“Confessions are only admitted under torture, otherwise you might confess just to avoid torture and it wouldn’t be a true confession.”
Stuart Gordon’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM opens with Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (Lance Henriksen, STONE COLD) and his Spanish Inquisition goons pulling a dead body out of a coffin, convicting him of heresy and giving him 20 lashes, which busts him apart until he’s a pile of bones. The man’s family watch, outraged, while a bunch of other rich people smile to themselves and lick their lips. Torquemada crushes the dead man’s skull into powder and uses it to fill an hourglass. That’s all before the credits start.
So, this movie is not fuckin around. And you guys know how I feel about a movie that’s not fuckin around. (Usually positive.)
Even still, it kinda snuck up on me. It’s a Full Moon production, and they’re doing a period piece (Spain, 1492) in the one castle they have access to, lots of fake looking wigs, some actors delivering their lines in a modern tone, some not. And then there’s a shitty looking font on the credits and they still couldn’t bother to change the title (it calls it THE INQUISITOR). And as it gets into the plot about a woman falsely accused by the Spanish Inquisition it seems like it’s gonna be mostly sitting through gruesome torture scenes: public whipping, burning at the stake, some citizens enjoying it, others being forced to watch, people tied to racks, screaming, getting slashed and/or sexually humiliated. But that’s just the fuel to a story that really comes together, a nice amalgam of Edgar Allan Poe ideas, adventure and most of all an extreme caricature of the type of hypocrites who stand in judgment of others to hide their own faults. Gordon worked in theater for years before RE-ANIMATOR made him a Master of Horror, and I imagine this is alot like one of his plays.
Maria (Rona De Ricci) is arrested for suspicion of witchcraft because she yelled “Have mercy!” and tried to stop soldiers from beating a child. She’s brought in before Torquemada, who has them strip her naked. We can see that he’s a true believer and his men are not; he bows his head, ashamed of himself for looking at her body, and later has himself whipped as punishment. The others just leer at her. He seems to really think there are signs of witchcraft to look for, they give her a bruise and pretend it appeared there magically. It’s Abu Ghraib disguised as church.
But, you know, you can say you’re against torture, but what if you knew the person was involved in witchcraft and you only had 24 hours to stop a spell from going off in a major American city? Then wouldn’t you be okay with it? Don’t be naive.
Gordon’s first brilliant stroke is dressing a bunch of great b-movie villains in holy robes to point fingers at everyone else’s alleged sins. In addition to Henriksen you get Jeffrey Combs (RE-ANIMATOR) and Tom Towles (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER). They don’t have William Forsythe or Henry Silva, but they do have Oliver Reed in a special appearance as a Cardinal delivering a message from Rome. He’s a drunk, but he’s actually trying to stop all the torturing. For his efforts they wall him up without so much as a cask of Amontillado. (They do have it on tap, though, so he gets to drink a couple mugs of it.)
The book Not Bad For a Human by Lance Henriksen and Joseph Maddrey says that Henriksen got a little too into the role, wearing a hair shirt, living off only bread and water and staying in character at all times, even though he considered Torquemada “worse than Hitler” and was angry at the Vatican for never excommunicating him. Then when Oliver Reed showed up to film his scene they climbed the castle while drunk on ten bottles of wine. Henriksen thinks Gordon was trying to make a comedy and that he ruined it by taking the role so seriously; Gordon thinks the performance makes the movie, and admits that everyone on set was genuinely scared of him.
His Torquemada is a weird masochist with a bizarre haircut, more sincere than the others about believing he’s doing God’s work, but it’s not much help because he’s also crazier than them. It’s a dangerous team of crazy fundamentalists and sickos who will “when in Rome” if there’s a window. Torquemada has a sword hanging from a thread above his bed because he believes it would fall on him if God disapproved of him. It’s clear that much of his horribleness comes from sexual repression. He tries to play his lust for her as a reason to investigate her. He nearly rapes her and tries to pretend it’s a religious ritual. When he can’t get it up he calls her a whore, then (SPOILER) cuts out her tongue!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Presbyterian church I went to as a kid ran a food bank. They wanted to help people, not judge them. You can do better than this, religion.
As you may know, I am interested in the portrayal of witch hunts in movies, because I think it’s really tasteless to portray an actual historical atrocity as if the perpetrators were right. This one is unambiguously anti-Inquisition, the witch hunters are the bad guys and the heroes are the hunted, so I have no problem with it’s treatment of witchcraft as a real or sort of real thing. We find this out through Esmeralda (Frances Bay, CRITTERS 3, THE KARATE KID PART III), Maria’s dungeon cellmate who actually is a witch, but her lifestyle seems to be mostly a combination of natural remedies and little tricks, or “life hacks” as a clickbait peddler would write in a headline and then NOT have to face the Inquisition despite clearly greater crimes than this poor woman ever committed. She does have some actual magic though because she’s able to speak telepathically and/or beyond the grave or something.
Anyway, when she tells Maria “You don’t need to have a tongue to have a voice!” Esmeralda it’s pretty badass even though she’s talking about magic shit, not taking action. And it’s okay that there’s some supernatural in there, because it turns into a real Poe-out at the end, bad people being tormented by apparitions of those they wronged. Ghostly comeuppance.
To me the only serious weakness of the movie is that Maria’s baker husband Antonio (Jonathan Fuller, BLOODFIST VI: GROUND ZERO) is not all that compelling to me. He should be awesome because he’s doing cool things like escaping a fire torture by masking the pain, laughing about it not being hot enough, then running through the castle swashbuckling all the guards with a big ladle. Luckily the focus is more on Maria, even though he’s the dude on the rescue mission who most movies would center around.
As shit starts to go south these pricks all turn on each other. When it seems like Maria has died from blood loss, the men are thrilled that this could be the end of Torquemada, except they’re scared to tell him he did it. Speaking of rats cannibalizing each other, there is a pretty spectacular gross out moment while Antonio is tied up above a pit with a big blade swinging back and forth over him OH MY GOD THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and he’s being munched on by a swarm of rats. One of the rats gets sliced by the pendulum so he grabs the corpse and squooshes the guts all over the rope on his wrists so that the other rats will chew it. In Poe’s story he uses meat that was left for him as a meal, but this Torquemada would never leave this guy a meal. Also, this is the director of RE-ANIMATOR, people are gonna be disappointed if there’s not a real disgusting part.
There are also nuanced parts. There’s an interesting moment at the end (obviously this is a SPOILER): Combs’ character insists on letting Maria go, because previously Torquemada told him (in covering his own ass) that she was innocent. I don’t know if he’s trying to follow the letter of the law, or if he actually wants to do the right thing in this case, but it would be a corny stick it to the man moment if he wasn’t part of such atrocities. It doesn’t absolve him of what he’s done, but sometimes we have to count on bad people from within the system growing a conscience, or doing the right thing by accident.
Mendoza (Mark Margolis, SCARFACE, DELTA FORCE 2) is an interesting character too, a scary Billy Drago looking torturer, but he started as an innocent victim himself, so he always seems to be teetering between irredeemable broken person and potential rebel.
I should never underestimate Gordon, but there is more cool stuff that happens in this movie than I expected. This is another SPOILER because it’s the best thing that happens, but in case you’re not sold I will mention it. When Esmeralda is burnt at the stake she wants to avenge the scumbags who are cheering on her execution, so she eats a bunch of gun powder and yells out a curse to them. When she burns she explodes and her bones impale them like shrapnel! I fucking love science!
This one is done in 1991, Gordon’s movie before FORTRESS. The screenplay is by Gordon’s collaborator going back to the theater days, Dennis Paoli (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, GHOULIES II).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.