Exclusive Interview: ROGER CORMAN on 60th Anniversary of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’

August 12, 2021 marked the 60th anniversary of the release of The Pit and the Pendulum, one of the most popular films directed by the iconic and groundbreaking 95-year-old filmmaker Roger Corman.

Among the many ways to describe Corman and his impact on film, Kurt Sayenga, the showrunner of Eli Roth’s History of Horror described him best, “Roger Corman is a living legend who has inspired and promoted new filmmakers for more than six decades. There’s no one else like him. From horror to science fiction to outlaw bikers and women-in-prison films, Roger’s filmography has spanned the genres – and, as he says, he never lost a dime.  He’s the most successful independent producer in film history; the ultimate avatar of DIY filmmaking. As a director, Roger’s career highlight was the series of films he made in the 1960s based on the gothic horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe.”

Legendary genre icon Roger Corman.

Sayenga continues: “Roger often had great scripts but given a slightly better budget and stronger actors, his work went from “fun” and “interesting” to “great.” The Poe films are lushly colorful explorations of the nature of evil, laced with a macabre sense of humor. Like Roger himself, there is a lot going on beneath their smooth and shiny surfaces.”

Corman shared exclusively, his memories about The Pit and the Pendulum. He also shares his upcoming projects and fond memories of other past projects.

Justina Bonilla: What is your favorite Poe story?

Roger Corman: It would be “The Fall of the House of Usher”. That was the one I did first because it was the one that was actually more complete than many of the others. For instance, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, which we’re talking about, was just a couple of pages long. And we had to elaborate it to make it a full-length picture. But “The Fall of the House of Usher” was a complete story. And I think it encapsulated much of Poe’s thinking.

Bonilla: Do you have a favorite Poe poem?

Corman: Possibly “Annabel Lee”.

Bonilla: What inspired you to pursue your first Poe themed movie House of Usher, which you based on the story “The Fall the House of Usher”?

Corman: Well, first, I read “The Fall of the House of Usher” when I was in school, and I loved it. I asked my parents for Christmas for the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. They were happy to give it to me because I might have asked for a shotgun or something. I read everything Poe had written that was available at that time.

The reason I made the picture of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as the House of Usher was that I was making some pictures for American International Pictures. They had a way of distributing which was to make two about $60,000 to $70,000 black and white films and send them out together in the theatres for the price of one. They wanted me to make two horror films. I felt I’d done this sort of thing too many times and wanted to move on.

So, I said, which I think was correct, “This has been a great advertising concept for you. But I think it’s growing old. It would be better to spend a little bit more money and make one picture”.

American International asked me what I wanted to make. I said I wanted to make House of UsherSamuel Z. Arkoff, who was vice president of American International Pictures knew the story. He said, “Roger, that’s a good idea, but your movies always had a monster. There’s no monster in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. And thinking fairly quickly, I said, “Sam, the house is the monster”. Sam said, “Okay, we’ll make the picture”. That’s how I got to make House of Usher.

Author/screenwriter, Richard “Dick” Matheson.

Bonilla: How were you able to get Richard “Dick” Matheson to write not only that script, but all the Poe film scripts?

Corman: I had read a number of his stories. I knew he was writing also for The Twilight Zone. I simply contacted him through his agent and told him what I wanted to do. I gave him some of my thoughts, and he agreed with that. We simply went forward and made House of Usher.

House of Usher was very successful. American International Pictures wanted me to make another one. Since I was very friendly with Dick Matheson, and Dick said, “Yes, whatever you want to do”. My second actual choice was “The Mask of the Red Death”. But, Ingmar Bergman made a picture about the Middle Ages, The Seventh Seal.

The Seventh Seal had some elements that were similar to “The Mask of the Red Death”. I thought, if I make “The Mask of the Red Death”, everybody will say, I’m simply copying Ingmar Bergman. So, my second choice was “The Pit and the Pendulum”. The reason it was a second choice was that both “The Fall the House of Usher”, and “the Masque of the Red Death”, were pretty much complete stories. Whereas “The Pit and the Pendulum”, was just a couple of pages.

Dick and I had to try to figure out how to translate this into a picture. We did this with several of the Poe pictures, taking Poe’s story, and using it as the third act, if you were to think of it as a play. We created the first and second acts, hopefully in the style of Poe, leading us to the third act. That’s how we handled The Pit the Pendulum.

Vincent Price about to bring the pain in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’

Bonilla: The story was a collaboration between you and Richard?

Corman: I have to give Dick most of the credit. He and I came up with the idea of the first two acts, and he wrote a little outline. I gave him my notes on the outline. We went from that to screenplay.

Bonilla: The drama in The Pit and the Pendulum film is very Shakespearean, like Othello and Hamlet. Was that or any other Shakespeare play an influence on the script?

Corman: It probably was, but it would be unconscious. I wasn’t thinking specifically, and neither was Dick. We’re all influenced by Shakespeare.

Director Roger Corman with Actor Vincent Price on the set of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’

Bonilla: Did you always have Vincent Price in mind for the role of Nicholas?

Corman: Yes, Vincent was my choice for House of Usher. He was really very good at it. We got along very well. I simply said, “I will go with Vincent again”.

Bonilla: What was it like working with Vincent?

Corman: It was very good working with Vincent on all these Poe pictures. He was a highly intelligent man and had been a leading man when he was younger. But he had never played the handsome, romantic leading man. There was always a little quirk, a little neurosis within him. I thought that little offbeat quality that he had of being both intelligent, and maybe just a little bit off.

Bonilla: Do you have a favorite memory of working with Vincent?

Corman: My favorite memory of working with Vincent was not on The Pit and the Pendulum, it was on The Raven, which we interpreted very freely, into a horror-comedy. At that time, we’d made so many Poe films, I felt we’re starting to repeat ourselves. How can we change it? So, it became a horror-comedy.

We got Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre to work with Vincent. The three stars in the picture. The first day of shooting was a little bit difficult because Boris did not seem to get along well with Peter.

On the second day, as he came out of makeup, Boris came to me and said, “I am a trained classical actor. I learn my lines, I come in, and I’m ready to give the performance. Peter comes in, and he starts making up lines. I don’t know when to speak or what to say, because he’s not really saying what’s in the script”. I said to Boris, “Well, that’s because you come from the traditional English classical acting. Peter comes from the Berliner Ensemble with Bertolt Brecht, who emphasized improvisation. He’s improvising. And actually, I thought he was very funny”. Peter added all kinds of things to The Raven.

Vincent was very cooperative. He really helped me there because he knew how to work both ways. Finally, it was decided. I said to Boris, “Understand that Peter is going to improvise a little bit, and you have to adjust to this”. I said to Peter, “I love what you’re doing. It’s really good, continue doing that. But stay a little closer to the script. And Vincent said, “Yes, that’s the way we should do it”.

Boris reluctantly agreed. After a couple of days, he began to enjoy it. He started improvising a little bit too.

Barbara Steele and John Kerr.

Bonilla: How did you select John Kerr for Francis?

Corman: I simply chose him because he was very good. In South Pacific, he was the handsome young leading man. He had the look, and he was a good actor. He had a little bit of name and that would add to the picture. I knew that he’d been doing TV. In a number of his TV performances, he showed a different quality. I thought it was very good.

Bonilla: Since Barbara Steele was so young and new to acting, what influenced the decision to cast her as Elizabeth?

Corman: I had seen the Italian horror film Black Sunday directed by Mario Bava. I thought she was wonderful in it. I hired her simply off the performance in Black Sunday. Barbara was a good actress and very beautiful. There was also a dark tone to her just as Vincent was a leading man with a little quirkiness. I thought there was sort of a dark mysterious quality behind Barbara’s performance.

Bonilla: What was your experience working with Barbara Steele?

Corman: It was very good. She was very cooperative and a good actress.

A problem came up that I didn’t realize. I knew Barbara was English, so I thought, “Okay, she can play this role”. She’d been dubbed into Italian in Black Sunday. Barbara had a working-class British accent, which I had not anticipated. All of the characters in The Pit and the Pendulum were aristocrats or upper class. So, I brought in a dialogue coach. He worked with her for the picture, to get the accent I was looking for.

The one-sheet for ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’

Bonilla: Barbara and Vincent, what was their relationship like on set?

Corman: They got along very well. It was a very friendly set. Because I’d worked with Luana Anders before, and I knew she was a good actress. The three of them were essentially the leads. It was a very pleasant, good picture to work on.

Bonilla: Did any issues arise on set?

Corman: There was one problem that came up. It was the pendulum. We had constructed a large pendulum with a blade that was blunted. It hung from the top of the studio, and it swung back and forth, as it was getting lower and lower. It was going to eventually cut John, who was lying on the platform.

As they were rehearsing it, John said to me, “Roger, do you think that thing is really safe? That looks a little dangerous”. I thought, “Gee, I don’t want a leading man who’s playing the key seen in the picture, worried about being hurt by the pendulum”. I said to John, “John, we’re going to go for the final rehearsal. I’ll show you, so don’t worry about it. I’ll get in there”.

So, I laid on the platform, looked up, and saw this pendulum swinging back and forth, coming closer and closer to me. I thought, “Maybe John is right. Maybe this thing is a little dangerous”. Then I emerged alive.

John Kerr, Vincent Price and the Pendulum.

Bonilla: In the film, I noticed that there was a heavy emphasis on colors like blue, black, and gray. Was there importance to these colors?

Corman: It was important, but it wasn’t crucial. For instance, in Masque of the Red Death, red obviously was crucial to the picture. I was looking for a dark, somber palette, but I didn’t want it to be all black. So, I chose those colors with Danny Haller, the art director to whom I give a great deal of credit for these films. We were able to get a darker look, but vary it between different colors that could blend.

Bonilla: There appeared to be a lot of visual influences from DraculaThe Bride of Frankenstein, and The Uninvited. Was that intentional, or by coincidence?

Corman: By coincidence, or possibly out of my unconscious mind. You absorb everything you see. It’s very possible. I saw these films, and maybe they influenced me without even being aware of it.

Bonilla: How surprised were you that the movie became the most financially successful out of the whole Poe series?

Corman: I think it was really the final scene. It’s one of the things added that was not in the script, and not in my shot plan. I diagram my shots very carefully in advance. We had finished the picture and had about 20 or 30 minutes left for the crew without having to pay them anything extra in overtime. I thought, “Well, I want to use this set. What can I do?”. I said to Floyd Crosby, the cameraman, “Let’s put the camera on a boom, and I’ll set up there with the camera. We’ll move back and forth along the wall and photograph all those images, just to use up the 20 minutes”. When I had those shots, they look very good, and I use them inner cutting with the pendulum itself. I thought they added to the scene.

Filming a scene on the set of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’

Bonilla: I love that shot on Barbara steel in the Ironmen.

Corman: Yes, I remember we zoomed in and on that.

Bonilla: Was there ever a Poe story that you wanted to make into a film but never could?

Corman: Not really. The reason I finally made The Masque of the Red Death, because it had now been a number of years since Bergman’s film, and it was one I wanted to make all along. I just chose to finally make The Masque of the Red Death. I thought if somebody wants to say it’s a little bit like Bergman then Okay, let them say it.

Bonilla: Are there any new projects that you’re working on that you’re allowed to talk about?

Corman: Yes, I’m allowed to talk about anything.

I’m preparing three screenplays at the moment. I don’t want to shoot because of the Corona Virus and the difficulty in shooting because you have to be careful where you go. You have to check the crew every morning.

My thought is by fall 2021, there will be enough people vaccinated. So, I’ll be able to put together a regular crew, all of whom are fully vaccinated, and we can just go ahead and shoot the way we always did.

I’m working on three pictures. One, it’s a remake of my old picture The Unborn.

Two is a picture called Crime City, which is a low-budget picture. Because there was a terrible hurricane in the Caribbean, particularly in the Bahamas, a year and a half, or so ago. Therefore, I arranged to photograph all the damaged villages and everything about this, I thought, this gives me a great background. So, Crime City is written to fit the footage I’ve already shot in Nassau, Bahamas.

The third to me is my most important. I made a picture in the 1970s called Death Race 2000, which was a futuristic science fiction picture. Universal Studios remade it four times [as the Death Race franchise]. I told Universal, “What you’re doing is good. But you’ve missed some elements in it”. They said, “Well, Roger, why don’t you make the next one”.

I think there’s something in here that clearly has resonated with the audience. I think Death Race has run its course, so, I’ve come up with a new story that takes some of the elements from Death Race, and it’s called Death Games. That’s a picture I hope to shoot first in the fall.

Bonilla: With the popularity of The Fast in the Furious franchise, I’m sure Death Games is going to be fine.

Corman: The Fast and the Furious was very strange. Neil Moritz had made this car racing picture, but he didn’t like the title. And his father was Milt Moritz, who was the head of advertising for American International Pictures. They were having dinner, and Milt said to Neal, “You know, Roger made a picture a long time ago, in the 1950s called The Fast and the Furious. What do you think of that title?”. Neil liked that title. So, Neil and I had lunch, and he bought the title from me, but not the story. The story is entirely different.

Roger Corman and Justina Bonilla during their virtual interview.

Bonilla: This year is also the 40th anniversary of The Howling from one of your students of “The Comoran Film School”, Joe Dante. What was it like for you to have Dante direct to when you appeared in your phone booth cameo in The Howling?

Corman: It was great! A number of the directors who started with me, have me play little roles. For instance, in The Godfather Part II, I was a senator on the senate crime committee. With one of Jonathan Demme‘s pictures, I was the ex-President of the United States. I kept playing sort of governors, Senators, lawyers, and business executives.

Joe called me and said, “You play all these distinguished people, how would you like to be a bum on Skid Row?”. I said, “Great, Joe, I’ll play it”. Since I’m known a little bit for using what little money I have, after the first take, Joe said, “Roger, put your finger in the coin slot and see if you can get your coin back”.

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