For kids growing up in the US in the 1960s, Saturday night television was a thing of wonder when we were allowed to stay up late with a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of root beer, shivering with anticipation as the minutes kicked down to the start of our local fright show. In my city it was called Scream In and was hosted by a groovy hippie vampire named The Cool Ghoul. Week after week he brought us the best in (mostly Gothic) horror films from the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. We saw our first Hammer films on these programs, low budget shockers such as Francis Coppola’s Dementia-13, dubbed Italian imports, and of course, the Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of mystery and imagination. Few things were scarier to me at that age than the bloodied hand of Barbara Steele rising from her tomb to stalk Vincent Price through the womb-like corridors of
in 1961’s Pit and the Pendulum. Medina Castle
British film critic David Robinson accurately pointed out, "As in (Corman’s) House of Usher, the quality of the film is its full-blooded feeling for Gothic horror - storms and lightning, moldering castles and cobwebbed torture chambers, bleeding brides trying to tear the lids from their untimely tombs." Indeed, Pit and the Pendulum is so soaked in Gothic atmosphere that I have probably watched this film on VHS and DVD more than any other. On any rainy Saturday afternoon, sleepless midnight, and of course, the Halloween season, I find myself being drawn back to Castle Medina and the ravings of Vincent Price again and again.
To today’s younger audiences who have grown up with more graphic shockers, Pit and the Pendulum might seem too cheesy to take seriously. I have to admit that if Vincent Price was any more of a ham his performance might be mistaken for Christmas dinner. But when you drill down through the blood and thunder soundtrack by Les Baxter, the lashing rains and crashing waves, Daniel Haller’s art direction which fills the frame with an almost unparalleled Gothic atmosphere (watch for more about this guy in future posts), what we have left is a truly disturbing portrait of a mind on the brink of psychological collapse.
For those not familiar with the plot of Richard Matheson’s adaptation (spoiler alert), Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) is the son of Sebastian Medina, one of the Spanish Inquisitions most notorious torturers. At an early age, Nicholas witnessed the death by torture of his Mother and Uncle at the hands of his Father, accusing both of marital infidelities. Here we have what is unofficially known as Wicked Father Syndrome, a motif found in several of Corman’s horror films as well as a staple of 20th century romantic Gothic fiction. This psychological fissure casts
as a true Byronic hero, making him a character to be both feared and pitied. The irony of this childhood trauma is that his own wife, Medina (played by the ever ravishing horror film icon, Barbara Steele) has engaged in adultery with Nicholas’ best friend, Dr. Leon. The core of the plot revolves around an elaborate gaslight wherein Dr. Leon and Elizabeth fake her death, going so far as to bury another woman’s body in Elizabeth ’s crypt. Nicholas, and the audience, have been led to believe that Elizabeth Elizabeth is dead, which brings us to the memorable scene of rising from her tomb, very much alive. Elizabeth
If Pit and the Pendulum were to be adapted today, the film would undoubtedly focus on grisly torture effects, much as it did in a 1991 version. With its music, art direction, atmospherics and emotional histrionics, Corman’s 1961 film remains one of Gothic cinema’s major milestones.