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.