The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

pit and the pendulum poster 1961 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 9/10

Solid horror thriller, Vincent Price


Movie Info

Movie Name:   The Pit and the Pendulum

Studio:   Alta Vista Productions

Genre(s):   Horror

Release Date(s):   August 12, 1961

MPAA Rating:   Not Rated

pit and the pendulum vincent prince costume

We all go a little mad sometimes

Francis Barnard (John Kerr) has come to the castle of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to find out the cause behind the death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele).  Barnard suspects her husband Nicholas who is himself traumatized by his past and his father’s impliments of torture he used in the Spanish Inquisition.  When Nicholas begins being haunted by images of Elizabeth, Barnard questions if Nicholas, Nicholas’ sister Catherine (Luana Anders), the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay), or even Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) could be behind the strange happenings…the truth could be even scarier.

Directed by Roger Corman, The Pit and the Pendulum is a horror film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 story.  The film is the second in Corman’s “Poe” films and follows The Fall of the House of Usher in 196o (though The Masque of Red Death was planned but similarities to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal pushed that production off until 1964).  The filmed was well received by critics and fans.

pit and the pendulum john kerr

Getting closer

There is just something horrific about a slow death where you can see the death slowly approaching you.  The idea of a giant razor-sharp blade swinging crossways above your stomach slowly, slowly lowering is pretty terrifying.  Having not much to go on in Poe’s original story, Richard Mattheson scripted a rather decent thriller based upon the concept…it just takes a while to get there.

Mattheson’s script combines aspects of other Poe stories with the idea of premature burial.  This and torture scenes lead up to the horror that unfolds at the end.  It is a little extreme (this was pre-fingerprints etc) and I think there are easier ways to steal someone’s fortune.  Regardless, the ending sequence when Price cracks is horrific and has a few twists (including a great ending shot).

Price is at his best when he’s allowed to act loony, and his character in the movie is over-the-top most of the film.  This works great with his style and performance (though like other movies with Price, you’d have to question why all the other characters would give him this much leeway).  Everyone else essentially plays the straight man to Price’s performance, but I do like Barbara Steele as the scorned wife (who doesn’t seem to care much about her brother’s thoughts that she was dead).

pit and the pendulum barbara steele iron maiden

Um…hey, I know most of this was my fault but can you help a sister out?

The film is really propelled by the visuals.  Corman had bigger than normal budgets on the Poe pictures and it works because he knows how to utilize the budgets.  The colors pop and the nice gothic set pieces are fun and creepy.  Corman increased the speed of the pendulum by removing frames to make it appear it is going even faster in the tense scene.

The Fall of the House of Usher generally gets the most praise of the Corman Poe films, but The Pit and the Pendulum feels more universally appealing.  People who wants more scares and gore get it and the people who want gothic creeping horror also get it.  It meanders a bit, but the relatively short film gives you a good payoff.  Corman followed The Pit and the Pendulum with The Premature Burial in 1962.

Related Links:

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

The Premature Burial (1962)

Tales of Terror (1962)

The Masque of Red Death (1964)

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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