Today, Roger Corman’s producer credit is so linked to sci-fi TV movie cheapies that, to the casual observer, his hugely influential role in the cinematic landscape can be easily overlooked. When his name appears on such titles as Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf, Camel Spiders or Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, it can be easy to forget that he was responsible for mentoring such heavy-hitters as Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese, or for helping to launch the careers of Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. There’s a reason he won that Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Throughout his career—but perhaps especially during his American International Pictures years—Corman was famous for his quick turnaround times. He notably filmed The Little Shop of Horrors in the two days before a previous film’s sets were torn down. He’s always been a notorious penny-pincher, and that was no different for the cycle of films that garnered him the most critical acclaim. His octet of cheaply-made Edgar Allan Poe adaptations still defied his cash-grab mentality of exploiting whatever trends were popular at the time. More than anything else, these eight films released in the first five years of the ‘60s were Corman’s attempt at artistry over bottom line.

Vincent Price’s involvement certainly helped the Poe cycle to be as successful as it was. As I’ve said before, there are few cinematic experiences that can imitate the pleasure of watching Price skulk through darkened corridors holding a candelabra. In The Pit and the Pendulum, Price plays Nicholas Medina, a castle-owning man whose bride, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), has met her end under mysterious circumstances. That doesn’t sit well with her brother, Francis Barnard (John Kerr), who more or less forces his way into the castle in an effort to find out what caused his sibling’s demise. “Dying of fright,” as prescribed by the cryptic family physician, not surprisingly doesn’t satisfy Barnard, and Medina (along with his sister) is left to convince him that everything is totally on the up-and-up.

From there, Nicholas must lead Francis to believe that his sister didn’t exactly die from fright so much as she—becoming as obsessed as she did with torture devices—locked herself in an iron maiden. From there, some parentally-based PTSD related to the Spanish Inquisition gets thrown into the mix, given that the film is meant to take place in the 16th century. But then again, watching your father torture your mother and her lover to death does generate some understandable issues for the kid involved. Vincent Price has turned cuckoo (what was likely a diagnostic term at the time) as a result.

The twists and turns from here are objectively impressive. Poe’s story isn’t recreated entirely, but certainly finds its legs in the film’s latter stages, when it becomes clear to Nicholas that Elizabeth may have been interred behind a brick wall in the bowels of the castle while she was still alive. The guilt haunts him, and then a huge twist torments him and then he eventually goes absolutely bonkers.

These Poe adaptations featured Vincent Price almost without fail. Only The Premature Burial, a title that encapsulates much of the tension of The Pit and the Pendulum, was made without Price. The many twists in the film are impressive in their ability to legitimately surprise. And the third act of this film has become as iconic as anything else Corman has ever directed. The abdomen-eviscerating pendulum, the most theatrical of all the torture devices, gets its titular due. But it’s the claustrophobic iron maiden that is ultimately the most terrifying.

The Pit and the Pendulum was the second film in Corman’s Poe cycle. Released in 1961, it was incredibly the 30th film Corman was credited as directing in only six years. Corman largely shifted away from the director’s chair in the early ‘70s, with the lark of 1990’s dud Frankenstein Unbound serving as his last directorial credit. You can still find his name attached to such ne’re-do-wells as Fist of the Dragon and Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, but Corman’s influence is embedded in the fabric of moviemaking. The approach to his Poe cycle will always be within the fundament of cult classics, and it offers up the prime example of how to create a fine cinematic experience on the cheap.

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One Comment

  1. Running Sealey

    July 1, 2015 at 4:33 am

    And I can still hear Elizabeth viciously whispering, “Niiiiiiicholas” as he runs through the dungeons in terror.

    Reply

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