Jarv’s Schlock Vault: The Pit and the Pendulum
I’m sorry, mistress, that you weren’t properly able to confess. There just wasn’t enough time to torture you.
Jarv’s Rating: 2 Changs out of 4. Not a classic, but not awful at all.
This is a momentous day. I have nearly scaled the North Face of Stuart Gordon, in that I’ve almost seen every film he’s done. This, I feel is some achievement, and as I near the summit, I would like to pause before I take on the last film, King of the Ants, and have a look at the treacherous incline that I just navigated unscathed. As I sit here, touching distance from the peak, enjoying a quiet smoke, I have to say that I’m actually quite impressed at the consistent level of goodness that he’s turned out. There’s only really Stuck that’s dogshit, while everything else has been good to excellent. The Pit and the Pendulum is no exception
This is a strange film. IMDB reliably informs me that Gordon, who is the king of Lovecraft adaptations, was trying to get this Edgar Allen Poe adaptation off the ground for years with Peter O’Toole in the Torquemada role. That would have been awesome. In the end, Full Moon stumped up for it, and Gordon cast Lance Henriksen in the lead. Lance, to be fair, was at his career high (pre will-work-for-food days), and this is one of his finest performances. I just want to clear up a few things before I start. Firstly, this isn’t an adaptation of Poe’s story The Pit and the Pendulum. I’ll come to why in a minute, but Gordon takes some massive liberties with it, much as he did with Castle Freak, From Beyond and Re-Animator. This is actually a good thing, because Poe’s masterpiece of a short story is essentially very simple, about one character suffering at the hands of the Inquisition. To adapt it properly would veer dangerously close to Torture Porn territory.
This version of the Pit and the Pendulum is all about Torquemada. For the historically ignorant, Torquemada was the head of the Spanish Inquisition (NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION. Well, you fucking should in this film). He was, historically, a right bastard and responsible for the slaughter of literally thousands of people. Anyhoo, Lance plays the mad monk, and the film follows him on his various mad monkish antics. We see him order a corpse flogged (hilarious), ignore the Emissary of Rome, letch after Rona De Ricci’s Maria (understandable this one), conduct inquisitions and witch trials, stab a few people, and chew the scenery mightily.
While Torquemada provides the narrative thrust of the film, he’s ably supported by Fransisco (Jeffrey Combs), Maria’s wronged and badass husband Antonio (Jonathan Fuller), and Oliver Reed as the Cardinal. The acting from all support is first-rate, but the real stars here are De Ricci as Maria, who is not only very attractive, but also puts in a sterling performance; and Lance himself. This is a stunning turn from Lance, far better than the film deserves. He’s OTT, but intentionally so, being obsessive, fidgety, fevered and otherwise manic. This film is worth a watch for many reasons, but even were the rest of it complete poo, then it would still be worth watching for Lance’s performance. The Pit and the Pendulum represents a career high for him.
This is a surprisingly clever film, it follows Torquemada around, but is actually a compendium of Poe stories. Oliver Reed swigs down some sherry before being walled alive somewhere (The Cask of Amontillado), Maria is presumed dead, but not really and buried alive (Fall of the House of Usher)and we get her inside the coffin (Buried Alive), before we see Antonio contending with the monstrous pendulum (Pit and the Pendulum). This is, I have to say, an extremely clever way to adapt these stories. Furthermore, there are trademark moments of levity here. The quote I used at the start is from Combs to the Witch, and her response “Thanks anyway” is a moment of pure comic genius. It helps that Combs is really, really good at dead pan delivery, but the film is awash with genuinely funny moments like this.
This is a good film, clearly, but it is heavily flawed. Firstly, it isn’t scary at any point. Bits of it are, well, gross (Torquemada tearing Maria’s tongue out), but the film itself never manages to be frightening. Secondly, there’s a lot going on here, and so some characters are seriously underdeveloped, or even worse utterly extraneous to the story. It was a mistake, I believe, to make Maria a witch, and the late addition of telepathy to the story is cretinous in the extreme. Furthermore, for as clever as the film is in adapting multiple Poe Stories in one film, this actually makes it unfocused and the climactic pendulum scene is rushed and lacking in menace. The film is about the Pit and the Pendulum, and yet when revealed it’s over in seconds. This is a mistake.
Overall, this is a good film, and very nearly a lost gem. However, it is also a mess and probably a case of ambition outstripping ability. I do recommend it, more as a curio than anything else, because it is reasonably entertaining and Lance is great fun as Torquemada. However, against that, it is clearly confused and overreaching itself, and, at the end of the day, the Vincent Price version is much better. Still, there’s shit loads of nudity in it, plenty of gore, and this is an extremely brave attempt at an adaptation of a very difficult to adapt author.
Until next time,