The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)Synopsis: Betrayal Cuts Both Ways!

Happily-ever-after goes under the knife in this “eerie [and] excellent” (The Hollywood Reporter) saga of murder, madness and forbidden desire. Starring Hollywood horror great Vincent Price, this “spine-tingling thriller” (Redbook Magazine) is a “lush, elegant and bloody” (Cue) tale of razor-sharp terror! Haunted by horrifying childhood memories, the son (Price) of the Spanish Inquisition’s most notorious assassin teeters on the brink of insanity. But when his adulterous wife fakes her own death to drive him over the edge, she soon discovers that betrayal cuts both ways – as the man she wants to destroy becomes not only her judge and jury – but also her executioner!


The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) 7.75

eyelights: Vincent Price. its pit and pendulum set. its tale of descent into madness. its twist.
eyesores: its many similarities to ‘House of Usher’.

“The atmosphere is heavy in here.”

‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is a feature-length motion picture based on Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous short story. After the wild success of ‘House of Usher‘ in 1960, American International Pictures wanted more of it and proceeded to get director Roger Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson to hammer another Poe picture.

‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ exceeded even its predecessor’s success, becoming AIP’s biggest hit yet.

Released in 1961, the picture is set in 16th century Spain and finds Francis Barnard visiting his sister at her spouse Don Medina’s coastal castle. Upon his arrival, however, he discovers that she’s been dead for over three months, leading him to investigate her unexpected passing. He soon uncovers dark, deadly secrets…

…secrets that could lead to his own demise.

Though it’s one of the most popular of the AIP/Roger Corman “Edgar Allan Poe” series of films (of which there would eventually be eight), it’s also a fairly unoriginal and inconsistent one; it borrows heavily from the plot points of its forbear, ‘House of Usher’, and its central pivot is a whiplash performance by Vincent Price.

Let’s compare the plot points of ‘House of Usher’ and ‘Pit and the Pendulum’:

(MAJOR spoilers warning)

HOS: Set in a large remote mansion. TPATP: Set in a large remote castle.

HOS: Philip rides a horse to the visit his fiancé. TPATP: Francis is taken by carriage to visit his sister.

HOS: Upon his arrival, Philip is refused entry by the butler. TPATP: Upon his arrival, Francis is refused entry by the butler.

HOS: The butler’s excuse is that Philip’s fiancé is unwell. TPATP: The butler’s excuse is that Francis’ brother-in-law is unwell.

HOS: Philip discovers that his fiancé is, in fact, dying. TPATP: Francis discovers that his sister is, in fact, dead.

HOS: Philip sees a gloomy change in his fiancé. TPATP: Francis is told of a gloomy change in his sister.

HOS: Philip is told about the family’s dark secrets by his host. TPATP: Francis is told the family’s dark secrets by his sister-in-law.

HOS: The mansion has a crypt in its bowels. TPATP: The castle has a torture chamber in its bowels.

HOS: Philip’s fiancé is laid to rest in the family crypt. TPATP: Francis’ sister is laid to rest behind a brick wall in the basement.

HOS: Philip’s fiancé has been purposely interned alive. TPATP: Francis’ sister has been mistakenly interned alive.

HOS: Philip’s fiancé loses her sanity. TPATP: Francis’ brother-in-law loses his sanity.

Now, admittedly, Corman and Matheson had to invent two acts’ worth of material to pad a story that could only fit at the tail end, and they had very little time to do it in. From that perspective, they did a remarkable job. However, if one has just seen ‘House of Usher’, ‘Pit and the Pendulum’ feels like more of the same.

Thankfully, there are a few nice touches, such as the flashbacks to Nicholas’ traumatic childhood experiences in the torture chamber, shot in a dreamy monochrome by Corman. And there are all those moments in which Elizabeth appears to be haunting the castle, which add chills and a layer of mystery to the proceedings.

But, otherwise, the films’ first two acts are more alike than not.

The fact that Vincent Price is the host in both certainly doesn’t help, as he’s a force of nature, taking up all the space whenever he’s on screen. Though his performance was more subtle in ‘Usher’, here he gleefully chews the scenery. Sadly, it only works when Nicholas is delightfully insane, with a glimmer in his eye and a twisted grin.

It feels campy the rest of the time.

To make matters worse, his counterpart, John Kerr, is extremely forceful in his delivery, making of Francis a grating, rude, abrupt individual who is difficult to sympathize with. Perhaps it was the only way to counterbalance Price’s performance but, between the two, the picture’s camp factor is amped up considerably.

In some ways, it’s what makes ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ so delicious – because, if we allow ourselves to get caught up in the ridiculousness, in the madcap performances and many plot fake-outs, the picture’s finale becomes pure delight. After all, seriously, is there anything more mental than the titular setting and contraption?

And it’s indeed quite a sight: though the matte painting is hardly convincing, the overall effect is stunning; one feels transported to the bowels of Hell, to a desolate, evil place from which there is no escape. And, in the close ups, we are pulled into Don Medina’s madness, swinging his massive creaking pendulum over the stone slab.


Ultimately, that’s what remains after watching ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. Forget the carbon-copy plot points and the outrageous performance: one remembers being locked up in that cave with death hanging over the heads of Francis and Nicholas. Frankly, that alone is worth the price of admission and the repetitive first hour.

And then there’s the chill-inducing twist…

Story: 7.0
Acting: 6.5
Production: 7.5

Chills: 4.0
Gore: 2.0
Violence: 2.0

Date of viewing: January 19, 2017

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