DVD Review: The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)

Posted on August 28, 2012 by Keri

Review by Keri O’Shea

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, but straightforward cinematic adaptations of his prose rarely yield quality results. His works are often not much more than fragments – short insights into extraordinary circumstances giving way, naturally, to mental torment, rather than what we’d usually consider as conventional stories with detailed plots and characterisation. Great on the page, sure, but more difficult to translate as-is to the screen, which is why I think the Corman Poe adaptations have endured; in developing so extensively on the tales themselves, they’re linked to Poe’s work but not limited to it. And, I’d be very surprised if Corman’s Poe cycle wasn’t in director Stuart Gordon’s mind when he came to work on The Pit and the Pendulum. Here, too, Poe’s original story is extensively developed, retaining its setting in the Spain of the Inquisition, but broadening in scope to include a substantial story arc with a cast to go with it.

Toledo, 1492: we’re quickly introduced to the idea that any religious authority which would disturb a tomb to declare its inhabitant a heretic (flaying the corpse for good measure) probably isn’t much endowed with sanity or compassion. It’s a state of affairs which will soon come to haunt the recently-married Maria (the little-known Rona De Ricci) and Antonio (Jonathan Fuller): they’re trying to sell bread, when they get swept along by a crowd heading to the nearby auto-da-fé – bringing them to the attention of the merciless Torquemada (Lance Henriksen). Maria’s beauty and innocence have an immediate effect on Torquemada, and he’s quick to declare her a ‘witch’, getting her taken into custody and thereafter treated with the sort of hospitality you might expect from a set of sadists and zealots (including Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs, deadpan as ever in his role as a bureaucrat in a torture chamber).

Antonio, presumed killed in the fray when Maria was seized, regains consciousness, and attempts to rescue his wife by breaking into the castle where she’s being imprisoned. His subsequent actions, as well as those of others around him, bring the ruthless efficiency of the Inquisition under immense pressure, in particular putting the (proverbial) thumbscrews on Torquemada himself, a man in whom personal weaknesses are already starting to emerge. The result is a movie which starts relatively slowly, but escalates to a high Gothic crescendo which is a lot of fun to watch. Whilst the film begins with a premise which is very familiar (everyday men and women taking on corrupt and powerful organisations), Gordon and his team play it through via an engaging period drama here. Evident care has gone into getting the costumes, locations, and visuals right (no doubt through turning a careful eye on the portraiture, as well as the allegorical paintings, of the day), but this believability is balanced against a substantial Stuart Gordon pay-off – OTT, but OTT whilst still tying up all the plot threads. There’s always method in Stuart Gordon’s madness.

Extending ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ in this way (a credit to writer Dennis Paoli, who has also done some star turns adapting Lovecraft for the screen) allows not only for a decently-sized cast but for characters to emerge. Key amongst these is Lance Henriksen as Torquemada. Henriksen never phones in any of his performances, and he attacks the role here with relish – sometimes bordering on too much relish, as some of his wild-eyed antics don’t feel as powerful to this reviewer as his more brooding, introspective scenes. What’s certain, though, is that Henriksen brings presence and menace to the screen, especially when his character is faced with what is, in many ways, his greatest weakness personified – Maria. Maria is unfortunate enough to be genuinely pious and very beautiful, never a good combination, and through no fault of her own she is attractive to the holy man. He cannot bear his weakness, and makes others suffer as he suffers. It’s a shame to see that De Ricci hasn’t been credited with any acting roles since making this film, because she’s an excellent balance to the corruption of Torquemada. For example, when she’s examined for witch’s marks – in a scene which is, after all, a full-frontal nude scene – it’s easy to believe in her innocence and embarrassment. And, there are other recognisable faces here: as well as appearances from the prolific Mark Margolis as Mendoza, the ‘saved’ henchman to Torquemada, and the equally-prolific, sadly now deceased Frances Bay turning in a ferocious performance as the witch Esmeralda, The Pit and the Pendulum is also notable for a short (and tragicomic) Oliver Reed cameo, with Reed playing a visiting cardinal. His scenes are instrumental in something else which Paoli does here, namely, drawing on other Poe stories for inspiration. The movie isn’t just limited to the story with which it shares a title, something else which adds breadth to this screenplay.

Of course, running throughout the film is the Inquisition’s sickly preoccupation with the ‘perils of the flesh'; although the majority of the torture scenes are quite bloodless, this obsession with carnality as something corrupting and malign lends the film and script an unseemly feel. It’s always there, finally coming to the fore in the film’s conclusion, but colouring word and deed throughout. Whilst I have some problems with some of the dialogue, which at times feels clunky, what it does very well is to show the dishonesty at the heart of the Inquisition’s practices – all dressed up in proper procedure and due process it might well be, but it doesn’t change the sex and violence that’s really going on.

Although The Pit and the Pendulum has an escalating pace and even odd moments of humour which makes it feel a long way away in tone from a period Gothic like, for instance, The Monk (2011), it does have substance and much to recommend it, aesthetically, stylistically and in its imaginative development of a classic horror short story (not forgetting Richard Band’s sweeping movie soundtrack). Stuart Gordon is a versatile filmmaker, and his foray into historical horror has a great deal to offer those who enjoy films of this genre. Let’s hope this new release of a now twenty-one (!) year old film helps to bring it to a new audience.

The Pit and the Pendulum is available now from 88 Films.

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