The Place of Torment: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Do you know where you are, Bartolome? I’ll tell you where you are. You are about to enter Hell, Bartolome, HELL!… The netherworld.The infernal region, The Abode of the Damned… The place of torment. Pandemonium. Abbadon. Tophet. Gehenna. Naraka. THE PIT!… And the pendulum

Do you like Edgar Allan Poe? I do and you know who else would? Catherine Morland. She would be a major fan of his books and the films based off them.

And I’ve decided to choose this EDgar Allen Poe film which also checks off our annual Vincent Price film!

Not only is this a Vincent Price film, but because of its Gothic nature it is also going on my recommendation list, Catherine Morland’s Viewing List Part I & Part II

This is the second of the 8 Poe adaptation films that our director, Roger Corman, made and one of the 7 Vincent Price starred in. I’m 1960, the previous year, The Fall of the House of Usher came out and was a giant hit, catapulting Corman to stardom and making everyone eager to have another Poe film, this the creation of The Pit and the Pendulum

Due to the success of The Fall of the House of Usher, Corman had a larger budget and was able to use CinemaScope for this film instead of black and white. I personally think the film would have been stronger in black and white as I think the color takes away from the dramatic content.

The film is adaption of the Poe story but it doesn’t directly follow it as the short story doesn’t have enough to make a feature full length film. Instead the writers wrote their own script for the first 2/3 of the film (trying to make it as Poe-like as possible), with the last 1/3 of the film to be about the Pit and the Pendulum.

The film is set in 1547 and while most of the actors are fine in the period owned, I have always felt that John Kerr was not suited to this dress. He looks a bit odd. Period costumes are not suited to everyone.

Now this isn’t my favorite of the the eight adaptions, in fact the film moves really slow in the beginning and a lot of the actors do not connect with the scenes. But, I do recommend it for Vincent Price as he gives the best performance out of everyone. Is he evil? Is he murderous? Is he misunderstood? Is he insane? But once we move to the latter third of the film, it really picks up and is grabs your attention never letting go.

We are in 1547 Spain and John Kerr’s character, Francis Barnard, has traveled to see his sister Elizabeth. When he arrives at her home he learns from her husband, Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), that Elizabeth is dead.

Francis is shocked, angry, and wants answers as to why his sister died when she was so healthy, and why did no one inform him?

Nicholas struggles to talk about it and Francis turns to Nicholas’ sister Catherine (Luana Anders) for answers…and because he has the hots for her. After questioning the two the only answer Francis is given is that Elizabeth had a blood disorder.

Hmm…suspicious

Francis isn’t happy with this as a blood disorder doesn’t run in his family and she was perfectly healthy when she married. He suspects they are hiding something from him and declares he will not leave until he finds out the truth.

One night at dinner when Nicholas’ best friend and doctor, Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone), visits, Francis questions him. He discovers that Elizabeth did not die of a blood disease but that she “died of fright” as she had massive heart failure. Armed with this knowledge he forces Nicholas to tell him the truth of what really happened and show him where Elizabeth died.

Nicholas takes Francis the to “forbidden part” of the castle, a torture chamber that features multiple torture devices along with the titular pit and pendulum. Nicholas shared that Elizabeth had become obsessed with everything in here and started to become “unbalanced”. One day she locked herself in the Iron Maiden. When they took Elizabeth out she said the name Sebastian and died.

From The Wolf Man (1941)

Having grown up with a sister that was the extreme opposite of the type of person described, Francis doesn’t believe Nicholas and starts suspecting that he murdered his sister. Did Nicholas murder Elizabeth? Or is he telling the truth? With a Poe based film you’ll never know for sure until the very end.

Hmmm…

It doesn’t help Nicholas’ case that he acts so guilty and as if he is at fault for the murder. When Francis questions his behavior, Catherine reveals that her brother has a lot of trauma from when he was young. Their father was Sebastian Medina, a notorious agent of the Spanish Inquisition. When Nicholas was young he explored the forbidden room and witnessed his father torturing his mother and his father’s brother (as they were having an affair). Dr. Leon further explains the trauma as he shares that Nicholas also witnessed his father entomb his mother while she was still alive and heard the cries of agony as she was bricked up.

Creepy…

Nicholas is worried that the same fate happened to Elizabeth (which is interesting as it appears he doesn’t fully trust the doctor, and his best friend), and that her vengeful spirit is walking the home and torturing him-trying to make him insane.

The thing I enjoy about this performance is it reminds me a lot of Rebecca, when Joan Fontaine’s character sees Rebecca everywhere and in everything.

But weird unexplained things begin to happen. Loud noises are heard from Elizabeth’s room. At night her harpsichord is heard being played and she is the only one who knew how to play to. Elizabeth’s room is also ransacked and her portrait slashed! Nicholas starts going crazy, but is he really crazy or is that all planned to hide his earlier murder?

Hmm…

Francis thinks the latter and accuses Nicholas, while I don’t think Francis is wrong to be suspicious, as we all know I would be, the way he goes about it is setting himself up for failure. Every time I watch this I’m like you need to take a step back and reevaluate your questioning.

Nicholas insists they exuhume the body and when they do it is revealed from the position that Elizabeth is in, she was alive after she was interned and was in fact buried to death.

Everyone is upset and Nicholas is on the verge of insanity. I have always found it interesting that no one is concerned with the fact that Dr. Leon can’t tell is someone is alive or dead? It makes me think of that Sherlock Holmes scene.

Nicholas is on the precipice and it doesn’t look as if his sanity will win out-he’s hanging by a single thread. Then he hears Elizabeth call to him and follows her down to the tomb, where she rises from her coffin, reanimated and chases Nicholas. Nicholas is frightened and falls down the stairs.

Elizabeth laughs and is joined by her lover and confederate, Dr. Leon. I knew that guy was suspicious-either he helped in the plot or was just an extremely bad doctor.

Dr. Leon and Elizabeth are ecstatic that they drove Nicholas to insanity and plan for do away with him and keep the castle and money (not quite sure how they plan to do that as Elizabeth is still “dead” and they still have Nicholas’ sister Catherine to contend with). But to their surprise Nicholas has lost his mind and believes himself to be Sebastian. Has he truly has a psychotic break? Or has he really been possessed by his dead father’s spirit?

Nicholas siezes Elizabeth and throws her in the Iron Maiden repeating history; along with throwing Dr. Leon in the pit.

Francis hears his sister’s scream of distress and follows them to the the torture chamber. There Nicholas/Sebastian is continuing his craziness and believes Francis to be Sebastian’s brother; grabbing him and placing him under the pendulum.

Catherine arrives just in time to save Francis, but when they try to help Nicholas, he fights them and won’t let them take him, being thrown into the pit as well. Catherine takes Francis out and decides the room is to be locked and sealed, to never ever be opened again. We end on one final shot, Elizabeth trapped in the Iron Maiden, doomed to be buried alive. Serves her right!

I really enjoyed, and if you like Poe, Price, and gothic fiction; you are sure to as well.

For more Vincent Price, go to Ship of Ghouls: The Love Boat (1978)

For more On Edgar Allen Poe, go to Catherine Morland’s Reading List: The Tell-Tale Heart

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