Pit and the Pendulum
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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

When his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) dies mysteriously, her brother Francis Barnard (John Kerr) travels to Spain to inquire of her husband, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), the manner of her death. When all Francis can get from Nicholas is that she died from 'something in the blood,' he continues to press for answers, against the advice of Nicholas' sister Catherine (Luana Anders), who fears that Elizabeth's death has brought Nicholas almost to the brink of insanity. Before the night is through, she will be proven right.

Pit and the Pendulum is loosely based on a short story, The Pit and the Pendulum, written by American author Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842. The story was adapted for the movie by American science fiction writer Richard Matheson. Pit and the Pendulum is the second in a series of film adaptations of Poe's stories by British producer/director Roger Corman. Other films in the series include: House of Usher (1960), Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964).

An iron maiden is a torture device inside which a victim can be placed. The iron maiden looks like an iron cabinet with a door. The victim is locked inside with only a small opening so that s/he can still be interrogated. Sometimes the iron maiden contains internal spikes that serve to pierce the victim when changing position or falling asleep. Iron maidens can also contain holes through which the interrogator can stab the victim with sharp objects, e.g., knives, spikes, or nails.

Certain that he buried his wife alive and that Elizabeth has now returned from the dead to exact her revenge, Nicholas goes in search of her, winding up down in the crypt where he sees her rising from a coffin. In an attempt to escape her, Nicholas falls down the stone steps into the torture chamber. Meanwhile, Catherine, Francis, Doctor Leon have noticed that Nicholas is missing and have gone in search of him. It is Leon who finds both Nicholas and Elizabeth in the torture chamber, Nicholas lying on the floor, obviously driven insane. Leon attempts to bring Nicholas out of it. When Nicholas doesn't respond, Leon and Elizabeth gloat over the success of their plan to drive him insane. Thinking that Nicholas is catatonic, Elizabeth taunts him with the similarities between their situation and that of Nicholas' parents, his father Sebastian having caught his mother Isabella committing adultery with his uncle Bartolome, leading Sebastian, the chief Inquisitor, to torture them and to bury Isabella alive. Nicholas suddenly awakens from his stupor and laughs, but he is no longer Nicholas. He has taken on the personality of Sebastian. After locking Elizabeth in an iron maiden, he goes looking for Leon, but Leon has fallen into the pit. At that moment, Francis comes down the stairs looking for Nicholas. In his madness, Nicholas mistakes Francis for Leon, knocks him out, and ties him to a platform directly beneath the swinging, razor-sharp pendulum. As the pendulum swings lower and lower, Catherine comes downstairs and hears the mechanism working. She fetches the servant Maximilian, and they break down the door into the torture chamber. Nicholas tries to knock out Maximilian but falls into the pit. Just in the nick of time, they are able to reverse the pendulum and free Francis. In the final scene, Catherine, Francis, and Maximilian exit the torture chamber, locking the door behind him. Just before the door closes, Catherine says, "No one will ever enter this room again." The camera pans to the iron maiden, where Elizabeth still sits, bound and gagged, only her eyes showing the terror for the hell that she knows awaits her.

That part of the movie seems to be confusing to several viewers who wonder how Elizabeth could first be seen as a terrified corpse in the coffin in which she was apparently buried alive, then taking on flesh and blood and rising from the coffin, and finally turning out to be Dr. Leon's (Antony Carbone)'s lover. The truth is that Elizabeth was never dead. The whole thing was a scheme by Elizabeth and Leon to drive Nicholas insane. The corpse in the coffin was undoubtedly placed there by the doctor (an ex-patient?) to make Nicholas think Elizabeth was buried alive. When they knew that he was on the brink of insanity, Elizabeth simply baited Nicholas to come down to the burial vaults where she was waiting in the coffin to "rise from the dead" and push him over the edge. To say that things didn't turn out quite as plotted is putting it mildly.

Poe's story is very simple. A man condemned by the ongoing Spanish Inquisition in Toledo is imprisoned in a darkened cell with a deep pit into which it is expected he should fall. When he becomes aware of and manages to avoid the pit, he is drugged and awakens to find himself strapped to a table under a razor-sharp pendulum aimed at his heart. The story revolves around the mindset of an individual placed in a hopeless situation, despair upon despair at the thought of freeing himself. The movie includes the pendulum scene near the end, but the rest of the story is fleshed out. As producer/director Roger Corman explained:


The method we adopted on The Pit and the Pendulum was to use the Poe short story as the climax for a third act to the motion picture, because a two-page short story is not about to give you a ninety-minute motion picture. We then constructed the first two acts in what we hoped was a manner faithful to Poe, as his climax would run only a short time on the screen.-From Di Franco, J. Philip (editor). The Movie World of Roger Corman, 1979
A second noticeable deviation between story and film is that Poe set his story in the early 1800s, evidenced by the protagonist's rescue by General La Salle during the liberation of Toledo from the hands of the Inquisition, a true historical event that took place in 1808. In the movie, the setting is switched to the 16th century, evidenced by the date on the crypt of Elizabeth Medina: 1517-1546.

Yes. "The Pit and the Pendulum " is in the public domain and available for reading and/or downloading from several sites on the Internet, e.g., Literature.org.


* The image of the eerie castle on the edge of the cliff isn't actually a real castle--it's a very detailed matte painting.

* Writer Richard Matheson was also a writer for such hit movies as Jaws 3-D (1983), Dead of Night (1977), Somewhere in Time (1980), and The Omega Man (1971).

* To increase the pendulum's sense of deadly menace, Corman took out every other frame during the editing stage, making the blade appear to move twice as fast!
Source: Midnite Movies: The Pit and the Pendulum (2001) (V).

Yes. Besides Pit and the Pendulum, Corman made seven other movies based on Poe's tales. These include House of Usher (1960), Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). All, except for Premature Burial star Vincent Price.

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