The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM
WRITER: Screenplay by Denis Paoli
DIRECTOR: Stuart Gordon
STARRING: Lance Henriksen as Torquemada
Rona de Ricci as Maria
Jonathan Fuller as Antonio
Frances Bay as Esmerelda
Mark Margolis as Mendoza
Jeffrey Combs as Francisco
Stephen Lee as Gomez
Oliver Reed as The Cardinal
QUICK CUT: In 15th century Spain, amidst the Inquisition, a man and woman struggle to stay together, even though their love goes against the wishes of the church.
THE GUTS: Welcome back, Triskelions! This is it, Trisk's eighth anniversary! Eight years I've been doing this. And this year, I decided to take a look at a movie of many firsts for me, The Pit and the Pendulum. This is the 1991 Stuart Gordon version, and it was one of, if not my first Full Moon movie, alongside Puppet Master. It was probably my first Lance Henriksen movie. It was probably my first Jeffrey Combs movie. So yeah, this was a kinda important movie in young Jason's life. It also probably started me on the road of being anti-religion, but that's another rant for another day. But we take that trip a little bit here and there.
The movie takes place in Spain, while Columbus is stumbling into the Native Americans' backyard, and at the height of the Inquisition, led by Lance Torquemada. I actually feel kinda bad that I'm both not familiar with this historical period, or with the original Poe story. Because I SHOULD be familiar with the story at the very least, and I feel bad I can't really expound upon more than what's in front of me.
We open up on a sarcophagus being opened up as well, so the inquisitors can pull out a skeleton and charge him with crimes of heresy and witchcraft, which pass down to his descendants, alive today. Well, that sucks.
And OH, because of this, Skeletor's wealth, and the wealth of his heirs is stripped away and given to the church. NOW I get it, it's about the money and the power.
The skeleton also received a punishment of 20 lashes, and talk about literally beating a dead horse. After that, and some added anti-semitism, the bones are gathered up and ground into dust, then placed into a large hourlgass. I kinda like the symbolism of life and death and time there.
After the credits, we move on to meet a poor couple, Antonio and Maria, who are trying to make a living as they scrape by selling bread.
Maria doesn't really like this, since they're selling bread at the executions, and essentially making money off of people's suffering. But Antonio, well, he kinda likes to eat and have a roof over his head, and... I really sympathise with both viewpoints.
They do their thing, and have a bit of a scuffle with some thieves around the town square, but everything's okay. They try to leave after the excitement, but a guard stops them, accusing them of heresy if they leave, since all good Catholics should enjoy the punishment of evil.
While they're there, the Inquisition brings out the Contessa who lost everything when Skeletor was accused of heresy, and Maria very much wants to leave, or help, and of course that makes her the most Catholic person here, but I digress. They watch as the Contessa gets strangled, and then the Contessa's son comes out to watch, and Maria can't take any more, rushing over to help the child.
Antonio gets knocked down, and Maria begs Torquewrench for mercy and forgiveness, so they can go on their way. Ahahaha, that's not gonna happen.
Torquemada freaks out when she touches him, and demands she be arrested and charged with witchcraft, and urgh. It is so hard for me to not go off on an angry rant here, because this stuff pisses me off so much.
Antonio manages to live, and goes to see Torquemada, trying to explain that his wife is not a witch. Which is exactly what you would expect the husband of a witch to say!! And he gets kicked out.
Maria is brought in for examination, and of course it involves stripping away every last stitch of clothing, so the men can see every piece of flesh, and lord over her how much better they are.
They don't find anything, but the hypocrisy continues, as one of the guards pinches her hard, creating a mark they're looking for and OH LOOK, it's fading, it must be sorcery!! All these men SHOULD know better, so it's just going along to get rid of a troublemaker, and this is disgusting.
Maria is 'confirmed' to be a witch, and tossed in a cell with an old woman who IS an actual witch, and tries to help her.
While they hang out, Torquemada calls in one of his servants, a man he once had crucified, and left some wounds in his hands to prove it, so Mendoza can flog the man of god. Because the more religious folks always seem to be the kinkiest ones, and Torquemada is no different. He's got THOUGHTS about Maria rattling through his head, and he wants to make them go away through pain.
Outside, Antonio pays off Gomez, to sneak him into the castle so he can try and save Maria, with the help of a lot of gold. But Gomez is loyal, AND he gets all that gold from Antonio AND the church, so he turns Antonio in, just as he finds his love.
So now the church has two prisoners instead of one. Good plan, Antonio! That went well!
But now it's time for the torture, and Esmerelda gets tied down and waterboarded, to try and make her admit to being a witch.
Maria's good heart can't take any more of this, as they temporarily kill Esmerelda. The baker's wife cries out, yelling at the torturers, and Mendoza, drags her off to tie her down to the rack for speaking out.
As Maria gets a few turns on the rack, she hears Esme's voice in her head, and the men there think she's speaking with the devil. Well, devil adjacent, really.
Esme pulls Maria into a shared mental state, where they have some time free of the pain and suffering.
Torquemada hears the screams of Maria's torture, and rushes down to put a stop to it, because he's in love with her. Um, I mean, this is not the way things are done, and there's a process, and there is TOTALLY no corruption here.
She awakens to a literal sword of Damocles hanging over her, that Torquey likes to sleep under and see if today is his day to die, waiting for the thread to snap while he sleeps.
Torquemada tries to get her to confess, but she insists she's not a witch, because hey, she's not. So he takes her up to his special little spyhole above the torture lab, so she can watch as Antonio is being punished for...whatever she did. Which is nothing.
Once Antonio's life is on the line, Maria becomes willing to confess, just to save him, once again showing she's the best most purest person in this entire movie.
They tie him down to a metal chair with a hole in the bottom, under which they light a flame to slowly bake his potatoes. A literal hot seat, if you will.
Antonio is confident in his defiance amongst the flame, and I gotta give him credit for not once flinching or crying out. Maybe he's a little bewitched after all.
Gomez thinks something is wrong with the chair, and starts to unlock him to make sure it's burning everything okay. But they realise too late this is a dumb move, as Antonion uses it as a chance to escape.
Guards come rushing in, and Antonio does one hell of a job of fighting them off. Especially considering he's one poor baker who's likely malnourished, against an entire group of well trained soldiers.
Torquemada and Maria rush in, and now Antonio has a prisoner. He holds Torquemada at knife point, and uses him to try and get out of the castle with Maria.
He promises to show mercy if Antonio lets him go, and since he's a man of God and cannot lie, they agree...so immediately Torquemada activates a switch to drop some gates around the chamber, trapping the couple inside, and calling for guards to take them to their cells.
Because he's pretty capable of lying, and once again, church hypocrisy.
The grand inquisitor is called away, since a Cardinal from Rome has come on by to see how things are going. He also carries with him orders from the Pope that this whole torture thing is gonna stop.
But that's something Torquemada can't have, so offers the Cardinal a mug of amontillado and...seriously? Are we seriously gonna mix two Poe stories here?
Torquemada burns the orders, and tells his men that this is not someone from Rome, his seal is fake, he's a pack of lies and etc, before having them push the Cardinal into a hole in the wall that they start bricking up.
He retires to his chambers, where Maria is also hanging out, and she again tries to beg for Antonio's life, to confess to whatever, anything to save him.
Torquemada tries to comfort her, wrap her up in a robe, and lay her down to sleep under the sword. He crawls on top of her, ready to make love to her, and she asks God for help.
Of course, Torquel can't get it up, because his sexuality is so screwed up by the church, and repression, and torture, and pain, but his instinct is to blame the witch for ensorcelling him. So he gets angry and tries to strangle the woman.
And wouldn't you know it? The thread breaks, and the sword nearly kills him or them both. If that ain't a sign, I don't know what is.
But he takes it as a sign not to kill her, which is good, but he does grab a pair of scissors and cut her tongue out. Which, for something done off camera, is still disturbingly effective.
Maria is brought back to her cell, and Esmerelda sends her back to the Meadow to relax and heal without pain, and once her spirit is gone, uses the seemingly dead body to call for a guard and help.
Gomez tries to dispose of the body, which was all part of Esmerelda's plan, until Torquemada comes along to screw things up. He tells them she's not a witch, she confessed, and has her brought back into the castle for a proper burial. Once again furthering his hypocrisy over love.
He also uses the opportunity to blame the death on Esme, and has her up for being burned at the stake that night, to be done with her too.
They foolishly park the witch next to a cask of gunpowder, while they ready her fire, and she crams a bunch of it down her mouth. That's one way to go out with a bang.
Esmerelda is put to the flames, and she tosses curses all around, and I am disappointed we didn't get a big explosion.
But we do get some comeuppance on Torquemada, as his own tongue starts bleeding. Mmm, instant karma.
Esemerelda also calls out to wake up Maria, who is in for a bit of a surprise when she finds she's in a stone box.
Torquemada is repentant for 'accidentally' 'killing' Maria, and he prays for forgiveness at her tomb...but Mendoza overhears his hero confessing all his sins, and realises he is a liar and a hypocrite.
It's no surprise that Maria starts screaming her head off about being in a stone box, but the surprise is, no one hears her. Even Torquemada who is right next to it for just a few moments.
Meanwhile, Antonio is getting ready for his own punishment, before this movie ends. And hey, he's placed over a pit, with a swinging steel blade slowly lowering towards him! Finally!
Maria uses her mutant powers to call out to Antonio, so he knows she's not dead, despite what Torquemada claims, and it gives the baker hope.
On top of all this, rats are crawling all over Antonio, and all he wants them to do is chew the ropes...so of course they chew anything but. The pendulum has gotten dangerously close, slices one of the rats in half, and Antonio uses the half-rat to spread blood down his arm, to either make the ropes more slick to escape, or entice the rats. Or both.
The rats actually do their thing, just in time too, as the pendulum slices through Toni's shirt, before he moves out of the way.
Mendoza shows up to confront the Inquisitor on his lies, and they fight it out for a bit. As they struggle, Mendoza accidentally hits the lever to open the Pit part of this scenario, and Antonio ends up dangling by his feet over the spikes below. Damned if you do, damned if you don't...
Torquemada sees this, starts to close the Pit, but that manages to cut the rope around Antonio's feet, and he SOMEHOW flips around to grab the rim of the hole, and climb about before he gets chomped in half by the closing gate.
He's not about to let anyone escape, so rings te bell, bringing in guards, and just for more added fire, he pulls another lever and the floor starts spitting out fire. Excuse me, this is not The Pit and the Pendulum and Flames.
Antonino takes out the guards, rushes to the tombs, and bangs on the stone box Maria's trapped in, because I guess its the only one? Is there a guidebook, "Maria buried here"?
He bangs on the coffin, pushes the lid off, just in time for Torque and the Gang to show up. Which is when Maria rises up from her coffin to seek her revenge.
Y'know, she wasn't a witch when all this started, but because of the endless accusations, the church *created* a witch in her. Good going. Call someone something enough, and they start to believe it.
Meanwhile, Esemerelda's curse kicks in, calling forth all the people Torquemada tortured and killed, to come back and see revenge. And by 'all' we actually mean, 'the three people he killed in this movie, because we're on a budget'.
BUT we do get a cool scene of the time ashes putting themselves back together and Skeletor coming after him for the five seconds they can afford it.
Torquemada gets chased to his own Pit, and makes the mistake of sitting upon the closed gate, which is opened up by a barely alive Mendoza.
And then we have an incredibly hasty wrap up as Doctor Jeffrey Combs walks in and says basically, WELP the church has said no more torture, you're all free to go, seeya! It's literally like, "Eh, whatever, they're already walking out the door."
Video: Well, it's not great, and it's a little on the soft and washed out side, but it's about par for the course for direct to VHS content from 1990 or so. Being on a DVD does rather reveal how, aside from the castle location shoot, it does feel a little more low budget.
Audio: Perfectly suitable, with nothing to say about it.
Sound Bite: "Stop using torture?? How are we supposed to do our jobs?!" Gomez asking the important questions.
Body Count: A very light pile of bodies this week, but still respectable.
1 - Accused witch gets strangled in front of her son.
2 - The Cardinal gets Amontillado'd.
3 - Esemerelda is burned at the stake
4 - Torquemada himself falls into the pit.
5 - His assistant finally dies after everything he's been through.
Best Corpse: Can I pick the count, brought back as a skeleton?
Blood Type - D+: The effects for Mendoza's hand wounds are the highlights. There's a bit of blood here and there, but nothing too notable, save for a lot pouring from anyone's mouth when they lose a tongue.
Sex Appeal: You get naked Maria AND naked Torquemada!
Drink Up! Every time you get pissed off about church hypocrisy.
Video Nasties: The cask of amontillado nod is a fun scene, and has bonus Oliver Reed drifting through the movie.
Movie Review: This is a really solid movie. It's low budget, but it doesn't need a big budget to tell its story. Higher production values would've been good, but the story is there. It's a great bit of allegory about authority and power and corruption, and I found it just as relevant today as it was back then. The acting for the main characters is fine, and naturally Lance Henriksen shines. This really expands upon Poe's story, adding a love story to it, but it works. This is the sort of horror movie I love to see, because it has some good moments in it, and has something to say, and being one of my first Full Moon movies, it shows what they could have been capable of. Four out of five hourglasses.
Entertainment Value: But there's plenty of cheese around, since it's low budget. The secondary actors are a mix of character actors that do fine work, and probably local actors which will make you smile, but they try. There's a bit of camp, especially with the nod to Cask of Amontillado, and Lance is great, but isn't afraid to chew some scenery either. It's just an enjoyable bit of film, with all the ups and downs of a direct to video movie from 1990s. Cheap, but well made for its limitations, with some camp and sexiness thrown in. Four out of five half rats.