The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

A loose — very loose — adaption of the Edgar Allan Poe story, this film was written by Richard Mattheson*, directed by Roger Corman and learns from the success of The Fall of the House of Usher by bringing back much of its creative team — cinematographer Floyd Crosby, art director Daniel Haller and composer Les Baxter — which led to six more Poe adaptions.

I often bring up the influence of Italian horror cinema on the films of other countries, I can freely admit that the Corman Poe adaptations had to have made a major impression on Mario Bava**.

Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr, South Pacific) visits the castle of his brother-in-law Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to figure out what has happened to his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). There’s a bad excuse — Elizabeth died of a blood disorder — and no real details, so Francis decides to remain until he gets his answers.

Soon, he learns that his sister died from fright, at which point Nicholas confesses that the oppressive nature of his family home obsessed his wife until she began to play with the torture devices, locking herself into the iron maiden while repeatedly saying the name Sebastian. So yeah, Nicholas is a mess, but who can blame him? His father was one of the main torturers of the Spanish Inquisition and as a child, he watched his dad kill his brother Sebastian, who was cuckolding him, before torturing his wife until she died.

This is one of those times in life when you shouldn’t ask questions you aren’t ready to hear, because the true story is that Nicholas walled his wife into the castle — that’s another Poe story, The Cask of Armadillo — and now “if Elizabeth Medina walks the corridors of this castle, it is her spirit, not her living self.”

Even the idea of a premature burial — Nicholas claims his wife was dead — upsets the rich noble, so when they cut through the wall and find her corpse, which died trying to claw her way out, he finally loses his mind. He keeps hearing his wife calling to him, begging him to come into the torture chamber.

And we haven’t even got to the pit and the pendulum yet!

I’m so obsessed by this movie that my old band had an entire song called “Truth” that was pretty much me singing one of Price’s rants from the film as he reveals how the torture chamber obsessed his wife. And has any image been so stunning as Barbara Steele’s eyes looking out from the darkness?

If you haven’t seen this — fix that right now.

*In The Movie World of Roger Corman, Matheson explained how he wrote the Poe movies: “The method we adopted on The Pit and the Pendulum was to use the Poe short story as the climax for a third act to the motion picture… because a two-page short story is not about to give you a ninety-minute motion picture. We then constructed the first two acts in what we hoped was a manner faithful to Poe, as his climax would run only a short time on the screen.”

**In an interview with Tim Lucas in Video WatchdogThe Whip and the Body screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi claimed that the producers of that film showed him a print of The Pit and the Pendulum and said, “Give us something like this.”

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