The Pit and the Pendulum Review
Charles Band followed his father into the film industry. Albert had been making exploitation movies since the fifties, including zombie flick I Bury the Living and the self-explanatory Zoltan, Hound of Dracula. Charles did much the same with notable early credits including Parasite (the 3D horror flick that gave Demi Moore an early break), From Beyond and Troll. Cult-ish items one and all which soon established him as something of a trash auteur to rival Roger Corman. Though he also wrote and directed, much like his father, the most prolific work was done as producer. He set up Charles Band Productions in the early seventies and then Empire Pictures in the mid-eighties (whose releases included Re-Animator and his own Trancers, both classics of their kind). By 1989 he’d formed Full Moon Features, an outfit whose specific aim was to provide horror flicks for the home movie market.
First off the production line was Puppet Master, setting in motion not only its own multi-film franchise (there have been ten further instalments to date) but also the template for future Full Moon efforts. The latest production would occasionally screen at a few genre festivals, but otherwise theatrical showings were off the cards. These were films intended solely for VHS and (in the States) laserdisc consumption and, as the sheer weight of Puppet Master sequels shows, they also proved quite successful. Full Moon continued under slight variations (Full Moon Features, …Productions, …Studios, …Entertainment) until the early 2000s, fittingly enough dying out at the same time as videotape. Yet this was also a company which had pre-figured the DVD with the inclusion of behind-the-scene featurettes on each of their releases. Band introduced these items himself, entitled VideoZone, which also helped promote the Full Moon brand thanks to tie-in merchandise and teasers for future releases.
Owing to this demise before DVD really took off as a medium, much of Band’s output has been poorly served on disc, especially here in the UK. Some titles, particularly those with huge cult followings such Re-Animator, have been given the proper care and attention. But the majority have simply been thrown out to the general public without a second thought. From my own experiences of titles from the Empire Pictures years, as well as the Full Moon productions, we’ve been dealt shoddy transfers and zero extras; The Alchemist, I remember, was near impossible to sit through thanks to terrible image and sound. Thankfully new label 88 Films - tagline: “Classic movies treated with respect” - have an exclusive deal with Band to distribute Full Moon’s output onto disc and some earlier titles too. The film under review here, The Pit and the Pendulum, is to be the first release with Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama and Tourist Trap to follow shortly. If the materials available are in good enough nick there will also be Blu-ray editions too.
The Pit and the Pendulum is an interesting place to start as it isn’t among the best of Band’s efforts nor is it quite as extras-heavy as some of the other announced titles. Nevertheless it does demonstrate that we can breathe easy when it comes to these films’ presentation and what special features are present are all pleasingly vintage, including an original VideoZone featurette. That care and attention lacking in earlier DVD editions - and The Pit and the Pendulum was one of the titles to have a previous shitty release - has been restored. The film looks great, sounds great and the disc is catering to the fans. If 88 Films keep this standard up then they should be on course to become firm favourites with the cult collectors out there.
As a result I feel slightly guilty in having to criticise the film itself. The Pit and the Pendulum was the fifth feature of Stuart Gordon, the writer-director who had made his name with Re-Animator and the equally brilliant/bonkers From Beyond. His co-writer on those projects, Dennis Paoli, is the sole script here, yet there’s definitely something lacking. As the title suggests we have a Poe adaptation on our hands, though it’s one of those which has simply cherry-picked ideas from various stories rather than anything which could be described as faithful. (As well as The Pit and the Pendulum, the film also draws on The Cask of Amontillado, another of those stories predicated around Poe’s fear of being buried or walled-up alive.) The action takes place during the tail-end of the Spanish Inquisition and concerns itself with the witch hunts presided over by Lance Henriksen. His latest torture victim, played by Rona De Ricci (who would never act again), also becomes an object of attraction to him. She’s innocent of course, whilst he’s too caught up in her to ever bring her properly to trial. Time enough, then, for her baker husband (Jonathan Fuller) to attempt a rescue…
Such a set-up is enough for Band to satisfy the expected quota of nudity and gore. De Ricci, it seems, is required to undress at least every other scene, whilst the various torture devices bring the blood. The Pit and the Pendulum being a Stuart Gordon feature we also get an irreverent tone that translates into plenty of oddball humour. The re-animator himself, Jeffrey Combs, gets a meaty supporting role on the side of evil and happily chews the scenery - as too do most of the supporting cast. Blue Velvet’s Aunt Barbara, aka Frances May, pops up as a genuine witch plus there’s a single-scene cameo from Oliver Reed and the familiar eyebrows of Mark Margolis. Unfortunately Reed is completely wasted, though he does have the effect of reminding us of Ken Russell’s The Devils and its vaguely similar narrative touchstones of witch hunts, innocents accused and the evils of organised religion. And that’s not a comparison The Pit and the Pendulum can live up to.
The problem comes down to an unevenness of tone and a general lack of purpose. The combination of bare fresh, gore FX and wacky humour suggests the intended audience is stoner adolescents - and if that is the case then it possibly explains away the aimlessness. You never sense why The Pit and the Pendulum was made other than to satisfy those quotas. There’s little tension, nothing going on beneath the surface and all of the characters are strictly one-dimensional. The latter we can excuse when the likes of Henriksen and Combs are available to flesh them out a little with their own quirks and charisma, but otherwise it becomes easy to lose interest. Furthermore this lack of attention extends into other areas. The Pit and the Pendulum almost looks the part, with a sizeable chunk of the budget having been spent on the costumes and set design, yet it suffers from being entirely unlived-in; we’re constantly aware that we’re watching a set. Similarly, Gordon and Paoli lack the invention of their early collaborations. The likes of Re-Animator and From Beyond were always going to be difficult to top, but not once are we faced with something unexpected. Even the humour lacks their usual edge and just comes across as goofy.
The entertainment value is strictly in line with the nostalgia value, an aspect 88 Films are clearly aware of. This kind of film doesn’t get made anymore and, just maybe, that will see many through. If the nudity and language were toned down a little - we’re getting the unrated version here - then you’d almost describe The Pit and the Pendulum as cutely innocent, especially in comparison to the nasty, cynical edge that currently dominates horror cinema from the US. Indeed, some will no doubt revel in the simplicity of it all - a horror pic with no pretensions other than to attract a few late night rentals thanks to its cast, its artwork and its adherence to formula. I get the impression that 88 Films are banking on that audience still being around today.
Whether that audience is made up of original renters of the VHS or a newer generation, both are likely to be just as impressed with the presentation quality. This new disc is derived from a lovely looking print almost entirely free of dirt or blemish. (A couple of shots here and there, particularly where flames are involved, must have proven too hectic to allow for a proper clean-up.) The level of detail is similarly excellent whilst colour and contrast levels feel appropriate for a low-budget mid-nineties genre effort. The framing is in the original 1.33:1 ratio of the video release. Though it screened at a handful of festivals prior to its VHS, The Pit and the Pendulum was filmed open matte with an eye towards that video market. (I presume the festivals would have masked to a 1.85:1 ratio.) As for the soundtrack this too is as crisp and clean as the image, ably coping with both dialogue and the score by Richard Band (Charles’ brother and a regular composer on his productions).
The main extra is the original VideoZone featurette taking us behind the scenes of “the movie you just watched”. The materials are in a similarly excellent condition as the main feature and its thirteen minutes make for a pleasing trip down memory lane even if this kind of ‘making of’ has been commonplace in the years since and the tone is surprisingly serious. The nostalgia of this set is further enhanced with the addition of ten Band-related trailers. (The trailers are simply numbered one to ten making each one a nice surprise - especially for titles I’d forgotten even existed.) The Pit and the Pendulum also gets its own original trailer, plus 88 Films have retained a ten-minute blooper reel from the VHS. As said, they’re doing the right thing with this release. Whilst the film itself has its problems, this release does, at the very least, mark them out as a label to watch. Band’s output over the years has had its fair share of stinkers to go with the gems, but there’s bound to be a number of releases worth eagerly awaiting.