Thursday, 29 May 2014

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

        Arrow Films continues its series of lovely Blu-ray and steelbook releases of classic Vincent Price films with arguably the most famous of them all (even my parents can remember watching this one on its initial release). Made in the wake of the success of FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Roger Corman’s second adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story is a triumph of inspired matte paintings, clever writing on Richard Matheson’s part, a spooky and creative Les Baxter score, but above and beyond all that a terrific central performance by Vincent Price. 

In the kind of fifteenth century Spanish castle that could only exist painted on glass and projected above a California beach, Vincent Price is slowly going mad. Bad enough that as a child he witnessed his mother and her lover killed by his insane Inquisitor father, now his wife (Barbara Steele) has died, but he can hear her playing the harpsichord late at night. Discovering that Barbara was entombed alive doesn’t help his fragile mental state, which takes a turn for the worse as the film reaches its climax. Insane aristocratic Vincent Price and a handy torture dungeon equipped with fully functioning swinging pendulum that he’s been keeping oiled even when he was presumably a little bit more sane is going to spell trouble for anyone, not least those who have been plotting against him.

While it’s not as good as some of the later Poe pictures (especially MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH which remains my favourite) the last twenty minutes of PIT AND THE PENDULUM  is a gothic triumph, managing to combine Price at his most lip-smackingly evil, a massive torture device, and Barbara Steele, barefoot, beautiful and distressed, being locked up in an iron maiden. Forever. It was rare for a film of this period to end on quite such a shocking note, but Roger Corman knew that if you’ve got the imploring eyes of a poor imprisoned Barbara Steele to make use of, you really can’t fade out on anything else. 

The first hour or so of the film does suffer a bit in being simply preparation for the big reveal at the climax, but on the whole it’s not bad, with the usual sumptuous sets and photography. But it’s the pendulum that made such an impression on sixties audiences, and with good reason - despite numerous attempts, the final twenty minutes of this film has yet to be matched in its use of this macabre mechanical murder device.
Arrow’s Blu-ray transfer is pretty good, but there is some print damage and quite a few scratches, most noticeably in the scene where Price looks on in horror as a bloody hand emerges from a coffin. Extras include two commentary tracks - one by producer-director Roger Corman that’s been ported over from the previous DVD release, and a new fact-filled track by Tim Lucas. There’s a new 45-minute making of documentary that includes interviews with Corman, Victoria Price, Brian Yuzna and Barbara Steele, who also touches on her experiences with directors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. 

Also included, and previously unavailable in the UK, is the Vincent Price TV special AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLAN POE. This consists of Price in costume and amid appropriate sets telling four Poe tales - The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Pit and the Pendulum. There’s also an isolated music and effects track, a trailer, and a collector’s booklet written by Jonathan Rigby. Depending on which you prefer there’s either the lovely steelbook or the standard edition to choose from, both of which have splendid cover art. 

Arrow Films released Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM on Blu-ray in steelbook and standard editions on the 19th May 2014

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