The Pit And The Pendulum

The Pit And The Pendulum

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"£100,000 if you die of fright" screamed one of the original posters for this gloriously outré film. It's not clear if anyone ever claimed that money, and modern viewers seem to survive more extreme horror all the time, but nevertheless the poster sets the tone well for a story which does its best to pull every scary trick in the book.

The book in question, Edgar Allen Poe's The Pit And The Pendulum, is actually quite short, and not much of it has been used here besides the eponymous torture device. What it and the film do have in common is atmosphere, and they have that in spades. The story is perfectly suited to Roger Corman's lurid Gothic visuals and appetite for melodrama. Set in a decaying ancestral castle once used by the Spanish Inquisition, it follows a young man anxious to uncover the fate of his beloved sister. Her aristocrat husband, sublimely played by Vincent Price, tells him she has succumbed to a blood disease, yet something about him makes our hero suspicious. Befriended by the husband's own beautiful sister, he wanders round the castle at night hoping to uncover a clue - and finds much more than he bargained for.

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With its themes of madness and unspeakable evil, The Pit And The Pendulum is an epic slice of grand guignol. Yet the pathos of Price's complex performance as a man who clearly really loved his lost wife enables it to pull at the heart strings as well as make the heart beat faster.

Elements of other Poe stories round out the narrative and there are echoes of HP Lovecraft, too, in the sense of some greater intangible lurking horror against which mere men have no power. And hiding behind the unrestrained sequence of the climactic scene is an awareness of all the terrible devices people really did build in the days of the Inquisition - and are still building today. This is a timeless story about the darkness that lies in the heart of man, something from which our hero can never truly escape.

The Pit And The Pendulum will be too over the top for some viewers, but if you have a taste for this sort of thing, it's delicious. Corman revels in his art and Price is compelling as always. Whilst parts of it might seem more like pantomime than modern horror, it is still a truly fantastic viewing experience.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2009
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The Pit And The Pendulum packshot
A man investigating his sister's early death grows increasingly suspicious in her widower's castle full of bizarre torture devices.
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Director: Roger Corman

Writer: Richard Matheson, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, Patrick Westwood

Year: 1961

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

EIFF 2009

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If you like this, try:

The Masque Of The Red Death
The Raven