Tuesday, February 25, 2020
PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
In his fictional works, Edgar Allan Poe's most pervasive theme was the fear of enclosure. He's become justly famous for showing his usually nameless protagonists trapped in hostile environments-- inside graves ("Premature Burial'), behind bricked-up walls ("Black Cat," "Cask of Amontillado"), or within prisons ("Pit and the Pendulum"). Yet even houses, designed to be places of repose and shelter, could be turned into sites of horror. Poe may well have derived this trope from either Gothics in general, or from the "ur-Gothic" that initiated the genre, Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO. The latter seems likely to me, because in Poe as in Walpole, not only are houses capable of trapping and suffocating their owners, even one's families tend to drag their relations down into perdition.
Roger Corman's first Poe-adaptation, 1960's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, emphasized the same ouroboric elements. Thus it's understandable that PIT, the second venture into Poe-sy, would follow the same template. Of course, the original Poe short story does not involve familial pressures at all, being simply an exercise in sustained terror, as a Nameless Protagonist suffers in an Inquisition cell outfitted with both the titular "pit" and bladed "pendulum." It seems likely that Corman knew that the bare story would not make a good ninety-minute film, and so he probably suggested to Richard Matheson that PIT should incorporate some of the familial elements that had played a strong role in the success of USHER, their previous collaboration. Matheson responded with one of his best scripts, drawing together not only elements from the 1960 film but also from Sigmund Freud's reading of Shakespeare's HAMLET. Indeed, in many scenes of the film, loose viewpoint character Francis Barnard (John Kerr) wears a black outfit not unlike the traditional stage-garb of Prince Hamlet, though as a character Francis is probably closer to Laertes.
Englishman Francis stands in for the film's viewers when he comes to the door of the ancient Spanish castle where the Medinas make their home. He's responding to a letter informing him that his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), who apparently married castle-lord Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) many months ago, has passed away. After encountering Nicholas's sister Catherine-- who has only occupied the castle following Elizabeth's death-- Francis is shocked to learn that Elizabeth perished three full months ago. Nicholas claims that he was too deeply bereaved to think about notifying relatives (no one in the movie asks why so devoted a brother never bothered to meet the family intowhich his beloved sister had married). When Francis inquires as to the cause of Elizabeth's death, Nicholas equivocates, but finally claims that his cherished wife perished in reaction to the "barbaric miasma" within the walls of the ancestral home.
This figurative "miasma" stems from the brutal acts of Nicholas's long-deceased father Sebastian Medina. When Sebastian was lord of the castle, he tortured hundreds of victims in the dungeons beneath his family's living-space, and young Nicholas was aware of his father's hideous deeds. Sebastian's full descent into iniquity transpired when he learned that his wife Isabella was carrying on an affair with his brother Bartholomo. In Shakes-speech, these would be re-arranged versions of King Hamlet, his wife Gertrude and his brother Claudius, but Sebastian is more pro-active than King Hamlet. Sebastian slays both of the incestuous adulterers, not knowing that young Nicholas witnesses the whole calamity from hiding-- including seeing his mother imprisoned behind a brick wall, where she eventually either starves or suffocates. This early trauma doesn't keep Nicholas from growing to manhood and marrying Elizabeth, but he remains to some extent fascinated with the many torture-implements in the dungeon, and an early scene suggests that Nicholas keeps one implement, the giant bladed Pendulum, in good working order.
Despite the confirming testimony of family doctor Leon, Francis doesn't believe that his 'strong-willed" sister would perish of such an affliction. Then sepulchral voices disturb the servants, suggesting that the ghost of Elizabeth has suddenly started walking the halls. This manifestation plays upon Nicholas's fears that Elizabeth may not truly have died of her illness, but that her state may have mimicked that of death, causing her to get interred alive, like Isabella Medina.
Given that the film doesn't show any ghostly manifestations two-thirds into the film, it's no great surprise that the recrudescence of Elizabeth is a hoax, perpetrated by both her and her lover/co-conspirator Doctor Leon. The duo's plan hinges upon their assumption that Nicholas will suffer a complete mental breakdown when faced with his dead wife. But Nicholas, instead of retreating into a state of abject weakness, rallies by taking on the persona of his dead father. He imagines the schemers to be the wife and brother of Sebastian, and so kills "Bartholomo" and inters "Isabella." Still addled, "Sebastian" then runs into Francis and subjects him to the delights of the Pendulum before Catherine and a servant intervene, so that the mad son of the Inquisition torturer meets his fate in the Pit.
I've mentioned a few of the weaknesses of Matheson's script, though the largest hole is that he's never able to account for Elizabeth's hostility toward her husband and her reason for pursuing such a roundabout plot. Maybe the old "henbane-in-the-ear" seemed too recherche? Price's performance here is not one of his best, coming off more one-note than any of his other Poe-translations, and Steele, just coming off her career-making role in Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, appears too briefly to make a strong impression. I tend to feel that the real star of the show is the imagined persona of Sebastian Medina, for even though Nicholas fulfills a role in the film not unlike that of Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet, Nicholas comes off as a weak, vacillating and guilt-afflicted character, in contrast to the passionate (some would say over-passionate) figure of the Danish prince. But then, a figure like Prince Hamlet might have seemed more than a little out of place in an adaptation of Poe, where fusty monomaniacs existed to suffer in Gothic bondage.