Welcome to another installment of Netflix Roulette. This time, our random number generator comes up 19 and 14, which corresponds to Stuart Gordon's 1991 version of The Pit and the Pendulum.
The Pit and the Pendulum reassembles Gordon's frequent collaborators Dennis Paoli and Jeffrey Combs for a Gothic romp through Poe. This film marks the beginning of Gordon's long exile in Spain, which lends the film a certain European feeling appropriate to the story. The film is dominated by Lance Henriksen's lead performance as Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. It's animated by an antic gallows humor. But all of these elements are in the service of a cheapjack Full Moon production. It's an uneasy mix, which keeps it from being as iconic a horror movie as, say, Corman's version. The movie languished on home video, where it was originally released. I'm not entirely sure it deserves its obscurity, but it certainly goes out of its way to earn it.
The opening of the film is magnificent, though, in which Henriksen's Toquemada exhumes a body in order to condemn it as a heretic. He promptly has the skeletal remains flogged. That right there is the movie in a nutshell and if the movie consisted only of its pre-credit sequence, or if the rest were worthy of it, it would be very good indeed. Hell, if the movie let Henriksen hold the screen for most of its runtime, it would be very good. But it doesn't. The movie is populated with a supporting cast who execute the film's comedy with all the panache of a sitcom. This, unfortunately, includes Combs as the twitchy inquisitorial clerk and Stephen Lee as the lead turnkey in the dungeons. The movie also tends to eschew mood; it's entirely too well-lit for being set in a dungeon. There's also some supernatural hugger mugger that seems wholly out of place, but that's a matter of taste, I guess.
Still, there's a lot to recommend. Henriksen is THAT good as a version of Torquemada who is inspired by Victor Hugo's Frollo. The plot of the movie concerns his lust for a young baker's wife (Rona De Ricci), who haunts his dreams. The baker plunges into the dungeons of the inquisition and winds up faced with the title horror. The film takes a few detours along the way, including the mystical education of the baker's wife at the hands of a chatty witch and a short excursion into "The Cask of Amontillado," with Oliver Reed in role of Fortunato. This last reminds me of the Corman films, actually, because they often included secondary stories to pad their length. Some of the small touches are good, too, like the hourglass that has sand made from ground up human bones and Torquemada's choice of bedroom decor (he sleeps under a sword of Damocles). The film's best line comes after Torquemada has cut out Maria's tongue: Combs disclaims the act with "How can they confess if they don't have tongues?" The film's best moment comes when Esmerelda the Witch, having ingested a bunch of gunpowder, explodes on the stake. I also appreciate the inclusion of Poe's solution to escaping from the pit. Love the rats.
So a mixed bag, all told, and pretty good as Full Moon productions go. It's certainly fun in fits and starts. But it's disappointing from the man who directed Re-Animator. It should be so much better than it is.