Self-loathing, God-fearing swine
With the outstanding news that some of the old Edgar Allan Poe classic movie interpretations from Roger Corman are making their way to Blu-ray – The Fall of the House of Usher (a fabulous release, folks, trust me) has a review coming very soon – it is great to whet our gothic appetite with Stuart Gordon’s ripe and lurid adaptation of The Pit And the Pendulum in the meantime.
Self-loathing, God-fearing swine, Torquemada (Lance Henriksen) is in town and presiding over a brutal campaign to root out the witches of this rural Spanish neighbourhood – they’re like cockroaches, you see, they’re everywhere – and when not having his broken body whipped by a lackey, or coaxing confessions out of misbegotten waifs and hags, he is warming his hands in the heat from human bonfires erected to keep the peasant mob happy, and also strictly under his fearful command. As you would expect, though … he’s not quite all there, spiritually speaking.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, young Antonio (Jonathan Fuller), the local baker, and his lovely wife Maria (Rona De Ricci) – they’re always called Maria, aren’t they? - are dividing their time between making love and making bread. Life is sweet, and full of kneading. Geddit? But when they inadvertently get swept up in a surging crowd all heading off down the cobbled streets for a public execution and Maria unwittingly incurs the bullying wrath of one of Torquemada’s henchmen, she puts herself firmly within the Grand Inquisitor’s sights as a potential sorceress. With Antonio unable to wrestle reason from the treacherous zealot and getting beaten to the ground for his troubles, Maria is accused of witchcraft and swiftly flung into a cell in the castle … there to await the tortures that will be used to extract a confession from her.
Bread-making no longer a distraction now that his comely wife has been abducted by one of the Church’s madmen, Antonio attempts a rescue and, for all his noble efforts (he’s no Johnny Rambo), ends up in a cell of his own. As more and more wretches and poor innocents suffer, including the esoterically gifted old crone, Esmeralda (Frances Bay) who shares a cell with Maria and may genuinely be a witch, the two lovers vow to escape from their dungeons. But Torquemada has other plans. You see, even a man of the cloth has suppressed urges deep down inside … and when he realizes that he has fallen for Maria’s charms, whether they be a bewitching or not, he will stop at nothing to claim her for his own. That’s not going to be easy, though. He’s going to need to coerce her to his way of thinking, and to silence that pesky husband of hers, once and for all. And with the Pope sending out his Cardinal, played by Oliver Reed, no less (just what was the pontiff thinking when he assigned this guy, eh?), with some newfangled ideas about torturing suspects not being exactly God’s chosen way, Torquemada is going to have to do some very quick and devious thinking. Which can only mean more death and cruelty … and, hey, maybe it’s time to oil up the old pit and the pendulum again and have that vindictive contraption swing into action once more.That’s always good for a laugh, isn’t it?The Spanish Inquisition lasted for a long, long time indeed, something like four hundred years, and, in a little known fact, still exists under a renamed and re-tasked branch of the Catholic Church even today – although tongue-rippings, iron-maidens and burning at the stake have been sort of brushed under the papal rug. Another strange little facet about this soul-shudderingly terrible and seemingly inescapable reign of unholy persecution is that the intended victims would actually be given some considerable warning before the witchfinder and his ghastly entourage would come to town to condemn them, thus enabling them to build a case for their own defence … or to simply get the hell out of Dodge before the, ahem, Pit hits the fan. (I must just say thanks to Stephen Fry and QI for that tidbit!) Sadly, of course, the Inquisition still managed to arrest, torture and execute thousands of innocent people who had been erroneously accused of heresy, witchcraft, diabolism and of colluding with the Devil. A trip to the London Dungeons for Stuart Gordon was all the inspiration that he needed to fire up this particular interpretation of a much written-about and much filmed chapter of Man’s darkest deeds towards his fellow Man. Thus, the tale would centre around one of the most infamous inventions for exacting harm upon another … and that also meant calling upon one of Horror literature’s elder statesmen for inspiration.
In Poe’s original short story, the Spanish Inquisition does not play a major part, beyond being an element in the history of Vincent Price’s twisted son of the order’s most barbaric instigator. His tale is simply the culmination of one of his ghastly revenge plots that culminates in the time-honoured and supremely suspenseful device being inflicted upon on the unfortunate hero by a terrible and coldly vindictive onist. However, the screenplay from regular Gordon scribe, Dennis Paoli, ensures that this framework is grimly adhered to for the exciting final act of the film.
The story obviously fits in with the nastier accounts of Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil, but also the more avant-garde and thought-provoking The Devils and even medieval whodunit The Name of the Rose, and it’s scary, though accurate conceit that religion is, ironically, the root cause of all evil, is painfully exacted with some gruesome scenes of cruel, church sanctioned depravity and public slaughter. Clever dungeon-led travelogues reveal various miscreants suffering differing forms of torturous pastimes, though the film is never quite as stomach-churning as you might expect. As gory as Re-Animator was, I don’t think that Gordon ever ventured anywhere near the same levels of excess again, always stopping short of full-blown carnage for fear of the MPAA performing their own witchhunt upon him. This said, there is a ghastly sequence when a long dead victim of the Inquisition is exhumed and his withered skeleton strung up and whipped before his family until it falls apart, and his bones then ground to ash.
Another former victim of a warning crucifixion also suffers the icky punishment of the holes in his palms getting painfully violated as a stark reminder that he should stay on the straight and narrow path of the Lord ... or rather, the Torquemada.“How can they confess if they haven’t got any tongues?”The script is actually quite a delight. It is strangely lighthearted for much of the time. Yes, there is some heavy theological manipulation going on, but the moralistic debate of this mass-delusional quest is largely consigned to the bucket-swilled latrine. There are no theological debates to slow things down, no broadsides leveled at the Church’s insensitive tyranny. Gordon wants to keep things moving, and to this end he stages escapes and fights, seductions and semi-magical episodes that genuinely provide the story with more interesting flavours than you might have anticipated. With most of the action kept indoors, the film becomes quite claustrophobic and this, too, is a bonus. The torch-lit passageways and hidden chambers not only remind of many earlier medieval sagas, but also of the likes of vintage Star Trek episodes, and I think that this only adds to the somewhat delinquent charm of the yarn.
Having Oliver Reed in the film was undoubtedly a prime slice of hammy stunt casting. He’s not in it for long, and it does smack of a deliberate intention to ride on the superstar’s former class act as the persecuted priest in Ken Russell’s outstanding The Devils, in which he, himself, contrives to burn at the stake for his own falsely perceived heresy. That said, his short interlude here is deliciously and blackly comical, almost in a Morecombe and Wise-style shooing-off of the celebrity star, which cannot fail to raise a smirk. If Gordon could be so flippant with someone of Reed’s calibre, then all bets are off.
The hero looks like a cross between Taylor Kitsch and Jim Carey and dresses in John Cleese’s Robin Hood costume from Time Bandits. He is played by Jonathan Fuller, who would go on to essay the whimpering nude, nipple-munching mutant-killer in Castle Freak, although he shows that he was pretty damn eager to bring a more dynamic champion to the screen this time around. To this end, he is able to indulge in some sword-play, a little bit of table-leaping and all-round ducking and diving between heavily armoured guards in a couple of enjoyably choreographed fight sequences. These Errol Flynn-inspired segments aren’t exactly cutting-edge and have the air of made-for-TV stuntwork, but they provide some good-natured and fast-moving derring-do to spice up the darkness and the intensity and give the film some more varied appeal. So that’s not too bad for a baker-boy.
Also, watch out for the glorious table-turning execution that becomes an explosive highlight, with a gaggle of foolhardy onlookers who have gotten too close to a witch’s impending immolation getting strafed and impaled with bony bits of shrapnel due to her A-Team-style forward thinking.
As Maria, De Ricci is an alluring beauty. Stripped by Torquemada’s grinning cohorts in their attempts to find the mark of the Devil upon her supple flesh, she reveals a full-bodied and arresting form that production designer Giovanni Natalucci cannot compete with, despite his best efforts to dress the sets with interesting and captivating paraphernalia. Bedecked in white robes, she also cuts a fine dash of innocent contrast against the interminable shadows and flame-glowing of the dungeons. As an actress, she is none too shabby either. She has to endure the pawing of the impotent Torquemada, driven mad by his inability to fully consummate an itch that he cannot, and knows he that he should not scratch. Plus, she gets a couple of pure fantasy set-pieces that actually serve to pay a sort of quasi-homage to Roger Corman’s celebrated dream sequences in his outstanding series of Poe adaptations.“I’m sorry, Mistress, that we couldn’t get you to confess. There just wasn’t enough time to torture you properly.”
“Thanks, anyway.”You see, even when faced with getting burned alive at the stake, politeness costs nothing.
Full Moon devotees will also get a kick out of seeing the great and powerfully eccentric Jeffrey Combs strutting about and pontificating aloud from the witch-abusing rule-book as Francesco, the scribe. Here, he takes much more of a backseat after being the lead oddball in many of Gordon’s moist fantasies, but his moments still raise a smile, especially as he is bedecked in a pair of ridiculously outsized spectacles. After his more serious and rather miserable role in Castle Freak, it is refreshing to see him, once again, as a daft underling, mumbling from the shadowy sidelines. There is also an opportunity to witness Gordon’s good lady wife, Carolyn Purdey-Gordon, getting slain, as she does in most of her appearances in his films … in a most unpleasant fashion, too. The pair actually maintains it is the secret to a good marriage.
Although quite a little ensemble has been gathered for this, the film belongs to Henriksen. Long the demigod of higher-regarded B-movie exploitation – his performance in Pumpkinhead still amazes me - and the acclaimed star of his own dark thriller series Millennium, and an absolute stalwart of dedicated hard-ass support in the likes of Aliens, The Terminator, Near Dark and Hard Target, Henrikson gains further kudos here for going the extra mile in his method process of literally “becoming” the Torquemada on set and off. He didn’t quite go as far as to having his head shaved (okay, there really wasn’t a great deal of matting that would have needed to come off in the first place), as this was a skillfully crafted skullcap from Greg Cannom, and allowing himself to strip off and be flagellated. We can see the twist of desire cutting through his vocational/obsessive bloodlust, corrupting his own skewed set of values from within. Henriksen’s eyes are almost always severely intense and grave. There simply isn’t any “happy ground” beforehand. Even when smiling, there is a deadly, dark and deeply angry lack of mirth in them. Known for taking his roles very seriously indeed – one recalls his notorious audition for the part of the T800 in the original The Terminator in which he kicked a door down and sat in intimidating silence throughout the session – he brings a staunch dedication to his religious maniac, and even manages to make the unlikely failings he has for the flesh when confronted with Maria totally believable as well.“You hurt her … I’ll kill you.”
“That’s what we do here. We hurt people. Hee-hee-hee!”Regular composer for Gordon and Full Moon, Richard Band once again provides the goods inventively on a shoestring. Very unfairly neglected by a lot of score-fans, Band was a steady toiler and the owner of a very distinctive and versatile voice. Like Bernard Herrmann (whom he cheekily and intentionally riffed-upon for his main theme for Re-Animator), John Barry, Elmer Bernstein or James Horner, you can instantly tell one of his scores from the very first few notes that you hear. His work on Pit may not be quite as memorable as his material for some of his earlier projects for Gordon, but it has a macabre playfulness and a dark sense of ominous inevitability that elevates the often cartoonic and swashbuckling visuals. Given the choral elements that come into play, there is also a grander, more operatic and epic quality to the score than usual, proving that this project was, indeed, once considered to be of much greater importance.
It is very easy and all-too convenient to splash the name of a literary giant on the poster for your latest horror film. Obviously Gordon had a history of liberally adapting H.P. Lovecraft with Re-Animator and From Beyond, and even Dagon. And Edgar Allen Poe probably has considerably more movies that he has, apparently, lent his moniker to. Though in his case, far more of these have merely exploited the most tenuous of links to give the production some marquee status that they might, otherwise, have not have warranted.
Poe is certainly addressed in many ways. There are the various rogues and debauched aristocratic mores of Prince Prospero from The Masque of the Red Death. Poe’s oft-used device of premature burial is also fondly recalled, as is the notion of walling somebody up behind a wall. The guilty being haunted and then besieged by all those they have unjustly tormented is another staple ingredient, as is the theme of one psychologically damaged man forcing his own morbid fixations upon another’s woman. Justified comeuppance is also an integral element of Poe – the Poe-etic justice of his peculiarly psychological morality plays, if you will – and Paoli doesn’t forget to ensure that those who live by the sword of persecution shall have their sins visited upon them also. So the film may celebrate its prime pulpishness with gusto, but it doesn’t neglect the rich heritage that it stems from.This is a spirited movie, and quite the strongest of the latter phase of Gordon’s output.The surprising thing, perhaps, is that no matter what tortures are perpetrated, or what sexual abuse is addressed, the film never feels too nasty, nor too disturbing. Arguably, Gordon had completely broken all such shackles with the ultimate horror-comedy of Re-Animator in which he gleefully got away with murder, necrophiliac oral sex and all manner of morgue naughtiness, so even when attempting to venture into darker thematic territory, audiences were always savvy to the little twinkle in his eye. Even Castle Freak, which I think is held in surprisingly high regard for what is, ultimately, a rather disappointing film given the fantastic potential of the location used, threatened to go to some very demented places, yet really stayed quite safe at the end of the day.
With more in common with Witchfinder General and even, at a push, The Sword and the Sorcerer (GOD, I STILL AWAIT THAT PULP CLASSIC’S ARRIVAL ON BLU-RAY. WHERE THE HELL IS IT????), than anything really related to Poe, Gordon’s The Pit And The Pendulum swings through a very entertaining arc that mixes bedevilry with medieval mania, and historical japery with baddie-flinging heroism and hair’s breadth escapes. It marks something of a slight departure for Gordon and Full Moon – there are no monsters and no demonic little people running amok – and acts as a great old school romantic adventure, albeit one with tongues getting ripped-out, people being burned alive and pits full of spikes. Oh, and let’s not forget Oliver Reed dressed up like a Christmas cracker!
Fans will lap it up, of course. But The Pit And The Pendulum is actually really fine entertainment from start to finish for anyone looking for a smidgeon of arcane escapism. There’s nothing new here, and the basics have all been covered in better and more taboo-breaking films from a long time before. But this is the garish, comic-book romp version of all of that. Gordon knows how to have fun, yet he is also pretty skilled at delivering a varied selection of themes and motivations – from the deranged to the honourable, and from the daft to the inspired – without beating you over the head with them. He has never topped his inventive and groundbreaking early days, but then so few cult horror filmmakers have, when you think about it. But he continued to churn out material that interested him and gave him the opportunity to set dress his pictures with unusual location and effects work.
This isn’t a bloody patch on Roger Corman’s glorious 1961 version … and we anticipate its arrival on Blu-ray with baited breath. But it is hard not to recommend this darkly depraved take, even if only to savour Lance Henriksen’s giddily foreboding turn … and the sight of a rat neatly sliced in-two.
You know, this is pretty good stuff, all round. So tie that to your stake and burn it!
Movie score : 7
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