Mistress of Menace: Barbara Steele in The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

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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 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. 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 Roger 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 bold 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.*

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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 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 the classic Film 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 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.

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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 depravation 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. 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.

Further reading:
- Roger Corman & Vincent Price: The Groovy Gruesome Twosome

16 Responses Mistress of Menace: Barbara Steele in The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Posted By Emgee : May 12, 2016 7:48 pm

Black Sunday scared the pants off me as a kid; The Pit and the Pendulum is a great and classy horror movie. Price and Steele are a match made in hell.

Posted By Steve R Burrus : May 12, 2016 8:02 pm

I assume thast you are talking about a different Barbara Steele than the famous novel writer huh?

Posted By Emgee : May 12, 2016 8:24 pm

Isn’t that Danielle Steel, or am i missing the joke?

Posted By Chris Wuchte : May 12, 2016 8:53 pm

Most of Corman’s Poe adaptations are great. Anyone who doubts he was capable of doing more than b-movies needs to check them out.

They’re also rare examples of short stories that somehow don’t suffer being expanded to feature-length.

Posted By Autist : May 12, 2016 10:09 pm

I love Barbara Steele and The Pit and the Pendulum is the best Corman Poe by a long shot.

Posted By Doug : May 12, 2016 10:29 pm

Steve-Barbara Cartland? Emgee already noted Danielle Steele.
Haven’t watched this film, but may tune in tonight.
I sort of saw a ghost in Corman’s “The Comedy Of Terrors”-the part Karloff played was the ‘spirit and image’ of my Dad in his last years.
Vincent Price was always memorable-even in “Laura”, mentioned above.

Posted By George : May 13, 2016 1:24 am

“I love Barbara Steele and The Pit and the Pendulum is the best Corman Poe by a long shot.”

I love her too, but I regard Masque of the Red Death as the best Corman Poe film. But Pit and the Pendulum is the second best.

Posted By Gamera2000 : May 13, 2016 1:44 am

Loved this film from the first time I saw it one Saturday Afternoon back in the 70′s. Corman’s Poe films are, I think, underrated, despite their cult following. As far as Barbara Steele is concerned, she has one of the most beautiful and iconic faces in all of film.

Posted By George : May 13, 2016 3:37 am

How about a shout-out for Luana Anders (1938-1996), who seems to have been the female member of that renegade group including Corman, Nicholson, Hopper, Fonda and Dern?

Few actresses appeared in more interesting films than Anders, and Nicholson remembered her when he received his Oscar for As Good As It Gets. Stephen King has admitted to a crush on her.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : May 13, 2016 3:15 pm

Masque of the Red Death may be the most stylish of them. I remember as a kid not enjoying it as much because it was more subtle than the others, but years later the images from it have proved more haunting. I can still picture that ending.

I also really like Tomb of Ligeia. Another example of effectively fleshing out a fairly simple short story. And while the lead actress is fine, it would have been interesting to have someone like Barbara Steele in the title role.

The odd one out of the batch is The Haunted Palace, which is technically more Lovecraft than Poe. I’m guessing that one wasn’t part of the syndication package in the ’70s and ’80s, because I didn’t even know it existed until a few years ago.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 13, 2016 7:48 pm

Just popping in to say thanks for all the comments. Great to see so many Corman fans coming out of the woodwork and sharing their appreciation for this film as well as others in his “Poe Cycle.”

As for Luana Anders, I like her a lot too, George although I find her a bit flat in The Pit and the Pendulum. I like her more in Dementia 13, which also aired last night. Hope everyone tuned into TCM and enjoyed the great AIP programming!

Posted By Susan Doll : May 14, 2016 10:18 pm

Great article, Kim. Steele is too cool for the room.

Posted By Bruce Pierce : May 18, 2016 2:43 pm

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of my favorite Corman films.

I always thought Barbara Steele was Italian or Spanish, so if she is British, why was her voice dubbed by someone else in this and other films?

Posted By Autist : May 18, 2016 4:25 pm

“I always thought Barbara Steele was Italian or Spanish, so if she is British, why was her voice dubbed by someone else in this and other films?”

Yes, I always assumed she was Italian based on Black Sunday and other Italian movies she did, as well as her appearance. As far as dubbing goes, I suppose she was dubbed in the Italian movies because her Italian wasn’t good enough. I don’t know about The Pit and the Pendulum and wasn’t aware that her voice was dubbed.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 18, 2016 5:31 pm

Susan – Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 18, 2016 5:37 pm

Bruce & Autist – According to a few sources, Corman reportedly thought Steele’s own British accent wasn’t ‘posh’ enough to recite the few lines she had in The Pit and the Pendulum but I find that hard to believe considering John Kerr was supposed to be her brother in the movie(?!). More than likely, it may have just been a tech issue and it saved time & money to dub her, which was typical of the period. For better or worse, dubbing was very common at the time.

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