Released 12 August 1961, The Pit and the Pendulum was the second of seven American International Pictures horror films loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe works. This one, of course, is based on Poe’s 1842 story of the same name, which had been adapted a number of times prior, with varying degrees of accuracy.
Here, the pendulum only appears in the final reel and third act, though the film’s first two acts were intended to feel like they could’ve come from a real Poe story. Given that the story is all of two pages long, every film based on or inspired by it necessarily had to employ many creative liberties to fill in the many blanks and create a feature-length story.
In 1546, Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) pays a visit to the Medina castle in Spain after hearing of the tragic, sudden death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). At first, doorman Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) refuses to let him inside, but Francis is finally allowed entrance when Catherine Medina (Luana Anders) sees him and recognizes him. (I suppose an authentic Spanish name like Catalina sounded too foreign for 1961 audiences.)
When Francis asks to see Elizabeth’s widower Nicholas, Catherine says her brother is resting, and hasn’t been well since Elizabeth passed. Francis then asks to see the grave, and Catherine says she was entombed, in the family custom. On the way to the tomb, Catherine lets the bomb drop that Elizabeth died three months ago. Francis is stunned he wasn’t notified earlier.
Nicholas (Vincent Price) turns up In the cellar, coming out of a room with a bizarre noise. He claims Elizabeth died after a long sickness of the blood, but is evasive about the details. This doesn’t satisfy Francis, who vows to stay till he learns the whole truth.
During dinner, family physician Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) admits she truly died of a fright- and shock-induced heart attack brought on by the castle’s creepy atmosphere. Francis demands to see proof, and Nicholas obliges by showing him a torture chamber in the cellar. It was built by his Inquisitor father Sebastian, whose painting hangs in the guest room.
Nicholas recounts their happy life together, which was derailed when Elizabeth became obsessed by the torture chamber and fell into a bad mental state. He was making plans to leave the castle and begin a new life elsewhere when a horrific scream came from the cellar. When Nicholas ran to the scene, Elizabeth fainted into his arms and whispered “Sebastian” with her dying breath.
Francis still refuses to believe Nicholas is on the level, but Catherine tries to convince him by telling the story of how Nicholas trespassed into the torture chamber as a boy. He wasn’t supposed to be there ever, but his curiosity trumped his fear of discipline. Nicholas hid when his parents and paternal uncle Bartolome came in.
At first it seemed his father (also Price) was giving a macabre, unnaturally cheerful tour of these torture instruments, but then the true reason for the visit came out. Sebastian turned on Bartolome and began beating him, calling him an adulterer. After torturing his brother to death, he accused his wife of adultery and tortured her to death too.
Ever since that day, Nicholas has been haunted by what lurks in the cellar.
That night, mysterious harpsichord music plays, and Nicholas is convinced it was Elizabeth. He knows her playing, even without seeing who did it. A ring belonging to Elizabeth also turns up on top of the instrument.
After Nicholas returns to bed, Dr. Leon reveals the secret that Nicholas believes Elizabeth was entombed alive. Contrary to the official story, his mother wasn’t tortured to death, but entombed alive after her torture. Ever since, Nicholas has been terrified by the idea of premature burial, so much so it drives him to convulsions of horror. Nicholas also believes Elizabeth walks the corridors and calls his name.
Dr. Leon believes someone found this out and is using the information to drive Nicholas insane, possibly a servant. This theory is given credence when Elizabeth’s room is found ransacked in the morning, while maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) was cleaning. Maria claims Elizabeth spoke to her.
Francis has another theory, that this is all an elaborate ruse by Nicholas. Worried he might unconsciously be doing all these things due to his fear Elizabeth may have been entombed alive, Nicholas demands an exhumation.
But the macabre discovery waiting inside the tomb doesn’t solve this haunting mystery. Instead, it unleashes a parade of even more horrors.