Friday, September 17, 2010

Film Review: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991, Stuart Gordon)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Lance Henriksen (ALIENS, THE TERMINATOR, NEAR DARK), Mark Margolis (THE WRESTLER, PI), Jeffrey Combs (RE-ANIMATOR, CASTLE FREAK), William J. Norris (brilliant Chicago theater actor), Stephen Lee (WARGAMES, DOLLS, GHOULIES III), Frances Bay (BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), Rona de Ricci, Jonathan Fuller (CASTLE FREAK, CAMPFIRE TALES). Music by Richard Band (TERRORVISION, GHOULIES, PUPPET MASTER). Written by Dennis Paoli (RE-ANIMATOR, GHOULIES II, THE DENTIST), and loosely based on some of the writings of Edgar Allen Poe.
Tag-lines: "A bizarre descent into hell from the creator of RE-ANIMATOR."
Best one-liner: "What are you doing here? Why don't you go torture some heretics!"

How's it goin', Full Moon? It's been a long time. Come to torment me with more mediocre, direct-to-video genre cinema, have ye? Come to fool me into thinking I've rented PHANTASM? Cause if I squint my eyes and look at the cover, that's what it looks like. And if I had no idea what talents were involved, I think I'd have to assume- best case scenario- that the film within is something along the lines of 'PUPPET MASTER III meets DRAGONWORLD.' But lo and behold: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a damned solid flick. I mean, it's not quite as good as Dreyer's LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC, but it probably burns at least three times as many heretics, and in blazing Technicolor!

Actually, that was a lie, it just sounded better to say "in blazing Technicolor" than "in a murky 35mm-to-VHS transfer."

Now the first thing that's going to surprise you is the fact that this film appears, in fact, to have a budget of some kind. Estimated to have been made for only two million dollars, I find that to be pretty impressive. I mean, after craft services, extras, airfare, buying location access to a bona fide Italian castle, paying Stuart Gordon, semi-intricate period costuming, complex gore effects, retaining some recognizable actors, building a Pit and a Pendulum out of something sturdier than balsa wood– that seems like it would cost a lot of 1991 dollars. So I'm wondering exactly how much went to Lance Henriksen (to get him to prepare, fly him out, have him act for a few weeks, have him on call in case they need dubbing, pick-ups, etc.)?

It can't have been toooo much, the whole goddamn budget was $2 million. Let's pick an arbitrary figure- let's say that he commanded $150,000: 7.5% of the budget, which I think is a semi-reasonable guess given the costs of everything else. That would be for- let's say 6 weeks of hassle in all. Might have been more, might have been less. Does that mean that if I scraped together $3,500, I could get Lance Henriksen to hang out at my apartment for a day? And that $3,500 is what he'd normally earn for some grueling work- shaving his head into a whacky monk's tonsure, getting whipped, pouring his heart into his work, etc.

So it wouldn't even be demeaning to just hang out with him for half the day, shoot the shit, drink some beers... and then I could reasonably ask him to maybe do some light housework for the second half, maybe he could do some dishes while we discuss SURVIVAL QUEST. Time to start saving, I guess.

What was I talking about? Ah yes, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. Gordon and Dennis Paoli weave together the Spanish Inquisition, "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Premature Burial," and a smattering of other Edgar Allen Poe elements into one big Medieval frenzy of swashbucklery, supernatural horror, and Gothic torture.

The plot concerns two innocents (originally cast as Billy Dee Williams and Sherilyn Fenn!) -

a breadmaker and his pious wife, played by Jonathan Fuller and Rona de Ricci- who are inadvertently swept up into a world of imprisonment, torture, and autos de fé. A gang of terrific character actors comprise the Inquistion, including Lance Henriksen (as Torquemada himself- a part originally intended for Peter O'Toole!), Jeffrey Combs, Mark Margolis (whose old crucifixion wounds are continually fingered by Lance), William J. Norris (who plays the Doctor with Paul Bartel-style flair), and Stephen Lee (who evinces dunderheaded charm). Additionally, they almost seem to directly prefigure the posse of colorful tormentors in Gordon's 2003 KING OF THE ANTS.

Of the crew, Henriksen gets the most screen time and by gum, does he make the most of it. He might be having a ball beneath that bitter, hardened exterior, but you really can't tell. The man looks like he is in genuine, diabolical agony for the duration.

He's not some cardboard cutout Inquisition villain- he's an anguished soul, scourged by his own spiritual hang-ups and ambigious sexual repressions, and he finds his outlet in pure, unfettered, self-serving sadism. He's got a weird SALÓ-style torture peephole and a Sword of Damocles installed in his quarters. He's got a Virgin Mary fetish and a hard-on for gettin' flagellated ("Flog me!"). Gordon's pulling out all the stops and the Catholicism clichés, all the way down to the (Buñuel-inspired?) crucifix dagger.

At one point, he screams, "NO ONE ESCAPES! NO ONE!!!" followed by a nearly endless recitation of "KILL HIMs." He must scream "KILL HIM!!!" about three thousand times in this movie, and every time ya hear it, it's just as fresh as the first time.

There's definitely an element of 'Inquisition-sploitation' to this picture, and when the innocent young maiden is stripped down and scrutinized by these ecclesiastical clowns, Henriksen must react.

What would you have him do, as a director? Go the hackneyed route? Have him twirl a mustache, or giggle lasciviously? Have him lick his lips, or look her up and down with the 'ole pervy once-over? Well, let's see what Lance Henriksen decided on:

Now that is an acting choice, ladies and gentlemen. Look at him. Does he even know they're making a movie? At this point in time, measured by the medium as 1/24th of a second, can we say for sure that there's a difference between Lance Henriksen and Tomás de Torquemada?... It's not for me to say. But goddamn, it's one hell of a performance. And he should have earned the first Oscar nomination to be affiliated with a Full Moon picture.

While not living up to Henriksen's sheer intensity, Jeffrey Combs manages to steal a little bit of the spotlight in his role as Francisco, the Inquisition's resident bookworm. Looking sort of like a Medieval Encyclopedia Brown, Combs is outfitted with a pageboy wig, some spectacles worthy of Mr. Peabody, and a demeanor that seems truly alien to us 21st Centurians.

Allow me to explain: as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Combs studied artwork contemporaneous to the Inquisition and painstakingly emulated the poses found therein. The rigidity, the arm movements, the way he peers into a book or disdainfully regards a potential "witch."

Though it doesn't call for a great deal of movement, it's an extremely physical role, and Combs makes it extremely memorable.

There's a meaty role by Lynch's favorite scary old lady, Frances Bay, as an actual witch captured by the Torquemada.

Bay is guaranteed to bring 'blood-curdlingly off-kilter' and 'adorable old lady' elements to her performances, and her "Esmerelda" here is no exception. She gets tortured, dispenses Obi-Wan Kenobi-style spiritual guidance, sounds off with wacky one-liners, and faces her stake-burning fate with gunpowder-gobbling panache (which leads to an... explosive payoff).

Stephen Lee and Mark Margolis waterboard Frances Bay.

Believe in yourself and you can overcome anything!

Just when you think you've seen it all, the Cardinal arrives to put the kibosh on Torquemada's brutality. I did a spit-take when he arrived, because, much to my surprise, the Cardinal was played by THE DEVILS' own Oliver Reed!!! He stumbles in, par for the course, swigging from a flask and mumbling in an accent that bears some similarity to that of an inebriated Italian chef.

He's all about shutting down Torquemada's operation, giggling somewhat malevolently, and murmuring things like "No-a, I tell you, I have-a de seal of de Pope!" When Torquemada offers him a few snifters from this schweet, aged cask of Amontillado, do you really think that Oliver Reed refuses?


One thing leads to another, and- well, if you have any familiarity with Poe, you know how it turns out. Suffice it to say that Ollie Reed was- however fleeting- an unexpected pleasure. Full Moon, you continue to surprise me. Anyway, we finally get to that eponymous Pit and Pendulum around an hour and fifteen minutes in, and some satisfying (although fairly predictable) payoffs ensue.

I'm giving this movie four stars. I'm fairly certain it's actually a crime in some states to assign a Full Moon picture a rating such as this, but let's just run with it. For another Full Moon/Stuart Gordon/Jeffrey Combs/literary adaptation that's far better than it has any right to be, check out CASTLE FREAK.

-Sean Gill


Tempest said...

Wow, the only TPATP I knew of was the one with Vincent Price, which I own. I thought this was a remake, but given your summary, it does not sound like it.

J.D. said...

Yeah, this is a kooky film to be sure but would you expect anything less from Full Moon? I daresay no! Altho, Stuart Gordon did give them temp. class by making a few pictures for them before they went back to stuff like SUBSPECIES. Now, that's a franchise I can get behind!

Sean Gill said...


Only a remake in so far as there are pits and pendulums in both- though I surely wish that somehow Lance Henriksen and Vincent Price could coexist in a Poe adaptation!


I'm more of a TRANCERS man myself, but classy(-ish) Gordon flicks aside, Full Moon loves to serve up that semi-generic garbage that somehow keeps ya comin' back for more. For the most part, I prefer their offerings to, say, Troma's. I've never taken the plunge on SUBSPECIES, but have dabbled in most of their recurring film series- what kind of a recommendation do you give? (I do love a good Angus Scrimm picture)

J.D. said...

Well, you can't go too wrong with recurring vamp Radu (love that name) in the SUBSPECIES series. I just got around to watching the first 2 installments in a box set I picked up that has all the films. Wonderfully cheesy low budget effects and surprisingly creepy atmosphere thanks to shooting on location in the wilds of eastern Europe (Romania, I believe). Anders Hove, who plays Radu the vampire, is kinda a low-budget Klaus Kinski - that same kind of flare for outrageous often unpredictable acting style.

The first 3 films are very consistent and then the last 2 are spin-offs with questionable quality (even for Full Moon!) but Hove's presence in the first 3 is so strong and charismatic that he kinda carries the films.

I also dig TRANCERS as well. Tim Thomerson is awesome in these films. Such an underrated character actor. Which reminds me, I really should track those suckers down some day.

Sean Gill said...

Into the queue SUBSPECIES goes. Plus, I've enjoyed what I've seen of Anders Hove from the low-brow low-brow (CRITTERS 4) to the low-brow high-brow (Trier's KINGDOM II). And I need to see more of the TRANCERS films- I've seen three and last time I checked, they were up to 7 or something. Plus, from what I've read, I clearly need to see DOLLMAN.

J.D. said...

I believe a new box set of TRANCERS films is coming out mid-October. No word on extras or if they're even letterboxed but I noticed that there's a few boxed sets floating around Amazon/eBay. I may wait to see what this new box set has to offer.