Review: The Pit and the Pendulum / Cert: 18 / Director: Stuart Gordon / Screenplay: Dennis Paoli / Starring: Lance Henriksen, Jeffrey Combs, Rona De Ricci, Jonathan Fuller, Mark Margolis / Release Date: Out Now
"What a day, what a day for an auto-de-fé!" to quote Leonard Bernstein. Based on the famous tale by Edgar Allan Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum is set in 15th century Toledo during the time of the Spanish Inquisition (based on an idea by mad monk Torquemada, here played by Lance Henriksen in a tufty latex bald-cap). In what has to count as one of the worst money-making schemes in history, humble baker Antonio (Fuller) comes up with the notion of selling bread to the crowds gathering for the public executions. But things go horribly wrong when his pretty young wife Maria (De Ricci) intercedes to stop a small boy from being flogged. She's seized and brought before Torquemada, who falls in lust, then accuses her of having cast a spell over him and has her hauled off to be tried as a witch. And, just put to the seal on a real bummer of a day, all of Antonio's loaves get trampled underfoot in the mayhem…
A modern film adaptation of the same premise would give you desaturated visuals and have the cast up to their knees in horse manure. This version, made in 1991, is brightly hued and everyone speaks with American accents, but it achieves its own kind of authenticity. The tone is set with a great opening scene wherein a dead nobleman is dragged from his tomb and posthumously found guilty of heresy. Torquemada rants at the withered cadaver, then sentences it to twenty lashes, a punishment that reduces it to a rubble of disarticulated bones. It's a convincing depiction of the lunacy of a dreadful epoch.
The screenplay by Dennis Paoli bursts with highly imaginative touches. Sentenced to burn at the stake for witchcraft, an old woman gobbles gunpowder in hopes it will shorten her agony and create a nasty surprise for the onlookers. Torquemada's chief thug Mendoza (Margolis) has stigmata on his hands where he was once crucified, and Torquemada plunges his fingers into the holes when he wants to make a point. Director Stuart Gordon drives the film along with unfussy skill, blending black comedy, melodrama, gory horror and rollicking adventure into a satisfying whole.
Starburst reviewed this movie, one of the jewels in Full Moon Features' crown, last year when it was re-released on DVD. Now it's finally made its way onto Blu-ray, and the upgrade confirms what a well-crafted piece of work it is. Hi-def brings out the fine grain and depth of field of the late Mac Ahlberg's EC Comics-inspired cinematography, and the genuinely luminous quality of De Ricci's performance as the much-abused Maria. The extras are the same as before with the addition of an interview with Gordon in which he tells amusing anecdotes about, among others, Oliver Reed (so drunk he couldn't stand up all weekend, sober as a deacon first thing on Monday).
Extras: Interview with Stuart Gordon / Videozone / Original Trailer