I think I’m safe in saying that no actor was more familiar with the work –or the loosely interpreted work– of Edgar Allen Poe than Vincent Price. The man made nearly a dozen movies based on this master author’s works. This saddens me, however, because as much as I adore Poe, I detest such period-piece horror movies made in the 60s and 70s.
The only plot element Price’s movie borrows from Poe’s short story is the actual title device and void. Whereas Poe wrote of a man sentenced to death during the Inquisition and his time in a cell containing a pit and his escape from a swinging blade also therein, the movie waits until the end to even introduce the titular scene.
Francis Barnard (John Kerr) travels to the eerie castle of Don Nicholas Medina (Price) to learn more about they mysterious death of his sister Elizabeth, the Don’s wife. It takes a while staying with Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders) and houseguest Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) to discover what truly happened. The story told by Nicholas is that Elizabeth became haunted by the torture chamber in the castle basement that was his father’s pride and joy. She eventually killed herself or was possessed into shutting herself in an iron maiden. She was interred in the cellar walls as is tradition for the family. What follows, however, are a series of strange events that seem to suggest Elizabeth is either still alive, a ghost or Nicholas is staging these two options.
SPOILER In truth, Elizabeth only faked her death with the help of her lover, Dr. Leon. They endeavored to drive Nicholas mad and to his death so they could be together, but when he discovers what is happening, the master of the castle takes his revenge. Brother Francis is then seized by Nicholas, now possessed by his father, and is strapped to a stone island surrounded by a pit. Above him swings the scythe-like blade that inches toward his stomach within Nicholas’ control. Luckily, Catherine and the butler come to the victim’s rescue and plunge the mad Nicholas to his death. END SPOILER
The Pit and the Pendulum is rife with laughable absurdity. The performances are a bit melodramatic or just bad and if you read too deeply into the doctor’s actions, he comes off as trying to get everyone in bed. The back story on Nicholas’ parents is twisted and gory, but nothing in this movie is particularly frightening. Although the pendulum makes for a certain amount of suspense, the happy ending for all innocent characters is too nice.
- The Pit and the Pendulum is set for 1:45 a.m. ET Oct. 24 on TCM.