The Pit and the Pendulum begins with a young Francis Barnard entering the castle of Nicholas Medina in Spain. He is there to investigate the death of his sister, Elizabeth, who passed away young and suddenly. After inquiring for a short while Mr. Barnard appears to find what he believes is the truth, that Elizabeth was haunted by memories of the house, and in a mentally unstable position had accidentally killed herself. It is later revealed that she has been buried alive, which drives Nicholas to extreme grief, having witnessed his mother also buried alive by his father. Nicholas believes he hears Elizabeth’s voice and chases after her. He exhumes her casket once again to find her very much alive. She arises to chase him into his father’s torture chamber, where he falls and hits his head. In this moment Elizabeth explains to him that she had been having an affair with his best friend and they were going to leave together. Nicholas snaps and believes himself to be his father, and proceeds to attempt to torture and kill both Elizabeth and his best friend. Lastly, he captures his brother-in-law, Francis Barnard. Barnard escapes with the help of Nicholas’ sister, and they leave the castle, three bodies deeper.
Unlike The House of Usher, which was a semi-faithful adaptation of the short story in form and function, The Pit and the Pendulum takes almost only the objects of a pit and pendulum and then writes an entirely new story. The adaptation here was exceptionally vague, and a large amount of liberties were taken. It was almost as if The Pit and the Pendulum was a sequel or redux of The House of Usher. The same basic concepts are all there, the cursed house and a deceased lover. There is also a sort of love triangle in both, but in The House of Usher it is between a brother and sister in a non-romantic way, while the brother fights with his sisters betrothed.
The film style in The Pit and the Pendulum is exceptionally gothic. One of the first things that gave this away is the lighting style. Mr. Corman loves the use of candles for lighting areas, rather than subjects. This creates a classic gothic ambiance where we have a constant vignette around the edges of the frame and the lights flicker in and out artificially to mimic the candlelight. We also have classic gothic artifacts and imagery, including scenery such as torture devices and castles.
The imagery transcends what most people could have conceived. Just like Edgar Allen Poe, Corman was ahead of his time in terms of translating the macabre. “Through his aesthetic and practical decisions as a director, Corman created his own brand of cinematic universe in the Poe films, a place of lurid color, fog-enveloped castles and labyrinthian dungeons. With a limited budget and boundless imagination, Corman masterfully evoked Poe’s themes of metaphysical angst: the creeping dread as the boundaries between life and death, sanity and psychosis, self and other begin to erode. It’s a gothic landscape where supernatural and human horrors are far removed from one another” (2017).