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Film / The Pit and the Pendulum

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The Pit and the Pendulum is an American 1961 horror film directed by Roger Corman, starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, and Luana Anders. The screenplay was written by Richard Mathesonnote  and is loosely based upon Edgar Allan Poe's famous 1842 short story of the same name.

In sixteenth-century Spain, young Englishman Francis Barnard (Kerr) visits his brother-in-law’s Gothic castle in order to learn more about the disappearance of his sister Elizabeth. This brother-in-law, Don Nicholas Medina (Price), informs him that Elizabeth died of a rare blood disease but is evasive about the details, prompting the young man to investigate into the dark secrets hidden within the castle. As Francis attempts to delve into these secrets, he confronts the possibility of ghostly hauntings, premature burial, and betrayal. Eventually, he even comes face to face with threats of torture and madness within the titular pit.

The second of eight films in Corman's so-called "Poe cycle" (following House of Usher), noted by critics for the large impact it had on many Italian horror films that followed it. Stephen King has cited certain of its sequences as being some of the most important in horror.

This film contains:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The Edgar Allan Poe story is quite short, and the film mostly acts as a set-up for it. The actual story is the film's climax.
  • And I Must Scream: The fate of Isabella, the Medinas' mother; sealed in a tomb while still alive. This is also Elizabeth's fate, although she's locked in an iron maiden.
  • Artistic Licence – History:
    • The Iron Maiden was not invented until the 18th century, and naturally was not used by the Spanish Inquisition.
    • The grandfather clock was not invented until the 1600s, and Elizabeth's tomb confirms the film as taking place in 1545.
    • Nicholas is the son of an Inquisitor. However, the Inquisition were Catholic clerics, who were not allowed to have wives or children — not that this has stopped Catholic clergy in the latter case, but Sebastian likely wouldn't have acknowledged his son and daughter.
    • Both Catherine and Elizabeth wear their hair far too short for the period.
  • Asshole Victim: Since Elizabeth and Leon were conspiring to drive Nicholas insane the whole time, it's quite satisfying to see Leon fall to his death and Elizabeth trapped inside the Iron Maiden without any hope of rescue.
  • Battle Butler: Maximilian gets called on to fight off the deranged Nicholas in the finale.
  • Big Bad Friend: Nicholas's friend Doctor Leon is conspiring against him with Elizabeth to drive him insane, so they can have his fortune.
  • Buried Alive:
    • Nicholas begins to think that he buried his wife alive. In a particularly shocking scene, the opening of Elizabeth's sarcophagus seems to confirm his fear. This turns out to be a hoax set up by the still-alive Elizabeth and her lover, Dr. Leon, in order to drive Nicholas insane so that they can be together.
      • However, by the end of the film, Elizabeth is essentially buried alive for real, being left gagged and trapped in the iron maiden while the surviving protagonists, unaware of Elizabeth’s presence, leave the torture chamber and lock it up forever. (To further emphasize Elizabeth’s doom, Catherine declares “No one will ever enter this room again.” as she leaves with Francis and Maximilian, just before the camera pans to the trapped Elizabeth watching in horror as they lock the door behind them.)
    • This was also his mother Isabella's fate. She was locked in her tomb while still alive.
  • Clothing Damage: Francis's shirt gets ripped as the pendulum gets closer to cutting him.
  • Death Trap: The pit and accompanying pendulum.
  • Disney Villain Death: Both Dr Leon and Nicholas die by falling from the platform in the torture chamber.
  • Dramatic Thunder: After Elizabeth's sarcophagus is opened.
  • Driven to Madness: In the film's climactic sequence, Nicholas Medina is completely insane and attempts to torture and kill Francis and Elizabeth.
  • Dutch Angle: Used for the flashbacks to Nicholas's father torturing his wife to death.
  • Faking the Dead: It turns out that Elizabeth was alive the entire time, intentionally driving her husband to insanity through guilt.
  • Fanservice: Francis gets an Intimate Open Shirt for the sequence where it's suspected that Elizabeth's spirit is playing the harpsichord in the house.
  • Femme Fatale: Elizabeth was driving her husband mad the whole time just so she could elope with Doctor Leon.
  • Gaslighting: By the end of the film, it is clear that Elizabeth has been trying to drive her husband mad.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Good news, the plan to drive Nicholas crazy ended up working. The bad news: he is under the delusional belief that he is his ancestor, an incredibly infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition. Neither member of the guilty party survives the experience.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: The costumes are quite elaborate. Even the servant Maximilian gets a fancy uniform.
  • Gothic Horror: It's based off of an Edgar Allan Poe story! Of course, it's an extremely loose adaptation.
  • Haunted Castle: Nicholas becomes convinced that the castle is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife. It is actually haunted by his very much alive wife.
  • Hero Antagonist: Francis is just trying to find out about his sister's death. But his investigation causes her widowed husband much pain and Sanity Slippage.
  • Implied Love Interest: There's a bit of Ship Tease towards the end between Francis and Catherine, but it gets No Romantic Resolution. Both characters are also said to be unmarried.
  • Iron Maiden: Elizabeth's ultimate fate is to be locked in an Iron Maiden without any hope of rescue; though since it isn't filled with spikes, she's going to die from starvation/dehydration instead...
  • Irony: Nicholas mistakenly believes his wife was buried alive. Although she turns out to be faking her death, this ultimately happens to her in the end.
  • Karmic Death: Elizabeth is revealed to be conspiring to break her husband Nicholas's mind by fooling him into thinking he buried her alive. She in fact drives him to murderous insanity, leading to the film's closing reveal where Elizabeth is still alive and unable to cry out in the Iron Maiden as the torture chamber is locked. Forever. And nobody will miss her, because she faked her own death earlier.
  • Large Ham: Vincent Price does not disappoint in this category. Ever.
  • The Lost Lenore: In typical Poe-esque fashion, the don of the castle laments over his deceased wife, whom he worshipped and devoted his waking hours to. Turns out she's not only not 'lost', she's been doing her level best to drive him crazy, and succeeds.
  • Monochrome Past: Nicholas's happy memories of his life with Elizabeth are shown in scenes that are tinted, mostly blue.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: The story is set in Spain and most of the characters are Spanish, but all the actors use their own accents. Even the American John Kerr playing the English Francis.
  • Peaceful in Death: Subverted when Nicholas finds the remains of his wife, who he fears was Buried Alive. The corpse appears to be screaming in agony. It's all a gaslighting scheme by his living wife and her lover to drive him mad. Unfortunately for them, it works.
  • Pendulum of Death: Based off of the short story that created this trope.
  • Red Herring: The servant girl Maria is set up as appearing out of nowhere in Elizabeth's room, and having claimed to hear Elizabeth's voice calling to her. Even when Elizabeth is revealed to be alive, her face is hidden in shadow at first - giving the possibility it could be Maria pretending to be her.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • Did Nicholas actually use the secret passage to go into Elizabeth's room and vandalise her things without knowing it? Given that he later goes completely mad, it's possible he did and this is Foreshadowing. He is the only one who had the key after all. Or it has been his wife since she lived hidden in the secret area?
    • Whose body is it in Elizabeth's tomb? And more horrifyingly, was she buried alive too?
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: Elizabeth gets sealed away in an iron maiden, and the torture room is locked up forever.
    • This means Catherine leaves the body of her beloved brother— yes, really— to rot and rats without any sort of burial.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: Dr Leon's clothes change quite noticeably in the film's third act, when he's revealed as an antagonist.
  • Slut-Shaming: Sebastian punished his wife for her adultery by sealing her in a tomb alive.
  • Torture Cellar: Below the castle is Nicholas Medina's father's torture chamber. Nicholas is disgusted and horrified by it.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: The film contains an influential flashback sequence, in which Nicholas recalls the horrors that he witnessed his father enact upon his mother as a child.
  • Überwald: The opening sequence reveals a bleak landscape and dark castle, toward which the protagonist is heading.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: It's implied this was the case with Nicholas.
  • Villainous Lineage: Nicolas's father Sebastian was a cruel, sadistic man who made good use of his torture chamber. Nicholas was traumatized as a young child after witnessing Sebastian torture and kill his wife; since then, Nicholas has been terrified of turning out like his father. Unfortunately, he does.