The Pit and the Pendulum Review

The Film

Stuart Gordon's Poe project was originally to star Peter O'Toole before financing fell through and the English shoot was abandoned. Albert Band and son Charles, managed to pick up the pieces and worked with the director to re-imagine the piece as lower budget and moved the production to their favoured Italy with a cast made up of Gordon regulars, unknowns and the decidedly less expensive Lance Henriksen in the key role of Torquemada. imageGordon and regular screenwriter Denis Paoli took the same liberal approach to the source material as they had done in all their Lovecraft inspired projects. They retained the setting, the tortures and the element of the supernatural, but decided to max out on a story of twisted lust and blasphemous passions, setting the film more as a thematic companion to something like The Name of The Rose than the original Corman produced film from 1961.

The story is that randy, but married, Catholic bakers Maria and Antonio get caught up in a public execution of a "heretic", Gordon's own wife of course, and Maria intervenes to prevent the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition. Grand Inquisitor Torquemada is soon lost in erotic dreams featuring Maria as the virgin Mary and has her arrested as a witch for his underlings to strip, abuse and torture. Antonio attempts to storm the castle she is taken to and also falls into the hands of a Torquemada, increasingly lost in his desires for flesh and cruelty. imageThe two key elements of Gordon's earlier horror films were hefty doses of lust and a willingness to find humour in the most depraved cruelties, often at the expense of authority figures. Here misadventuring scientists are succeeded by a mad, venal monk who excused his acts as bringing tough love and justice to the faithless and blaspheming. Despite his ardour and his power, lust brings down this peculiarly evil but virginal man.

Henriksen has had few lead roles as good as this one and his commitment doesn't let up for a second as he burns the innocent, destroys the powerless, and exploits the hell out of his position. The craven lust, the blasphemous visions - Henriksen maxes out on a zealot imploding, making daring choices and never quite slipping into self parody. The film is him and the rest of the cast serve as counterpoints or utensils for this main course. Of the cutlery I would say that Fuller stands out as the brave husband and Combs is rather lost as one of Torquemada's goons.imageRichard Band's score is one of his more majestic, taking full value of Gregorian and choral elements and building nicely as the mayhem is released. Gordon makes sure that the ensemble balances out Henriksen and that there is enough blood for horror fans with a surprisingly sure touch on the dramatic as well. He only allows a couple of moments of comic relief, preferring to use the supernatural visions as a kind of pressure valve instead - quite in keeping with the original story.

Despite the limited circumstances and the scaled down aspirations, the film is a triumph as an updating of Poe and a testament to just how good Henriksen can be when moved to central stage. The Pit and The Pendulum is intense, well made and extremely entertaining.

The Disc

This seems to be an all-region release on a BD 25, with sympathetically designed menus making the best of the existing excellent marketing images. In terms of special features, Stuart Gordon talks about the background to the film and his original hopes for the project before reflecting on just how good it turned out with his change of lead. He talks about a great set, even if Henriksen stayed in role and terrified everyone, and his own propensity for killing off his wife on film.

Trailers for the film and Castle Freak are presented, like the interview, in HD and the main extra is the inclusion of the original Videozone episode included with the original home video release. A good 50% of the featurette covers the making of this film before looking at other releases, bloopers and merchandise.imageNow this transfer is not quite as clean and impressive as the one for Castle Freak I recently covered. Black levels do struggle with detail in the darkest sections, and evidence of edge enhancement is found frequently. The 1.66:1 transfer has a frame rate of 24.00 per second, which I know annoys some, and is on the soft side of sharp with solid colour balance. It's deeply preferable to my old big box video copy but not a reference quality transfer.

I had a strange experience with the two lossless audio mixes. I use a Cambridge Azur 551R, and it simply refused to play the LPCM track which I have checked on my home PC to make sure it's there. So due to the silence on my system I stuck with the master audio 5.1 mix which lacked any imaginative use of the rears for effects or spatial placement, simply presenting a shadowing of the side speakers. As the film was recorded in "Ultra Stereo", I did hope for more than simple coverage - still this is much better than other audio treatments I have experienced because of the HD format.


An ok to good transfer with solid unspectacular lossless options of a terrific 90's horror.

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