Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // 1991 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // August 19th, 2011
I am the inquisition.
Director Stuart Gordon set the bar high with his directorial debut, Re-Animator. After movies like Space Truckers and Robot Jox, it's not hard to see how he fell out of demand. He did make one movie that approached his debut cult classic, though. A cable favorite of the early '90s, The Pit and the Pendulum holds up much better than I thought it would and stands as the best feature the infamous Full Moon Features ever released.
The Spanish Inquisition is in full swing and at its heart sits Torquemada (Lance Henriksen, Millennium), the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. Under his leadership, thousands have been tortured and killed for witchcraft and whatever other evil confessions his devices can force out of victims. When Maria (Rona di Ricci), a young baker's wife, is arrested because she can't stand to watch the auto-da-fé, she is brought in front of the inquisitor. Torquemada, charmed by her beauty, stops the torture and, against his better judgment, tries to make her his own. But first, he must take care of Maria's husband and, luckily, he has a brand new device to try out on him.
I'd hoped that The Pit and the Pendulum would stand the test of time, at least somewhat and, despite some production problems and a general cheapness, it really does. It's a fun movie with spirited performances and a solid base in the original material. It's less bloody and less sexy than I remembered, but the sadism is a lot more pronounced, which more than makes up for it.
Beyond the title, Stuart Gordon's version of Edgar Allan Poe's story bears little resemblance to Roger Corman's classic. This version is much more heavily focused on the torture than the earlier film and that's a product of the complete lack of rules of the production company. Say what you will about Charles Band the director (and the less said about Dollman vs. the Demonic Toys, the better), but as a producer, he released some fun, free-wheeling low budget horror, of which The Pit and the Pendulum is the pinnacle. It's giddily cruel and never boring, with a lively script from Dennis Paoli (Castle Freak), who filled it with references to other Poe works. The Premature Burial and The Tell-Tale Heart get nods, while one scene revisits the climax of The Cask of Amontillado with a hilarious over the top cameo from Oliver Reed (The Devils, which shares more kinship with this film than the Corman version does).
Henriksen's is a blast as Torquemada, with his skull cap and bladed corset. He plays the role with supreme relish and is pure campy fun. While his character has little in common with Vincent Price's Nicholas Medina, they're both ridiculous in their parts and equally good. Really, though, I love the whole cast, which features a number of great cult actors, including Jeffrey Combs (Bride of Re-Animator), Tom Towels (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Mark Margolis (Pi), and Stephen Lee (Robocop 2). A special mention goes out to Frances Bay (Wild at Heart), one of the most recognizable old ladies in cinema, who is hilarious as Esmeralda, the sorceress who befriends Maria. I would love to have had a few more scenes with her.
The effects are cheap, but Stuart Gordon handles the limitations very well. He uses old school B-movie tricks to make crowds look huge, when there are clearly no more than twenty extras on set at any point. The locations are convincing, the costumes look great, and while the gore is limited, Gordon proved in Re-Animator that he can make very effective use of a small budget. There is more drama than horror here, as well as some swashbuckling action that I'd completely forgotten about, but found funny and charming. Maybe The Pit and the Pendulum isn't a great film, but it's a fun movie that remains fun on repeated viewings.
Nobody should be surprised that a Full Moon picture would wind up looking bad on DVD, and here we are with a DVD of The Pit and the Pendulum that looks just about exactly as good as one of the production company's videos did back in the day. A full frame, dirty, washed-out picture makes me think that Echo Bridge rented an old VHS of the film and transferred that to disc. The sound is very similar, with a tinny stereo mix overall and a bit of noise that persists throughout the film. The only extra is a digital copy of the movie, which is basically pointless for me.
Torture, blasphemy, religious hypocrisy, and Edgar Allan Poe is a combination of subjects I can get behind. The Pit and the Pendulum is a ton of fun and I'm thrilled that it's out on DVD. Although I wish the technical aspects had been worth anything, I can still easily recommend the film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy