Francis Barnard goes to Spain, when he hears his sister Elizabeth has died. Her husband Nicholas Medina, the son of the brutest torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, tells him she has died of a blood disease, but Francis finds this hard to believe. After some investigating he finds out that it was extreme fear that was fatal to his sister and that she may have been buried alive! Strange things then start to happen in the Medina castle.Written by
Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>
Right after the success of "House of Usher", director Roger Corman wanted to make another adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Masque of the Red Death", however, he felt that it was not the time for that project and decided to make the short story "Pit and the Pendulum". Reunited with Vincent Price and most of the crew of his previous film, Corman crafted another brilliant entry in the Gothic horror sub genre and a film that proved that the praise for "House of Usher" was well-deserved and not a mere lucky strike.
The plot follows Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) on his trip to Spain as he has received news of the death of his beloved sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). At his arrival, he is informed by Elizabeth's widower, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), that she died of a strange blood disease, but strange events begin to happen and both men will discover the strange mystery hidden behind the walls of Medina's castle.
Written by frequent collaborator Richard Matheson, the film is not really a faithful adaptation, it is a cleverly written story that fuses many different Poe's short stories in one. The story unfolds nicely and as in the previous film, the characters are the film's soul. Matheson perfectly forms the bonds and relationships between them and none is left without a time to shine. The mystery of Elizabeth's death and Medina's castle is very well-handled and the unexpected climax is a classic horror moment. Once again Matheson delivers a terrific script that captures Poe's obsession with ancient buildings and Gothic settings.
Despite the low-budget, Roger Corman manage to surpass what he achieved in "House of Usher" taking care in every little detail, with the lavish sets and gorgeous cinematography making the film look as beautiful as a canvas. The films of the so-called "Poe cycle" are almost always labeled as his best and not without a reason, as they prove that Corman was not a mere director of low-grade cheap films. He was truly a daring and inventive artist and this film remains as one of his most powerful masterpieces.
The cast this time is superb, with Vincent Price taking the lead role with great talent and powerful presence. With ease he can go from melodrama to utter horror and his melancholic over-the-top melodrama was right at home in Poe's adaptations. John Kerr makes a terrific counterpart and his performance is very believable. As a stranger in a strange-land, his character brings balance to the film and Kerr makes the most of it. The beautiful ladies Barbara Steel and Luana Anders show off not only their beauty, but also their talent. Steel's aura of mystery suits perfectly the atmospheric horror of the film and Anders displays her talent for melodrama.
The film is near perfect and a great joy to watch. Never dull nor boring, the film captures the Gothic horror of Poe's stories and gives them homage in a grandiose way. A big improvement over the first of Corman's "Poe films", it's hard to find a flaw in it as nearly everything is its right place. From Price's on-screen presence to the wonderful sets, "Pit and the Pendulum" is a masterpiece of low-budget film-making, a movie that looks even better than most of the big studios productions.
"Pit and the Pendulum" proved to be up to its reputation and it quickly became a favorite of mine. Personally, the discovery of this gems has drastically changed my idea of Roger Corman's work, as this group of films prove that this man is a serious artist who knew how to make a movie that was an economic and a artistic success. This film is another great Gothic horror treasure. 8/10
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