It would be wrong to spend a month writing about horror movies and not touch on Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Matheson, Roger Corman, or Vincent Price. So tonight I’m going to include them all.
Long before I could ever bring myself to watch scary movies, I found myself deep into the world of horror fiction. I don’t know what the difference was for me, but while the idea of Poltergeist scared me silly, I could not get enough of things like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
. If you’re not familiar with those books, they basically have some of the most incredibly terrifying drawings you will ever see. In a series of books marketed towards children. I still get the chills thinking about some of those stories.
Along the same lines, I was reading authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Ray Bradbury, both of whom have written stories scarier than any of the scariest movies I’ve seen. Eventually I made my way to Stephen King. It was sometime around the summer after I turned thirteen that I started with It
. After IT, I couldn’t get enough. I read several other Stephen King works that summer (and many more since) but the most memorable was The Shining
. I was staying with my grandparents and I checked The Shining out of the library. I remember reading it at night before bed, cover pulled up to my chin. Every night I would eventually turn out the light and just lie there, completely still, convinced that if I moved I would wake something up. I would alert something monstrous that I was there. I would stare through my dark room at the open door, willing the hallway to stay empty, horrified that if I blinked there would be something there.
That’s what reading The Shining did to me. And for some reason I keep going back.
Still to this day, I don’t think I have ever been as scared as I was that summer reading that book.
I guess it would make sense if I now spent this post talking about the film version of The Shining but I’m not going to, not yet at least. This post is about a different movie, a movie roughly based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe, written by Richard Matheson, directed by Roger Corman, and starring Vincent Price. This post is about The Pit and The Pendulum.
The Pit and The Pendulum – USA, 1961. Dir. Roger Corman. Starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, and John Kerr.
What does The Pit and The Pendulum have to do with Stephen King?
One of the few Stephen King books I have somehow failed to read until now is possibly the one I should have read the second it was published. In 2000, King published a book on the craft of writing, called simply On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
. It’s as much a memoir as it is something that will teach you about writing. And it’s great.
In one of the early chapters, King talks about his adolescence and how he used to hitchhike fourteen miles every weekend just to go watch movies. He liked the violent ones, the titillating ones, the monster movies, the horror movies, the Poe movies. He went one weekend and watched this Roger Corman picture, The Pit and The Pendulum. He loved it so much, the images were so horrifying, that they stuck with them and it inspired him to write his own “novelization” of the story (a whole 8 pages he says). In On Writing, it’s a charming story, a fun little insight into how he began as a writer.
It also reminded me of myself, at almost the same age. Around the time I hit middle school, like most kids I had the occasional sick day. When I did, I would usually spend my afternoon on the couch, watching movies on PBS. They showed things like Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and Masterpiece Theater.
One of these afternoons I turned on the TV and they were showing an old Vincent Price movie based on an Edgar Allen Poe story. It wasn’t The Pit and The Pendulum, which I had already read, but another that I wasn’t familiar with. They were showing Masque of the Red Death. I watched it and much like King’s recollections of The Pit and The Pendulum, there are images from that movie that to this day stick in my mind. I will always remember that hideous ball, the mysterious guest, and the shocking revelation at the end.
I haven’t rewatched Masque of the Red Death in years and at this point I’m not entirely sure I want to. My memories of it are still so solid and visceral, I don’t really want to ruin them. It is actually on my list for this month though so it seems fitting then to watch this other Roger Corman adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story instead, one I haven’t previously seen.
Now the thing about these Roger Corman movies is that they sort of mark an end of a certain era in Hollywood horror filmmaking. They’re still heavily produced pictures from the early sixties. Costume melodramas, gothic tales set in old mansions on windswept cliffs overlooking stormy seas. They’re from a time before Night of the Living Dead.
Watching Pit and the Pendulum now, as an adult, it feels dated and relatively tame compared to much of what I’ve watched this month. Even Black Sabbath, released around the same time as the Corman flicks, seems more modern. Still, there’s something charming about them, a certain nostalgia and connection to the past. There’s also something else, something darker, and I think it’s still possible why Masque of the Red Death made such an impression on me and why The Pit and The Pendulum so effected Stephen King.
The Pit and Pendulum starts slow, reveling in its gloomy atmosphere of mystery and death. A good amount of time is spent in flashback which in a film now would be considered a faux pas. Other than Vincent Price, the acting is just average, not terrible but nothing really memorable either. Vincent Price however is as wonderful as he always is, classical, Shakespearean, melodramatic. Vincent Price is just Vincent Price. There’s a reason Tim Burton made a whole cartoon about him.
I’m not entirely sure what this film version of The Pit and The Pendulum has to do with the original story. It’s been a while, but I mostly remember the story taking place in the pit. The film is an entirely different matter. We don’t actually get to the pit until the last ten minutes or so. The rest of the story is a gothic mystery involving madness, premature burial, plots and intrigues, adultery, torture, murder… put that way the plot does seem pretty epic.
I really do love a lot of what was going on here. There’s something really fun about these movies, a sort of no-holds-barred run at creating the most horrifying tales possible. As cheesy as some of it feels now, I think a lot of it is still enjoyable, some of the imagery downright disturbing. And as tame as it may appear, the ending of the film is actually quite awful. If you think about it.
If we look past special effects, a lack of sophistication, the core elements here are rock solid. The Poe stories are delightfully morbid. There are reasons these movies make such an impression. They’re Hollywood, they’re silly, but ultimately they are good, old fashioned horror. Vincent Price is a man who needed no make-up, no dressing up, no special tricks, to become an icon. Roger Corman is one of the most influential filmmakers in Hollywood. Edgar Allen Poe was one of the most influential writers of not only horror but of mystery and early science fiction as well. Richard Matheson is also one of the heavy weights in horror fiction. Stephen King could do worse for influences.
Stephen King, like Edgar Allen Poe, understands how to write nightmares. Roger Corman understands how to film them.