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The Pit and the Pendulum
review by Anthony D.
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
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
NOT an average)