THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991)
LABEL: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
REGION CODE: 1 NTSC
DURATON: 97 mins
VIDEO: Fullscreen (1.33:1)
AUDIO: English Dolby Digital Stereo
DIRECTOR: Stuart Gordon
CAST: Lance Henriksen, Rona De Ricci, Jonathan Fuller, Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towels, Stephen Lee, Frances Bay, Oliver Reed
TAGLINE: A Bizarre Descent Into Hell from the Creator of Re-Animator
In the year 1492 the Spanish Inquisition is in full swing under the unrelenting direction of Torquemada (Lance Henriksen, NEAR DARK). Old Torque is the Grand Inquisitor of Spain and he's reaping a swath of terror forcing tortured confessions from suspected blasphemers by the thousands. A sweet pre-credit sequence bares witness to the outrageous act of Torquemada unearthing the dried up corpse of a blasphemer and whipping the withered carcass until it falls to pieces. The bones are then ground into fine dust and placed into an over-sized hour glass. It's over-the-top, and while you're recovering from that nasty bit of business cue a pretty fantastic Richard Band (TERRORVISION, RE-ANIMATOR) score and prepare for some dark and lurid religious persecution from Charles Band's Full Moon Entertainment and the 80's Master of Horror Stuart Gordon
A simple baker named Antonio (Jonathan Fuller, CASTLE FREAK) and his amorous young wife Maria (Rona De Ricci) make their way to the city center to sell their bread when they come upon a boisterous crowd gathered to witness the auto de fe, the whipping of a suspected witch. When the woman's son is brought forth to be punished Maria cannot bare to remain silent and speaks out against the cruelty of the Church which raises the ire of the Inquisitor and his priests, she is falsely accused of witchcraft and imprisoned.
When brought before the Inquisitor she is stripped nude, humiliated and searched for the "devil's mark", when none are found one is imagined, 'natch. During the examination Torquemada is overwhelmed with lustful desire for the young woman, naturally, she's quite stunning. Par for the course for the overly pious he cannot own up to his own sinful desires and assumes the attraction is the result of witchcraft, his lust proving to be her damnation. She's tossed in a prison cell alongside an old woman named Esmeralda played by Frances Bay (WILD AT HEART) who is one of the greatest old lady actresses you will ever see, right up there with Cloris Leachman (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN). The hag just so happens to be a confessed witch though more of the Wicca variety than the eye of newt cauldron boiler.
Antonio desperate to rescue the woman he loves infiltrates the impenetrable castle walls with the help of Torquemada's henchmen Gomez (Stephen Lee, DOLLS) only to be betrayed, imprisoned and tortured before his wife's eyes in an attempt to force her own confession. The torture in the film is pretty effective, we have water torture, the rack, whippings, impalement and a new contraption that Torquemada unleashes upon Antonio which gives the film it's name, a spike-laden pit and the razor sharp pendulum.
Torquemada as played by Henriksen is a tortured soul who is truly a sight to behold with his skull cap and craggy face really cranking up the inner turmoil of a man in service to the Lord who is so clearly corrupted by desires of the flesh. Henriksen throws in just the right amount of camp into the performance, it's a thin line but he really sells it without teetering off the deep end, great stuff. Also putting forth great performances are Jonathan Fuller as the desperate husband and Stuart Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs (CASTLE FREAK, FROM BEYOND) as Torquemada's snivelling records keeper who logs confessions into a ledger, it's not a huge part but his presence throughout the film was appreciated.
The cash-strapped production makes great use of an existing centuries old castle. Obviously a film of limited means the set design and decoration is sparse but effective. The interiors are dark, dank, full of cobwebs and skeletal remains which really amp up the atmosphere as does the great period costuming.
There's a chance gore-fiends may be disappointed that the grue is not in abundance but Stuart Gordon, whose known for some classic splatter in film like the RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, applies his touch effectively and with moderation using low-budget techniques to great effect. Even without rampant bloodletting the torture scenes made me squirm in my seat, when the water torture is applied to a victim the gurgled choking sounds brought up the goose flesh on my neck as did Torquemada jamming his index fingers through the fresh crucifixion wounds of another and twisting.
The one aspect of the film that didn't work for me was the witch Esmeralda training Maria to tap into her inner-power - whatever that is, which more fully emerges during the film's finale. It felt under developed and just didn't work for me but it's not ruinous to the film either, so no harm no foul. Two scenes that completely knocked my socks off were the final confrontation between Torquemada and Antonio, it's action-packed, tense and full of blood-thirsty rats plus the titular pit and pendulum, of course. On par with that is Esmeralda's death scene as she is carted off the be burned at the stake she consumes mass quantities of gunpowder from a keg that conveniently just happens to be nearby. She stuffs herself with the combustible powder and when she's burning alive at the stake cursing the gathered onlookers she explodes, injuring dozens with bone-shrapnel, brilliant.
DVD: Full Moon Entertainment have a long history of poor DVD presentation and this Echo Bridge Entertainment licensed release will do little to dissuade that perception. While advertised widescreen on the DVD case it is in fact a fullframe presentation and likely the same master from the previous OOP DVD edition. It's a dirty washed out print on par with a VHS release cursed with rampant noise and compression issues, very shallow with no depth and fuzziness in lieu of fine detail. Audio consists of English language Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo that likewise is unremarkable in all respects with no subtitles. While the audio and PQ leaves much to be desired I'm pleased to see the film back on DVD and in the hands of fans. A nifty bonus is that the film comes with a digital copy that can be played on mp3 device and PC's.
VERDICT: Easily one of the finest films in the Full Moon canon with a juicy performance from Lance Henriksen who tears it up as the twisted Inquisitor, this may just be my favorite Henriksen film and should it be mentioned in the same breath as NEAR DARK and ALIENS in my opinion. I give this a high recommend, a must-own. With THE PUPPET MASTER and SUBSPECIES making their way to Blu-ray I would love to see THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM get an brand new restored 1080p HD upgrade. Charles Band, if you're reading this please make it happen.