Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Bloody Pit of Horror

There's no denying it — the dreaded Drive-In Horror Movie Syndrome has seized me in its unbreakable clutches and forced me, against my will, to sit, watch, and revel in the delight of yet another monstrous melodrama from those far-off days of cinematic yore. In my recent review of Goké, Body Snatcher From Hell, I mentioned The Bloody Pit of Horror, which comprised the second half of the double bill that came round to the 220 Drive-In Theater in Martinsville, VA, sometime in 1977. I was 17 or 18 years old at the time, when horror double features were still a mainstay of the outdoor theater circuit. For me, Goké was an unsettling, jaw-dropping, mind-blowing experience; after that, The Bloody Pit was just another romp through the hallowed halls of cheap, garish horror. It's a 1965 Italian offering, made on a shoestring budget, ostensibly based on the works of the Marquis de Sade. It stars Mickey Hargitay (former Mr. Universe, husband of Jayne Mansfield, and father of Mariska Hargitay, of Law & Order SVU fame; Walter Brandi; Luisa Baratto; Alfredo Rizzo; Barbara Nelli; Moa Tahi; Femi Benussi; and Ralph Zucker (I bet you know all these folks on sight, right?). It's about a book publisher and his crew who visit what they believe to be a deserted castle in the remote Italian countryside, which they intend to use as the backdrop for bunch of cover photographs featuring scantily clad models in various S & M poses, complete with authentic medieval torture devices.

Little do these lovely people know the castle is actually inhabited by a retired, reclusive actor named Travis Anderson (Hargitay), who loathes trespassers. He orders them to depart, but then he recognizes one of the girls, whose name is Edith (Luisa Baratto), and his attitude abruptly changes. He apologizes for his rudeness and permits the crew to remain. Their good fortune, however, turns to the ultimate misfortune, for Travis believes he is the reincarnation of the Crimson Executioner, a 17th-century master of torture and death who was himself executed for his crimes against humanity, and he wastes no time demonstrating his affinity for antisocial behavior. His first victim is Perry (Nando Angelini), one of the models, who is bound on a "Pit and the Pendulum"–style killing device, which, despite the crew's "modification," actually works as it was originally intended. However, rather than flee from the castle and alert the authorities, boss publisher Max (Alfredo Rizzo) demands that work on their project continue. Before long, we have several more murder victims — one stabbed to death in a version of an Iron Maiden, another having his spine snapped, another getting an arrow through the neck. Edith reveals to photographer Rick (Walter Brandi) that she was once engaged to Travis, who was a muscle man in costume films and was, by her claim, "a little weird."
Finding the castle has been sealed off, the surviving crew members begin looking for ways to escape. In the process, Rick finds model Kinojo (Moa Tahi) shackled in an elaborate, gigantic spiderweb and menaced by a mechanical spider, whose fangs have been designed to inject poison. Although the web is rigged to release arrows at anyone who attempts to make his way past it, Rick valiantly endeavors to rescue Kinojo. He avoids tripping any arrows, but he is an instant too late to save the girl. The spider "bites" her, and she dies instantly.
Rick's attempt to save Kinojo proves a crucial diversion, for Travis now grabs Edith and takes her to the dungeons below the castle, which once belonged to the original Crimson Executioner himself. The rest of the survivors have also been rounded up here, and Travis begins to gleefully torture each one of them — one on the rack, another made to endure Chinese water torture, another scalded by boiling oil. Travis reserves the worst for Max, who is trapped inside a metal cage and burned alive. Travis chains Edith to a device that is something of an inverse of the Brazen Bull — the victim being bound atop the bull while a fire is lit inside it. But before the executioner can finish off his former fiancée, Rick appears and engages Travis in a physical fight. He is hopelessly outmatched, but in a stunning display of brains over brawn, Rick maneuvers himself behind a mannequin with lethal spikes protruding from its torso, and in his zeal to attack, Travis impales himself, thus ending, once and for all, the Crimson Executioner's reign of terror.

For a movie that, on the surface, appears to be little more than a vehicle for one gory death after another, very little graphic violence actually makes its way to the screen — most of it is merely suggested, taking place off-camera, or achieved with props so unconvincing you wonder the actors didn't cackle themselves themselves to death. Budgetary constraints allowed for little alternative, and in fairness, some of the scenes, such as the spiderweb torture chamber, manage some degree of amusing novelty. By never taking itself very seriously, The Bloody Pit of Horror, for all its depictions of depravity, by today's standards comes across as pretty good-natured. The cast members, most of whom act about as well as I do on a bender, appear to be having a fine time for the camera, which I hope is true, since they couldn't have been paid very much for this project. Mickey Hargitay, with his cinema strong man status, couldn't be much more apt for the role of a madman consumed by vanity and psychotic cruelty. He plays the part with real enthusiasm, fittingly garbed in wrestler's tights and theatrical executioner's mask.

If there's anything about this movie I really love, it's the music score by Gino Peguri. It's so very Italian and so very 1960s — lyrical, lounge-lizard music worthy of Martin Denny or Les Baxter. With its bossa nova beat, cooing female vocalist, and warbling organ, the frequently used main theme is so serene that its contrast with the mock violence on-screen is almost surreal — kind of like getting a gentle neck massage while your house is collapsing around you.

The Something Weird Video DVD, which I rented from Netflix, features several deleted scenes, which provide a little extra fun; in fact, it's quite a shame they were deleted to begin with. One of them addresses perhaps the most inexplicable moment in the movie: Max's adamant refusal to stop work and call the authorities after the first violent death. It's pretty lame, but even that is an improvement on the scene as it stands. Model and first murder victim Perry (Nando Angelini), who mostly runs around the set dressed in a skeleton costume, gets a bit more screen time than in the final cut, and he appears to be having the best time of anyone on the set. For the deleted scenes alone, I recommend the Something Weird Video DVD release over other options, though the movie can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube for free.

Without question, The Bloody Pit of Horror is one bloody bad pit but a pretty good hoot, so it is absolutely spot-on for satiating the most fearsome hunger pangs brought on by the dreaded Drive-In Horror Movie Syndrome. If you happen start feeling them yourself, do check out this movie.

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