Title: The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Jeffrey Combs, Jonathan Fuller, Rona de Ricci, Mark Margolis, Stephen Lee
The casual movie watcher might not know who Stuart Gordon is, but for those gore hounds out there that enjoy their films gory and filled with nudity, Stuart Gordon is a house hold name, no, Stuart Gordon is a God! Early Stuart Gordon films were a special bunch, they all featured extensive amounts of gore, blood and nudity and a lot of them were based on or inspired by various H.P. Lovecraft stories. Good examples of the kind of gory mayhem that Gordon is capable of in his films are Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986) and Dagon (2001), all three inspired in one form or another by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Gordon could really go nuts with the gore in his films! Ever wanted to see a deformed human bite a chunk of flesh from a prostitute’s breast? Then you should see Castle Freak (1995), an obscure yet highly dramatic horror film. That’s the thing about those films that Stuart Gordon made with Full Moon Pictures, they were good, but they are so obscure! The reason for them being overlooked is because Full Moon films were made for a niche audience, a small group of people who appreciated them. Fans of Full Moon Pictures are the kind of audience that knows they are watching low brow entertainment, and they love it that way. Unfortunately, a lot of those Full Moon Films don’t enjoy very good distribution nowadays, many of them have kind of gotten lost in the shuffle. Save for getting them through Full Moon Direct, you probably won’t be able to get a hold of some of the more obscure ones, like Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum, a film that I had not seen for years, because I could never get a hold of it. I found it in one of those 8 horror film collections that Echo Bridge Entertainment has been releasing, and it was accompanied by 7 other totally unknown horror films; so you could say I found this copy of The Pit and the Pendulum by some sort of miracle.
I personally always felt that Stuart Gordon was too good for Full Moon; a production company that specialized on making the cheapest kind of films imaginable. Still, even with all the budgetary constraints that accompany a Full Moon production, Gordon managed to make a couple of good films with them, namely Castle Freak (1995) and the film I’ll be reviewing today The Pit and the Pendulum, two of the best films Full Moon ever produced. But no worries, Gordon’s always worked best when handling small budgets and small stories. Sometimes, he’d get too ambitious for the budget he could get and the resulting film would end up being goofy. A good example of this would be RobotJox (1989), a film about giant robots that ended up being extremely goofy for various reasons, but mostly because it required a bigger budget. The Pit and the Pendulum was another one of Gordon’s ambitious projects that didn’t have the budget it required. The story takes place during the days of the Spanish Inquisition, which already means you’re gonna need a decent budget for sets and wardrobe of the era; unfortunately, the film was made with a mere two million dollars! This is probably the reason why some of the sets look completely half assed or unfinished, a disappointing aspect of the film. Roger Corman’s version of this story had better sets! And that was made in 1961! But incredible as it may seem, Gordon actually managed to make an interesting film none the less, goofy yes, aloof and filled with dialog that does not fit the era, but still, highly watchable.
The hero of the story is a bread maker named Antonio; a peaceful man selling bread in his little town, the problem comes when the love of his life, a woman named Maria is accused of being a witch! By orders of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, she is to be tortured and put to death. Now, Antonio must infiltrate Torquemada’s castle and save the love of his life from certain death. Can he make it in time to save her from a torturous death and escape the torture chamber alive? Or will he end up facing the horrors of torture himself?
Films about the inquisition make me so angry; I just hate the fact that the Inquisition even happened because it shows the extreme steps that the Catholic Church and the governments of the world took in order to spread Catholicism through the world. Basically they forced religion onto people; if you rejected Jesus you were tortured to death! It’s a nauseating idea; it’s something you should think about if you are a catholic! Catholicism is a religious organization with some really dark, evil foundations; it’s a religion that grafted itself and its ideas onto people’s consciousness via violence and death, which of course goes completely against what the bible and Jesus stands for. Back then the church was so powerful that whatever they said was law, and so, no one dared defy them. This type of thing went on in many countries; on this film it happened in Spain, but other films represent the same situations in American and England. This went on in the world until Catholicism became the biggest religion in the world. It is frightening to learn how religious fanatism can go this far; I mean, who the hell wants to be tortured to death by a bunch of religious fanatics? Back in those days, if you didn’t play along you would die. I often times wonder how I would have ended up had I lived in those days; probably tortured and burned at the stake! Other movies dealing with similar subject matter are Mark of the Devil (1970), The Conqueror Worm (1968) and The Crucible (1996). You might also want to check out Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) which starred Vincent Price. I mention these other films in case you feel like exploring these themes a little more. It truly is a sad page in human history.
But this is Stuart Gordon’s take on these themes, and well, the more gruesome aspects are not glazed over! These inquisitors were so freaking fanatical that if they discovered you were a heretic after you were dead, they would dig up your corpse and torture your freaking corpse! The Pit and the Pendulum has all the gore and nudity you’d expect from a Gordon film; there’s this whole scenes that’s all about the priests getting off on taking the clothes off a supposed “witch” just to grope and get a look at her body, I gotta say, nudity is kind of gratuitous on this film. And yeah, it has that goofiness that seems to be present in so many Stuart Gordon films. There’s an unevenness in tone, it starts out like a love story, then it’s this graphic film about the inquisition, but sprinkled with what comes off as unintended humor, especially when it comes to the dialog, which is sometimes too modern. So in that sense the film is all over the place. By far the worst part about the film is its leading man; Antonio as played by Jonathan Fuller. The guy looks too goofy to be a leading man, he made the film come off as a comedy at times, I just couldn’t take the guy seriously, he does not look like the hero type at all! Which is a shame because ‘Torquemada’ the inquisitor played by Lance Henriksen comes off as intensely evil; no holds barred the best thing about the movie is Henriksen. If you can believe it, even Oliver Reed shows up in this film for a couple of minutes as a cardinal sending a message from the pope; it’s kind of funny actually, a high caliber actor like Reed on a cheap horror movie like this one! I guess he is on this one because of his involvement in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), yet another film about witches. Actually, Gordon had Peter O Toole in mind to play Torquemada, but I guess that deal never came through. As for Gordon’s regular gang of actors we get Jeffrey Combs playing one of the Inquisitors henchmen and Gordon’s own wife, Carolyn Purdy Gordon playing a high class lady seeing the corpse of her husband defiled.
The interesting thing about this film is that even though it’s cheap looking and has copious amounts of goofy dialog, it’s still very watchable. It’s interesting to see Gordon take a departure from adapting H.P. Lovecraft stories onto film, which is what he is primarily known for; but with The Pit and the Pendulum he dabbles with Edgar Allan Poe, so in that sense it’s a change of pace for Gordon. Final words on this film here is that it’s not Gordon’s best, but it’s not his worst either. You're gonna see all sorts of torture devices on this one, so be ready for that! The film shows its budgetary limitations at times but keeps you interested because of its gruesome premise; let’s face it, the church torturing and killing people in gruesome ways just so they believe in Jesus is always a shocker, and if you know Gordon, then you know he is all about shock!
Rating: 3 out of 5
Stuart Gordon concocting a morbid scene