#15: Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum
One of the better entries in Corman’s Poe cycle
Initial release: 1961
Director: Roger Corman
Hot on the heels of the critical success of House of Usher, Roger Corman’s next project was to continue with Poe as a theme for his films, starting a film cycle that ran for about five years and, depending on how strict you are about the Poe connection, encompassing anywhere from seven to nine films. He would launch this “cinematic universe” with a loose adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum. And when I say loose, I mean… well, you know… it’s Corman.
Granted, the actual pit and the actual pendulum are there. The specter of the Spanish Inquisition looms large. But these only really come together in the film’s climax; the rest of the film is a gothic drama about a 16th-century Englishman investigating his sister’s death.
That’s not to say this is a bad film, or even a bad adaptation. The problem with adapting Poe is that he crams so much into so little space, so it’s difficult to really create a full-length movie out of a scant few pages of poetry. The climax at least conveys the story’s terror.
It’s worth noting that while this IS still a Corman film, it’s notably more constrained in terms of cheese than some of his other films. The lighting is a little darker, the set design a little gloomier. the story is a little more robust.
Vincent Price is here, of course, acting rings around everyone else. But luckily for him, the film is good enough on its own merits that it doesn’t really need him to carry it. John Kerr as the other male lead holds his own well enough against Price, who thanks to his frequent villainous roles will always be considered suspect to those familiar with his work. And yet his only actual villainy in this film seems to be when his character is seemingly possessed by the spirit of his inquisitor father. Sadly, that’s the film’s biggest flaw: dumb twists.
I suppose that’s to be expected when dealing with films this old, though. a lot of the things films do now that we take for granted were more effective back when they were new; this is arguably true for any storytelling medium, from literature to video games.
In spite of all that, compare this to Masque of the Red Death and it’s clear that Corman (and writer Richard Matheson) had a lot more steam early in the Poe cycle than by the time the cycle reached its conclusion in 1964.