“There was a depth to her. On the surface she was a beautiful brunette woman. Beneath that–and you could almost get poetic here looking into her eyes–you could see layer, upon layer, upon layer. I could probably best, and inadequately, describe it as a kind of exotic mystery.”
– Roger Corman on Barbara Steele
There are many reasons why you should turn into TCM tonight (8 PM EST/5 PM PST) to catch The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) hosted by the film’s director, Roger Corman. First and foremost it was the second film in Corman’s laudable Edgar Allan ‘Poe Cycle’ and it remains one of the director’s most frightening achievements generating a palpable sense of dread within its opening minutes with help from Les Baxter’s bone-chilling score. It is also one of American International Picture’s best-looking productions displaying some sumptuous 16th century inspired set design by Daniel Haller who, with a minuscule budget, transforms a Hollywood set into a medieval castle draped in blood red and cryptic black velvet accompanied by glimmers of antique gold. Richard Matheson’s script is surprisingly innovative adapting Poe’s suspenseful tale told by a single nameless protagonist into a full-blown gothic drama with multiple characters and elements of mystery, romance, and supernatural horror. In addition, Vincent Price delivers one of his greatest performances here as the ill-fated Don Nicholas Medina, a deeply troubled character who alternates between profound melancholy and all-consuming madness. And last but certainly not least, it has the distinction of being the first American horror film featuring the beguiling Mistress of Menace, Barbara Steele.
Before appearing in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum, Barbara Steele had achieved international recognition after starring in Black Sunday (1960), a highly influential Italian Gothic thriller directed by Mario Bava. In Black Sunday, Steele plays the dual role of Princess Asa Vajda / Katia Vajda, a vampiric sorceress who returns from the dead and seduces a young doctor in order to fulfill a family curse. The film was distributed by American International Pictures and originally played as part of a double bill opposite Corman’s horror-comedy, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The popular and critical success of Bava’s film motivated Corman to cast Steele as Vincent Price’s conniving wife Elizabeth in The Pit and the Pendulum, which opened in U.S. theaters just six short months after the American debut of Black Sunday. The one-two punch of Black Sunday and The Pit and the Pendulum made the beautiful raven-haired British beauty a horror icon and Steele quickly developed a cult following among genre enthusiasts.
*Warning! I discuss the film’s plot in the following paragraphs and reveal details that might spoil some of the fun if you haven’t seen the film before.*
As the elusive Elizabeth in The Pit and the Pendulum, Steele is given very little screen time and only appears in a small portion of the movie’s brisk 85-minute stretch but she makes a monumental impact. Scriptwriter Richard Matheson employed a story-telling device reminiscent of Laura (1942), which also featured Vincent Price in a central role. Like the female protagonist played by Gene Tierney in that classic Noir, Steele’s character Elizabeth in The Pit and the Pendulum is apparently dead and the audience is introduced to her in a series of flashbacks fondly recalled by those who knew and adored her.
Corman’s film is set in a large foreboding castle overlooking the ocean and begins with the arrival of Elizabeth’s brother Francis (John Kerr), who is eager to discover how his beloved sister has died. His family recently received a letter telling them the news with only a vague account of the events leading up to her death. We’re quickly led to believe that foul play or the supernatural may have played a part in her sudden demise but Elizabeth’s husband Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), sister-in-law (Luana Anders) and physician (Antony Carbone) assure Francis otherwise. Viewers originally catch a glimpse of the elusive Elizabeth in a portrait painted by her husband that hangs in her abandoned bedroom. Like the portrait of Laura in Otto Preminger’s film that captures Dana Andrews’s imagination, the portrait of Elizabeth in The Pit and the Pendulum has become an emblem of Vincent Price’s obsessive love signaling his inability to obtain and control the woman it represents.
Price’s character begins to lose his grip on reality after Elizabeth’s portrait is destroyed. He becomes fixated on the idea that his wife may have been buried alive in the family tomb and is still roaming the hallways of his decaying seaside castle that houses medieval torture devices. In his fragile state, Medina hears Elizabeth’s whispering voice seductively taunting him and urging him down into the gloomy, damp recesses of the torture chamber where his traumatic memories of the past and the current horrors that consume him collide. It is here that Elizabeth finally makes her grand entrance, emerging from her crypt like a cadaverous Venus. She is cloaked in cobwebs and obscured by shadows but she manages to seduce and terrify Vincent Price, as well as the audience, while shrouded in complete darkness.
When she finally enters the light, we catch a glimpse of her smile, a wide predatory grin that appears particularly menacing due to the blood-red lipstick she wears. This was film audience’s first solid look at Barbara Steele in full-color. Camera filters don’t obscure her beauty as they do in the film’s flashback sequences so we get to experience the full impact of her unique loveliness while we are wrestling with the depth of her character’s deprivation and cruelty.
In simple terms, The Pit and the Pendulum is a reversal of typical ‘gaslight’ scenarios. Vincent Price is the hapless victim of a plot involving his beloved wife who is trying to drive him mad and succeeds. She is not dead but she haunts and torments the living. Much like Gene Tierney’s Laura who is more fairy-tale than fact, Barbara Steele’s Elizabeth is the film’s phantom inspiring awe, jealousy and finally, devastation. Unfortunately, Steele doesn’t get to walk away from the destruction she has caused and her large sable eyes pleading for forgiveness fill the film’s final frames.
Tune into TCM tonight but be forewarned! You might find yourself bewitched by the exotic mystery of Barbara Steele along with generations of fellow horror film fans.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published in Oct. 2016