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Edgar Allan Poetic: 60 Years of Roger Corman's 'The Pit and the Pendulum'

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

How do you turn a 6,000-word short story into a feature film? That’s easy – give it to Roger Corman.

'The Pit and the Pendulum' is a Gothic horror film produced and directed by the "The Pope of Pop Cinema", Roger Corman. The film is loosely based on the tale of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, and stars horror icon Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, and Luana Anders.

Set in the 16th-century, the film follows young Englishman Francis Barnard, who has travelled to Spain to investigate the mysterious death of his sister Elizabeth. Trapped in a decaying castle of violence, horror, and madness, Francis soon finds himself strapped to an Inquisition-era torture device by his insane brother-in-law Nicholas.

“...the agony of my soul found vent in one loud, long and final scream of despair.” – Edgar Allan Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum (1842)

The film is the second in Corman’s famous Poe Cycle, a collection of seven low-budget films produced by American International Pictures, inspired by the "Master of the Macabre". The cycle did better at the box office than any of Corman’s contemporaries expected – this film made $200 million in the US and Canada alone - and they remain respected fan-favourites to this day.

So, what is it about this film that makes it so damn memorable? Let’s take a walk down spooky lane with Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman, and Vincent Price.

Most, if not all, horror fans know who Edgar Allan Poe is. In fact, most people know who Edgar Allan Poe is. He is one of the most influential writers in the history of horror literature, his Gothic image is instantly recognizable, and you have probably seen at least one adaptation of his story, even if you don’t realise it (Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore”. The Simpsons’ first Halloween special, anyone?).

Poe’s life was wrought with tragedy, illness, and death. Born in Boston in 1809, Poe lost his mother Elizabeth when he was just two years old. He was raised by merchant John Allan and received a classical education in the US, England, and Scotland. Whilst attending University of Virginia, Poe developed a gambling addiction so debilitating that his adoptive father angrily pulled him out of school, refusing to support his reckless behavior. Upon returning to Boston, Poe found the love of his life, Sarah was engaged. He was heartbroken, but he did publish his first pamphlet of Lord Byron-style poems shortly after.

Financial poverty forced him to join the army for a brief period before he joined the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Poe hated it. He didn’t attend any drills or classes and was soon expelled, much to his delight. He published a volume of poetry in New York before settling in Baltimore, where he became an editor, literary critic, and writer. Once financially stable, he married his cousin Virginia Clemm (yes, his thirteen-year-old cousin).

Although Poe published some of his best work in this period, including the precursor to modern detective fiction 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher', Poe was plagued by alcoholism. He gained national recognition when he published 'The Raven', but the joy was short-lived for his wife died in 1847 – the premature death of beautiful women would become a defining motif of his work. Poe travelled and had relationships with other women after Virginia died, including the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, but nothing romantic lasted long-term.

Supposedly Poe had premonitions of death when he returned to Baltimore. Indeed, it was there he would die in October 1849, at the age of just 40. The cause of his death has never been confirmed, but the general consensus, and most likely cause, is complications from excessive intoxication.

Despite a devastatingly short and miserable life, Poe’s influence on literature is insurmountable. His work was both informed by and had a major influence on the popular Gothic literature of the day. His themes and motifs – madness, death, grief, the occult, and the grotesque – helped form the foundation of Dark Romanticism, a Gothic-tinged celebration of the emotive sublime. It’s hard to imagine what the horror genre would be like without him.

And yet, Poe was not very well respected for decades. His genius was recognized by the likes of French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, but even within literary circles he was brushed under the rug. Horror genre master Henry James said that to enjoy Poe is to “lack seriousness … a decidedly primitive stage of reflection” and Irish poet W. B. Yeats considered Poe and his work to be “vulgar”. Poe’s death - full of mystery, alcohol, and likely drugs – did not heighten his respectability. American critics considered his work to be too European, too sensational, too much like the romanticised, supernatural Gothic of Germany.

It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the genius of Poe was truly recognized. Modern literary critics had begun to reevaluate his work and understand it as art in literary form. Especially appreciative of his work were The Fugitives, a group of poets and literary scholars at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who revered Poe’s work as deep understanding the darkness of the human condition.

By the time Roger Corman had established himself as a filmmaker, Poe was on the up-and-up, and his cultural capital would only accelerate with Corman’s guiding hand.

Roger Corman is a bit of a divisive figure in horror film history. On one hand, he was the king of shlocky B movies. He was known in Hollywood as a director who got things done quickly and cheaply, with little regard for health and safety. On the other hand, he did have an auteur-level artistic aesthetic. The first film in his Poe cycle – 'House of Usher' – was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, he was the youngest American director at the time to honoured at the distinguished Cinématèque Française in Paris, and he was awarded for his “rich engendering of films and filmmakers'' by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Corman was attracted to Poe’s work because it had a built-in following – kids were starting to read his stories and poetry in school, so Corman rationalized that he would have a guaranteed audience. This is how he pitched 'House of Usher' to American International Pictures (AIP) executives Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson when they asked him to make two black-and-white horror films at $100,000 each. One high-quality colour film, Corman thought, was better than two mediocre black-and-white pictures.

American International Pictures were not a high-end studio at the time. In fact, Arkoff once stated that all the studio wanted was “tits and ass. Sex and violence.…anything else is arty farty.” But Corman insisted that Poe’s up-and-coming position as a staple in the American literary canon would give the studio a new air of respectability. This, alongside casting theatrical actor and horror-fan favourite Vincent Price, would give American International Pictures cultural credibility.

After the surprising success of 'House of Usher' – “we anticipated that the movie would do well,” Corman said, “but not half as well as it did” – another Poe story was demanded. Corman toyed with the idea of adapting 'The Masque of the Red Death' next (he would later), but he didn’t want it to be compared to Ingmar Bergmann’s 'The Seventh Seal', released three years previously. Plus, 'The Masque of the Red Death' would require a much bigger cast, which would’ve cost more money than the studio was willing to spend. Instead, Corman opted for 'The Pit and the Pendulum'.

Poe’s tale is only 6,000 words long, so adapting it into a feature-length screenplay was a challenge. Corman hired horror, fantasy, and sci-fi author Richard Matheson for the job. Everything prior to the finale scene with the Inquisition torture device was created for the film to pad out the run time; Matheson said he hoped the story he created was “faithful to the manner of Poe”.

Since the first two acts of the film were not restricted to an already-existing story, the cast and crew modified the script as and when they needed to. Vincent Price suggested various dialogue changes and/or developments to add more suspense to the story. For example, when Francis first meets Nicholas and asks him about the strange noise he hears within the castle, Don Medina explains, " apparatus, Mr. Barnard. (turning) What brings you to us?", to which the additions "that must be kept in constant repair" and "that cannot be stopped" were suggested by Price.

The whole film was shot in fifteen days, with its production cost clocking in at $300,000. Corman planned out the entire shooting schedule with his crew so they could get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Aside from the odd improvisation or adjustment on set, everything went as planned, enabling them to finish shooting in just over a fortnight.

The art department didn’t have the financial resources to construct sets from scratch, so Art Director Daniel Heller borrowed sets from old productions, including enormous stone walls and staircases, doorways, windows, massive archways, fireplaces, and torture machine props. The pendulum itself had to be large and foreboding, but it also had to pose no real danger to the cast and crew, so Heller had to get creative:

“I found that such a pendulum actually was used during the Spanish and German inquisitions. At first we tried to use a rubberized blade, and that's why it got stuck on Kerr's chest. We then switched to a sharp metalized blade covered with steel paint. The problem was to get it in exactly the right position so it would slash John's shirt without actually cutting him. To guard against this, we put a steel band around his waist where the pendulum crosses. He was a good sport about it...but noticed him perspiring a good bit and no wonder. That pendulum was carving out a 50 foot arc just above his body.”

'The Pit and the Pendulum' could have been another schlocky B movie; enjoyable but not memorable. What makes it stand out from the other Gothic horror/melodrama movies of the 1960s is the creative use of the camera by Corman and his cinematographer Floyd Crosby.

By this, I don’t simply mean what they choose to show on camera. It is an important part of the legacy of the film - its out-and-out visceral Gothic horror, something that hadn’t been done so blatantly for decades. What 'The Pit and the Pendulum' shows on camera isn’t as important as how they show it. According to Stephen King, the reveal of Elizabeth’s rotting corpse with her hands mutilated from scratching at the lid of her coffin is “the most important moment in the post-1960 horror film, signaling a return to an all-out effort to terrify the audience...and a willingness to use any means at hand to do it”.

What makes cinema a unique medium that’s different to traditional theatre is the camera. The cast, the dialogue, the music, and the mise-en-scene could all be placed on a stage and they would still work, but what makes a film truly cinematic and an artform in its own right, is when its creators really utilize the unique ability of the camera to shape the story. Working closely with the art department, Corman and Crosby were able to create an authentically Gothic narrative full of suspense, horror, and psychological depth.

Corman was keen to experiment with the fluidity of the camera, so Daniel Heller erected interconnected rooms on different levels of the stage so the camera could move freely through the rooms for sustained takes. To achieve the creepy effect of the cast being dwarfed by the castle and thus creating an oppressive sense of dread, Heller made the sets as large as he could.

This effect was further supported by Crosby’s 40mm Panavision wide-angle lens, mounted at the opposite end of the stage. This enabled Crosby to frame scenes with extra space at the sides and bottom to really emphasize the dramatic size of the castle. The effect is uncomfortable and uncanny, which helps the viewer empathize with the characters and experience the horror as if they were there too. This is something that could only be achieved in cinema, making it all the more impressive.

To get the story to a feature film length, it had to be developed and Matheson chose to go down a dark, very Poe route. Much of the film explores flashbacks of Nicholas’s childhood trauma, triggered by witnessing his father Sebastian torture his wife and brother, who were in an adulterous relationship, and it is revealed later that only Nicholas knew the true fate of his mother – his sister Catherine was told that his mother was tortured to death, but in fact their father imprisoned her alive.

From that day, Nicholas was haunted by fear of premature burial and his worst fears are released (he believes) when his wife Elizabeth becomes infatuated by the castle’s dark past and is subsequently killed in a torturous iron maiden figure. Dying in Nicholas’s arms, she whispers “Sebastian”, planting the idea in Nicholas’s head that his father’s evil spiritual influence is alive and well, and confirming his fear that it will influence him too. He refers to it as his curse. Later, the revelation that Elizabeth is alive and has been cheating on him with her physician sends Nicholas mad – he believes himself to be his father, and Elizabeth and her physician to be his mother and his uncle. Nicholas, in the throes of insanity, then mistakes Elizabeth’s brother, Francis, for the physician and ties him to a slate table at the mercy of the pendulum.

Complete and utter madness. How do you go about representing this violence and deep psychological trauma on-screen without being exploitative or downright cheesy? And how were they to maintain the somber atmosphere that the low-key photography thus far had created?

The most extraordinary element in 'The Pit and The Pendulum' is the use of colour.

Corman and Crosby used bold shades of blue and red to create dream-like nightmarish flashback sequences that hint at Nicholas’s growing insanity – a madman cannot truly know if his memories are correct, so Corman wanted the sequences to be as distorted and twisted as possible - and the horrors lurking in his subconscious. The sequences were filmed in monochrome and printed onto blue-tined stock that was turned red during development. Blue was used in psychological and emotionally painful scenes and red was used during the violent ones.

The horror of these sequences was further enhanced by Crosby’s remarkable use of camera movement. He used wide-angle lenses, titled angles, and violent camera movements to enhance Nicholas’s growing hysteria, and the actual film stock was then run through an optical printer to vignette the edges and introduce a twisted distortion – all of this creates a nightmarish and horrific atmosphere of madness and violence. And because most of the shots are at eye-level, it’s as if the viewer is experiencing it with Nicholas, making the horror feel all the more palpable. This was never seen before in the horror genre and, pardon the pun, it is bloody impressive. Much of these techniques would be borrowed by filmmakers for years to come proving that Corman's film was indeed a highly influential piece of art. It even got it's own (sort of) remake 30 years later directed by the late, great Stuart Gordon of 'Re-Animator' and 'From Beyond' fame. This time starring Lance Henriksen, Rona De Ricci and Oliver Reed.

Tim Burton’s 'Sleepy Hollow' (1999) was clearly influenced by the horror Iron Maiden figure in 'The Pit and the Pendulum'.

'The Pit and the Pendulum' was released on 12th August 1961, and it sparked a change in the horror genre. It paved the way for lavishly Gothic films from the likes of Hammer Horror and inspired many, many Italian horror films of the same ilk. It showed audiences that horror films could be more than just physically horrific – they could be emotionally and psychologically terrifying too.

- Victoria Brown

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