In the mid-sixteenth century, Francis Barnard (John Kerr) travels to the Spanish castle by the coast where his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) lived, after hearing the unwelcome news that she has died suddenly. When he is in sight of the building, perched as it is on a cliff, the coachman taking him there refuses to go any further and Francis has to walk the rest of the journey, and to top it all when he reaches the front door the butler, Maximilian (Patrick Westwood) won't let him in. When his sister-in-law (Luana Anders) appears, the butler relents, but it is clear there is a mystery here that Francis must solve...
After the lower budget AIP studio had taken a chance on a shot at resepctability with an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation in House of Usher, they found they had a hit on their hands, and its director Roger Corman was being taken seriously as an auteur at last. Corman naturally decided to follow this up with another Poe story, and picked one of the more famous tales, The Pit and the Pendulum, even though as written there was barely enough material for a segment in an anthology never mind a whole movie. Screenwriter Richard Matheson quickly came up with a solution: mix up a selection of highlights from the famed author's work, and see what could be done with them.
Therefore in this you would encounter burial alive, lost loves, madness and the encroaching dread that would come to terrible fruition in the film's climax where the torture device of the title was put into play. Oddly, although there were liberties taken with the Poe story, not many complained as Matheson remained faithful to the spirit of the original prose, and with Corman and his team working up a fine atmosphere of Gothic horror there were those who preferred it to his initial attempt from the previous year. In truth, there's not much that happens until that final burst of violence, but so sustained is that sense of impending doom that you'd have to be especially uncharitable to grumble.
Vincent Price was back as the, it's safe to say, troubled lead Nicholas Medina, just the right side of hamming it up and very entertaining to watch as he frequently swooned with the ghastliness of his predicament, stared off into the middle distance to suggest the torments rushing through his mind, and finally felt his sanity snap like a dry twig. Backing him up was a newer horror star, Barbara Steele, already typecast as she has had an international hit with Black Sunday the year before, although watching this now the twist that her character was at the centre of is an obvious one, as there was no way she was going to be relegated to one flashback as if her role was really of a dead woman.
Though even then, she was underused and soon found herself back in Europe cast in an attempt to cash in on the success of the Mario Bava film she had been such a crucial part of. As if that was not bad enough, Steele was dubbed into an American accent to fit with the other actors (no Spanish accents here, that's for sure), but if you can forgive the misuse of a cult star, then there was a lot to appreciate in this. Daniel Haller went to town on the production design, creating a weirdly colourful environment for the characters to drift through as Francis uncovers more about the truth of his sister's fate, and if Corman overdid it with cutaways to waves crashing on the cliffs and flashes of lightning illuminating the stormclouds then it was all part of the ripe texture of the piece. The race to stop the pendulum added a charge of adrenalin to what had been an near-stately effort, with the result that this was the most typical Poe film from these people. Music by Les Baxter.