The story takes place in 16th Century Spain at the castle of Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), a nobleman whose wife, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), has recently passed under mysterious circumstances. Elizabeth’s brother, Francis Barnard (John Kerr), arrives to find out what has happened and is embroiled in a twisted tale of a family haunted by their past. Elizabeth’s passing also haunts Medina, who is almost inconsolable—although he is supported by his sister, Catherine (Luana Anders), and family doctor, Dr. Leon (Anthony Carbone)—when Barnard enters the family home. Adding to Medina’s anguish, he remains convinced Elizabeth’s presence remains in the castle at night, and some inexplicable events certainly support his story. As the tale builds to a chilling climax scriptwriter, Richard Matheson, crafts in some fantastic elements of terror and intrigue that (although in these sophisticated times may seem somewhat clichéd) at the time of release were original and frightening for audiences.
Following the huge success of director Roger Corman’s debut entry- The House of Usher (1960)- into what was to become the Corman ‘Poe’ Cycle of eight films (Seven which starred Vincent Price), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) marks a particular highlight for the series. While all the films are highly enjoyable The Pit, alongside Masque of the Red Death (1964) are probably the most visually spectacular and deal with the darkest themes. Corman moved away from the understated madness of Usher in this his sophomore entry to indulge in pure gothic opulence and sinister camp in his own inimitable way. Combine this with Corman’s lush gothic fantasy world- creepy 16th century castle, cobwebbed corridors, evil old paintings- , and Richard Matheson’s creative scripting and you have something of a triumph for the genre. Matheson ekes out themes from Poe’s original short story to build something that focuses on dark family secrets, insanity and betrayal, thus transcending the narrow margins of the original text and ending on a chilling coup de grâce with one of the genres most iconic moments- a giant swinging death pendulum.
The sets revel in decadence, come dripping in gothic charm, and no expense is spared when it comes to over the top, ornate garnishing; an overall sentiment that is mirrored in the wildly hysterical acting of Vincent Price, as the poor lamented Medina. For Price the role really gives him a chance to go all out and relish in the OTT theatrical elements he became so well known for. The obvious zeal the actor puts into his role of Nicolas Medina combines overwrought melodrama and the sadism of a pantomime villain on steroids. It is the skill of Price, a much more nuanced actor than many critics gave him credit for, which supports the tone of the piece. The role of Medina here is quite a sophisticated one because of the dual nature of the character he portrays and levels of utter madness to which he has to ascend as the film reaches its compelling climax. Price again successfully encompasses the anti-hero in Medina; the grieving widower who manages to remain sympathetic in his role despite his crazed and violent actions as matters really hit boiling point.
The only other performer on screen to give Price a real run for his money is the ever wonderful Barbara Steele. Although Steele gets little screen time in her role, her performance in Pit serves as a perfect reminder as to why the actress was such a tour de force for the genre. John Kerr as male heroic lead Francis Bernard is the capable all round Corman gothic good guy hero type and does sufficiently well in his role. While Luana Anders as Medina’s misguided and insufferably nice sister Catherine is probably one of the weakest of Corman’s Poe Cycle lead heroines. But the actress does provide a nice contrast to the darker elements of Steele’s Elizabeth. Anthony Carbone makes an appearance as the somewhat slimy family friend Dr. Leon- again perfectly serviceable in the part he plays. However all those on the supporting fringes are forced, to some extent, to stand in the shadows of Price and his co-lead Steele as the two go head to head in standout roles for both performers.
This release from the UK’s own Arrow Video comes as part of the wonderful limited edition collector’s set Vincent Price Six Gothic Tales, and also on standalone Blu-ray/ DVD combo, and collector’s Steelbook edition, and is packed with the following specs and extras:
• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
• Original uncompressed Mono PCM Audio
• Optional Isolated Music and Effects Track
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Audio commentary with director and producer Roger Corman
• Audio commentary by critic Tim Lucas
• Behind the Swinging Blade – A new documentary on the making of The Pit and the Pendulum featuring Roger Corman, star Barbara Steele, Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria Price and more!
• Added TV Sequence – Shot in 1968 to pad out the film for the longer TV time slot, this scene features star Luana Anders
• An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe with Vincent Price [52 mins] – Price reads a selection of Poe’s classic stories before a live audience, including The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum (with optional English SDH)
• Original Trailer
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx
Arrow have put together a fantastic package, the Tim Lucas commentary- as always- is extremely informative for fans who want to dig a little deeper into the world of both Roger Corman and Vincent Price. The feature An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe , in which actor Price reads several Poe tales, is a must have for all lovers of gothic horror. Behind the Swinging Blade is another great Arrow exclusive which is worth watching for the contribution from horror’s First Lady Barbara Steele alone.
The transfer from original film elements is magnificent, upgraded into 1080p high definition for BD- and is presented almost flawlessly in a respectful restoration with no visible damage or DNR relics. Grain is left intact
Words: Kat Ellinger