After the success of The House Of Usher (1960), director Roger Corman and lead actor Vincent Price would pair together in a series of films based upon the work of Edgar Allan Poe for American International Pictures that have collectively remained favorites of horror film fans for four decades. The second of these films, The Pit And the Pendulum (1961), is easily an equal of the classic The House Of Usher, and MGM recently released a very nice DVD package of the movie under its Midnite Movies line.
The Pit And the Pendulum was an interesting choice as a follow-up to The House Of Usher. Poes infamous story does not really encapsulate a large amount of timeand most of it takes place in the dark. In other words, its not a story that would seem to be good movie fodder. Indeed, famed science fiction writer Richard Matheson, who wrote The House Of Usher screenplay, literally created a screenplay for The Pit And the Pendulum that seems like genuine Poe but in fact has little to do with the authors original story until the final ten minutes. Clearly using elements of The Premature Burial and The Cask of Amontillado, as well as The Fall of the House Of Usher, Matheson crafted a genuinely creepy story about torture, revenge, adultery, and family secrets that is quite effective and unsettling.
As the movie opens, Francis Barnard (played by John Kerr) travels, at least most of the way, in a horse and buggy to the Medina castle. The driver, in a scene reminiscent of Renfields journey in Universals Dracula, refuses to approach near the castle and Francis has no choice but to complete his journey on foot. There, he meets Catherine Medina, and the audience learns Franciss motive for traveling to the Medina Castle. His sister, Elizabeth, married Catherines brother, Don Nicholas, the master of the castle (played excellently by Vincent Price), and subsequently died under mysterious circumstances. Upset by his sisters untimely demise, Francis has decided to investigate. Catherine seems open and honest, but Don Nicholass behavior is erratic and Francis believes there is more to his sisters death than meets the eye. The films story becomes much more complicated as Francis discovers the awful history of Don Nicholas, who, as a child, witnessed his father, a torturer during the Spanish Inquisition, murder his mother and uncle after learning they were having an affair. The young man also meets Dr. Leon, the physician who declared his sister dead, and soon discovers the he, too, seems to be hiding something. Revealing more of the plot would spoil some of the surprises Matheson embedded in the script, a script that is more involved and engaging than The House Of Usher, a more straightforward and obvious story.
The acting in The Pit And the Pendulum is, overall, pretty good. I found John Kerrs portrayal of the main character Francis Barnard to be a little awkward, especially in the first half of the film, though he handles the understandable aggressiveness of a young man robbed of a beloved sister well enough. Vincent Price is very good in a dual role, playing both father Sebastian Medina and son Don Nicholas Medina. Price gets to play two character types he successfully pulled off many times before. The son Don Nicholas, tortured by the sins of his father, is quite reminiscent of the Roderick Usher character Price played a year earlier. In a classic moment, Prices laments that he is the spawn of his [fathers] depraved blood. However, Price is even better in his evil moments in the filmespecially in flashback sequences when we see Sebastian murder his wife and brother. Barbara Steele, who would make quite a name for herself in European horror movies, is fantastic as Elizabeth, Don Nicholass wife. Despite the character being crucial to the plots resolution, the audience really only sees Steele for about ten minutes, and one wonders whether this was enough to merit equal billing with Price and Kerr when Luana Anders, who played Catherine Medina in a respectable and understated manner, gets supporting actress status in the credits.
MGMs reasonably priced DVD release of The Pit And the Pendulum comes loaded with extras. The most notable of these are a running commentary by director Roger Corman himself. Corman also provided the commentary for The House Of Usher DVD release. While his commentary here is interesting, its a little disappointing compared to that in The House Of Usher. During the second half of the film, he seems to have run out of things to say, and there are quite a few lengthy pauses. When he does comment, sometimes he says things that are actually quite obvious to the viewer. Still, Cormans manner is quite pleasant, and its fun to listen to him expound his version of Freudian psychology because it did shape the films plot and presentation. Also included are the original theatrical trailer and an interesting five-minute piece curiously titled Original Theatrical Prologue. This prologue features Luana Anders in a mental institution trying to convince the crazed inmates that everything she has said is true. The whole ordeal is very over-the-top and contrived. MGM made the right decision in including this scene as an extra and not pasted at the beginning of the film itself. I say this for several reasons: (1) the prologue is in full-frame format while the film is presented in its original theatrical widescreen format; (2) one wonders if this prologue was actually filmed later to increase the movies length for television; (3) the prologue is, obviously, from Catherines perspective while the film seems to be centered upon Franciss perspective; (4) Catherine seems very level-headed in the movie, and the script very tastefully implies a possible romantic interest between Catherine and Francis that I would like to think would blossom at some point after the films climax. The prologue, however, ruins this possibility; and (5) without spoiling the ending, at least three other sane people are alive after the conclusion who would be able to corroborate Catherines story (and would have no reason not to do so).
The Pit And the Pendulum is a very worthy follow-up to the classic House Of Usher. Roger Corman and Vincent Price made several good Poe sequels after The Pit And the Pendulummost notably The Masque of the Red Death The Premature Burial, The Tomb of Ligeia, and, of course, the infamous The Raven, a horror comedy that paired Vincent Price with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and a young Jack Nicholson. One hopes that MGM will continue releasing these horror gems in similar nice packages as they have with The Pit And the Pendulum and The House Of Usher.