“When we were making the first Edgar Allan Poe film, House of Usher… I had no idea that I would be making a series of them,” recalls Roger Corman, the legendary producer (385 titles directly credited) and director (55 titles), when discussing the sequence of films which established him as more than a B-movie producer. Having grown tired of black and white double features for the drive-in market, Corman had petitioned American International Pictures to fund him to produce a single colour film; they agreed, and cinematic history was made.
Released in June 1960, House of Usher was AIP’s biggest grossing film to that time and a followup was immediately commissioned, Corman wishing to develop Poe’s Masque of the Red Death next, but with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal still fresh in the memory it was felt there were too many similarities. Instead they moved onto The Pit and the Pendulum, reassembling many of the creatives who had so successfully collaborated on House of Usher including writer Richard Matheson, actor Vincent Price, production designer Daniel Haller and composer Les Baxter.
The initial problem was that at scarcely over a dozen pages, Poe’s original tale encompassed little more than a scene, albeit an evocative and graphic one, but insufficient to support a feature film, so Matheson crafted a script in which the third act was based on the story, the first two acts establishing a narrative and a background which would logically and inevitably lead to that confrontation in the pit with “the razor edge of destiny.”
Released on Blu-ray in a beautifully restored version by Arrow Films, in the accompanying documentary Behind the Swinging Blade, Corman praises his late collaborator Matheson, a celebrated author in his own right whose works included I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, Hell House and numerous scripts for The Twilight Zone including the legendary Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. “He was one of the few writers I ever worked with that I was able to go into production with the first draft.”
Although filming would not commence until a more polished draft had been delivered, the early draft set a clear direction which granted Corman additional time to fully prepare the shoot, saving time and money on set and allowing him to expand the production into something more ambitious than was on the page from the very first shot of the opening titles, oil and water and pigments blended together in random patterns, an abstract vision accompanied by Baxter’s discordant sharp notes over doomy bass and fragmented percussion.
Speaking enthusiastically about his appreciation for the work of Roger Corman and Pit and the Pendulum in particular which he describes as “an incredibly satisfying horror experience,” writer/director Brian Yuzna confirms that the bright colours of the pre-psychedelic titles were an influence upon his own first production Re-Animator, remembered in the anatomical line drawings of that opening sequence.
Arriving beyond the wasteland at the remote estate of the family Medina, set upon a cliff top next to the crashing ocean, the silent Francis Barnard (John Kerr) is obliged to complete his journey on foot as the driver of the carriage will not approach. At the castle door he is greeted coldly by the servant and only allowed entry by the intervention of Doña Catherine Medina (Luana Anders) when he identifies himself and says he has come to seek answers about the death of his sister Elizabeth, the bride of Don Nicholas Medina.
Asking to visit her grave, Doña Catherine explains “She is interred below, a family custom,” and guides Francis into the crypt where the grinding of machinery is heard; seeking to investigate, Francis is intercepted by Don Nicholas (Vincent Price), wild eyed and resentful of the intrusion, deflecting questions on the death of Elizabeth, saying only that it was “Something in her blood.”
Dissatisfied, Francis has the chance to question his late sister’s physician directly when Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) arrives that evening, but over dinner it is apparent that all the answers Francis receives are evasions, that for some reason they are lying to him about the circumstances of the death of his sister. Demanding the truth, Don Nicholas leads him beneath the castle and reveals the story of his family.
The son of Sebastian Medina, the most notorious agent of the Spanish Inquisition, the castle was the site of his most depraved indulgences. “I shall not dwell upon the history of this… this blasphemous chamber. Suffice it that the blood of a thousand men and women was spilled within these walls. Limbs twisted and broken, eyes gouged from bloody sockets, flesh burned black.”
Initially happy in her marriage, Elizabeth had begun to drift from Nicholas, unable to sleep or eat, and eventually he realised that she had found the chamber, that “the castle and its awful presence had obsessed her,” eventually causing her complete mental and physical deterioration. Explaining that the shock of her death almost killed her brother, Catherine recounts how as a child Nicholas witnessed his mother Isabella and uncle Bartolome murdered at the hands of his father, but Doctor Leon disputes the story, saying he believes that Isabella was bricked up while still alive.
No longer trusting anyone in the house Francis begins to wonder whether his own sister may also have been interred alive, and when mysterious harpsichord music is heard echoing through the corridors and Elizabeth’s chambers are vandalised, her portrait slashed, Don Nicholas becomes unbalanced, the words of Doctor Leon offering no reassurance; “If Elizabeth Medina walks the halls of this castle it is her spirit, not her living self.”
Praising the screenplay that grew out of the meagre acorn of Poe‘s short story, Yuzna says “the adaptation that Matheson did was brilliant,” and certainly the tapestry of the film is woven from material exhumed from Poe’s body of work, the fear of hereditary illness, the gnawing descent into madness, the obsession with premature burial, the noises within the walls, the young bride who dies of unexplained causes, the vengeful bricking up of those who have wronged the protagonist, all leading to the astonishing dungeon set of the finale, the pendulum so terrifying that John Kerr demanded Corman lie underneath it himself to prove it was safe.
Enhanced by another beautiful matte shot courtesy of Albert Whitlock, working anonymously as he was under studio contract, like the castle above the turbulent waves the expansion of the pit may be static but it frames the live action of the swinging blade of the pendulum, the achievement of Whitlock and production designer Daniel Haller showcased in the beautiful print.
“Each of the Poe pictures got a little bit bigger than the one before,” Corman explains, recounting how Haller retained the flats from the sets of House of Usher and redressed them for Pit and the Pendulum along with new pieces built for that film, effectively doubling the size of the set for the same budget, his sentiment echoed by Barbara Steele when she says “the costumes were just divine, so was the set.”
Cast by Corman without even meeting her on the strength of her performance in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, he says of Steele that “she was lovely to work with,” and having worked in the Italian film industry, Steele was similarly charmed by her American director. “He was very composed at all times, which was completely unlike everybody else I had met in the film industry.”
Similarly enraptured by her leading man, Steele says “I always thought if Vincent Price had been an Englishman he would have been one of the great classical actors, like Paul Scofield or (John) Gielgud or (Laurence) Olivier,” adding that “I felt very comfortable working with him.”
Recalling the long association between the director and her father, Victoria Price advises “my dad and Roger Corman had a wonderful relationship.” A classically trained theatrical actor, he was the antithesis of the movie stars of the fifties, Marlon Brando and James Dean, but “Roger took lots of risks… he took a risk with my father.” Adding that “there was big age difference between them, but my dad was young at heart,” she fondly says “it was a match made in heaven for them both.”
It is not only Price who receives praise; Yuzna states “Barbara Steele was great in anything,” while film historian David Del Valle feels that she was the only woman included the pantheon of horror stars at that time. Luana Anders’ involvement with the project came about from her long friendship with Corman which sprang from his roundabout progression into the film industry. A trained engineer who became a writer then a producer, and as he moved into directing Corman felt he should know more about the acting process, so he attended Jeff Corey’s acting class where he met Anders and Jack Nicholson among others, casting them in his early films.
Stage actor John Kerr was Corman’s first choice for Francis, though he wasn’t expected to accept the role so there were already two other actors in mind for the part; regrettably Kerr’s is the weakest performance in the film, and though he does improve as it progresses, there is a stilted feel to him, and it was his last major film role.
Though justifiably regarded as a classic, with Yuzna stating of the premature burial scene that “in that era it was shocking,” other aspects of the film have not dated so well. The portrait of Elizabeth, like those of father Sebastian and uncle Bartolome, are not so much in keeping with the 1500s as the period the film was made, and the plot is stretched and underdeveloped, in particular the scene where Nicholas is lured through the catacombs is overlong and tedious. Fundamentally there is one mystery to be solved and to hold the attention of a modern audience requires more.
While Matheson’s script undeniably has aspects of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, released six years earlier, Corman had never seen Black Sunday or any of Hammer’s horror films when he embarked on his Poe pictures so they exerted no influence upon him and the style here is all his own, particularly the use of tinted colour footage in the flashbacks which became a trademark of his Poe films, often as a dream sequence, enhanced here by the imaginative work of Les Baxter.
A prolific composer with over a hundred soundtracks to his name and several albums of orchestral works, easy listening and exotica, Baxter not only provided scores for House of Usher, Tales of Terror and The Raven for Corman, all starring Price and scripted by Matheson, but also for AIP’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s Master of the World, again with Price and Matheson, and later the H P Lovecraft adaptation The Dunwich Horror, directed by Corman’s former art director Daniel Haller.
When sold to television, the film was too short even with commercial interruptions to fill a two hour slot so an additional scene of an introductory framing story of Catherine in an insane asylum was shot in the same style and tone, matching the body of the film. Included as a special feature, it offers little more than another stroll through corridors echoing with screams, but of more interest is a 1970 television special of a solo performance by Vincent Price of four of Poe’s tales of mystery and imagination, though unfortunately due to the video source it cannot be upgraded to match the main feature.
Further special features include a commentary by Corman and a detailed second commentary is offered by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog, who has co-written the screenplay of The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, a biopic of Roger Corman focusing on the making of The Trip to be shot by Joe Dante this year.
Gracefully declining to choose a favourite out of his Poe films, Corman’s strategy involved touring regionally over a number of months with only three hundred prints, buying television and radio spots from local stations more economically than a national campaign would allow, and the success of film, beyond even House of Usher, is testimony to both his foresight and the connection of the film to the audience. “The Pit and the Pendulum might lead you to believe beautiful women can drive you to madness, and I think that’s a reasonable assumption.”