Movie Review: “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1991)

I haven’t written about Full Moon Features in awhile, and so, I decided that was something I needed to rectify. In truth, that can be more than a little bit difficult. Although I have always done what I can to highlight the best of Charles Band‘s company, like with The Creeps and Head of the Family, it does keep me more than a little bit tethered on what I can write about. I have tried to write about more modern Full Moon fare like The Resonator: Miskatonic U, but, for every instance where I feel a real, honest effort is being made, so often am I met with a statement of the contrary.

It is remarkable the way Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass can take pennies and make Creep, or Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead can make Resolution or The Endless, but a filmmaker with the experience of Charles Band has never tried to do anything new in the modern era. I know, I know, films are expensive and I can always go someplace else, but it feels like a real shame that Band clings so closely to the Puppet Master and low-hanging fruits like the Evil Bong or Gingerdead Man series. I’m not mad, just disappointed.

But I digress, instead of looking at what’s next, I’ve decided to head in a different direction. The latest film on the chop-block isn’t a modern film at all. It isn’t even directed by Charles Band, thus rendering my meandering introduction entirely moot!

This film was directed by one Stuart Gordon, a talent who had a hand in a lot of the best films in Full Moon Features (or its predecessor Empire Pictures’) catalog, like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dolls, as well as fare like Castle Freak and Robot Jox.

It had been awhile since I last saw Stuart Gordon’s film The Pit and the Pendulum, but I remembered it as being in the ‘better half’ of Full Moon’s filmography. In terms of influence, the story is a real hodgepodge of other things, basing itself on the 1842 short story by Edgar Allan Poe (which was, in itself, incredibly liberal in its interpretation of the Spanish Inquisition), as well as amalgamating The Cask of Amontillado and appropriating The Sword of Damocles.

A lot of wordy-words there, if I do say myself. Basically, the storyline is simple enough – a lot of wacky religious folk that take it upon themselves to enforce the ‘will of God’ by leading a reign of terror, burning and torturing civilians they’ve accused of witchcraft. One such civilian is a woman named Maria, who is arrested for speaking out during a public execution. Taken by her beauty, the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada tortures her in search of a confession, as he digs deeper into his own inner turmoil.

In a lot of ways, I think I would call The Pit and the Pendulum a classic film amongst the Full Moon Features’ catalogue, checking off most of the boxes you would expect. This is for better and for worse, however, as it also suffers from many of the same pitfalls you’d expect. For starters, the set design is textbook Full Moon, benefited, of course, by the fact the film was shot in an actual castle owned by Charles Band (same place Castle Freak was shot). The best way I could describe it is very theater-esque in its aesthetic. Cobwebs and dust, a lot of basic setups and props that create a vaguely silly yet actually good aesthetic. Likewise, Robert Band provides the music, which only doubles down on that.

The acting is decent, at best, but is largely benefited by the performance of Jeffrey Combs, whose portrayal and deadpan delivery offered some of the few earned laughs from a Full Moon Feature (earned in the fact they aren’t by the absurdity of Gary Busey as a talking cookie). The dark, gallows humor is unique to Full Moon, and it actually landed a couple times throughout. The best character on the other hand is Torquemada.

As shown in certain scenes, it is clear that a lot of the other men involved with torturing women for presumed witchcraft know it is a sham. They gawk at their nude bodies and take advantage of their position. Torquemada doesn’t. Or, at least, not until he finds himself infatuated with Maria. It’s all bullshit, but it’s bullshit he takes absolutely seriously, and it is through that characterization and, also, Combs’ portrayal as Francisco, whose kind-of a bookkeeper / interpreter, that The Pit and the Pendulum succeeds as often as it does.

Where The Pit and the Pendulum suffers, I feel, is in making me care about the lead characters and their plight. There is something to be said about ‘template types’ or ‘everyman characters,’ to where it is easy to insert yourselves in their situation. That’s a man. He loves his wife. That’s a woman. She loves not to be tortured. Now, watch. However, I found that it struggled to keep me engaged the whole way through.

As much as I wanted to like the film, I found the aspects I did like were severely under-served. It is a hammy film, and, by no means, did I want to extract that. However, it failed to engage me in its central plight and, by the end, I was fairly checked out from the film. It doesn’t help that this film is a lot longer than the average Full Moon fare. Just shy of 100 minutes may not sound like a lot, but, it is a lot by Full Moon standards (for example, Dolls was 78 minutes). I don’t mind a long film in the least. I much preferred the Snyder cut and I loved The Irishman, but, for a Full Moon film, the diminishing returns can happen fast.

By the end, while The Pit and the Pendulum isn’t among the films I’d recommend to the average horror onlooker, it does house a lot of the same charm in atmosphere and production that first brought Full Moon to the dance.

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