Pit and the Pendulum

Year: 1961
Production Co: Alta Vista Productions
Director: Roger Corman
Producer: Richard Matheson
Writer: Roger Corman
Cast: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele

This film takes the (very slight) Edgar Allan Poe short story and builds quite a cool little gothic horror mythology around it. Coming from the same spirit and aesthetic as The Terror, which followed this film a few years later, it also represented the meeting of several titans of the arts at the top of their respective fields in director Roger Corman (who wrangled this kind of mood perfectly – look at the effects shots of the gothic castle on the windswept shoreline with mists hanging ominously around its parapets or the matte painting of the pit in the climatic scene), writer Richard Matheson and star Vincent Price.

The reason Price is so good at playing both meek nobleman Nicholas Medina and his bloodthirsty Inquisitor father Sebastian is because of the unique personas he embodied. As the polite and genteel Nicholas he's apologetic, skittish and melancholy, his hangdog expression telegraphing both confusion and the need to stay welcoming to his guest.

As Sebastian – during the flashback sequence and towards the end when Nicholas' character goes through an abrupt emotional shift – Price twists that same kind old man's face into one of hatred and murder. There's a reason he was the godfather of horror performances.

His guest is English gentleman Francis, who's travelled to the home of his sister Elizabeth – Nicholas' wife – after her mysterious death. Everyone is civil and courteous as Nicholas and his own sister Catherine ask Franics to stay, but the latter's patience is fraying. Nicholas, Catherine and their family friend Dr Leon (who attended to Elizabeth) are very cagey about exactly what happened to her, whispering in hushed tones about the gradual deterioration in her spirits and the torture chamber in the castle's dungeon that was maintained by Nicholas' brutal father.

It gradually emerges that Elizabeth became sick as she obsessed over the implements of death and dismemberment below, eventually killing herself using one of them. As the source of Nicholas' terror comes out – his fear that Elizabeth might actually have been buried in the family crypt alive – strange happenings around the castle make Francis wonder if his host might not be right about her unsettled spirit wandering the halls.

Nicholas insists that they open Elizabeth's crypt to learn the truth abouth how she died, and the script by Matheson – even though still firmly in the horror genre – turns into a Hitchcockian noir of adultery and secrecy, introducing a twist that propels the movie into the third act and introduces the elements from Poe's story.

Even in the age of CGI and much higher budgets to trick the mind into believing there's a giant castle for wizards at Hogwarts or a giant gun built into the very core of a planet in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there's such a hand-tooled charm to this kind of filmmaking. I feel grateful to have been around long enough to see it in the flesh in latter films like the original Star Wars series, and if you go back through the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres a few decades from there movies are replete with it.

There's a real magic to a shot with a small live action element surrounded by a not-quite-real matte painting, and when you throw that into a scary castle with all the gothic trappings of cobwebs, tall windows and torches it generates a very evocative mood I love.

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