JUNE 11, 2010
As I mentioned in my Prison review, there was a time where Empire/Full Moon used to put effort (and money) into their releases, something that might seem absurd to a generation who grew up from the mid 90s on, where anything with Charles Band's name attached was a signifier of crap effects, horrid production value, and an endless parade of sequels to movies that weren't good to begin with. And if a list of their films via the "company credits" section of the IMDb is any indication, Stuart Gordon's The Pit And The Pendulum seems to be the last of their quality films (with the possible exception of Gordon's Castle Freak), because pretty much everything that came after had the words "Puppet", "Demonic", or "Evil Bong" in their titles.
Right off the bat you can tell it's not your average Full Moon movie. While Jeffrey Combs has certainly been in several, Lance Henriksen was still appearing regularly in big budget Hollywood productions at that time, and I'm still pretty impressed that they snagged Oliver Reed for a role, even if it only amounted to about a minute's worth of screen time. And the rest of the cast is filled with capable actors and actresses, instead of folks that Band plucked off Santa Monica Blvd after hours as he seemingly does nowadays.
Production value is also high. The period setting never came off as phony, and shooting in Italy as opposed to a studio set in Chatsworth can do wonders for getting your story across. It's also got some beautiful frescoes all around the castle (probably already there, but either way they look great) - it's not often you see great art in a horror movie not involving Clive Barker. And this was before CGI (and even further before the cheap, awful CGI that Band uses), so when a guy needs rats to crawl all over him, then real rats climb all over him; when someone explodes, it's an actual explosion, not a swirling mass of orange pixels and motion blur filters. The only thing that looked like crap was the blood, which had that "melted pink crayon" (Savini's description) look to it at times.
Luckily there's not a lot of blood. This seems to be one of those films that's called horror because nothing else would apply. It's not particularly scary, and it's based on true events (the Inquisition), and it's not until the titular device is employed that anything sort of harrowing occurs. The rest of the film is basically Lance and his cronies asking people if they are witches, and jailing them if they are or torturing them if they "lie" and say they aren't. Meanwhile, a guy wants to rescue his wife, who Lance has taken in because she was a suspecting witch, but kept around because she's cute and has a terrific body, something even the chaste and pure Lance can't ignore. That's pretty much it. They add in some elements from other Poe stories ("Amontillado", a bit of "Masque of the Red Death" as the plague is mentioned) to flesh it out, but it cannot completely mask the fact that the film has a lot of dead air and repetition.
I also wasn't big on the overly happy ending. Not that I wanted everyone to die, but our lovers are reunited, and then Combs, who has been the most dickish inquisitor in the entire film, waltzes into the scene and lets them and everyone else go free. And Richard Band opted to rip off Silvestri's score for The Abyss here, so the whole thing is oddly uplifting and cheerful; it makes the ending of Scream 3 (or other "franchise concluding" sequels) look like a downer in comparison.
On the other hand, Lance's final scenes are a delight, and after yesterday's Horror Show, I was happy to see him in his element again. He once again bared his chest (OK Lance, you were in good shape for a 50 year old, we get it), but otherwise it's a treat for his fans as he runs around in his robe, shouting and putting dudes in torture machines and smashing vases (for him to kneel on while he is administered a flogging of his own request). It's vintage Henriksen, and probably one of the roles that proved he could carry a show like Millenium - even as the antagonist of the film, he's still compelling and even somewhat sympathetic at times. It's those gray areas that he excelled at in his prime, and even though he's an outright villain, Lance brings a humanity to him where lesser actors would have turned it into a cartoon.
One thing about the pendulum scene - how the hell does it work? When they did a pendulum in one of the Saws, they showed that it would lower itself a notch after every couple of swings, but here we never see the mechanism. You'd think that given the thin nature of the story (and the fact that the pendulum is the goddamn center of it) that they would take a lot of time building up to it by showing every nook and cranny of its design, but nope. It just keeps lowering arbitrarily, and I just cannot figure out how it continually lowers. Is the rope its attached to on some sort of wench that unwinds due to the friction/pull of the swing? Best I can come up with anyway (besides a Saw-like notch mechanism).
I should talk more about Uncle Stu, who I feel is sort of under-appreciated (probably largely due to the fact that few of his films ever received wide releases), as he should be mentioned more often in the same breath as Carpenter, Craven, and Romero. Like Carpenter, he has explored other genres with ease - sci-fi (Fortress, Space Truckers), crime (King of the Ants, Edmond), even a family comedy (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, and he also worked on the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids movie and TV show), though the bulk of his oeuvre is horror, and he's never made an outright stinker like many of his fellow Masters have. This is probably my least favorite of his films (though I haven't seen them all - can't imagine I'll be a big fan of the Ice Cream thing) and even it isn't all that bad, just a bit overlong and under-developed. And if you haven't seen his Poe play "Nevermore" (with Combs), then you're missing out on an instant classic. I hope he gets back behind the camera again soon, but even if not, he's happy with what he's doing and not just collecting easy paychecks, which is remarkable for a guy in his 60s.
As I watched this on Netflix, I did not have access to the Full Moon VideoZone. I will have to take Band's (probable) word that the upcoming Full Moon slate of 1992 is "exciting".
What say you?