The Bad Movie Report

The Pit and the Pendulum - in Fabulous Squeeze-O-Vision!

Own It!

Guest Review by Zack "Marlowe" Handlen

Edgar Allan Poe is not the easiest writer in the world to adapt to the screen. His stories, while often twisted and surprising in terms of plot, rely most heavily on mood to get their point across. The frenzied, hyperbolic narration of a homicidal madman, the constant air of sexual perversity and dread that throbs behind every word- these things come over strongly on the page in the hands of a gifted writer. But like H.P. Lovecraft and his tales of super-natural creatures and monstrous unknowns, Poe doesnít lend himself to translation in other mediums. Especially not the cinematic which, being a visual medium, has to show in order to even suggest.

Unlike Lovecraft, though, Poe has had a number of films attached to his name that havenít completely sucked. Foremost among those being the Corman versions of The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, and todayís viewing, The Pit and the Pendulum. Pit was the follow up to the immensely successful Usher, the first Poe picture by Corman and company. Produced by American International Pictures, Usher was one of the studios biggest commercial successes- and perhaps, more interestingly, it was one of their first critical successes. While itís doubtful that rave reviews were all that important to the makers of She-Creature and Attack of the Crab Monsters, this new-found respect brought further attention to Corman, an over-looked film craftsman of the highest marks.

Oh dear, I think Iím writing an Honorís Thesis. Letís get down to basics,*Damn*, but this looks familiar... shall we? Most AIP movies, especially those of the fifties and early sixties, are cheese. Fun cheese, in a lot of cases, but no one would ever mistake a movie whose plot was based on poster artwork as being actually good. The Poe pictures changed that. Corman was always a competent director (go reread the double review of Zontar and It Conquered the World if you doubt me), and these movies, with their solid, if sparse, production values, great scripts by genre expert Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Hell House, The Incredible Shrinking Man), and wonderful acting, finally gave him a shot at the respect he so aptly deserved.

How does it hold up these days, though? With the advent of DVD, comparative youngsters like myself have the chance to watch these movies in near mint condition, and while some of the effects might seem a bit hokey, there are still enough thrills and twists to delight even the most hardened horror buff. You might not be scared, but youíll at least be interested, which is more than I can say for some of the crap coming out these days. (Thirteen Ghosts, Iím looking at youÖ)

So, The Pit and the Pendulum, then. Letís see what this one is all about.

We open with a few minutes of eerie music and paint spilling over a black screen. The actual story starts in much the same way Usher did, with a young man arriving alone to a fearsome castle in the shadows. Difference here is that the castle is on the edge of a large cliff over looking the ocean, and instead of our hero seeking his fiancée, we have a brother looking to investigate further into the death of his sister. Francis Barnard (John Kerr) is let into the house by a servant, and meets Catherine Medina (Luana Anderson), sister to Don Medina (Vincent Price), who was Barandís sisterís husband.

Francis demands to see where his sister is buried, and to find moreL-to-R:  Vincent Price, Dickweed, Luana Anders information about her death, but Catherine is reluctant to talk. She brings him down into the catacombs of the castle, and Barnard comments on a suspicious swinging sound he hears down a cobwebby hall. Catherine insists that itís nothing to worry about (they always do), but Barnard ignores her, and forces his way down the hall- Just in time to bump into Don Medina on his way out the door. For the moment we see the Don, itís obvious that something ainít quite right with the ole boy. Not only is he played by Vincent Price (never a good sign for a characterís mental health), his face remains in a constant expression of fear, as if he can see impending disaster around every corner. He twitches often, and cries rather easily. In short, not a well man. And he has ample reason for this, as we shall soon see.

Barnard does his best to cross examine the Don for more information on his late wife, Elizabeth, with little result. Don leads Barnard to Elizabethís room, which is still in the exact same state as she left it (oh yes, heís sane all right), and tells him that Elizabeth died of some sort of wasting sickness. We learn, through a handy near-by painting, that Elizabeth is none other than the magnificent Barbara Steele- and the more clever of us, who remember seeing Steeleís name third on the opening credits, begin to suspect that not all may be as it seemsÖ That night at dinner the local doctor, Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) drops by for a visit. After some small talk, he lets slip that the Don wasnít entirely truthful about Elizabethís death. The ever suspicious and hostile Barnard confronts Medina at once, and Medina spills the beans:

Elizabeth died of fright.

"And this... this was her favorite waffle maker."The Don leads his guests downstairs and into the door he made his entrance through sometime earlier. There Barnard is shocked to discover what can only be described as a torture chamber, complete with rack, various cells, and an iron maiden. Luana and the Donís father, Sebastian Medina, was an Inquisitor, and one who enjoyed taking his work home with him, if you get my drift. The Don believes that it was this chamber which destroyed his wifeís mind and life.

Here we get the first of two flashbacks in the film, done through a series of nifty color filters, as the Don tells of Elizabethís end. After a long period of marital bliss, Elizabeth began to suffer from increasingly dark mood swings, refusing to take food, unwilling to speak of what was troubling her. The Don, convinced she was suffering unduly from the unpleasant atmosphere of his past, decides to take her away on a long journey before settling in a new home with, one hopes, better karma. Alas, the decision was made too late, because that night he is woken from sleep by Elizabethís screams. When he hurries to their source, he finds she has gone into the torture chamber and closed herself up in the iron maiden. He frees her, but she is unconscious; the doctor pronounces her dead not soon after.

Dr. Leon confirms this, and Barnard suspicions are finally put to rest."What do you MEAN you forgot to set the timer on the VCR? BABY BOB WAS ON TONIGHT!!!!" Or not, since heís the supposed hero, and as such, destined to be a pushy arrogant dickweed for the first three quarters of the film. That night, after the Don suffers yet another nervous breakdown, Catherine takes Barnard aside and begs him to be less hostile to her brother. The Don is apparently terrified of the idea of premature burial, and lives in constant fear that he interred his wife before she was a proper corpse. Catherine also reveals (in another nifty flashback) that when he was younger, Nicholas watched his father brutally murder his mother and uncle in the torture chamber. Sebastian had discovered that the two were carrying on an affair, and in response beats the uncle (his brother, of course) to death with a poker before walling up his wife, alive, in her tomb. This traumatized the young boy, and the Don, on top of everything else, is worried he might end up repeating the sins of his pop.

Strange things start happening, all pointing to Elizabeth maybe being not quite dead yet: a harpsichord is played, although no one in the house but the dearly departed had any talent for the thing; her old room is torn apart, terrifying the maid; and the Don starts hearing voices. Driven even closer than he already was to madness, he demands that Elizabeth be interred to prove to himself that she wasnít buried alive. Reluctantly, Barnard and the doctor agree.

Downstairs to the catacombs again, and hereís a rather nice bit as Dr. Leon and Dickweed break down the wall, with Medina and his sister standing near by looking nervous. Medina himself lends a hand near the end, growing more and more determined to find the truth, till finally they break through and come to the coffin. The lid is lifted off and a horrible discovery made;

Good Lord!  Get this woman some lotion!

Elizabeth was indeed buried alive, her rotted face frozen in a scream, her hands stretched in claws against the roof of her prison. The Don cracks and runs screaming out of the tomb.*

Barnard, believing everything to be neatly wrapped up, decides to leave in the morning. He tells Catherine that he longer distrusts the Don, and has only pity for him and his misfortune (swell guy); he wishes that heíd met her under more auspicious circumstances, which is the nearest hint weíll get to a romance between the two.

While Barnard is hitting on Catherine, the Don has gone back to his room to mourn. Thereís a still, ghastly look on his face, like the expression of someone who- well- just found out that heíd Either Geoffrey Rush in Haunted Hill or Vinnie in Pit.  It gets hard to tell after a while.buried his wife alive. (Not a lot of call for that one, Iíd expect.) As he prepares for bed, he hears a voice calling out his name, the voice of his lost love. He turns, and sees a secret passageway opening. He follows it, and through a series of stairs and hallways finds himself back before the tomb. The voice keeps saying his name, he keeps saying, "Elizabeth?" like heís expecting his heart to explode at any minute, and as he steps closer to the tomb, the lid of the closed coffin begins to lift. He freezes. It comes up further, and two bloody hands become visible, pushing, and then the lid is off and a dark figure emerges.

Nicholas, understandably, wigs out and starts running wildly. The figure pursues ever onward, calling his name over and over, until theyíre back in the torture chamber, where the Don collapses in a heap by a cell door. The figure leans in, and-

Aw crap. Okay, if you havenít seen this, and if you want to see it and have any surprises waiting for you, you should probably leave now. Iíll leave some space.

The Spoiler Space!  THE SPOILER SPACE!!!  Don't let it get me!





















"Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.  And evil."All right then. The figure leans in, and the light hits her face- and itís none other than the dearly departed Elizabeth, looking none the worse for wear after her time buried. She laughs at her prostrate husband, whimpering on the floor. She gloats at how long sheís waited for this moment.

Enter Dr. Leon, stage right. He comes down the stairs from above and says, "You were supposed to wait till your brother left." The two embrace, and cackle together over their plan; the marriage of Elizabeth and Nicholas wasnít quite so happy as weíd been led to believe, and she and the doctor decided to drive the poor man insane so they could run off together with, one assumes, all his money. They make plans to leave the next morning; then Elizabeth leans in and taunts her soon to be ex one final time.

And now something really snaps, because the Don leaps back into life with a grin. Only heís not really himself, you see. The situation, so close to the horror heíd encountered as a child, has forced on him a psychotic break, turning him into the one thing heíd always dreaded- his father. He begins re-enacting the flashback scene we saw earlier, ignoring Dr. Leon and Elizabethís confusion- he attacks Leon, then shoves Elizabeth into the iron maiden. The doctor runs, and goes through a door which was remained shut until now, only to fall off a ledge to his death. A startlingly DIFFERENT Streetcar Named Desire!Nicholas/Sebastian goes after him, but is confused when he canít find the man. Itís at this most excellent point that Barnard chooses to enter the torture chamber- he and Catherine have spent much of the previous scene looking for the Don. Barnard sees Nicholas, and thinking all is well, approaches him, only to be clubbed into unconsciousness and dragged off-screen. The Don, thoroughly insane now, doesnít realize the Doctor is dead, and has projected his need for revenge onto the unsuspecting Barnard. Barnard wakes and finds himself strapped to a table over a deep bit, in the room where Dr. Leon plunged to his oh so deserved death. Hanging over him is a huge, razor sharp pendulum. Finally, we get to the title of the damn picture.

The Don says some nasty things to Barnard, and then starts the pendulum swinging. It goes in huge arcs, sinking closer and closer to Barnardís midriff. Barnard struggles but canít get free, and he screams for help. Catherine hears and comes aírunning, but she canít open the door to the pit, and has to go for help. The pendulum is within inches now, and moving quite quickly. Catherine comes back with a servant, the two of them force through the door, and the servant begins to struggle with the Don while Catherine tries in vain to throw the lever and stop the pendulum. More time is wasted, with the blade cutting through Barnardís shirt, until Nicholas goes over the edge into the pit, and the servant and Catherine manage to shut down the pendulum. They free Barnard and leave, on their way out looking into the pit and seeing the bodies of Dr. Leon and the Don, both very much dead.

They go back through the torture chamber, and Catherine says Vasectomy:  The Early Yearsthat the door will be shut and no one will ever enter the accursed place ever again. As she says that, and they exit, the camera goes back to the iron maiden, where we see Elizabeth staring out, her mouth bound, her eyes wide. Fade to black.

This is a nifty little picture, and itís no wonder that it did so much for Cormanís (and AIP) reputation. He directs with a sure, intelligent hand, breaking up long dialogue shots with lots of neat camera movement, and using every trick he can to make the movie visually exciting. Mathesonís script manages to take a number of common themes in Poe- premature burial, the not-quite dead, and of course the titular pit and pendulum- and weaves them together into a wonderfully gothic story, with all the intelligence and craft that are hallmarks of his work. While the first hour or so might be considered slow going by modern standards, it manages to set a mood that benefits the entire picture, and gives those last twenty minutes- with scene after scene of money shot, from the rotted corpse to the rising Elizabeth to that awful pendulum- a real kick. He and Corman re-create the mood of the original piece, so difficult to do with Poe, and for that alone they deserve applause.

The acting is serviceable, if not brilliant. The only two to really stand out are (no surprise) Price and Steele. Price comes within a hair of overplaying it, and it makes his transition from closeted neurotic to vicious sociopath quite believable. Steele, for the little screen time she has, is striking and charismatic, and one wonders what would have happened had her and the doctorís plan succeeded. Would she have been willing to stay with the wet blanket that was Antony Carbone? I doubt it. Tragically, the world will never know.

Sadly, the demand for Barbara In A Box was not as great as hoped.Oh, and as an added bonus, I listened to the commentary by Corman on the DVD. Itís a bit spotty in places, but I find him wonderfully entertaining to listen to. And even if he does go off in a few places about intentional Freudian imagery (see, the castle is a woman, and the front door is a vagina, and people keep going down these long, dark corridorsÖ), he doesnít take himself too seriously, admitting that most people never noticed the symbolism, and that it probably doesnít matter either way. Unfortunately, now that he pointed it out, I canít stop thinking about it. Could someone recommend a good therapist?


Good Poe. 'Nuff said.

- May 30, 2002