Sometimes, Appellate Judge Tom Becker really knows how to pyx 'em.
The demons hunger.
Whenever I get a disc from Scorpion's Katarina's Nightmare Theater line—or Code Red's Maria's B-Movie Mayhem line, for that matter—I expect to be watching trash. Sometimes, it'll be entertaining trash, sometimes, it'll be really good trash, and sometimes, it'll be road-kill trash.
So, when the disc for The Pyx showed up, I was expecting your basic, silly horror knock-off; the fact that it was made in the early '70s and starred hit-or-miss cult icon Karen Black made my trash radar go off the charts.
Imagine my surprise when I found The Pyx to be not trash at all, but a surprisingly well-made hybrid of detective story, supernatural thriller, and character study.
Black plays Elizabeth, a hooker with a heroin problem. When we first see her, she's falling to her death from a high-rise window. She's wearing a gauzy white gown, and around her neck, a gold crucifix—only, it's upside down. In her hand, she's clutching a small container.
The investigation into her death is led by Dr. Sgt. Jim Henderson (Christopher Plummer, Beginners), a hardened cop who's not above going a little dirty to get what he needs to solve the case.
We flashback to Elizabeth's life in the days leading up to her death. Elizabeth is no simple "happy hooker." In fact, she's a decidedly unhappy woman, adrift and alone. Even if we didn't already know her fate, there is a sense that she's a doomed soul.
As the film progresses, we see Elizabeth's story juxtaposed with Henderson's investigation. The fragmented story-telling is, initially, a little challenging to keep up with, but the film finds its footing early on, and the technique creates a dynamic and compelling scenario.
Although Elizabeth is really an amoral criminal, we see she has an emotional depth and a conscience that, oddly, seem lacking in Henderson, a bastion of society. Fragile and uneasy, Elizabeth seems resigned to a fate she doesn't even know awaits her; Henderson, bull-headed and cocky, proceeds without any recognizable humanity, driven only to solve this puzzle at any cost.
Around mid-way through, Elizabeth's madame sets up a special "date" for her with a wealthy, mysterious man. Elizabeth balks, but the madame is insistent that Elizabeth take the job, and so is the client, having her followed and intimidated. Elizabeth tries to get out of it, but it all seems inevitable, and in the end, the character is almost resigned to the terrible fate that awaits her.
Henderson's investigation takes a number of violent turns. There are some pretty brutal deaths here, with one scene being particularly ugly and disturbing. Henderson himself is a pretty violent character who thinks nothing of brutalizing and intimidating people to get what he wants.
Religious imagery abounds: The film opens with a shot of a highway, an illuminated crucifix in the background; Elizabeth has taken a young prostitute to a Catholic rehab facility, and must stand in the back of the church during a mass, watching the priest administer communion to the celebrants; at one point, she has to go to a confessional to get a priest to give some items to her friend. A scene in which Elizabeth shoots herself up with heroin has an almost spiritual quality to it. In addition, Black sings a number of songs on the soundtrack, including one based on the Song of Solomon.
Although it ends with a sequence of outright horror, The Pyx is not a traditional horror movie. It has so many elements that it's really a difficult film to categorize, and I imagine it was tough to market. The fact that it's a low-budget offering from Canada—it takes place in Quebec—probably didn't help.
By the way, even though information on the resolution of the mystery is readily available in even the most rudimentary plot descriptions and hinted at throughout the film, I'm not going to give it away. I really wish I hadn't known anything about this film before I watched it, though knowing where it was headed really didn't dilute its impact. Suffice it to say, the denouement is genuinely disturbing on a number of levels and encourages a second viewing to take it all in.
As the ill-fated Elizabeth, Black turns in a remarkable, sympathetic performance. She is fully absorbed in this character, imbuing her with a delicate dignity that is slowly being diminished by weariness, poor choices, and bad luck. Plummer is excellent as Henderson, and the supporting cast of Canadian actors is impressive.
All due respect to Scorpion and Katarina, but I really wish a bit more care had been put into the technical presentation. While the film seems to be in its original aspect ratio—as opposed to the dreadful pan-and-scan versions that turned up on VHS two decades ago—it's not a great looking print. Much of the film is dark (as shot), but contrast is weak, plus there are a number of scratches and defects. It's not terrible, it's just not as pleasing an image as it could be. Audio is a clear mono track.
While the image might not be great, Scorpion gets props for including a meaningful supplement: a feature-length commentary with Karen Black and Mark Edward Heuck of TV's Beat the Geeks. Heuck, who obviously admires both the film and the actress, is all business and a fair wealth of information; Black is charmingly quirky, only sporadically remembering the production, but offering up observations of what's on screen. Since this is Katarina's Nightmare Theater, we also get intros and outros with host Katarina Leigh Waters, a trailer for The Pyx, and trailers for other Katarina releases.
A unique and chilling '70s obscurity, The Pyx is a terrific little film that well deserves rediscovery. Complex and disturbing, it's not your typical fright film. Don't let the less-than-outstanding tech scare you off, this one is definitely worth seeking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
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