American International Pictures took a chance by letting Roger Corman make a passion project, the Poe adaptation House Of Usher, on a slightly better-than-usual schedule and budget. Once Corman’s instincts were validated via box office profits, it was inevitable that A.I.P. would want more of the same (and fast!). Corman would comply by making a string of Poe adaptations throughout the first half of the ‘60s. The first of the followups was Pit And The Pendulum, which cleverly retains a lot of the elements that made House Of Usher a hit while upping the ante in other areas.
Adapting Pit And The Pendulum was a challenge because it is only a few pages long and is more of a gruesome vignette than a story. Richard Matheson rose to the challenge by preserving the short story for the film’s third act and concocting new first and second acts that follow the narrative template of House Of Usher. This time, the hero is Francis (John Kerr), who arrives at the home of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) as the story begins. The reason is this: his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) married Nicholas recently — and died under mysterious circumstances.
At first, Francis is convinced that Nicholas is responsible and Nicholas doesn’t help things by being secretive. However, Francis gets a new perspective when he interacts with Catherine (Luana Anders), the sister of Nicholas, and learns about Nicholas’ all-consuming love for Catherine as well as the morbid, tragic history of the Medina family. Strange things also begin to occur, suggesting that the supernatural is at play… and that Catherine is neither alive nor entirely dead. The final answer to the mystery lies in a secret torture chamber of the home where the titular instruments are kept.
As the above synopsis reveals, Matheson didn’t stray too far from the basic elements of House Of Usher: there’s a mysterious family castle full of hidden secrets, a novice hero trying to solve a mystery, a premature burial, a family crypt under the house, an apparent villain who seems more tragic than treacherous, etc. However, the author does clever work within these conventions to create a story that is packed with plot twists and more aggressively paced than House Of Usher. The Poe story it is drawn from also lends to it a different, more suspenseful sort of finale.
Similarly, Corman’s directing style is more forceful in its approach to this material. He goes for a more stylized approach, with a number of visually baroque flashbacks and a climactic reel that brings out all the optical, editing and lens-distortion tricks that he could muster up on an A.I.P. budget. His technical team supports his efforts nicely: Floyd Crosby’s cinematography gives the castle sets a spooky, shadowy look, Daniel Haller’s sets establish the right gothic style and Les Baxter’s score is packed with all the requisite blood-and-thunder musical touches.
The Pit And The Pendulum also boasts two appropriately outsized performances to match the go-for-broke storytelling approach. Price gets to give his range a real workout, creating a performance that conveys madness, sorrow, gleeful evil and a fear-induced loss of sanity depending on what the story demands. He hits all these marks with aplomb and makes it all compelling the viewer. Steele has a smaller role as “dead or not?” wife but she gets to put the eerie presence she showed in Black Sunday to the test, including a great shock moment in the family crypt. Compratively, Kerr and Anders do subtle work that keeps the plot’s machinations on track and they acquit themselves nicely (but it’s Price and Steele who do the work that will thrill horror fans).
In short, Pit And The Pendulum might be the most purely entertaining of Corman’s Poe film cycle, a real rollercoaster that delivers both thrills and spills in an ostentatious, joyfully macabre manner.