Horror Bites - Maniac Mansion

PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)


If there was ever such a thing as the quintessential Vincent Price horror, this is probably it - at least in terms of those with a period setting. Choosing just one no simple task of course, but this is certainly a high point. Building on what had been done in The House of Usher, this is another instalment in the Roger Corman series of Poe adaptations which use just some of the story ideas as a basis. There's another spooky mansion in the middle of nowhere, another mystery and another journey into madness which is quite what it seems at first.

The story is straightforward at first, although a lot of the details seem vague and unconvincing to the hero Francis (John Kerr). It's not hard to see why, after travelling to Spain to find out about his sister Elizabeth's death (Steele), the story given by her husband Nicholas (Price) is not exactly specific. Is he just trying to avoid shocking Francis or is there something more being covered up? His strange behaviour points to one thing being more likely at this stage at least. Nicholas's friend Dr. Leon (Anthony Carbone) and his own sister Catherine (Luana Anders) seem to corroborate his story about a strange case of heart failure, but this plot slowly unravels to provide more sinister details. Perhaps it's something to do with that suspicious chamber of horrors in the basement which belonged to Nicholas's father, a notorious member of the Inquisition.

The pace builds this is all up pretty slowly and allows for plenty of clashing personalities as we explore the eerie building. As you'd expect the set design and the effects used to create the exterior shots are all pretty atmospheric, something which is soon added to by strange goings on in the house at night. Is it haunted or is Nicholas just cracking up? So the latter is probably a certainty going by the slow meltdown displayed by Vincent Price. But the reasons are not exactly clear, even when things begin to show cracks in his story there are elements that don't quite add up until things take an unexpected turn in the third act. His raving and his twisted expressions get more ridiculous as this all progresses, and while you might consider it over done at times this is probably the highlight of the story.


In terms of real horror sequences things are brief as might be expected from this period, but there are some good moments in the family mausoleum as Nicholas begins to fall apart, and the titular pendulum gets revealed towards the end in the major set piece of the story. The other actors are a little stiff in comparison, but it's his mania that is the focus here and the makers knew the strengths of what the character offered. While there lurid colours of certain flashbacks offer some dazzling moments it's the big finale which provides the biggest visuals treats here. The tension and the sudden moments of violence are used well against the backdrop of the torture chamber; something which is expanded by some great matte paintings and a few well placed murals depicting hell itself.

There's not a great deal of action or seriously gruesome scenes, but the slow burn mystery works pretty well even if the whole suspicious burial plot has been done before and the moody castle aura is very familiar. The Last Man on Earth offers a few similar moments of a descent into lunacy (as well as more of Richard Matheson's writing) but this is the real showcase of Vincent Price's knack for losing his marbles on cue. If anything this certainly has the greatest closing shot to film from this period. It's not the first in this series of adaptions and is far from the last, but it's certainly the one in which all the ingredients are perfectly balanced; the must see for fans of anything involving these classic themes and screen personalities.

4/5