The Pit and the Pendulum a Definitive Example of 1960s Horror

Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe may have passed away in 1849, but his legacy continues to loom over horror. Later this year, Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series adapts one of Poe’s works – The Fall of the House of Usher. Both Universal Studios – in an adaptation starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff – and Lucio Fulci have adapted The Black Cat. Even The Simpsons have worked Poe’s The Raven into their annual Treehouse of Horror episodes. Arguably, the most famous Poe adaptations came from the American International Pictures’ collaborations between Roger Corman and Vincent Price. Following on the success of House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum became the most successful of the AIP Poe adaptations. Thirty years later, Stuart Gordon – director of Re-Animator – took another stab the same Poe short story.

Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum Remains a Definitive Version of 1960s Horror

By the early 1960s, Vincent Price, largely a character actor, had entrenched himself in the horror genre. After a couple of William Castle pictures, Price collaborated on House of Usher with Roger Corman, which was a surprise box office hit. Whether The Pit and the Pendulum was a better Edgar Allan Poe adaptation or not, its influence on 1960s horror is evident from the opening credits. Composer Les Baxter’s dreamy and haunting score feels far removed from either Hammer or Universal horror’s proceeding output. Moreover, the striking Gothic set pieces and bold use of colour in the cinematography are distinctive for horror in that time period. In particular, Corman’s visual style feels spiritually connected to the output of Italian Giallo that would follow.

Whether The Pit and the Pendulum was a better Edgar Allan Poe adaptation or not, its influence on 1960s horror is evident from the opening credits.

In regards to its style, The Pit and the Pendulum will likely not appeal to younger horror fans. First and foremost, the pacing and relatively tame approach to its content will be incongruent with contemporary sensibilities. And the performances are broad, which was typical of the time period. Obviously, Vincent Price is the major highlight of The Pit and the Pendulum. Price’s performance as Nicholas Medina is equal parts campy and tragic with the master of horror chewing the scenery in epic fashion. This is Price’s movie from start to to finish. On the heels of Black Sunday, Barbara Steele would solidify herself as the ‘Queen of Italian horror’. Only John Kerr sticks out in the worst possible way. As the brother of Medina’s doomed bride, Kerr is the definition of stiff. This isn’t stage acting – he’s just plain wooden and awkward in his delivery.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1991) Not Necessarily a Remake, Definitely Straight-to-Video Horror

After tackling H.P. Lovecraft, director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak) took a shot at Poe. Like Corman, Gordon mostly just borrows Poe’s premise and title, mixing it with another Poe short story, The Cask of Amontillado. Its story, written by Dennis Paoli (Body Snatchers), puts a married couple amidst the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada’s reign of terror. Yet the story takes a backstage to some of The Pit and Pendulum’s idiosyncrasies. Gordon’s opening scene that finds the Grand Inquisitor having the skeletal remains of a ‘sinner’ flogged hits a weird note. Its not clear whether it’s intended to be intentionally or unintentionally funny. Most of the scenes with witch Esmeralda also feel tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie. In spite of a lack of scares or suspense, however, Gordon makes sure his The Pit and the Pendulum is never dull.

Its not clear whether it’s intended to be intentionally or unintentionally funny.

Some of the thriller’s eccentricity also emerges from the mixed casting. No one was going to replace Vincent Price. But Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Pumpkinhead) was a horror movie pro even by 1991. Not surprisingly then, he brings a straight intensity to Torquemada that outstretches most of the The Pit and the Pendulum. If some parts of the movie veer towards unintentional camp, Henriksen ensures his Grand Inquisitor is menacing and dangerous. But Jeffrey Combs and Frances Bay feel woefully out of place. While Combs’ performance feels less jolting, Bay’s confessed witch Esmeralda often feels like she’s played for laughs. Some of this may stem from the fact that audiences today will most immediately recall her from Seinfeld.

The Pit and the Pendulum Remains an Essential Example of 1960s Horror; The 1990s Version is Quirky, But Forgettable

Less a remake and more a reinterpretation, the 1991 The Pit and the Pendulum is an oddity of an early 90s straight-to-video release. In many ways, it’s unfair to compare Gordon’s amalgamation of two different Poe short stories to Corman’s 1961 horror classic. They are two wholly different movies that use only the barest parts of Poe’s story and title. Whereas Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum boasted Gothic set designs and vividly colorful cinematography, the 1991 version looks like most late 80s and early 90s VHS horror movies – dour and washed out. And Vincent Price is Vincent Price. At least Gordon’s movie is strange enough to keep you watching. And Lance Henriksen is always good.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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