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The Pit and the Pendulum

An eerie castle complete with torture chamber, murder, insanity, adultery, the ghastly look of premature burial, that huge swinging blade, and the great Vincent Price chewing the scenery like a gourmand — Roger Corman sure knew how to put a small budget to work. With 1960's Fall of the House of Usher a critical and commercial success, American International Pictures again hired Corman to direct an atmospheric adaptation of another Edgar Allan Poe story. Actually, Poe's tale contributes only to the final third of the picture (stalwart genre screenwriter Richard Matheson gave Mr. Poe a creative assist), though several of Poe's themes and images are on hand here, particularly fear of the nasty death. Set in Spain just after the Inquisition, this opulent mood piece is practically a remake of Usher and is very similar in atmosphere, tone, and style — not surprising given that Pit saw the return of Corman's production team, including art director Daniel Haller. Again Corman had a restrictive budget and only two weeks to shoot, but this time around he had a little more money and a broader creative canvas to work with.

Even synopsizing the plot risks giving away too much, so let's just say that when a young man (John Kerr) journeys to the cliffside castle of Don Nicholas Medina (Price) to visit the grave of his sister, Nicholas' wife Elizabeth ("scream queen" fan fave Barbara Steele), he discovers more than he bargains for — a devious plot built on a ghastly event from years before, and a lovers' secret that ends in madness and more than one unpleasant demise.

Much of what can be said about The Fall of the House of Usher applies to The Pit and the Pendulum. It's proof that suspense is created by things more elemental than production dollars. It again dispels the notion that Roger Corman was (only) a schlockmeister. It reminds us that flat, colorless character actors look really flat and colorless when sharing a scene with Price. And Pit shows us that just when the audience thinks the story's over, that's when you pull out the creepy final surprise. Stephen King, in his treatise on horror in radio, TV, and film, Danse Macabre, had this to say about a crucial scene in The Pit and the Pendulum: "Following the Hammer films, this becomes, I think, the most important moment in the post-1960 horror film, signaling a return to an all-out effort to terrify the audience ... and a willingness to use any means at hand to do it." This second entry in Corman's Poe series kept his success on solid tracks that reached a memorable zenith with The Masque of the Red Death.

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Like its sibling DVD of Usher, MGM's new DVD edition of The Pit and the Pendulum comes with an illuminating audio commentary by Roger Corman, whose extraordinary memory supplements any film school's how-to-direct syllabus. The disc delivers a good transfer (2.35:1, anamorphic) of a print that's just a little speckly, supported by clear DD 2.0 monaural audio. Also here is the original theatrical trailer and a pointless "rare prologue" that spoils the movie's ending, so watch it last. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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