner, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price).
Angry and in need of answers Francis questions Nicholas’s sister Catherine (Luana Anders) and the Doctor Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) who saw to her before she died and helped have her entombed but finds no satisfaction in their somewhat suspicious stories.
Finally the grief stricken Nicholas admits the truth that Francis’s sister had died of fright after became obsessed with the disturbing and disgusting torture chamber installed and voraciously used by his father Sebastian Medina, a notorious member of the Spanish Inquisition who killed his own wife and brother when he found out they were having an affair.
Seemingly drawing matters to a close the residents of the eerie castle retire for the night but after the whole house hears a haunting harpsichord and Elizabeth’s locked room is trashed seemingly by a poltergeist events escalate in an ever increasingly ghastly way as Nicholas is driven to the brink of insanity believing not only that he buried his wife alive but now her ghost has returned for her revenge.
Adding in a brilliant story that draws on familiar themes and motifs from Poe’s work including his preoccupation with premature burial, Matheson’s second script for Corman after the wonderful House of Usher is gripping and compelling pushing the audience onwards towards the terrible climax which reveals not only the truth to all involved but the pit and the pendulum we have been waiting to see.
With excellent sets designed by art director Daniel Haller who worked on nearly all of the eight films in Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe series the fill looks luscious especially with Arrow’s brilliant Blu-ray conversion which is packed with extras including a new documentary on the making of the movie, an added sequence from 1968, Price reading Poe’s work and an audio commentary with Roger Corman himself.
The film frequently plays with the audience keeping the supernatural elements ambiguous and Francis’s investigation is punctuated with colour blocked flashbacks not only into Elizabeth’s life but also Nicholas’s abusive childhood.
All these inventive added story elements elevate the film far above a simple adaptation as does Price’s terrific performance playing both the meek and grief stricken Nicholas, always balancing on the edge of madness, as well as his father the evil and malicious Sebastian, the sick and twisted inventor of the devilish torture device.
Capturing the feeling of fear and doom as well as deeply unsettling aspects of Poe’s story the 1961 version of The Pit and the Pendulum also manages to deliver a cracking tale full of guilt, insanity and brutal betrayal that will capture your attention as if you were strapped underneath the swinging blade yourself.