on 4 July 2014
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM  [Limited Edition SteelBook] [Blu-ray] The Greatest Terror Tale Ever Told!
A horse-drawn carriage pulls up on a deserted beach. A sombre figure dismounts and gazes up towards his destination and a foreboding cliff-top castle perched high above the crashing waves. Thus the perfect Gothic scene is set for ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ the second of Roger Corman’s celebrated Poe adaptations once again starring the ever-reliable Vincent Price [‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and ‘Theatre of Blood’] alongside the bewitching Barbara Steele [‘Black Sunday’].
Having learned of the sudden death of his sister Elizabeth [Barbara Steele], Francis Barnard [John Kerr] sets out to the castle of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina, to uncover the cause of her untimely demise. A distraught, grief-stricken Nicholas [Vincent Price] can offer only the vaguest explanations as to Elizabeth’s death and at first citing “something in her blood”, but later asserting that she quite literally “died of fright”. What sort of unspeakable horrors are buried within the walls of this castle that could cause one’s heart to stop so? With Francis determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, the terrible truth will not stay buried for long.
Right from its brooding kaleidoscopic opening titles, Pit and Pendulum draws you into its world of cobwebs, secret passageways and dusty suits of armour. All the necessary elements are present and correct and, along with one of Vincent Price’s most tortured performances, make ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ every inch the Gothic masterpiece.
FILM FACT: The film's brief exterior prologue showing John Kerr's arrival to the castle was filmed on the Palos Verdes coast. The rest of the production was shot in four interior sound stages at the California Studios in Hollywood. To provide greater freedom for the planned camera movements, a castle set with many levels and ample space was designed by Daniel Haller. The film's press book noted that the pendulum was eighteen-feet long and weighed over a ton and was constructed with a realistic rubber cutting blade. The pendulum was rigged from the top of the sound stage thirty-five feet in the air. In an interview, Daniel Haller provided details regarding the creation of the pendulum. To visually enhance the size of this set, the camera was equipped with a 40 mm Panavision wide-angle lens and mounted at the opposite end of the stage, giving Floyd Crosby the ability to frame the scenes in his camera with extra space at the bottom and at either side. These areas were filled in later by printing-in process extensions of the set, doubling its size onscreen.
Cast: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, Patrick Westwood, Lynette Bernay, Larry Turner, Mary Menzies, Charles Victor and Randee Lynne Jensen (uncredited)
Director: Roger Corman
Producer: James H. Nicholson, Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff
Screenplay: Richard Matheson and Edgar Allan Poe (story "The Pit and the Pendulum")
Composer: Les Baxter
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Video Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 [Panavision]
Audio: English: 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio
Subtitles: English SDH
Running Time: 81 minutes
Number of discs: 1
Studio: Arrow Video / American International Pictures
Andrew’s Blu-ray Review: Between the years of 1960 and 1965, legendary director/producer Roger Corman would set out to create numerous cinematic adaptations of the works of Edgar Alle Poe. These films would later be known as the “Corman-Poe Cycle.” Repeatedly utilizing the same sets, and (mostly) the same creative team, the endlessly frugal Roger Corman crafted eight memorable classics that we are all still enjoying today. After the surprising popularity of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ Roger Corman would bring another Poe tale to the silver screen the following year, namely ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ Roger Corman producer, director, and veteran of horror and sci-fi filmmaking have been a name associated with the rite of passage into scary films for countless generations of fans. The King of the “B movies” has been making films for over sixty years, boasting an extensive filmography that others can only dare to dream of in terms of output.
Arrow Video has done it again in bringing out another fantastic and brilliant release of the UK Blu-ray Limited Edition SteelBook of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ the 1961 follow-up to The Fall of the House of Usher, once again directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price alongside Barbara Steele and Luana Anders. "£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.
From the tortured mind of Edgar Allen Poe, the articulated pen of Richard Matherson and the directorial eye of a young Roger Corman came one of the great gothic horror films of the 1960’s; ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ On release in 1961, the film became an instant hit with both critics and audiences alike. The plaudits ranged from “a physically stylish, imaginatively photographed horror film” (Variety) to “a thoroughly creepy sequence of horrors” (New Yorker) and perhaps the most tellingly “a class suspense-horror film of the calibre of the excellent ones done by Hammer” (Hollywood Reporter).
Certainly Roger Corman succeeded in crafting one of the most arresting openings in any Gothic horror film, balancing it at the end with a wildly extravagant finale and bolstering the body of the picture with eerily tinted flashbacks and a creepily effective tomb-rising for Steele. Introducing the action, rivulets of luridly coloured paints bleed into each other to the accompaniment of composer Les Baxter’s sombre atonalities, suggesting nothing so much as the interbreeding blood vessels of the mind.
‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is the second Edgar Allan Poe adaptation by Roger Corman. It came out after the enormous success of his version of ‘House of Usher.’ That film came to be after Roger Corman suggested instead of making two more black and white horror films, why not make a colour one? It turned out to be the most successful film for American International Pictures of that time.
The kaleidoscopic opening and closing credits are wonderfully delirious; rounding off a brilliantly filmed body of work is reminiscent of the Saul Bass and early James Bond credit sequence design, feeling completely at home with the tone of the film in the process conveying the perfect chaos of a descent into madness and panic.
Francis Barnard arrives in 16th Century Spain is the locale, after the mysterious death of his sister Elizabeth [Barbara Steele] Francis Barnard [John Kerr] travels to visit his brother in law, Nicholas Medina [Vincent Price] son of a brutal torturer from the Spanish inquisition to discover the true events surrounding her death which will shock the audience unravelling a greater mystery. Vincent Price empowers every frame that he appears in, his tortured character is a perfectly realised; a trait which Price delivers with gusto and believability, the audience can feel the grief of Nicholas as he offer vague explanations of Elizabeth’s death whilst dealing with the tortuous exploits of his father. The turmoil and despair or Nicholas is portrayed perfectly with the use of Price’s expressions, his eyes powerfully emotive and Roger Corman exploits this in lavish close ups allowing the man to act his very soul out particularly in his descent to madness.
Vincent Price, however, is the star of the film gives one of his best unhinged performances of a career comprised of many; the last 15 minutes alone are up there with his best work. Vincent Price was very happy to be associated with Roger Corman on the Edgar Allan Poe films because it helped his slumping career and had some cachet of quality. He would star in all of them bar one, ‘The Premature Burial.’
Flashbacks of the bewitching Elizabeth are washed in dreamlike hues of light blue, these sequences are used masterfully with Price’s distinct voice carrying the audience whilst an emotive and passionate score divulges and lulls the audience to the tragic events that Nicholas is reliving. These flashbacks are an important tool that Roger Corman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby utilise to drive character emotion in effect urging the viewers emotive response, colour is equally as important, one such startlingly violent flurry is drenched in a warm orange glow drawing the viewer into the acts thrusting their feelings toward that of the young Nicholas, events which haunt him in adulthood.
However, I have to admit that I was not a huge fan of actor John Kerr, who portrayed the resolute Francis Barnard. It is his unexpected appearance and subsequent search for answers that is the lynchpin of the film; this should be Francis Barnard’s story. But in the end, Francis is basically a mere plot device to move things along, while Vincent Price gets to shine in the role of Nicholas Medina.
The horror film is rich in Edgar Allan Poe-like themes, incidents and atmosphere and a cursed heritage, a doomed mansion, crepuscular dungeons, premature burial, revenants. Vincent Price's animated performance, alternating between menace and madness, is highlighted by the po-faced supporting cast. The British actress Barbara Steele, who had already become a "scream queen" in Italian horror flicks, here makes her first and only Hollywood film as Vincent Price's wife, but because of her supposed regional accent she was dubbed.
‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ has more-than retained its power to chill and enthral, and if you give it a chance it will gladly crawl under your skin and reside there. As far as cinematic climaxes go, there aren’t many that can top the pendulum once it is in full swing, and as far as films from the immortal Roger Corman go, there are none better and yes, that includes ‘The Masque of Red Death.’ Each discovery in the plot proves to be yet another lie; Richard Matheson’s script is so full of twists that I feel like the whole storyline almost loses its plausibility. In a way, this is pretty clever: I started mirroring Francis’ emotions of suspicion and dissatisfaction, not knowing who and what to believe anymore. The final revelation that is only exposed to Nicholas and the viewer is pretty shocking, but suddenly the whole travesty finally makes sense. The tragic ending is absolutely brilliant and a memorable image that will last forever in the cinema horror film genre.
If you consider the names involved with ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ like Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Barbara Steele then this film represents a coming-together of some unique talent in the genre. A classic piece that, even today, remains timeless and beautifully crafted. This restoration is sure to please all fans of gothic horror, and the extras, and quality package to make this an attractive piece for any Blu-ray collector’s library.
Blu-ray Video Quality – This 1080p HD upgrade onto limited edition Blu-ray is taken from original film elements, provided by MGM. The quality of the picture allows the viewer to absorb themselves in the gothic grandeur of the film. The crystal clear print showcases the rich, bold colours and minute details in such fantastic clarity it is difficult to believe this film is 54 years old. Providing the original widescreen format also gives the opportunity to see just how ambitious and vast the sets were, each shot framed perfectly and presented as originally intended. When you consider just how low-budget this film was, it is exceptionally well crafted and beautiful to look at. The print shows no damage and no evidence of obvious digital enhancements, with a nice feeling of cinematic grain that compliments its age and feel. You will be well impressed with the handsome, richly detailed 1080p transfer with a really sumptuous generous contrast range and terrific colour, something that leaps from the screen in the film's psychedelic opening images. There is occasionally some very slight picture movement and a few very brief instances of dirt remain, but otherwise this is a sparkling restoration that beautifully showcases the films richly realised cinematography, production design and matte work. Please Note: Playback Region B/2: This will not play on most Blu-ray players sold in North America, Central America, South America, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Learn more about Blu-ray region specifications.
Blu-ray Audio Quality – The sound is presented in its original format and showing respect to Roger Corman’s original intentions for the film and in the form of an uncompressed 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio track, but it's actually 2.0, spreading the sound evenly across the front main speakers. The dialogue is very clear and the atmospheric music suitably mixed to support the eerie and creepy atmosphere of the film. There is also an option to isolate the music and effects track, and English subtitles for the deaf or hard of hearing. With Optional Isolated Music and Effects Track, which is slightly clearer than the main track and with less background hiss.
Blu-ray Special Features and Extras:
High Definition Blu-ray 1080p presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by M-G-M.
Original uncompressed 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio.
Optional Isolated Music and Effects Track.
Optional English SDH subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of hearing.
Audio Commentary: Commentary with Director and Producer Roger Corman: For my money, Roger Corman has one of the most interesting voices in the known universe and listening to him is one of the most interesting you are ever likely to encounter and even he read out from a telephone director, it would still sound good and even better if Roger Corman did audio books for the blind it, would be a No.1 winner every time. The audio commentary here is no exception, with the director providing information on all aspects of the film's production, including: the selection of actors; working with composer Les Baxter; the paintings that adorn the walls; his more confident use of CinemaScope following his first use of the format in ‘House of Usher;’ the matte paintings; the distorted imagery and colour tinting; and a whole load more. His admiration for Vincent Price as an actor is clear, and he provides a frank and detailed breakdown of the film's Freudian undertones and it did not occur to me that the castle was designed to be read as a woman's body and you live and learn something out of the blue from as always Roger Corman. Roger Corman also informs us that to create the flashbacks revealing Nicholas' traumatic experiences, Roger Corman and Floyd Crosby attempted to shoot them in a manner that would convey to the audience the character's horror in dredging up nightmares trapped in his subconscious. Roger Corman insisted on these images having a dream-like quality, "twisted and distorted because they were being experienced by someone on the rim of madness". Roger Corman decided to film the flashbacks in monochrome, since he had read that some psychiatrists believe most people dream in "black-and white" imagery. Floyd Crosby used wide-angle lenses, violent camera movement, and tilted camera angles to represent the character's feeling of hysteria. The sequences were then printed on blue-tinted stock which was subsequently toned red during development, effectively producing a two-tone image. The highlights were blue, with the shadows rendered as red and producing a deep, bloody quality. The image was then run through an optical printer where the edges were vignette and a twisted linear distortion was introduced. Another interesting fact we hear is that Roger Corman has noted that making the film was a pleasurable experience: "I enjoyed ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ because I actually got the chance to experiment a bit with the movement of the camera. There was a lot of moving camera work and interesting cutting in the climax of the film." Roger Corman also informs us that the filming went smoothly, and Roger Corman attributed the ease of the production's shoot to the short but comprehensive pre-production planning he did with the major technicians.
Audio Commentary: Commentary by Critic Tim Lucas: Novelist and Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas delivers a compelling reading of the film and provides a brief biography on the actors in the film and a complex analysis of the film's subtext. He also discusses the CinemaScope’s compositions, the moody music score, and Richard Matheson's original script, which he quotes from. Critic Tim Lucas gives his not so nice and bitter review of Vincent Price's performance, which he was totally out of order to say such negative views, as Vincent Price in my mind can do no wrong in whatever film he appears in and always gives a 100% professional performance and if people who went to see his films did not like what they saw on the screen, then Vincent Price’s career would be a very short one indeed. He also comments on the film's similarities to Henri-Georges Clouzot's ‘Les Diaboliques,’ and the influence of Edgar Allan Poe's original story. One interesting fact is that this commentary was recorded on the 250th anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe's birth.
Special Feature: Behind the Swinging Blade [43:07] This newly made documentary on the making of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and is the work of Arrow Video regular Callum Waddell, that looks back at the making of the film through interviews with producer-director Roger Corman, actress Barbara Steele, and director Brian Yuzna, journalist and film historian David Del Valle, and Vincent Price's daughter Victoria. Barbara Steele tells us that she loved Vincent Price and claims that her voice was not dubbed in the film, well that is the official version it was. Brian Yuzna recalls his first viewing of the film and his opinion that Barbara Steele was great in anything she appeared in and they get my vote any time. David Del Valle states that "All of us who grew up with Vincent Price owed him a debt of gratitude." Victoria Price nicely describes her father's later screen image as "the elegant side of evil." And there are loads more stuff to get your teeth into here. This is totally fascinating and well worth a view.
Special Feature: Added TV Sequence [5:04] Shot in 1968 to pad out the film for the longer TV time slot, this scene features star Luana Anders. An extra sequence shot by Roger Corman's assistant Tamara Asseyev, that was added for the film's television screening in 1968 to enable it to fill a 2-hour time slot, which gives you an idea just how many commercial breaks there must have been. The sequence in question has Catherine Medina imprisoned in an asylum, and watching it in isolation it's hard to imagine exactly how it fitted into the film.
Special Feature: An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe with Vincent Price  [53:07] Vincent Price reads a selection of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic stories before a live audience, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Sphinx,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Vincent Price delivers this performance with his usual gravitas and passion, every word he utters an embodiment of the terror and tension that Poe could conjure with his words. This is a superb feature and showcases the powerful presence of Vincent Price as he captivates the audience in his telling of these stories with such gusto that it is hard not to get sucked into every tale. Vincent Price is in full flow here, notably in expressing the anguish and torment of the characters from whose viewpoint each of the stories are told. Just occasionally you want him to rein it in a tad, but this is still a valuable, hugely enjoyable and most appropriate inclusion. Handily, this feature has chapter stops at the start of each story. Directed by Kenneth Johnson. Screenplay by David Welch (television adaptation) and Kenneth Johnson (television adaptation). Produced by Dan Kibbie, James H. Nicholson, Kenneth Johnson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. Music by Les Baxter.
Theatrical Trailer  [1080p] [2:30]This is the Original Theatrical Trailer for ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ which gleeful revels all the terror the audience were to experience by going to see the film. This is an intriguing trailer that has a few dust spots but is otherwise in decent shape and it is in the correct scope ratio. Structurally it's a little wobbly and has a couple of serious spoilers, but the voice-over is great fun, assuring us in all sincerity that the film has "all the violence of angry seas." Come again?
BONUS: Beautiful Printed and Designed Reversible Limited Edition SteelBook Packaging especially from the excellent colour cover art to a glorious presentation of a Vincent Price classic front and back. Plus Black-and-White photo images on the inside of the SteelBook from the film ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’
BONUS: Beautiful Designed Collector’s 22 page booklet featuring new writing on the film by Gothic Horror author Jonathan Rigby, illustrated with original archive stills and posters. The centrepiece of this typically fine full colour booklet is a fascinating essay on the film and its release by “American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema” by author Jonathan Rigby entitled “THE WAITING PIT OF HELL”  which includes an examination of Vincent Price's performance and the critical response to it and some choice technical information on the pendulum sequence. There are also plenty of stills and the main film credits, and I really liked the fact that the page numbers are framed in a small pendulum blade. Finally, on page 21 we get information on “ABOUT THE TRANSFER;” “PRODUCTION CREDITS” and “SPECIAL THANKS.”
Finally, Arrow Video has certainly pulled out all the stops as usual on this Blu-ray Limited Edition SteelBook release. ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is a fine addition to AIP‘s Roger Corman and Edgar Allan Poe cycle. It is atmospheric, beautifully shot, and features one of Price’s best performances. Though the film takes its time to unravel, the film runs at a really brisk eighty one minutes, so it never becomes a chore to watch. I definitely think ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ especially to fans of classic horror genre, and I’m pleased to give it a star rating of 10 out of 10 and well worth purchasing and now totally honoured to be added to my ever increasing Vincent Price Blu-ray Collection, especially via the very professional Arrow Video people, who should be totally congratulated in bringing out these beautifully crafted Horror films. Very Highly Recommended!
Andrew C. Miller – Your Ultimate No.1 Film Fan
Le Cinema Paradiso
WARE, United Kingdom