DVD Review: The Pit and the Pendulum / Cert: 18 / Director: Stuart Gordon / Screenplay: Dennis Paoli / Starring: Lance Henriksen, Jeffrey Combs, Rona De Ricci / Release Date: Out Now
The Pit and the Pendulum (based on the famous tale by Edgar Allen Poe) 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 what has to count as one of the worst money-making schemes in history, humble baker Antonio (Jonathan Fuller) comes up with the notion of selling bread to the crowds gathering for the auto-da-fé. But things go horribly wrong when his pretty young wife Maria (Rona 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 to put the seal on a real bummer of a day, all of Antonio's loaves get trampled underfoot in the mayhem…
A modern film adaptation would use grainy, desaturated stock, and have everyone up their knees in horse manure. But this version, made in 1991, goes with bright, colourful costumes and the clean-looking cinematography of Adolfo Bartoli, and everyone speaks in American accents. For this reason, it might at first glance seem a little dated and naïve, but in fact it manages 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 (who wrote many excellent scripts for Charles Band's Full Moon Features) bursts with highly imaginative touches. Sentenced to burn at the stake for witchcraft, an old woman gobbles gunpowder in the hope it will shorten her agony. Torquemada's chief thug Mendoza (Mark 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.
Henriksen plays the sadistic friar in a latex bald-cap narrowly fringed with hair, a tuft of bristles in the centre of his forehead, his eyes wildly dilated, his hands groping and jumping like snakes – a monster of twisted appetites. You have to go back to Jacobean tragedy to find a heroine more sorely abused than Maria, and Rona De Ricci's performance radiantly combines outward vulnerability with inward resolve (it's astonishing that IMDb lists only two credits for this accomplished actress). Director Stuart Gordon drives the film along with unfussy skill, blending together black comedy, melodrama, gory horror and rollicking adventure into a satisfying whole. When you compare it with dreariness and repetition of so much modern horror, The Pit and the Pendulum only seems to get better with age, more entertaining, more energetic and more full of ideas. It's definitely worth swinging by the shops for a copy.
Special Features: None