Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Bloody Pit of Horror
(Massimo Pupillo, 1965)

Yes folks, it’s ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’! You’ve hit ‘play’, and there’s no turning back now! A jewel in the crown of pan-European exploito-horror mulch, this lively ‘shocker’ was allegedly lensed in 1965, but features a cartoonish matinee spirit and winningly naive approach to sleazy thrills that just screams NINETEEN SIXTY ONE to me. Nonetheless, ’65 it is, a year in which director Pupillo seems to have cut a bloody swathe through the world of cheap Italian horror movies, directing Barbara Steele in ‘5 Tombe Per Medium’ (aka ‘Terror Creatures From The Grave’), then knocking out this one and a third gothic horror called ‘La Vendetta di Lady Morgan’ in quick succession, despite having done little of interest either before or since.

To spare.. oh, I dunno, subterranean exploration enthusiasts, maybe?.. from disappointment, it should be noted that ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ features no pits, bloody or otherwise. It does have a castle, and within that castle is a dungeon, which you’d think would have done nicely for an exciting title-noun that was at least vaguely accurate. But no, they had to go with ‘pit’. Whether or not the film inspires ‘horror’, and the extent to which it may be deemed ‘bloody’ are matters for further debate, which we shall perhaps return to.

Original Italian title is the slightly more dashing ‘Il Bioa Scarletto’, and the movie will also answer to ‘A Tale of Torture’, ‘Virgins for the Hangman’ or ‘The Crimson Executioner’, depending on where and when you happen to reside. ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ seems to be the one that stuck though, and why not - that title’s gleeful, boneheaded absurdity suits the film in question perfectly.

Supposedly inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade (presumably in much the same way that ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ takes inspiration from the work of H.G. Wells), goofball levels are off the scale right from the outset here, as we see an unhinged looking gentleman in a bright red KKK hood with attached cape being man-handled into a shockingly cheap looking iron maiden by some guys in sorta Roman Solider-via-Conquistador get up. An echoing PA system voiceover drones on about how this chap’s nefarious deeds will live in infamy.

“Fools, all of you! I am the Crimson Executioner!”, says The Crimson Executioner, shortly before the oversized butter knives glued onto a plywood door descend to end his life. “Ah-hahahahahahahahahahahahaha!”, he adds. “This day shall be written in blood! No man can judge me! I am the supreme law! I shall have my REVENGE!”

But more on The Crimson Executioner later. For now, we cut to the present day, where we join a group of employees from the art department of an Italian publishing house. Split evenly between dashing young photog/design guys and vapid glamour models, they are busy touring the countryside in a fleet of sports cars, in search of the perfect gothic castle in which to shoot some sexy covers for their new range of horror novels.

Whilst that concept sinks in, let us pause a moment while I make a brief appeal to any readers who may have connections in the Italian publishing industry;

I know that I don’t have much experience in photography or design per se, and I realise that my command of Italian is – how to best put it? – entirely non-existent, but all I’m saying is – if you have a vacancy, keep me in mind. After nearly a decade of gainful employment in various sectors, I really feel that your industry is one in which I could truly realise my full potential. If you were to give me a chance, you would not regret it. I understand that there might not be enough space at first for me to tag along on the expenses-paid gothic castle location scouting tours and such, but I’m willing to work my way up. Thank you.

Anyway, as you might expect, this jolly crew do manage to find a castle to fit their (apparently quite specific) needs. When no answer is received to their bangings ‘pon the front door, they assume the place to be uninhabited, and persuade a guy who seems to be the lone male model to utilise his impressive ‘jungle jim’ style skills, scaling a tower and gaining them access.

As you might also expect, the castle turns out to be far from uninhabited. It is actually the home of a reclusive individual named Travis Alexander, played by legendary muscleman and Jayne Mansfield husband Mickey Hargitay, and his… uh… (ok, deep breath) … and his squad of strapping, moustachioed man-servants, all of whom wear identical stripy sailor jerseys and tight white jeans and apparently march around barking orders and stamping their feet like soldiers on parade 24 hours a day, unquestioningly obeying their master’s every command. Many ways to finish this paragraph spring to mind, but I ain’t saying a word.

Upon discovering the intruders in his castle, Mr. Alexander indulges in some Torgo-esque toing and froing, but eventually opts to let them to stay the night, on condition that they leave him alone to enjoy his hermetic isolation, and that they do not enter the dungeon. So, naturally, the next scene sees our gang setting up their photo shoot in the medieval torture dungeon, happily swinging around on some blood-curdling looking implement, girls in bikinis and one guy wearing a skeleton suit! These publishing types, honestly.

I’ll admit that up until this point I had my suspicions that the rationale behind the whole ‘pretty girls cross-country castle tour’ concept might be less than entirely work-related, especially when it became clear that the boss of the publishing house and one of the writers were along for the ride. But in all fairness to these guys, as soon as they’re in situ it’s straight down to business, setting up the gear, ordering the models around, calculating how many rolls of film they can shoot before sunrise, etc. Rarely has the act of shooting pictures of a girl in a sexy pirate outfit being strangled by a skeleton been handled with such consummate professionalism.

Even after the film’s first fatality – which sees the guy in skeleton suit impaled with more butter knives when the rope holding aforementioned torture device in place ‘mysteriously’ snaps – the boss is determined that his team should overcome this tragedy and keep working. After all, he’s got a schedule to keep! Deadlines! I mean, can you imagine a pulp horror novel coming out a bit late, with an imperfect cover photo? It simply wouldn’t do.

So this movie’s been good woozy fun so far, but the next thing I remember is a scene that really raised the stakes big time. A scene that left me speechless, unable to even evoke the holy syllables of Whaa – Thaa – Fugg? A scene, in short, that reminds me why I got into the business of watching movies like this in the first place.

Get this: one of our male characters (who seems to be emerging as the hero of the piece) hears a cry for help from a neighbouring chamber. Rushing in, he finds one of the girls tied by her wrists and ankles in the middle of a huge artificial spider’s web! Don’t come any closer, she warns him, explaining that the killer has rigged up loads of arrows around the chamber’s walls, which are primed to fire as soon as anyone touches the web! And indeed, the walls are lined, not with crossbows and some other kind of practical arrow-firing devices, but actual longbows, mysteriously balanced against the walls somehow! Furthermore, the unfortunate lady continues, there is a poisonous spider slowly making its way towards her, and once bitten, she will die immediately! The spider in questions looks kinda like some furry, mechanical beastie straight out of puppet show, wobbling along on a plainly visible string.

After slapping myself about the face a few times to ensure that I was still awake, and that, yes, this insane spectacle was actually unfolding before me, I saw our hero lie face down on the ground, and proceed to slowly wriggle along the floor like a worm, propelling himself with odd, spasmodic movements, in a tension-building attempt to reach the doomed girl without setting off the arrows! At this point I simply raised my hands in supplication and tearfully offered praises to the gods of WTF b-cinema for showing me this thing.

And really, you could spend a lifetime pondering the whys and wherefores of how the scriptwriters came up with this deranged scenario in the first place, how it ended up actually being realised for the film in such utterly ludicrous fashion, and how the actors felt at being asked to perform in it … I mean, it’s not even clear whether we’re supposed to read the spider and web as being ‘real’, or whether they’re supposed to be mechanisms built by the killer, although frankly either scenario is equally fucking crazy. If you value your sanity, probably best put such questions aside and just let it all wash over you.

What troubled me above all about this incredible sequence though is the fact that the girl apparently seems pretty enthusiastic about the idea of dying in the middle of this spider web contraption, explaining the whole set-up to her would be rescuers in detail, and begging them to abandon her to her singularly weird fate - “Don’t you see? It’s a diabolical trap! It’s impossible for anyone to reach me! Nobody can stop the mechanism!”, etc. The killer must have been a pretty good talker, I suppose – which we can maybe take as foreshadowing of a sort.

I also loved the way that when our worm-crawling hero reaches the centre of the web-maze seconds too late to save to save the girl from the venomous bite, he expresses his frustration by picking up the ‘deadly’ spider and drop-kicking it into the middle of the web, causing a few arrows to half-heartedly flop to the ground posing no danger to anyone! Outstanding.

By this point, my goofball-measuring equipment (it’s sort of a prototype, loosely based on the Rock-o-meter from ‘Rock N’ Roll High School’) had long since overheated and ceased to function, which is just as well, as there is no way its limited capacity could have survived the white hot hurricane of goofery that is Mickey Hargitay as The Crimson Executioner – for naturally it is he who has been perpetuating all this mischief, convinced that he is the reincarnation of the aforementioned medieval torture-monger.

Taking on the guise of The Crimson Executioner, Hargitay sports a get up that makes him look rather like a pro-wrestler who decided to attend a costume party dressed as The Phantom, got drunk, lost his shirt and then decided to go for Flavor Flav instead by adding a huge, clock-like gold medallion to the ensemble. You might have thought it would be difficult for a scene featuring only one man to strictly be termed ‘homoerotic’, but then you presumably haven’t seen Hargitay gazing lovingly into the mirror, oiling his muscular torso as he rants to himself at length about the virtues of his perfect body – claims that are somewhat undermined by the fact that he adopts a slightly hunchbacked ‘gorilla posture’ and hobbles around grunting like a pirate, his features contorted into a kind of snarling mask of perpetual discomfort.

When setting out to assess Mickey Hargitay’s performance here, stock phraseology about how he ‘chews up the scenery’ or somesuch seems woefully inadequate in trying to convey the sheer ham-fisted delight he brings to the role as he capers around his torture dungeon in a state of delirious, childlike glee, accompanied at all times by the incessantly repeated ‘Crimson Executioner’ theme, which sounds a bit like the proud inventor of the world’s first underwater theremin giving a bathtub demonstration (word to composer Gino Peguri for a varied and enjoyable soundtrack all round actually).

Hagitay’s Shatner-esque cadences must be heard to be believed as he sets about tormenting the remaining characters in a manner that might have seemed fairly sadistic in a film that was less… well… y’know - a film that was less like ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’.

“The Crimson Executioner… invented the torture of icy water… for creatures like you!”, he taunts, shaking his fist at a girl who is having icy water dribbled across her back.

“I will punish you for your lechery!”, he promises, spitting in the face of the head of the publishing house, whom he has confined in a comically oversized neck manacle.

“The Crimson Executioner will torture you! Yes… will torture you… until DEATH!”, he announces to nobody in particular, spreading his arms and gazing skyward in joy.

Man, this guy is something else.

Watch entranced, as he straps two of the models onto some kind of rotating wooden contraption and pushes knives through slats in an adjacent screen at boob level, causing the fabric of their brassieres to be veeeery slowly stripped away, and their tender flesh to be cut, just a little bit! I mean, let’s not get carried away here, right? Standards of decency must be upheld. What’s that you say, Crimson Executioner..?

“My vengeance needs blood! The Crimson Executioner... CRIES OUT for blood!”

Such an instantly iconic, endlessly quotable character – I’m surprised that The Crimson Executioner hasn’t cast a wider shadow across subsequent horror history. Surely more than one ‘trash auteur’ must have watched this over the years and thought “this is great, all I need to do is get some theatrical goof-off to run around in a hood, and the rest of the movie writes itself”? One thing’s for sure – nobody who’s ever stumbled across this movie is liable to forget him, and the temptation to spend weeks after viewing wondering around the house in exaggerated wrestler stance, muttering “The Crimson executioner does this, The Crimson executioner does that”, is probably not an uncommon affliction.

Brilliantly, The Crimson Executioner’s reign of terror isn’t ended when he is outwitted or bettered in combat by our hero, as is traditional. I dunno whether I missed an important plot point here, but I’ve watched the film several times now (god help me), and it still appears that he just gets so overwrought about all the evening’s excitement that, after delivering one last fevered monologue about how his beautiful body has been “defiled” by earthly corruption, he simply keels over and dies!

A long tracking shot lingers over the multitude of carcasses that are now strewn around the dungeon floor, and the surviving couple stand in shock, wracking their brains to for some kind of profound closing message they can pull from this thoroughly meaningless outbreak of anachronistic barbarism.

“Well I won’t write any more horror stories, that’s for sure… the man who said truth is stranger than fiction made no mistake!”

You said it buddy! I mean, people in the real world made this movie – beat that, fiction.

‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ has long lurked in the Public Domain, and a splendidly murky, degraded, pixellated print of the film can be streamed/DLed from just about anywhere on the internet, including archive.org here or Youtube here. If you’ve got a reliable net connection, why, you could watch it everyday! What a world we live in! In fact, pesky family or relationship responsibilities notwithstanding, I’d go as far as to say you SHOULD watch it everyday! Go on, you know you want to.

Man, Psychovision looks pretty crappy.


G N A R L Y said...

Just spent the past hour checking out all your posts! OBSESSED! :)

<3 Gnarly


Elliot James said...

One of the most infamous "Nero" movies of the 60s. Hargitay's Shakespearian rants propel the film (besides the many hot babes). The subtexts run wild. Worthy of a book detailing its production and place in Italian horror-sleaze film history.