Monday, October 26, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Pit and the Pendulum"

Roger Corman and Vincent Price had long careers doing low-budget horror flicks, often together. "Pit and the Pendulum" was one of their first big hits together, and the 1961 film remains an atmospheric and engaging milestone in their work nearly a half-century later.

The film is of course based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe, whose dreary and dark-themed work in many ways was a progenitors of the modern horror movie. The story is set in the 1500s, after the Spanish Inquisition, when torture and mayhem were considered a religious duty of the holy men wielding horrible instruments of pain.

Price plays Sebastian Medina, the lord of a dank castle on the shores of the ocean that once belonged to his father, one of the chief Inquisitors. As the story opens his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) has recently died under mysterious circumstances, and her brother Francis (John Kerr) has come to investigate her demise.

He finds Don Medina to be in a state of shock and grief, and the tang of guilt hangs on him, flavoring all of his skittish behavior -- which only causes Francis to suspect foul play.

The other players are Launa Anders as Catherine, Sebastian's sister, and Antony Carbone as Doctor Leon, the family physician and Sebastian's best friend.

The film unspools more or less as a murder mystery, with various parties coming under suspicion at different times. For awhile it seems that the servants are echoing Elizabeth's voice, and playing the harpsichord in the dead of night, and other teasing reminders of the deceased lady of the house. Sebastian himself is suggested to be insanely recreating his wife's activity himself, especially after Francis discovers a secret passage between his bedroom and Elizabeth's.

Director Corman's films were notorious for their tiny budgets, but "Pit" has a pretty decent look to it, with some nicely creepy dungeons and detailed costumes. The matte paintings of the castle against a crashing ocean is kind of hokey to eyes in 2009, but likely looked convincing in 1961.

The acting, however, wavers widely in quality. Kerr seems to have exactly two expressions, and they each grow tiring rather quickly.

Price was known for his wild expressions, which bordered on the comedic, which contributed to the schlocky nature of many of his films. He appears to be playing it straight in "Pit and the Pendulum," and the movie contains not a trace of a smirk.

3 stars

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