The Pit and the Pendulum

In 1546, English gentleman Francis Barnard travels to Spain to investigate the sudden death of his sister, Elizabeth. He receives a cool welcome at the home of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina, and an off-hand explanation that Elizabeth died of “something in the blood.” The more Medina and his sister, Catherine, try to allay Barnard’s concerns about Elizabeth’s death, the more suspicious he becomes. He declares he will not leave brooding Castle Medina until he has gotten to the bottom of things. It’s an unfortunate choice of words, given the danger that lurks in the depths of the dungeon…

For this week’s edition of Saturdays with Vincent, we have a film for lovers of all things Gothic to revel in. As I watched, I listed all the motifs that we associate with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the genre that blossomed from his work: a gloomy house overlooking the sea, a beautiful young woman dead too soon, her widower deranged with grief, a morbid fear of premature burial, people bricked up in walls while still alive, a musical instrument playing wildly in the night, a slashed portrait, secret passages, a midnight exhumation…on and on it went, hitting every note in the Poe song book. Which is pretty funny, since not one of these items makes an appearance in the original Poe story. The only connection between the two are the titular pit and pendulum, and they don’t come into play until the climax of the action.

Still, screenwriter Richard Matheson and director Roger Corman knew their Poe, and created a serviceable pastiche of his favorite themes for our entertainment. Oh sure, maybe it’s cheating to take a chunk of Usher, mix in a dollop of Amontillado, roll it in Raven and give it a liberal dusting of garden-variety haunted house mystery, then sell it with the Pendulum label. However, if you hadn’t read the story previously (or didn’t pull it out and read it right after watching the movie, as I did) you’d have no reason to suspect it wasn’t all direct from Poe’s pen to the screen. I was happy to give it the scant 80 minutes of my time it asked for, and in return, I got an appropriately dreary castle, sumptuous costumes, a plot of murder, betrayal, and madness, and of course, Vincent Price at his tormented best. It entertained me, so I will not complain. I’m quite sure that’s what Corman was counting on.

This review is for the Peril on the Screen challenge of RIP V.

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5 Responses to The Pit and the Pendulum

  1. Kailana says:

    Another movie I have never heard of before! I am learning a lot from this new addition to the challenge…

  2. You’ve provided an excellent viewpoint on PIT AND THE PENDULUM (notice that the actual onscreen title omits the initial article). Since Poe’s works were often low on plot, Matheson sometimes faced quite a challenge when adapting them for Price and Corman, especially this one and THE RAVEN; the others were HOUSE OF USHER and the three-part TALES OF TERROR, in which he had a little bit more to work with in that department. He was very adept at creating a kind of “greatest hits” assemblage of Poe themes. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (, tentatively due out in early October.

  3. Kristen M. says:

    I love that this one had absolutely nothing to do with the actual Poe story! It’s so INCREDIBLY campy.

  4. kaizerin says:

    Matthew: Funny about them leaving off the initial “The”. Do you suppose they were scanning a bibliography and failed to parse the comma-the at the end of “Pit and the Pendulum, The”?

    Kristen: I’m not one for forgiving fooling about with the classics (or misrepresenting them wholesale), but I was so entertained by this movie, I let it pass. It’s a keeper!

  5. Birdie says:

    I love that this one had absolutely nothing to do with the actual Poe story!

    hehehe I’ve just this very day discovered that there was a V. Price film made from Poe’s “The Oblong Box.” I watched the trailer and I can’t imagine any two stories being less alike. I think I might watch it any way, for sheer cheese value. That, and in the movie, there is someone under a voodoo curse! XD

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