A lot of directors have taken a lot of liberties with Edgar Allan Poe's short story over the years, but it's easy to see why. The story itself is brief and a less than 30 minute read for your average person. There's not a whole lot of a plot per se as a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition tries to survive a pretty dire situation involving a deadly pendulum and red hot walls closing in on him that will eventually force him to fall into a deep, dark pit. However, as we learn at the finale, where there's life, there's hope. In the stories case, that “hope” comes in the form of the French Army. Faithfully extending just that into a full feature would be extremely difficult to successfully pull off, so most adaptations are either short subjects themselves or have had to greatly expand upon the story to even get us to the Pit / Pendulum stuff. Roger Corman added a plot about a man investigating the mysterious death of his sister in his 1961 adaptation. Harald Reinl's West German adaptation THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967) aka Snake Pit and the Pendulum added the story of an evil. undead count seeking immortality. In 1991, Stuart Gordon used the setting as a way to point a finger at religious abuse and hypocrisy; adding torture, witchcraft, gore, ghosts and other horror elements to the works. Even though Svankmajer's version runs just 14 minutes, it also includes elements of Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's “The Torture by Hope” (from his 1883 collection Contes cruels / “Cruel Tales”), which itself was inspired by the writings of Poe.
A succession of POV shots follow a man being dragged through a dark corridor and then awakening to find himself strapped to the ground. He looks up to see the titular pendulum emerging from the mouth of a skeletal Father of Time. Gears start moving to swing the pendulum while a continuously punctured sandbag starts emptying its contents, allowing the pendulum to be slowly lowered upon him. A bunch of rats emerge from a nearby pit, likely associating the sound of the contraption with another easy meal. With no time to spare before he's sliced in two, the man dips his hand into some spoiled food in a dish nearby and smears it all over the ropes. Enough of the rats chew through for him to escape. He next has to face an iron wall that's decorated with moving horned demons, monster birds, skeletons and screaming people; all lit from behind by a blazing fire. Since it rolls along on a track he's able to buy a little time by jamming his food dish under the wheel, but will he be able to escape the torture chamber alive?
Shot in grainy black-and-white, with no dialogue and not a single shot of a human face, this is dark, grimy, nightmarish and fantastic at both establishing a dreary, discomforting mood and capturing the bleakness of Poe's tale. It is also quite faithful to Poe's story up until the altered, more ambiguous ending, which is where the other credited story comes into play. Production design is excellent and Svankmajer employs his trademark stop motion animation very well here to bring the Rube Goldberg-style torture contraption to life, plus enhance other shots involving the rats and a moment where a blade punctures a hand. The director had previously applied his unique visual style to Zánik domu Usherú (1982); a narrated adaption of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."
This debuted at the Kracow Film Festival in Poland before hitting the festival circuit in other countries, racking up numerous awards along the way, including the Critics' Aware at Fantasporto, the Don Quixote Award at Krakow and the Jury Prize for Short Films at Montréal World Film Festival. In the U.S., it opened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 1984. This was included in the 3 disc, Region 2 BFI release "Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films."