“THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM” (1961) (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)
As a producer, Roger Corman has made some truly terrible movies. As a result, his name is more likely to recall a crappy Syfy monster picture, or even an 80s ALIEN ripoff than anything of true merit. That’s a shame, because he’s actually quite a fine director with an incredibly smart approach to making movies that I wish even one-tenth of the major filmmakers working today would follow. Corman did “crazy” things, like plan the shots, and discuss characters with his actors before shooting, bringing everyone on the same page and keeping on-set tension and issues to a bare minimum (they also had completed scripts before that point, another thing that would be too much to ask for nowadays).
For example, look no further than his Edgar Allan Poe-based films on the new Vincent Price boxed set from Scream Factory, which account for two-thirds of its content. Corman never shined brighter as a filmmaker than in his Poe cycle, which lasted eight films (seven of which starred Price) beginning with 1960’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, and remain the best of his work. But the “series” wouldn’t have existed if USHER’s success didn’t pave the way for 1961’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, even bigger hit that cemented AIP’s faith in Corman’s adaptations of classic Poe stories; they were hesitant to put up the money for USHER, afraid that audiences would reject it for lacking a monster. Eventually, they essentially ran out of stories to adapt (one, THE HAUNTED PALACE, just took the name of a Poe story but actually adapted a Lovecraft tale!) and the line of films died. It never did get better than the first entries, however.
That said, PENDULUM is practically a remake of USHER. Each begins with a young man who arrives at an isolated castle and demands to see its owner, played in both films by Price. Again, the young man is there because of his concern about a shared loved one, though the roles are swapped; in USHER it was his fiancé/Price’s sister, but here it’s his sibling, married to Price’s character Nicholas, who has died mysteriously. Or did she? Since Barbara Steele plays her, you can safely assume her role won’t be limited to a few portraits and flashbacks, and it’s a shame that the plot demands she share almost zero screentime with the legend. Most of the film is devoted to our protagonist Francis (John Kerr) as he attempts to uncover if she’s really departed or not, while getting some insight into the family’s past from Nicholas’ sister Catherine (Luana Anders).
Of course, if you’ve read the story, you may wonder what the hell any of this has to do with what Poe described. Needless to say, as written, the story wouldn’t make for a very exciting (or even feature length) movie, so Corman and frequent collaborator Richard Matheson came up with two acts that have nothing to do with it. Even the few details he offered, such as the Inquisition setting, are ignored*. But as you might expect, it all leads to the titular torture device, one of many such machinations (including an iron maiden) in the basement of the castle, and the script finds ways to reference other Poe stories to even it out. One character is walled up like in THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO, and again, there are elements of USHER throughout.
But the similarities to the previous film had a unique perk: Corman was able to reuse its sets and props and add them to the new materials, thus the film looks more expensive than it really was. Again shooting in widescreen and full color, the film takes on a bit of a Hammer feel (something Corman admits was an influence), making it much classier than you might expect given the pedigree. He also has a terrific, smart approach to how he presents PIT. With Poe’s stories often being vague and of the unconscious mind, Corman specifically avoids showing the “real world” (both this and USHER begin with our protagonists nearing the end of their long journey from traditional civilization), and doesn’t bother with establishing the exact time and place, putting the viewer at unease just as they would be reading one of Poe’s macabre tales. And Corman keeps the camera moving. He roves and shows off the great sets, unlike the typically cramped look of today’s low budget horror.
In short, you can learn a thing or two from Corman, and I don’t mean how to merely turn one dollar into two. His commentary track isn’t as chatty as the one that accompanies USHER, but it’s still full of insight on how to make the best movie you can with limited resources, and also how to adapt something that might not work for a feature film as originally written. He also carries an infectious tone of voice when telling stories, relaying them almost like jokes, with the punch line being how he cheated or saved money somehow, and still got a great shot or scene out of the deal.
Perhaps because of the film’s similarity to USHER, he didn’t have as much to say (I believe they were recorded around the same time), but it’s still a fine track. The only feature besides an intro from Price (recorded for an Iowa PBS affiliate; nearly every movie on the set has one) is a peculiar prologue that was shot for the film’s television debut. Apparently the movie was too short to fit into a normal programming block, so one of Corman’s assistants shot a quick scene featuring Catherine, who is for some reason in an asylum and telling the story of the movie in flashback. It doesn’t fit at all (and presumably had no equivalent epilogue to pay it off), but it’s an interesting inclusion all the same.
Along with USHER, the other Poe/Corman/Price films on the set are THE HAUNTED PALACE and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, with later Price vehicles WITCHFINDER GENERAL and the awesome THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES finishing things off. All six films are hitting Blu-ray for the first time, and they all have commentaries and other goodies (plus the box comes with a fine booklet that includes an essay on Price and lots of promotional art), making it a must-own for Price fans. But it also works as a way to remind younger viewers that Roger Corman is far too talented a filmmaker to be thought of as “the producer of SHARKTOPUS”, and that for every infamous cheapie like THE TERROR (mostly shot in four days, with several directors, on sets that were about to be torn down), there’s a movie like PENDULUM that was the one to beat back then and still holds up today.
*Likely for budget; it’s ironic then that Charles Band, Corman’s heir apparent in making low budget genre fare, would retain the original setting for 1991’s PIT AND THE PENDULUM, directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Lance Henriksen as the villainous inquisitor.
For more on Scream Factory’s fantastic Vincent Price set, see our piece on THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER here.