Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Pit and the Pendulum (Arrow Video) - Review

Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) followed hot on the heels of his first foray into Edgar Allan Poe territory, The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).  The success of that movie and even greater success of its successor ushered in a five year long exploration of the works of Poe which would ultimately deliver eight movies all of which with the exception of one (The Premature Burial) would feature the unique talents of horror thespian extraordinaire Vincent Price.

Given that The Pit and the Pendulum’s source material is a slight, if masterful, story it presents any screenwriter striving to adapt it into a feature length movie with an obvious problem.  Fortunately Richard Matheson was the man tasked with delivering the script and with customary skill he managed to not only expand upon the original material but also ensure that the lead up to the third act (which is the only part derived from Poe’s story) is entertaining and feels entirely in keeping with the spirit of the author’s work.  

It’s obvious that Matheson looked beyond The Pit and the Pendulum to Poe’s other works with ideas being pulled most directly, and very effectively, from The Premature Burial and The Cask of Amontillado.  The fact that the movie feels very much of a piece and not at all disjointed despite the magpie fashion in which its story was built is testament not only to the richness of the source materials but also to Matheson’s skill as a master storyteller.  The overall atmosphere here is redolent of themes that were commonplace across the breadth of Poe’s body of work.

Although it’s easy to forget given the quality of most of Corman’s output these days, he was, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a film-maker of great talent and wonderfully dark vision.  He had the unerring ability of taking a meagre budget and via a feat of directorial alchemy fashioning an end product that looked like it cost considerably more.  The fact that The Pit and the Pendulum is almost entirely a chamber piece with only the opening scene and a handful of shots of waves crashing on rocks occurring beyond the confines of Medina’s castle undoubtedly kept the budget in check but despite this it is, nonetheless, a striking movie which can be comfortably compared to Hammer’s output of the time and the best of Italian horror cinema such as the works of Mario Bava.  The interior of the castle is dressed to perfection by production designer Daniel Haller who was a Corman regular for most of his career and provides a wonderfully atmospheric backdrop to the unfolding tale.

In terms of performances the movie is something of a mixed bag.  Vincent Price is, of course, eminently watchable.  In the role of grieving husband Nicholas Medina he delivers a typically theatrical performance that manages to stay just the right side of camp.  Barbara Steele, a truly unique beauty, is, despite her voice being dubbed to disguise her working class English accent, quite remarkable in the few scenes where she appears.  The remaining cast deliver mostly effective performances with the sole exception of John Kerr who seems mostly unengaged and as a result delivers a performance that could be charitably described as uncharismatic.

The Pit and the Pendulum is not going to appeal to everyone.  Although the scale of the production is greater than that of House of Usher it is nonetheless very much a chamber piece and it’s not difficult to imagine it being performed on stage and losing almost none of its power.  It’s also a horror movie that requires some effort on the part of the contemporary viewer to feel even the slightest chill.  

Approached with the mind-set of the modern horror fan, like many pre-Seventies horror movies it simply fails to send anything but the weakest of shivers up the spine.  It’s an entertaining movie but requires a feat of mental agility to put yourself into the shoes of someone experiencing the movie back in 1961.  But put yourself in those shoes you should because The Pit and the Pendulum is, along with Corman’s other Poe adaptations, essential viewing for any self-respecting horror fan and Arrow's release is a real treasure.  Highly recommended.


As is common with Arrow releases the visual identity of the movie has been maintained with exactly the right amount of grain present.  The crisp 1080p image was adapted from the original film stock by MGM and great care has been taken to deliver an optimum presentation.  Nothing has been artificially enhanced to the extent that the visual experience has been marred.  Corman’s movies were full of colour and the Blu-ray delivers this in a manner that’s best described as eye-popping.  I doubt The Pit and the Pendulum has ever looked this good and can’t imagine it will ever look better.  A very fine transfer that is sure to please fans of the movie.


The original uncompressed mono PCM soundtrack sounds quite wonderful and there’s an option to listen to an isolated music and effects track.


As is often the case with Arrow releases there’s a retrospective documentary (Behind the Swinging Blade) that provides an entertaining and informative overview of the making of The Pit and the Pendulum.  It’s pretty comprehensive and it was nice to see Brian Yuzna popping up to discuss the influence Corman’s Poe had on him as a film-maker plus the inclusion of Vincent Price’s daughter Mary was a nice touch.

There are two audio commentary tracks.  The first of these is a solo affair featuring director Corman and surprisingly it’s a fairly lacklustre affair with many moments of silence scattered throughout and very little that wasn’t already covered in the documentary.  Plus I felt his insistence that the movie contains a subtext full of Freudian symbolism is reaching a bit.

The second commentary comes courtesy of film critic Tim Lucas and it’s both erudite and entertaining.  Packed with interesting information relating to every aspect of the movie this is exactly what a commentary should be and secured my full attention from start to finish.  If anything it’s more comprehensive than the documentary.  A wonderful listen.

In addition to the above there’s a sequence that was filmed in 1968 to pad the movie out for television.  It doesn’t add much but its inclusion is welcome.

Last but by no means least we have An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe with Vincent Price [52 mins].  This 1970 TV special features Price reading a selection of Poe’s classic stories before a live audience.  The stories included are The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum.  This is an astonishing addition to an already wonderful package of extras which on its own is practically worth the cost of this release.  Anyone who has ever considered Price to be an actor of little talent will be eating their words after experiencing his masterful performances here.  Just brilliant.

Steve's Score:

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