The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)

Starring Lance Henriksen, Rona De Ricci, Jonathan Fuller, Stephen Lee, Frances Bay, Jeffrey Combs, Oliver Reed

Directed by Stuart Gordon

Expectations: Low. For whatever reason, my enjoyment of the previous Stuart Gordon films didn’t pump me up for this at all. I just had this overwhelming sense that it would be stupid for some reason.


Wow! It’s a state of shock and awe over here at the Silver household, as I am floored at the level of sheer awesome on display in The Pit and the Pendulum. I went into this film thinking absolutely nothing about it. I’ve enjoyed every Stuart Gordon film I’ve seen so far, but I’d never heard anyone talk about this one, so I suppose subconsciously I assumed it was shit. That couldn’t be further from the truth though as The Pit and the Pendulum is one of the most engrossing, tense movies to ever come out of Full Moon Entertainment.

The opening scene is one of the more over-the-top moments and what I thought was setting the tone. A skeleton is exhumed from its grave on charges of heresy and witchcraft and sentenced to twenty lashes. You read that right, a skeleton was sentenced to twenty lashes. They string up the rotting husk of a man (an arm falling off in the process) and then the lasher smashes the skeleton into pieces with twenty harsh lashes. The lashes have to be especially vigorous in order to exact religious cleansing from beyond the great void. Anyway, after his twenty have been served, they collect the pieces and then grind them into a fine dust with a massive mortar and pestle. The resulting ashes are poured into an hourglass, which comes to rest on the desk of the man behind all of this and the main villain of the film, the Grand Inquisitor himself, Torquemada (Lance Henriksen).

This wildly fun intro set me up for a fun romp through the Spanish Inquisition, but after the credits it takes a slight turn. Gordon introduces us to our main heroes, the husband and wife bakers, Antonio (Jonathan Fuller) and Maria (Rona De Ricci). It is their struggles and pain that makes up the emotional weight of the film. The bakers set out into the town square to sell their bread one day. A couple of rotten kids steal some bread and knock them over, so Antonio and Maria give chase. Before they get very far though, they are stampeded by a crowd of people. Antonio and Maria are forced to go with the flow of traffic and end up in the town square where the church is holding a witch burning. Maria cannot contain her contempt for the act and voices her disapproval. She is beaten, labeled as a witch and arrested. Jonathan is knocked out in the process, and when he awakes hours later, he starts his quest to free his loving wife.

Poe purists will no doubt scoff, but addition of a love story actually works because of the dedication by the actors to the material. I’m willing to forgive almost any story change or addition if it is cinematic and carried out well. There’s even a bit from Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado that worked perfectly and only added to the characterization and the fun of the picture. The love story is at times reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so the film takes on a “classic tales melting pot” vibe that ends up being super fun and enjoyable.

The acting throughout is good and definitely a step above most Charles Band productions and B-movies in general for that matter. Lance Henriksen is wonderfully over-the-top in a role that requires nothing less. He plays Torquemada as a mad, power-hungry zealot who impresses scene after scene. Portraying self-mutilation long before The Da Vinci Code was a poorly written best seller, Henriksen sears his character into your brain folds, leaving indelible marks that may never be cured or erased. Consider the scene when he removes a spiked self-mutilation belt from his torso, revealing deep bloody sores, and asks a servant to whip him as he kneels before a painting of the virgin Mary. During the whipping, the painting transforms into Maria, clothed as the religious figure, perfectly illustrating the tortured, twisted thought process of Torquemada.

Upon first glance this isn’t anything like Gordon’s previous films. It is surprisingly restrained in its use of gore and doesn’t feature the trademark descent into depraved celluloid madness that films like Re-Animator or From Beyond revel in. Upon more careful examination though, The Pit and the Pendulum does follow a similar formula, instead trading the ramp-up in gore with a ramp-up in tension, with multiple layers of cross-cut story all hitting at the same moments. Masterful editing between the scenes and within them, continues to amp up the stakes and the suspense, resulting in one hell of a final act. The pendulum scene is genuinely scary and it actually had me biting my knuckles and got a jump out me at one point. I can’t even remember the last time I did that at home. Needless to say, I was thoroughly enthralled with this film.

Jeffrey Combs also has a small role!

The more I think about it, the better this film gets. Perfectly paced and edited, The Pit and the Pendulum is an excellent film filled with most everything you’d expect from a Stuart Gordon movie set during the Spanish Inquisition. Along with Tromeo and Juliet, this is an absolutely fantastic B-movie adaptation of a classic work. It’s not as faithful as the Troma picture, but it pays off just as much. Calling it a great B-movie adaptation is selling the film short though. It’s a damn good adaptation for any level of movie and shouldn’t be overlooked by mainstreamers. Give it a chance!

Come back on Monday when Uncle Jasper oozes into the first review of the Shaw Bros. Horror week with a review of Danny Lee in The Oily Maniac!