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Movie Review: The Pit and the Pendulum

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961 AIP Dir. Roger Corman)

Later! At stately Wayne Manor!

Another of the American International Pictures movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s not as colorful as the later of Corman’s Poe movies would be, but it is a good watchably flick. Out of all the movies from the Poe Cycle, as Corman calls it, that I have seen I think this one deviates from the story the most. It takes place during the 16th century in Spain, after the Inquisition is over. A man named Nicholas Medina has lost his wife to fright and morns her deeply, until her brother comes along to berate him about it and sends him into a spiral of insanity.

I’ve said it before, I’m gonna say it again, and I’ll keep on saying it! Pimpin’ ain’t NEVER been easy.

A man named Francis (isn’t there always a guy named Francis?) comes to Spain to find out how his sister died. He comes and hangs out with his brother in law, trying to discover what happened to his sister, becoming more suspicious because of the lameness of the explanations given. He then announces that he’s not leaving until he figures everything out and just try and stop him! This strangely isn’t really argued by anyone. They welcome in fact, even though he treates them with nothing but suspicion and hatred.

A typical scene where Francis is shouting at someone.

Actually, he just gets suspicious because he shows up suspicious and wanders around like he’s Hercule Poirot or something. He seems to think that the fact that it took more than a month to get word to him in England from Spain was just too darn long. Evidently in the 16th century he expected to get a text message. “Dear Frnk: Liz ded. 😦 Nik.” Having not received a text, he harasses the poor members of this house hold until poor Nicholas is driven insane. I think because he’s the so called “normal person” in this story we’re supposed to be on his side, but I wasn’t. I hate Francis and I wanted him to die in a fire! However, as you can probably guess, he doesn’t die in a fire. This is because there is no god, since Nietzsche killed him in the drawing room with the dagger. Having been robbed of a merciful almighty, we are forced to endure Elizabeth’s evil and sadistic brother.

Ah. those heady days when we looked at everything through aqua-marine glasses because we couldn’t get rose ones.

Bringing a doctor over for a drink, he explains to the evil Francis that his sister died of shock. The castle is evidently a place that scares the life out of people on a more than metaphorical level. I hate to harp on the brother so much, but I’m watching a scene right now and all this nitwit does is bark questions at people and all but accuse every person he comes across of killing his sister. He constantly interrupts Nicholas as he tries to tell him what happened until Corman saves us with one of his delightful flashbacks. The tricks used in this would be pretty simple today with a computer, but in those days they had to be run through a processor several times to get the neat looks that they have.

Dude, she just died, ya know?

This leads to another bit of story which explains that as a young boy Nicholas saw his father torturing and killing his mother and uncle. Mostly it’s an excuse to show Vincent Price as the evil man his character would end up emulating at the end of the movie. Of course he only does that after cracking because of Francis and his insatiable need to accuse and decry poor Nicholas. Most of his evils aren’t actually seen on screen, but trust me Francis is at the center of everything that destroys this happy home by the end of the movie.

The past was better because they had color themed rooms.

As part of his campaign to destroy poor Nicholas, Francis gets Elizabeth’s ghost to haunt poor Nicholas. It starts with harpsichord playing at night, which was Elizabeth’s specialty. When they discover the harpsichord they find it splatters with blood and with a ring sitting on it. Francis of course comes to the conclusion that Nicholas faked the whole thing, waving the ring around to cause emotional damage to as many people as he can. The doctor friend then admits that Nicholas thinks that Elizabeth might have been buried alive and that this whole thing could be part of his delusions. So as we can see, Francis has turned Nik’s best friend against him.

A new music safety film… “Blood on the Keyboard!”

Francis’s campaign of terror continues as he pretends to discover a secret passage he used to destroy Elizabeth’s room. He and his accomplices destroy the place, and then screams badly acted accusations at poor Nicholas, knowing full well he himself did it all to destroy poor Nicholas. Nicholas and company go down to Elizabeth’s tomb and crack it open, of course finding a corpse that had tried to claw it’s way out of the casket. This of course was a plant, put in place by the wicked Francis and his cohorts in order to destroy the innocent Nicholas. This does the job though and sends Nicholas over the edge. This drives even the doctor away, in guilt for his part in helping the evil Francis no doubt.

I’m gonna start bustin’ some caps!

After finding his little game has done so much harm, Francis tries to make up for it by telling Nicholas’s sister that he doesn’t blame Nicholas and that he knows Elizabeth’s death was an accident. Of course in reality, Francis’s intent is much different and he’s only toying with her. In reality he’s kept his sister alive and hidden from view, so they could destroy Nicholas and steal his home and wealth! When it’s reveled that Francis’s sister Elizabeth is indeed alive, it’s quite a shock and sends him into a full blown madness. Strangely, Elizabeth looks sort of like Michael Jackson circa 2002.

Seriously doesn’t this look like Michael Jackson? Anyone? Work with me here people!

When it all comes out, it is shown that the doctor and Elizabeth were in love and faked the whole thing just to help Francis get Nicholas’s money. They don’t mention Francis’s part in the plot, leaving that rather obvious point up to the audience to decide. It’s so clear that you don’t have to mention it, we know what evils Francis has concocted. When they admit their adultery, Nicholas goes nutso and re-enacts his father’s murders, even taking on his personality.

Sadly Francis is not on fire here. An opportunity missed if you ask me.

The thing is, even though Nicholas has now gone mad and throws the doctor into the pit which holds half this story’s name, I still feel for him. I certainly feel for him far more than the wicked Francis, who shows up about this time to look in on his handy-work. Ah! But Nicholas gets his own back on the little scum bag! He put him under the pendulum that carries the other half of this story’s name. This is slightly unfortunate though, as the pendulum is one of the fakest and least threatening things in the whole movie. It looks like something from a high school play.

Not a matte painting, this was all built, and they only use it in one shot! The waste of Hollywood huh?

Of course Nicholas keeps the tension running by slowly lowering the fake looking pendulum, which is nice because Francis deserves it! Sadly he doesn’t get it, Nicholas’s sister and one of the servants who have swallowed Francis’s lies help kill him and get away. I kept expecting that the police would kick down the door and arrest Francis for his evils, but he seems to get away with it. It’s even implied that he and Nicholas’s sister will shack up together for a while, until Francis kills her after she writes him into her will of course.

Um… still in the box! Little help?

As the movie closes, we see Elizabeth still locked in an iron maiden. This is sad because Francis, the sister and the servant are all looking at her in the iron maiden as she says “No one will ever enter this room again” leaving us to understand that Francis is prepared to leave even his sister in his wake of death and madness. I’m not going too far with this, I think, when I say that Francis is the most evil character in American Cinema. We are then treated to a quote from Poe, which kind of sums up my feeling about Francis by that point.

Word brother, word.

I would like to say a few words about Vincent Price’s acting job in this film. I find it interesting that someone who played so many roles in these Poe movies did such a careful job with each one. He could have just phoned in his performances, or played the same character with different names each time, but each performance has a subtlety and grace to them that lacks in many A listed movies never mind the B listed ones. In The Pit and The Pendulum, he plays such a nervous and timid fellow that you just want to protect him from all the world’s evils.

Secret to happiness? Find a job you love!

Even though these movies were made cheap and fast, they don’t really feel lazy or rushed. Each one was made with a careful hand, measured and practiced. I think that’s what makes them a joy to watch even to this day. Corman and crew did a lot of work in pre-production and making moves for economy. If you look carefully as these movies go you can see a lot of the same bits of set over and over because they kept and reused things, adding to the size and scale with each movie, it’s quite a smart movie really. I tease about some of these movies, because it’s hard to write two thousand words about a movie when you’re tired without getting into snarkville (population: me), but I really do love these things. I would always suggest that people hunt these down because they are totally worth watching.

October 16, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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