By this point in his career, director Stuart Gordon had already tackled H.P. Lovecraft with his adaptations of Re-Animator and From Beyond, and so with The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), he moved on to Edgar Allan Poe.
As he did with those Lovecraft works, Gordon handles the material with splatter gore and black humor. The Pit and the Pendulum is both gruesome and funny in a deadpan, cheeky sort of way. The approach is not as successful as those other movies, but a central performance by Lance Henriksen carries the film through.
Spain. 1492. The Inquisition under Torquemada (Henriksen) is in full swing (hee hee). During the auto-de-fe, Maria (Rona De Ricci) is aghast at the cruelty on display and begs for the violence to stop when a young child is whipped. Torquemada becomes entranced with her and orders her arrested as a witch. She's taken to the castle dungeon for torture while her husband Antonio (Jonathan Fuller), a baker and former soldier, tries to rescue her.
Well, nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, but viewers of The Pit and the Pendulum can expect a cavalcade of atrocities: the iron maiden, the rack, floggings, burnings at the stake, a tongue is cut out, and Torquemada wears a spiked corset. The spikes are pointed in. It's as bloody and ghastly as you'd expect a movie about the Inquisition to be.
The dark humor goes beyond the dialogue. In the opening, Torquemada declares a dead count a heretic and orders his family's property confiscated by the Church and that he receive twenty lashes. The dead man is a dusty skeleton, and in tying him up for the lashings, the torturers accidentally pull his arm off. When the man with the cat o' nine tails gets a little too carried away, he is scolded for exceeding twenty. Yes, we'll steal this man's property, desecrate his body in front of his wife and child, but God forbid we fail to follow procedure.
The Pit and the Pendulum moves at a quick pace and is never boring, but I can't help but feel it's something of a missed opportunity. The jokes are funny, and the cast is good, but the humor keeps it from being truly dark and disturbing. This is a movie about mob rule, sexual repression, and religious tyranny, and it's hard to reconcile these serious themes with deadpan snarker and splatter gore. There's some real horror on display - how human beings treat each other and how they rationalize it - but that doesn't linger in memory as much as the jokes do.
He's confused by his lust for Maria and becomes convinced she's bewitched him. After she's arrested, she is stripped naked in front of him, so she can be examined for the Devil's Mark. His underlings welcome the opportunity to ogle her body and lay their lecherous hands on her, but he castigates them for not taking the work seriously. In the most perverse, taboo-breaking moment of the film, he dresses her up as the Virgin Mary and tries to have sex with her.
Gordon gets a good mileage out of authentic Italian locations, and the costumes are well done, but I would have liked more gloom and shadow. Poe's tales work on dread, darkness, and the Gothic. Gordon's movie is brightly lit with atrocities out in the open. This fits the casual approach to life these characters have, but I would have liked a stronger sense of atmosphere.
Most disappointingly, the climactic unveiling and use of the titular pit and pendulum are letdowns. It happens too quickly, the resolution feels like a cheat, and the poor soul staring up at the blade never seems to be in the frame with it at the same time.