on 12 July 2014
After horror king Stuart Gordon dealt out a horror trilogy for all others to pale by between 1985-1987, he then made the same mistake the much feted John Carpenter did-with both brazenly entering the vampire genre, instantly displaying an embarrassing absence of mastery and understanding of it, and both ended up on the business end of a sharp deserved stake. It really was a toss-up to see who fared worse-it was probably Carpenter; with a slavish devotion to old Romero films, David Cronenberg body horror and an apparent alien-subplot, it was a complete mishmash of everything but a vampire flick, but one expects much from the far better Stuart Gordon, who is much more my chalice of blood, being from that proper 80s horror school of variety, but his result unfolded with all the snap of a drunken snail-race and ended up a plastic soap opera, utterly wasting Anthony Perkins in one of his last roles. This thing was purported to have come from 1987, and maybe it did, but it was released to TV, after Gordon turned briefly to a scarily pre-'Transformers' sci-fi tale 'Robot Jox'. Thankfully, after both these things, Gordon returned to far better material he could immediately assert mastery of-his version of the Edgar Allen Poe tale here being the first.
And it owes very little to Poe at all, is a full torture chamber ahead of the old Vincent Price version, and as I care little about that first movie, I've no problem recommending this far above it. That's not to say it's an easy watch, it's nasty, black-humoured, descends into high camp in moments of random abandon, sick-inducing for the middling of stomach and should induce much tightening of limbs and grimaces of observational pain-but all that means is Stuart is back to doing the day job and long may its blood and guts run.
Written by Dennis Paoli, a breadmaker's wife, a highly principled girl feels the martyred need to finally voice the utter shamefulness at the flippancy with which the truly sick Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (sleekly played in the vilest way by horror fave Lance Henriksen) orders mass executions, public beatings, whippings and worse in his bizarre quest to purge all their souls of their temptation to sin. When she goes too far by expressing so as a young boy is flayed while watching his own parents get exterminated (an equally sick equivalent scene is remembered-and shown to us-recalled by a character in Gordon's ten year away masterpiece 'Dagon'), she is hauled up for high treason, thus dragging her nice husband along with her as with futility he tries to explain away her indignant protestations. Into Henriksen's lair they are dragged, yet while they're awaiting what's in store for them, this being a Stuart Gordon film, it may not be too much of a surprise to find the High Inquisitor quite taken with his subject, not that may halt his affectations for 'justice'.
Stuart Gordon's inspiration for the steadily teasing and necessarily brutish, though fun torture sequences, was his first to the Great Tower of London at some point in the early 80s, and swiftly said in a later documentary (possibly an extra on a new edition of this film in the future?) that nothing he could assemble on screen could touch just what atrocities and depravities an uncivilised society used to practice on each other daily, and he has a point, possibly letting himself in for accusations of watering down his own film with it, but gore hound should find enough sick to chew on here, and for anyone else, a churning sensation at least!
The sets are cheap, not especially stunning, and compares to his 80s offerings, a bit ramshackle and amateurish in moments. Jeffrey Combs is great fun as the scribe, leading the way into high camp at odd moments, and it's also interesting to see the only other adult survivor of 'Dolls' here in another role entirely. Oliver Reed doesn't seem to be quite all there, but Rona De Ricci is luscious as the lead-girl, and brave too considering she has to put with Barbara Crampton usually has to suffer on screen, but she doesn't match her in the acting stakes, but a huge improvement on 'Daughter Of Darkness's' wilting Mia Sara. There is a dream scene where an aged witch she shares a cell with tells her she will overcome her hell which borders on true embarrassment, and doesn't feel real, though for later purposes is needed. Maria's hubby is all-round good guy Antonio (Jonathan Fuller), intriguingly sidelines in bits, as his male-to-the-rescue runs out of gas before he intends it to, but a bigger shock than that, and knowing she may well have to rescue him instead, is knowing that this good-looking and genial guy is the monstrously deformed creature-man hidden under fantastical make-up in Gordon's enticing, disturbing and underrated next movie 'Castle Freak', which also returns Barbara Crampton to us.
'The Pit And The Pendulum' may feel dated, less showy and impervious to a mainstream now deluged with antisocial brats/A-listers forgetting their dead till the twist-ending/tiresome twits in masks/fake exorcisms and soup-stained mysteriously diseased biters weirdly beginning with Z instead of C (how must the 1961 version register then?), but this is one of the more important horror of the truly fallow first part of the 90s period, and probably inspired something like the Sean Bean 'Black Death' film of a few years back. For me, though it lacked the creature-feature monstrosities of 'From Beyond', corpse-fun of 'Re-Animator', fish-zombie followers of sea demon 'Dagon' and enchanted evil toys, the spell casting vibe for the greater good of 'Dolls' is present, and with everything else already mentioned, it's more than a reasonable success, and a huge up from that vampire mistake. The riveting tension created as that nasty Roger Corman blade swings nearer and nearer the stricken, several scenes involving a tongue, and a bullet-sized hole in the head used mainly to dig fingers in as a disciplinarian exercise are a nice touch (sorry) and worth £4.25 at the time, though I now regret it as it's now seen two different DVD releases, as well as a Blu-ray. All of which, I'm told, have the extras that this Full Moon Entertainment edition is completely exempt of. Picture quality is workable enough, but less said of the three trailers it suffers that merely remind you that some pitiful excuses for lens-work were never meant to go near someone of working grey matter, unless you absolutely deserved them to. It's times like this I can't help feeling there should be a law against such beyond ineptitude ill-jokes to horror having advertisment space on a copy of a cool movie made long before the student purveyors of such cack were even dropped on their head by mommy. Pit-i-ous.