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Pit and the Pendulum (1961)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Legendary director Roger Corman's and AIP's low-budget Gothic horror films included a rash of Edgar Allan Poe film adaptations (or variations) in the 1960s - this one (the second of eight) was based on Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 short story; it was preceded by House of Usher (1960), and followed by Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), the Poe-titled poem but H. P. Lovecraft adapted The Haunted Palace (1963),The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); many of the films featured horror icon Vincent Price.

This effectively-scary, gothic and suspenseful Technicolored film (with great atmospheric effects) was the most financially successful of all the AIP Poe films:

  • in mid-16th century Spain, Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) arrived to visit the ominous castle of his brother-in-law Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to investigate what truly had happened to his sister Elizabeth Barnard Medina (Barbara Steele) in the prime of her life; she was Nicholas Medina's missing wife who had mysteriously disappeared (or died?)
  • strangely, there were no clear details regarding Elizabeth's "untimely" demise; Francis was shown where she had been interred in a stone wall of the castle's dungeon, and her bedroom where the obsessed Medina had preserved everything "exactly as she left it," including her portrait

Francis Barnard (John Kerr)

Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price)

Catherine (Luana Anders)

Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone)
  • the anguished, still-grieving Medina, and his younger sister Catherine (Luana Anders) who was visiting from Barcelona, claimed that Elizabeth had died 3 months earlier from an illness - a rare blood disorder ("something in her blood"); however, after dinner that evening, the family's physician Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) had a different explanation or diagnosis - he stated to Francis Barnard that his sister Elizabeth had actually died of massive heart failure: ("Your sister's death was caused by failure of the heart, sir, due to total shock - literally, she died of fright"); her death was due to her increasing depression and pre-occupation with the castle's "odious atmosphere" and its dungeons built by Medina's "infamous" and depraved father Sebastian during the Inquisition; Medina described the deadly atmospheric effects of living there: "You cannot know what it is to live here, month upon month, year after year, breathing this infernal air, absorbing the miasma of barbarity which permeates these walls"
  • during a tour conducted by Medina that evening to in the castle's "blasphemous" dungeon "torture chamber" (with various instruments and apparatus' of pain and death, including the Rack and the Iron Maiden), Francis, and Catherine and Dr. Leon were shown the location of Elizabeth's death; Medina told the incredulous story of how his "sensitive" wife was affected by the castle's "atmosphere"
  • in flashback (filmed in nightmarish, bluish-tinted monochrome), Medina recalled his "richly pleasurable" and wonderful life with Catherine, at one time painting her portrait to capture her beauty; but then her physical condition worsened and she became "haunted," obsessed and fixated by the "instruments of torture" - she gave a hideous scream, strapped herself into the cursed Iron Maiden torture device, whispered the name "Sebastian," and died in Medina's arms when he released her from the device's grasp
  • it was an unsatisfactory explanation for Francis, although guilt-ridden Medina remained adamant that he may have been responsible for his wife's death - due to his cursed ancestry; the semi-insane Medina appeared haunted by his earlier family traumas, and now by his recent memories of his deceased wife
  • Medina's traumatic childhood was described by his sister Catherine - also seen in flashback; their father was a notorious agent of the Spanish Inquisition named Sebastian Medina (also Vincent Price); one day, young Nicholas Medina (Larry Turner as youth) had disobediently entered the dungeon chamber where he witnessed Sebastian striking his brother Bartolome (Charles Victor) to death, while repeatedly screaming out: "Adulterer!"; afterwards, Sebastian also accused his own incestuous wife Isabella (Mary Menzies) of "vile debauchery with his brother" - and then tortured her to death for her "infidelity"; afterwards, Nicholas Medina was forever haunted by the memory of that day - and his wife's recent death was now clearly driving him insane
  • strange occurrences began to happen in the atmospheric castle, possibly proof of Elizabeth's 'haunting' presence: her harpsichord was played by itself late at night, and one of her rings was left on the keyboard
  • Dr. Leon corrected the record for Catherine and Francis -- he claimed that Isabella had not been tortured to death, but had been entombed alive behind a brick wall: ("Your mother was walled up in her tomb while yet alive. From that day forth, the very thought of premature interment was enough to drive your brother into convulsions of horror")
  • the tormented and brooding Medina feared and conjectured that Elizabeth had suffered the same fate because of what happened to his mother Isabella years earlier - and that it was his fault that Elizabeth had also been buried prematurely (and had been calling out to him); Dr. Leon stressed that Medina's fearful thoughts were unwarranted, but added that she still might be a vengeful ghost: "If Elizabeth Medina walks the corridors of this castle, it is her spirit, not her living self"
  • there were further signs of Elizabeth's presence in the castle; the maid Maria (Lynne Bernay) claimed that she was whispered to in her bedroom; shortly later, the room was found ransacked and Elizabeth's portrait was slashed; Francis became suspicious when he found a hidden passageway into the room from Medina's bedroom, and accused Medina of causing the disruptions from the grave; Medina questioned his own sanity: "Could I have kept that ring without knowing it? Play the harpsichord without knowing it? Destroy Elizabeth's room all without knowing it? My inner mind creating evidence of Elizabeth's vengeful return because that mind knows - BUT I DON'T KNOW?"; Francis began to wonder if his sister Elizabeth met the same fate as his mother Isabella
  • in a memorable sequence, to prove whether Elizabeth was still alive or not, Dr. Leon boldly suggested exhuming Elizabeth - by opening up her tomb-sarcophagus as "the only way of convincing Medina that he did not bury his wife alive...We will exhume Elizabeth" -- Medina suffered a flashback of watching his mother Isabella being enclosed in a stone tomb while alive, as they were breaking through Elizabeth's walled-up stone tomb to access her sarcophagus
  • the film's highlight was the opening of the sarcophagus and their discovery of Elizabeth's decaying corpse inside, suggesting that she had been accidentally buried alive; she had died screaming after failing to claw her way out of her sealed coffin; Medina was stunned, took credit for Elizabeth's untimely death, and became hysterically suicidal as he started to babble: "True, true!" while Dr. Leon insisted: "I swear to you, I thought she was dead. On my honor as a physician, I thought she was dead! I swear to you"; Medina continued to admit: "True, true, true, true..." as he wandered off

Looking In the Opening to Elizabeth's Walled-Up Tomb and Sarcophagus/Coffin

Medina Inside Tomb Next to Elizabeth's Coffin

Evidence of Elizabeth's Ghastly Live-Burial and 'Death'

Medina's Immediate Two-Word Response: "True, true!"

Medina's Continuing Babbling Confession That He Killed His Wife: ("True, true, true, true, true... ")

Medina's Confession to Dr. Leon: "I must accept whatever vengeance Elizabeth chooses to inflict upon me"
  • Medina ran to get a gun and shoot himself, as Catherine tried to prevent him; he kept confessing: "I killed her..."; Dr. Leon strongly encouraged Medina to leave the castle (a conspiratorial plan to be revealed!), but he was still in disbelief: "While we were up here mourning her, she was alive, struggling to be free. I am responsible. If it were not so, she would not want to haunt me"; Medina refused to leave with Dr. Leon the next morning: "I can never leave. I must accept whatever vengeance Elizabeth chooses to inflict upon me"
  • that stormy night, the increasingly-mad Medina thought he heard the ghostly voice of his wife Elizabeth luring him and summoning him from her tomb through the cob-webbed passageway; in her dug-up tomb site, a bloody hand emerged from her opening coffin, and she rose very much alive; she followed him into the dungeon's torture chamber, where he tumbled down a flight of stairs

Medina: Descending The Passageway to Elizabeth's Opened Tomb

Elizabeth's Bloody Hand Emerged From the Opening Coffin
  • it was revealed, in the film's major plot twist, that Elizabeth had faked her death as part of a plot to drive him mad - with her lover Dr. Leon --- their conspiracy was to inherit Medina's wealth, fortune and castle by driving him insane and destroying his mind

Elizabeth: An Evil Co-Conspirator with Dr. Leon

Elizabeth Kissing Her Lover Dr. Leon - Both Plotting to Drive Medina Insane

Elizabeth to Her Husband Nicholas Medina: "We've broken you at last... I have you exactly as I want you - helpless"

Medina Shocked into Silence by the Appearance of His Vengeful 'Dead' Wife Elizabeth

But Then Medina Smiled and Laughed Hysterically

Medina Saw Himself as His Father Sebastian, Leon as His Cheating Brother Bartolome and Elizabeth as His Adulterous Wife Isabella
  • as Medina was prostrate on the floor before her and rendered semi-unconscious (after Dr. Leon arrived to join his lover), Elizabeth gloated in the success of her evil deeds toward her crazed husband: "Oh, my darling Nicholas, we've broken you at last....I've waited an eternity for this moment. There has to be time. And now my dear Nicholas, I have you exactly as I want you - helpless... Is it not ironical, my husband, your wife an adulteress, your mother an adulteress, your uncle an adulterer, your closest friend an adulterer - do you not find that amusing, dear Nicholas?"
  • however, things took a strange turn when Medina revived, laughed hysterically at Elizabeth and Dr. Leon - and convinced himself that he was his own father Sebastian, and that Elizabeth was his promiscuous and adulterous wife Isabella, and Dr. Leon was his cheating brother Bartolome; Medina assumed his father's identity and began to re-stage the murders of his faithless wife Isabella and brother Bartolome

Medina to Elizabeth: "I'm going to torture you, Isabella!"

The Iron Maiden Torture Device
  • Medina overpowered Dr. Leon by knocking his head against a wooden post until he fell to the floor; then he grabbed Elizabeth (now functioning as the harlot Isabella) and threatened: "I'm going to torture you, Isabella! I'm going to make you suffer for your faithlessness to me!...Harlot! You will die in agony! Die!"); she screamed as he dragged her over to the Iron Maiden and sealed her inside
  • meanwhile Dr. Leon revived, but fled and fell to his death in the pendulum pit; shortly after, when Francis Barnard entered the dungeon chamber, Medina now transferred his hate to him and conveniently misunderstood that Francis was his duplicitous brother Bartolome; Medina knocked Francis unconscious and then promised to subject him to his "ultimate device of torture"

Medina Assuming His Father's Identity as Torturer Sebastian to Now Subject Francis to Torture

Francis (Assumed to Be Bartolome) Was Placed Under Swinging Pendulum
  • Francis awoke bound and gagged on a stone slab beneath a gigantic, swinging pendulum with a razor-sharp steel blade edge, as Medina threatened to replay his murder: "Are you ready, Bartolome? Do you know where you are, Bartolome?...I will tell you where you are. You are about to enter Hell, Bartolome, HELL! The netherworld. The infernal regions, The Abode of the Damned, The place of torment. Pandemonium. Abbadon. Tophet. Gehenna. Naraka. THE PIT! And the pendulum. The razor edge of destiny. That's the condition of man. Bound on an island from which he can never have hope to escape surrounded by the waiting pit of hell. Subject to the inexorable pendulum of fate which must destroy him finally"
  • the platform with the stone slab was surrounded by the pit; every swing lowered the pendulum a little bit - closer and closer to Francis' helpless body [Note: Stock footage of the torture sequence was excerpted in the spy spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1966).]
  • after hearing Francis' cries of distress, Catherine raced off to summon and alert castle servant-butler Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) to join her and race to the torture chamber: "Maximilian, we must break into the torture chamber! Quickly!"; after a brief struggle and fight, Medina fell to his death when he was pushed into the pit - the same fate as Dr. Leon, and Francis was fortunately released and saved from being sliced by the torture device
  • in the film's short epilogue, while leaving the dungeon, Catherine vowed that the torture chamber room would be sealed and locked forever (the film's last line: "No one will ever enter this room again"); the last image, after a rapid swish-pan, revealed a terror-stricken Elizabeth, still alive and completely forgotten about - and ironically imprisoned in the Iron Maiden box - about to die a second time!
  • the film ended with a title card - a quote from Edgar Allan Poe: "...the agony of my soul found vent in one loud, long, and final scream of despair" - - POE

The Ominous Seaside Medina Castle

Elizabeth's Burial Plate (1517-1546) in Stone Wall of Dungeon

Portraits of Medina's Father Sebastian (r) and His Uncle Bartolome (l), Sebastian's Brother

Elizabeth's Portrait in Bedroom

Medina's Tour of the Castle's Dungeon Area

View of Underground "Torture Chamber" Where Elizabeth Died

Medina's Flashback: He Painted His Wife Elizabeth's Portrait to Capture Her Beauty

Flashback: Elizabeth's Death in Medina's Arms

Flashback: Young Nicholas Spying on His Father Sebastian Medina Burying His Mother Isabella Alive

Flashback: Sebastian's Murder of His Adulterous Brother Bartolome Who Was Cheating With Sebastian's Incestuous Wife Isabella

Medina - Haunted by His Wife Elizabeth's Dead Spirit

Elizabeth's Slashed Portrait in Her Bedroom

Elizabeth - Shockingly Resurrected!

Francis - Gagged by Medina on Slab and Below the Razor-Edged Pendulum Swinging Closer and Closer Before He Was Saved

Medina's Death - Pushed Into the Pit by Maximilian During a Struggle to Save Francis

Medina's Death in the Pit

Catherine's Final Words (with Francis and Maximilian) Before Leaving and Locking the Dungeon Door Behind Them

Ironic Ending: Terror-Stricken Elizabeth - Imprisoned in the Iron Maiden Box (A Torture Device) A Second Time! And Completely Forgotten About


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