Re-entering Roger Corman’s Pit by Steven West
Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” – Edgar Allan Poe
“I WAS sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence – the dread sentence of death – was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. “– from “The Pit And The Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe (1842)
“Cardinal Fang! Fetch…the Comfy Chair! Now, you will sit in this chair until lunchtime, with nothing but a cup of coffee at 11!” – from “The Spanish Inquisition”, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1970)
First published in 1842 in a literary anthology, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and The Pendulum is a brief evocation of dread conveying the torture and torment suffered by a single prisoner during the Spanish Inquisition. From a post-SAW 21st century perspective, the short is the ultimate in pared-down, intense torture sequences, consisting only of the unspecified narrator’s account, having been sentenced by the Inquisition, of what it feels like to face an agonising death from a slowly descending swinging pendulum. Thanks to various cinematic adaptations in the 20th century ranging from Alice Guy’s rarely referenced 1913 American silent to schlock-meister David DeCoteau’s low budget late 90’s The Pit and The Pendulum, the central device of torment from the short story would endure as perhaps Poe’s most iconic image.
American International Pictures had watched its first colour production, The Fall of the House Of Usher – itself merely the latest in a line of Usher adaptations dating back decades – enjoy rich financial success in 1960. Prolific young filmmaker Roger Corman was simultaneously enjoying a fruitful transition from deceptively slapdash but often clever black and white quickies to lushly designed “respectable” Gothic horrors. He was naturally brought in to helm the follow-up, which drops the definite article from the Poe short story.
Of course, everything beyond the pendulum climax had to be invented by Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson to flesh Pit out to feature length. Corman’s savvy commercial mind-set has never deserted him in his sixty-plus years in the business, and it was only natural that the structure and plotting of the expanded PIT would so closely ape that of the then-recent success of Usher . Thus we have another blandly handsome young man arriving at a foreboding house that seems to have a life all of its own – an elegantly ominous construction overseen by a visibly unbalanced Vincent Price, himself embroiled in a gradually unveiled macabre plot involving madness and a premature burial. If the deliberately paced build-up might be considered a symptom of adapting a very short short story into an 80 minute feature, the movie’s strength is in keeping us quietly enthralled en-route to one of horror’s great pay-offs. In “The Movie World of Roger Corman”, the director discussed the challenges of employing the main action from the two page story as the climax and “[constructing] the first two acts in what we hoped was a manner faithful to Poe…”
The slightly renamed The Pit and The Pendulum was shot over three weeks on many of the same sets,using much of the same crew as Usher – aside from Matheson, Corman reunited cinematographer Floyd Crosby, production designer Daniel Haller and composer Les Baxter – and released in August of 1961. Corman had initially intended Masque of the Red Death as the next in what would become his Poe cycle, but got cold feet due to (it seems) its less obvious commercial appeal and aresemblance he perceived to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, delaying its emergence until a few years later.
Pit opens with an experimental, pre-psychedelic title sequence awash with primary (Techni)colours – itself a significant influence on the imaginative openings of Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft-inspired movies of the late-80’s. Corman has referred to his Poe pictures as “interior pictures”, movies about psychological imbalance in which the central characters are trapped by their physical surroundings (in us we and Pit, the oppressive ocean and omnipresent fog) as much as their own inner torment. Pit’s atmospheric opening scenes, offering a rare glimpse of the outside world before we become confined along with the protagonists, were shot on the Palos Verdes coast in Southern California, with matte paintings by uncredited matte legend Albert Whitlock; the remainder of the movie was shot on sound stages. The film opens almost identically to us we, with even star Vincent Price’s first entrance staged parallel to his initial appearance in the earlier film.
Handsome but (deliberately?) unsympathetic place-holder John Kerr (best known prior to Pit for South Pacific) arrives from England at the mist-enshrouded 16th century Spanish coastal home of the morose, grief-stricken man (Vincent Price) who married his recently deceased sister (Barbara Steele). A.I.P. had recently picked up Mario Bava’s extraordinary Black Sunday, even employing Usher and Pit’s composer Les Baxter to give it a fresh soundtrack to appease American ears. In later years, Corman has admitted to not having seen the Bava picture at that time and, similarly, recalls not having seen the early Hammer films which would seem to be an obvious precursor to his Poe cycle. Reflecting the waves already generated by Black Sunday and the actress’ cache in Europe, Steele’s name comes right after Price’s in the title sequence, despite surprisingly minimal screen time. As the film begins, we learn her character has died three months earlier under mysterious circumstances.
As with Usher, it becomes apparent that the central homestead incorporates a family crypt, an established cliché that would be deliciously spoofed in Corman’s playful The Raven a couple of years later, in which Price laments “My late wife is buried in the crypt below…”, to which the reliably mugging Peter Lorre replies “Where else?!” Price eulogises Steele’s existence, beauty and talents in the house he shares with his own sister (Luana Andrews) and housekeeper (Lynette Bernay). There’s a torture chamber on the premises, which would be ominous even without the knowledge that Price is the son of one of the most infamous men of the Inquisition; more ominous still is his insistence Steele died of fright.
Charles Stinson’s memorably negative contemporary review of the movie in The Los Angeles Times bemoaned the “burlesquing” and “eye-rolling” performance of Price. In his typically thoughtful DVD commentary, Corman defends the actor on the grounds that he saw his character as larger than life, and adjusted his tempo appropriately, running the gamut from stillness to outright theatrical cowering. As the neurotic man haunted by a wife whose horrible fate (depicted in strikingly raw blue-filtered flashback moments) has turned him into a wide-eyed, fainting-prone shell of a man, Price’s face seems fixed in a permanent state of frowning and distress. His entire life consumed by the memory of his mother’s premature burial and the notion that it will happen again, Price’s morbidly obsessed character is a tour de force on a par with his much more muted Roderick Usher.
In fleshing out the short story, Richard Matheson quotes from other Poe texts including The Tell Tale Heart and The Cask Of Amontillado, and relies on the structure of Usher, but it’s still the kind of absorbing, literate and proficient piece of Gothic horror writing that helped make Corman’s cycle so memorable. The execution is handsome and haunting: Corman favours primary colours, perpetual cobwebs and constantly brewing storms, while (by his own admission) indulging his own Freudian fixations by placing unusual emphasis on open doors and characters walking down corridors. Les Baxter’s shrieking strings add further edge to the proceedings.
The older the movie gets, however, the more one particular element endures. Barbara Steele, as was common with many of her performances in this period including Black Sunday, was dubbed entirely (save for a single laugh during a key moment) for the finished film as Corman objected to what he referred to as her thick working class British accent. She nonetheless makes the biggest impression with the smallest amount of screen time. Her character is apparently dead at the outset, and rarely on-screen thereafter, her descent into insanity hinted at in fleeting flashbacks and expositional interludes – and yet her presence haunts the entire movie.
One hour in, Matheson’s script reworks the core concept of Clouzot’s Diabolique – Pit was released in the same year that Hammer Films began their own recurring employment of the Diabolique narrative with Scream Of Fear – by terrorising Price with the spectre of a loved one who should be (but isn’t) dead, and employing Steele in silhouette for her slow rise from the tomb as the petrified Price looks on in horror. It’s unquestionably one of the great moments of 60’s Gothic horror, alongside a startling exhumation sequence offering a glimpse of a desiccated corpse, its face locked in a hideous expression of sheer terror – a glimpse originally cut for theatrical UK prints by the typically squeamish BBFC.
“Following the Hammer films, this becomes, I think, the most important moment in the post-1960 horror film, signalling a return to an all-out effort to terrify the audience … and a willingness to use any means at hand to do it.” – Stephen King, writing in Danse Macabre
Corman’s bravura staging of the titular set piece that we spend the whole movie waiting for is understandably this movie’s enduring visual legacy, but, once Kerr has faced (and survived) that swinging pendulum, you’ll find yourself remembering Steele’s eyes in the grim final shot of her ultimate fate just as much. That closing scene represents the kind of ending-on-a-sour-note shock that, in 1961, would have seemed stark and bold in comparison to the tidy resolutions of the contemporary Hammer films… but which would become increasingly the norm as the decade rolled out ever more daring and shocking horror entries. Steele, of course, went on to work with everyone from Fellini to Cronenberg, and reunited with Corman in a different capacity, taking key secondary roles in a couple of his more memorable 70’s New World productions, Caged Heat and Piranha.
Corman’s Pit was an even bigger success than Usher, raking in $2 million in U.S. rentals and garnering the best reviews of Corman’s career up to that point. Its many releases on home video over the years were crowned in 2014 by Arrow Video’s lush and beautiful Blu-ray special edition, housing comprehensive bonus features including a substantial documentary featuring Corman, the always engaging Joe Dante and a reliably hilarious and honest Barbara Steele. The movie never looked more handsome than in Arrow’s colourful hi-def transfer, and if you’re any kind of horror fan, you will already have spent too many happy moments stroking the Steelbook edition alongside Arrow’s similarly bells-and-whistles release of House of Usher.
Corman’s Poe cycle, of course, was en-route to bigger and even greater things, taking a light-hearted detour with the seriocomic omnibus Tales of Terror and broad spoof The Raven before coming to Britain for the outstanding – and genuinely horrific – Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia.
“[PIT AND THE PENDULUM] would prove particularly influential on the future course of Italian horror — an influence that can be seen even in productions of the 1970s(Deep Red) and 1980s (A Blade in the Dark)” – Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog, August 2001
Every few years at least one horror movie reworks the visceral centrepiece of Poe’s tiny masterpiece.Argento’s general love letter to the author in “The Black Cat” segment of Two Evil Eyes is among the more gruesome, though a highlight of the otherwise rambling Saw V might be mainstream horror’s goriest rendition of the pendulum blade’s capabilities. Random homages appear in unlikely places such as David Renwick’s often jet-black sitcom One Foot In The Grave, which named one of its 1993 episodes “The Pit and the Pendulum”, though Stuart Gordon’s 1991 interpretation is arguably the best thing Charles Band ever oversaw under the umbrella of Full Moon Entertainment.
The kind of movie that opens with Jeffrey Combs sentencing a skeleton to twenty lashes and incorporates Oliver Reed as an ill-fated Cardinal quaffing from a 15th century hip flask, it veers closer to envelope-pushing historical horrors like Mark Of The Devil than Corman’s relatively stately approach. Malevolently essaying Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, Lance Henriksen kneels on broken glass and defiles the leading lady before snipping her tongue off with scissors, while kindly white witch Frances Bay laments the persecution of the times (“They’ll believe you have ten tits and a cunt full of teeth!”) before swallowing a load of gunpowder and exploding at the stake. Eventually, hero Jonathan Fuller faces the swinging pendulum before escaping captivity with the imaginative use of split rat innards. If John Kerr had been permitted to do the same thing by the BBFC back in 1961, presumably we would now be reflecting in a sombre fashion on the “infamous Corman movie nasty” which led to the wave of rat-abusing pendulum-swinging copycat crimes in the Kennedy era.