The Pit And The Pendulum // Jace Brittain



After Roger Corman & Stuart

Gordon’s adaptations of The Pit and

the Pendulum (1961/1991)



The colors spill as if from a wound,

bright paints leaching into the dark

frame (itself unnervingly liquid).


Starring Vincent Price / And                                            Vincent Price And / Barbara

Steele / And Barbara Steele                            One Laughs / While the Other Screams

One Screams / While the Other Eats         A Painting of the Scenery / And Whispers

Your wifemother’s Name / Playing        Your husbandfather’s Name / Harpsicordly


Roger Corman’s opening credits

announce not blood but a sensory

wound: vision infected and

transformed by trauma. A job of the

credits, to define the external

boundaries of the film’s fiction, is

undercut: these colors become the

tints of the characters dark fantasies

and dreams: purple, red, blue, and

yellow floods which overtake these

visions as the characters recount or

relive them. The boundaries of the

frame run, drip, mix, projected onto a

white sheet.   

Corman’s and Stuart Gordon’s

Pendulums: the device’s promised slow

death is accompanied by a painting.

After all, Poe said so: a painted Time

(Death) rendered such that the victim

perceives a two-dimensional figure to

be swinging the pendulum as a scythe.


memento mori / what you possess                        possesses you / paint on one skull

another’s mortality / redundant clocks                           this machine counts down /

left to my own devices                     i too strapped down / search shapes in the dark


Gordon’s Pit, mechanical teeth and

yawning, opens beneath to swallow

whole the halves of witches and

sinners who might in fits and starts of

attention admire the walls adorned in

the Tor-fantasy Book of Revelations,

Death on his white horse all boney


Shadow figures, red eyes burning,

surround the platform over which

Corman’s Pendulum hangs. Vincent

Price, sane a good while before this

colorful slip, has he been maintaining

the frescoes of the dead father (also

Price)? These walls are not the only

painted surface—wide shots reveal the

Pit, large scale matte painting whose

edges are hard to define.


i faint at my name / “The very instruments /

which were my birthright and curse” / i fall

at my name / hard to tell who lives                           and who molders / putrefactly

in god’s house / who’ll hear you                                                    the pope is in rome


W. Percy Day created the matte

paintings for Black Narcissus (1947),

hung those flat craggish depths just so:

not a backdrop, but a sheer face and

perspective that leaves one’s eyes no

place to go but the Himalayan climbs.

No use wondering whether they look

“realistic,” they fool the eye. No way

around it. Whether or not you believe:

Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth dangles

feet over such inky abysses.

Impossible landscapes impossible to

term real or fake—vertiginous is an

aesthetic effect and your stomach

drops just to see them. 

Beneath Corman’s Pendulum, the

victim wriggles on the platform as the

mechanical apparatus swings above

him, Price maniacal and dancing at the

controls, the shades grace their walls,

the depths beg the eye to plummet

because Vincent Price was born to

plummet to such depths. An eye

scanning for the division between

fantasy and reality can’t pinpoint in

these seconds the fantastic drop and

the physical set, its actors at play. 

The castle, remember: although real

waves crash on real rocks, the castle is

a backdrop. Somewhere the waves wet

the matte trim. Action takes place

inside a two-dimensional fortress.

Inside the two-dimensional fortress,

Price goes mad and destroys the self-

portrait of his wife who he mistakenly

entombed alive. She plays a ghost for

him, blood drenched and cunning, a

knowing smirk (the big reveal!), but

they’ll both be laughing and raving

mad before it’s through. 


A bed of nails / Give the scream queen                    A rest / Give me an answer do

Torture chamber / A stylish marriage        William Morris / does Hell’s wallpaper

And a crown of thorns / built for two

Say: I know a plague when I see one / mon œil!


Gordon’s Pendulum is engineered by

Torquemada, Spanish Inquisitor

played all hairshirt haircut by Lance

Henriksen. A model Pendulum on his

desk, from Torquemada’s perspective:

almost like it’s up to us to set the

instrument to swinging at the touch of

a feathered quill. An hourglass winds

down beside it, filled with sand from a

living corpse’s bones pulverized in the

opening scene.

Torquemada doesn’t like unbroken

skin, will finger the stigmata of his

trembling acolytes, but shake and

sweat and unravel at the sight of an

accused witch stripped bare. No

wounds or imperfections, Maria,

everyone calls an angel: her skin

necessitates his redundantly violent

repentance: before a painting of the

Mother of God, he kneels bloody-

kneed in shards of broken crockery

and compels his devoted apostle to

whip him to ecstasy.

Mary comes alive, we’re behind

Torquemada’s eyes again: she moves

slightly, smiles, gestures toward her

newly third dimensions still within the

portrait’s frame, in this brief shot, she’s


A scene from Matthew Gregory

Lewis’s The Monk: “He pressed his lips

to hers, and found them warm: The

animated form started from the

Canvas, embraced him affectionately,

and his senses were unable to support

delight so exquisite.”


Let’s yell ‘blasphemer’ at each other:

A pervert’s Confidence / what possesses you

Laughter which oozes / Pick a hole       He controls his desire / A sensory wound

Nonsense is senselessness/ Subject

to overwhelming deception / I’ve seen Henriksen

Crawl out of such holes / Seeing                           Henriksen / Seeing Time seeing

Henriksen / Seeing Red.  


Suddenly susceptible to narrative both

supernatural and conspiratorial: Maria

is a witch and the Mother of God, the

hourglass corpse reconstitutes itself

and recounts their fatal sentence,

witches you can’t even burn alive

they’ve eaten so much gunpowder. A

booming, a last laugh: humor and

horror settle so near each other.

“No one will ever enter this room

again,” is the line, but Corman ends on

an iron maiden, the camera narrows to

a square vignette of the conspirator’s

eye, a living ghost wife forgotten inside

a torture device that doesn’t count.

The door closes on this dimension. She

watches the credits roll over red,

yellow, purple, and blue. Pause and

paint spreading looks almost like a

landscape. Poe says there’s nothing

left to do but scream. It could just as

easily be a laugh. You must be joking.

But she just watches the credits,

technicolor spills, delight and despair

tinted beyond distinction.


Jace Brittain is the author of the novel Sorcerererer (Schism Neuronics 2022). Their writing, poetry, and translations have been featured in Dream Pop JournalApartment Poetry, Snail Trail Press, Deluge, and Sleepingfish. They received their MFA at the University of Notre Dame. As a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, they study fiction, illegibility, and intersections between digital, animal, and ecological writing. In collaboration with the poet and book artist Rachel Zavecz, they run the small press Carrion Bloom Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s