Roger Corman cranked out some crap in his time, but those hours spent with Vincent Price were among his most golden. 1961's The Pit and the Pendulum is no exception, starring the diabolic Mr. Price as mentally-unstable nobleman Don Nicholas Medina. Medina's father was a deranged torturer in the Spanish Inquisition, and the basement of his ancestral castle is still packed with all manner of ghastly contraptions. It's this terrible history that Medina suspects drove his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) to her death, but her brother Francis (John Kerr) isn't convinced. Francis is determined to show that the supernatural had nothing to do with his sister's demise, but his ensuing investigation provokes not only outside forces but also a madness brewing within Don Medina that's pushing him closer to picking up where his papa left off.
Team up Corman, Price, and Edgar Allan Poe, and you usually got an American International picture that was not only tolerable but downright awesome. Yeah, War-Gods of the Deep was a bore, and The Haunted Palace was more Lovecraft than Poe, but in any case, this combination still had a solid batting average. The Pit and the Pendulum is arguably the most remembered of the bunch, eclipsing the superior (in my humble opinion) The Fall of the House of Usher thanks to its memorable images and a plot that cannonballs into pure madness. You may not think of it as an epic production today (with only a $200K budget behind it), but it was by Corman standards, and though it's still rough around the edges, the extra effort put into it makes all the difference. The costuming and production design are just fine, but The Pit and the Pendulum really shines through its Richard Matheson script, which isn't meant to frighten on a base level but to suggest deepseated terrors that last forever and rear their heads when least expected.
Corman has a ball playing with Price's character, who comes across as surprisingly complex. Price has played countless kooks over the years, but it's never clear off the bat if Don Medina is a sinister mastermind or victim of a psychological conspiracy. In any case, we get another classic Price performance out of the deal, as he plays "wounded" as well as he plays "off-his-freaking-rocker." The remainder of the cast buckles a bit under Price's weight (especially Kerr's hero, with all the personality of a plastic picnic spoon), but everyone does their jobs well enough, with Steele pulling overtime as the obligatory and quite alluring eye candy). Even the main mystery has a sturdy structure, the intricacies kept from coming together long enough for viewers to get their fill on wondering what in the hell is really going on. Once Corman's made with the revelations, the film just kind of piddles around for the last ten minutes or so, though it's in this chunk that the image of a giant swinging blade edging towards Kerr's stomach forever etches itself in the minds of movie fans.
Showing remarkably few hints of age in the almost 50 years since its release, The Pit and the Pendulum can still unsettle any and all comers. While it has little to do with Poe's original story, the movie does a great job of matching its visuals with those Poe's readers conjure in their own minds. With eerie atmosphere, effective suspense, and a premise exploited to an unusually fascinating degree, The Pit and the Pendulum is one vintage horror great that's far from dated.