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The Pit and the Pendulum

review by Anthony D.

Studio: MGM

Starring Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone

Screenplay by Richard Matheson

Directed by Roger Corman

Retail Price: $14.98

Features: Original Theatrical Trailer, Unused Prologue, Director Commentary

Specs: 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital Mono, French Dolby Digital Mono, English Closed Captions, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

MGM's "Midnite Movies" moniker has been proving to be quite popular, and why not? These "Midnite Movies" are giving a new life to the films released through Roger Corman's American International Pictures: well-crafted, atmospheric chillers filmed cheaply and hurriedly, but constantly entertaining. Corman took director's reins in hand for 1961's "Pit and the Pendulum," the title which appears on the opening credits, whereas the packaging states "THE Pit and the Pendulum," a truly chilling feature"based" on a story by Edgar Allen Poe. Like the majority of A.I.'s Poe films, this one shares nothing with that story, except its title. Titular issues aside, "The Pit and the Pendulum" is indeed a nifty little thriller, NOT a horror film, with a very fine, if hammy, Vincent Price at the peak of his thespian powers. To his credit, though, if there is any acotr who could play over the top, and still capture the audience's sympathy, it is Price.

In its brief running time, "The Pit and the Pendulum" manages to tell two haunting interconnecting tales at the same time, in the end though, it is all the same story. Screenwriter Richard Matheson ("What Dreams May Come," "Somewhere in Time") lets the past inform the present with every stroke of his pen, allowing history to repeat itself.

The tale to be told is that of the Medina family, presently represented by Don Medina (Price) and Catherine (Luana Anders) mourning the death of Don's beloved wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth has been dead for three months when her brother Francis (John Kerr) arrives to investigate the death of his sister. Francis arrives at the bulking Medina castle, somewhere on the rugged Spanish coast, to be greeted with apprehension and mendacity from the Medina clan. Upon seeing a portrait of the late Medina patriarch, Sebastian, Francis realizes that he is in the home of one of the Spanish Inquisition's most notorious torturers, rating nearly as high on the Inquisition's list as Torquemada! Pat and present fuse as Francis is given a tour of the castle's dungeon with all of its devices of torture: a rack, an iron maiden, etc and the grave of his sister Elizabeth, who has been interred in the walls of the basement. Or has she? Strange things are afoot over at the Medina place: a harpsichord which plays by itself, Elizabeth's ring magically appearing on the scene, whispered instructions to a hapless maid, and a ghostly feminine voice calling out Don Medina's name. Further complications ensue when, with the help of the family doctor who pronounced Elizabeth dead, Elizabeth's grave is exhumed and it is found that Elizabeth had been buried alive! Just as Don and Catherine's mother had been buried alive by their father! Have the sins of the father come back to haunt the son? Has Elizabeth truly returned from the grave to wreak vengeance on her husband? Will Don Medina's ever-increasing insanity lead to the murder of Francis for knowing too many family secrets? Once that pendulum begins to swing its razor-sharp blade will Francis' remains remain ensconced in the blood pit with the skeletons of the pendulum's endless array of victims? These questions will, and many more, will be answered as surely as the pendulum swings both ways, all topped off with a final zinger in a class by itself.

The non-anamorphic widescreen presentation (2.35:1) is not without its share of prroblems, I must unhappily report. "Pit and the Pendulum" far too frequently shows its age with speckles cascading down the screen like snowflakes in July. There are some truly hideous red marks (NOT intentional) which look like someone took a marking pen to cover scratches at one point late in the film. These imperfections aside, what remains to be seen is well worth seeing. The castle's sets, leftover from "The Fall of the House Usher," are brilliantly executed, looking rather life-like. The wide screen allows the viewer to register the castle in all its disturbing spaciousness. The actors' skin is so accurately depicted that one can easily trace the eye-liner on Vincent Price's heavily made up face, while all other aspects of the flesh are rendered true. Fabrics actually show texture within their subtle hues, varying degrees of browns and black, which are richly preserved. The film may suffer from a degree of being overly contrasted, though: the bathe of key lights is often evident when three actors' heads are framed left to right across the frame, and the dungeon's, as well as the pit's dankness seems a little less dark than they might be.

In addition to the serviceable English mono track, the disc contains a mono French track as well, and Vincent Price might even be more frightening in French than he is in English. Les Baxter's eclectic score is quite lively, and never overpowers the film; unlike the MGM logo frame with its bombastic loudness.

MGM has enlisted the film's producer/director Roger Corman for a highly informative Director's Commentary. Never dull, though very soft-spoken, Corman offers up a delectable taste of "on-the-fly" moviemaking. Genre fans will not be disappointed by Corman's friendly chat. The film's Original Theatrical Trailer is sharp, though tattered by age. Of special interest is the exceedingly rare film Prologue. This long introduction to one of the film's central character is an amazing blend of "The Snake Pit" and "Suddenly, Last Summer," with the film's Catherine now ensconced in a lunatic asylum, being nearly raped by male inmates and begging that her tale be believed. The prologue is presented in full-frame, and wisely was not inserted into the film as it adds nothing to the film, and would negate the film's final shocking shot. The back cover includes three Fun Facts about the film itself.

Modestly priced, must be that lack of an insert, "The Pit and the Pendulum" deserves to be seen by genre fans. Never dull, and constantly surprising, the film is sure to entertain despite its lack of blood and guts; it is a film which allows the audience to fill in the blanks with their own vivid imaginations. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is an elegant valentine to the talents of Edgar Allen Poe and the nightmares he gave to his readers, as well as to Roger Corman's dedication to bringing Poe's name to the screen.

(3.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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