The shock horror sequence of 1961
Although Vincent Price starred in several Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, it is undoubtedly The Pit and the Pendulum which was his most successful. Not to mention most profitable for American International executives.
Set in sixteenth century Spain, a young Englishman (John Kerr) visits a forbidding castle to investigate his sister’s mysterious death. After several horrific revelations and ghost-like appearances with a haunting harpsichord refrain, the unfortunate Brit is strapped to a torture device by his looney-toons brother in law (Vincent Price) during the spell binding finale. To die in agony is the destiny of man, says the torturer.
The shock climax is where Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), Vincent Price’s faithless wife who once faked her own death, is accidentally left trapped in the iron maiden, alive but gagged. As the door to the torture chamber is slammed shut for the final time, there is a camera concentration on Elizabeth’s horror struck eyes and the screeching of violins. The author Stephen King described it as the most important moment in post 1960 horror movies.
The Pit and the Pendulum was a bigger hit than its predecessor The Fall of the House of Usher and made over two million US dollars, a tidy sum in the early 1960s. Most reviewers loved it, citing Price’s convincing performance as the unstable noble driven to madness by his scheming wife, the imaginative photography of the eerie castle and its dark secrets and the workings of the torture device – all done without the CGI special effects which were unknown at the time.
The movie had a great deal of influence on later events. It persuaded American International executives to produce more Poe related films on a regular basis, the last in the series being The Tomb of Ligeia in 1965. There were seven in all. They can be criticized for going over the same themes again and again – notably premature burial – but several (including The Raven in 1963) were directed by Corman more as comedies than horror flicks in order to vary the story lines.
The Pit and the Pendulum’s tentacles reached down into many films of the 1970s and 1980s. The nightmarish flashback sequences which plant the seeds of Price’s madness, can be seen for
example in Antonio Marg-
heriti’s Castle of Blood and its remake Castle of Blood. Stephen King pointed out that the tomb opening sequence,
in which a hideously decayed corpse is shown, was a deliberate attempt to terrify the audience which was followed by many other movie directors. Curiosity about the contents of a coffin were never more gruesomely satisfied.
The opening credits of the movie are spectacular. Sludgy ink is splashed onto the lenses, then a matte painting conjures up a castle by the edge of the sea, both abstract and Gothic, the two splattering styles which Roger Corman contrasts and climatically blurs across the screen. As Price tells his guest at the castle, “it was the malignant atmosphere of the castle which caused my wife’s death” even as he confesses “I am the spawn of a depraved mind.” They don’t make ‘em like that any more with all that Freudian hysteria. Perhaps it’s just as well.