Pit and the Pendulum, The



Main Cast: Lance Henrikson, Jonathan Fuller

Director: Stuart Gordon

Donna Reed and Football Player (204x275)

Nice try Donna Reed, but my football dance numbers will put you to shame.

I am fit to be tied!  I was tired of waiting for an answer from Dancing with the Stars as to when my next taping would be, so I fired up my Daewoo motors Mu-tang and drove myself down to the studio to meet Mr. Popcress or whatever his name is.  First, the guard at the gate, due to some clerical oversight, could not find my name on the approved list, forcing me to drive through the security arm which left quite a dent on the hood.  Next, while entering the building, I ran into Vera Charles who, amongst the pleasantries, let it slip that she has already filmed three segments for the show to my one.  Lastly, when I finally got to Mr. Popkiss’s office, after having to fend off several random administrative assistants and an overweight security guard, he had the temerity to tell me that the footage of my stunning performance had been accidentally erased by a careless audio technician and that they would therefore be unable to feature me on his drab little show.  No one puts Mrs. Norman Maine in a corner! I swept out of the room determined to have my say so I called Joseph, my manager and told him to meet me at The Ivy for dinner so that we could make plans.

Someone had inconsiderately parked a police cruiser in front of the studio exit so I had to drive through the back fence to get back to La Cienega.  There went another dent in the hood of the Mu-tang.  I’m going to have to send the production company the bill for the body work.  My nerves were a bit shot, so I decided to refresh my spirit a bit and drove down to the beach at Santa Monica and found a nice bench on which to sit and contemplate the waves.  While there, I pulled out the script I had been sent to Any Given Sunday in the Park, the new stage musical about backstage shenanigans at an NFL franchise.  My character, an artist’s model who starts as the girlfriend of one of the players but who ends up owning the team will have to be substantially rewritten.  Currently, it’s a glorified supporting role and it’s going to need at least two more up tempo numbers, a new second act ballad and a dream ballet to be really worthy of my talents.

I decided to head back to Chateau Maine after an irritating little urchin came up to me and accused me of being Olivia de Havilland.  Now I love darling Livvy but really, I am eternally 39, not 99.  On my return, I headed into the home theater to find something escapist with which I could expunge the horrors of the day.  While thumbing through the To View pile, I came across a cheap box set of horror films that Normy had decided, for reasons I could never quite fathom, to liberate from the bargain bin.  I picked a random disc and put it in the player and soon found myself watching the 1991 version of The Pit and the Pendulum, known in some previous DVD releases as The Inquisitor.  The film is one of Stuart Gordon’s cycle of dark fantasy and horror films from several decades ago.  Gordon, like Roger Corman before him, became known for inexpensive, but generally well made genre horror films, starting with 1985’s Re-Animator, a minor classic.  This film, vaguely based on several Edgar Allan Poe tales, has echoes of Corman’s famous early 60s Poe films, which usually starred Vincent Price.  Gordon’s are thematically and visually similar but with a lot more explicit sex and violence.  Corman, in turn, also returned to Poe at roughly the same time using a similar sensibility with films such as The Haunting of Morella. I’ve always wondered if they had a little competition going on.  Great things were expected of Gordon as a film maker after his splashy debut, but he never really branched out and seems to have enjoyed his niche and has rarely strayed from it.

The time is the late 15th century and the place is Spain, recently unified under King Ferdinand after the expulsion of the Moors.  Toledo is in the grips of the Spanish Inquisition (which no one expected) led by the fearsome Torquemada (Lance Henriksen).  What a day, what a day for an auto da fe says the crowd as a previously titled family are publicly scourged and burned as heretics.  Our hero Antonio (Jonathan Fuller), a lowly baker, and his wife Maria (Rona de Ricci) decide to sell their loaves of bread to the crowd, assembled for the fun.  Through various contrivances, they run afoul of the inquisitorial officers and Maria is taken to be tortured as a witch.  Antonio bribes his way into the dungeon and tries to free her, but is captured in his turn.  Most of the rest of the film is a series of narrow escapes, recaptures and various tortures until Antonio meets the titular pit and pendulum at the behest of the evil Torquemada, who has become infatuated with the beautiful and virtuous Maria, who may or may not have supernatural abilities.

The film, though obviously inexpensively made, is a decent B movie.  Gordon has a sure hand as a director and the pace never flags and he knows how to ratchet up the suspense.  Will he/she be discovered this time?  How will he/she escape this impossible situation? (Apparently rat blood has multiple uses).  The script, by Dennis Paoli, is relatively literate, although full of anachronisms and modern vernacular.  It also relies a little too much on deus ex machina entrances to get people out of tight spots.  The cast is full of journeyman actors – some names, some not – who know how to make the material work.  This leads to Gordon winking at the audience now and then reminding them that they’re in B movie land.  In the central role, Lance Henriksen tries to make sense of his tortured madman and play what little subtext there is.  He’s fine but at times almost undone by the world’s silliest tonsure.  Jonathan Fuller, as our plucky hero in the costume with the fetching leatherette codpiece, takes even the more outlandish moments seriously.  He’s a fine physical actor and makes us believe that he is the kind of man who could take on the inquisition and succeed.  Ms. De Ricci mainly has to look ravishing while being ravished and does it well.  There are a couple of nifty little supporting parts; Stuart Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs turns up as a doctor with oversized spectacles, the closest thing we get to comic relief, and Oliver Reed of all people, has a fun cameo as a cardinal who has an unfortunate run in with a cask of amontillado.  There’s also good work from Frances Bay as the witch who shares Maria’s cell.

All in all, I was quite pleased with the film.  It’s a good example of well-crafted B movie film making and not a waste of an hour and a half.  It’s rated R for some rather graphic violence and torture scenes and for the naked Ms. De Ricci but it’s relatively tame considering the torture porn that passes for horror films these days.  As this is a bargain basement DVD release, there are no extras.

Bones ground to dust.  Spilled loaves.  Perky leatherette codpiece.  Wagon riding.  Burning at stake.  Gratuitous waterfall fantasy.  Sword of Damocles.  Gnawing rats.  Tongue slicing.   Gratuitous foot roasting. Gunpowder eating.

To learn more about the fabulous Mrs. Norman Maine, read our Movie Rewind introduction.  You can also read her full back catalog and keep up with her on Twitter @missvickilester

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