Film Review - The Pit

They don't eat chocolate bars.

I was one of those children. Yeah, you know the kind and if you are reading this blog now in adulthood, chances are you were one of those children too. From the earliest age onwards I had an "unhealthy" affinity for the genre, in any form. Movies, books, comics, magazines, it mattered not. Anything even remotely considered horror was like a nugget of food to a starving mouth for your little pint sized host. When I was at my youngest, the holy trinity of horror films for me and the ones that were arguably the most influential in my early years, were Jaws, Poltergeist and Gremlins (incidentally all Spielberg vehicles in one way or another). This was most likely due to the fact that they were all rated either PG or PG-13, and fell within my parent's limitations of what I was allowed to watch.

Seeing as I was also one of those lonely, strange children with next to no friends (looking back, I attribute this to my even then apparent homosexuality, which I believe made my less than butch personality off-putting to most boys, subject to ridicule and confusing to most girls) I regularly entertained myself by escaping into my overly heightened imagination. I took to reenacting key scenes from my favorite horror films routinely, going so far to sound like a screeching banshee (I imagine) as I was constantly "humming" (or something akin to that) the scores from the films I was, er, "interpreting". Diane Freeling's (JoBeth Williams of Poltergeist, to this day still one of my favorite ladies to grace our genre) frantic, empty swimming pool mudslide? I reenacted it routinely in the back of my parent's car (we didn't buckle up back then) utilizing the backseat itself as the "slanted, slippery side of the swimming pool", the space above it and beneath the window as my "goal" and a rather realistic looking decrepit skull (a Halloween decoration, complete with a long mane of filthy hair) that would "spring forth from the ground" (rather simply, held in my hand and shoved into my own face) ala the film and "frighten" me so badly that I would then "slide" back down to the bottom of the "pool" (the foot well of the backseat) and start again, ad infinitum. Jaws? Every other day at the local swimming pool, the summer vacations to Daytona Beach (before my onset on shark phobia) and occasionally the bathtub. Using my hand as the "shark fin" slicing through the surface of the water, "humming" the legendary theme ("dum dum, dum dum, dum dum dum dum dum") it would draw nearer and nearer to my "horrified" face and then, "attack" from beneath me. Limbs flailing, water splashing, my little prepubescent voice screaming for all it was worth. I would eventually "expire" and allow myself to sink to the bottom of the pool, in my mind's eye, the water now clouded red. I imagine I kept the lifeguards on their toes. Gremlins? Well, that was easy. Growing up, my security blanket was a life-sized stuffed doll of Gizmo himself. There wasn't anywhere he didn't go with me and always, there were nasty gremlins up to no good that him and I would have to dispatch. Imagine a 5 year old child continuously "singing" Jerry Goldsmith's "The Gremlin Rag" day in and day out and you might have a small estimation of what my family endured on a routine basis. As the eighties continued, other films got added to my weekly watch list (amazing that we didn't just buy them, as we certainly gave the video store a small fortune with the amount of times I rented them) The Gate, Critters, Grizzly, Ghoulies, The Monster Squad and The Midnight Hour were among some of the ones my impressionable eyes were allowed to watch, but as always, I was to watch them alone.

Throughout all of this, my family, my teachers and just about any adult in a position of authority became increasingly concerned for my mental well being, the million dollar question of the day (everyday) apparently being "What is wrong with that child?" or "What are we going to do about his unhealthy preoccupation with these sick horror movies?". I'm certain more than a few of you were asked questions similar to these in your youth. Without fail, every time I would procure an issue of some horror related magazine, it would be confiscated by a teacher and shoved into the principal's desk drawer never to be seen again. "Sick, sick sick." I can still hear the principal murmuring. My explanation that those stills of gore and carnage that graced the magazine's glossy pages were nothing more than latex and corn syrup was irrelevant, apparently. Every time I'd make it 200 some pages into a Stephen King novel that I would secretly check out from the public library unbeknownst to my parents (in the 4th grade mind you) the book would be (you guessed it) confiscated. Shortly thereafter I would be marched down to the elementary school library and told to pick out something more "appropriate". I scanned the shelves. The
Bobbsy Twins. The Boxcar Children. Now, my stomach was churning as obviously, nothing piqued my interest. I attempted to reason with the teachers that they should be grateful that I am reading at all, let alone something that was such a massive undertaking for someone of my age (the confiscated Pet Semetary was 416 pages long, I was 10 years old, you follow me). They scoffed at this of course and as with all my other (perfectly sound) reasonings, it ultimately fell on deaf ears. I believe I compromised (humored) and checked out a copy of Bunnicula. Two years later, my father (amidst one of his confused, born again phases) took boxes of over 50 some young adult horror novels of mine (mostly Fear Street, Christopher Pike type stuff) and dozens of reprints of EC's Tales / Vault / Haunt comics, out to the country and burned them. Yes, burned them, and he made me watch. I still tell my father that there is a special place in hell for those that burn books, any books. Whereas my Grandfather is most certainly reserved a cushy place in heaven for having rescued one of said boxes on my behalf (which he later presented to me like a Christmas gift in July). Bless him.

The battle of wills between me and the adults in my life over the genre continued unabated until it finally fizzled out around the age of 16. Mostly because my parents threw in the towel more than anything else. Clearly it was in my blood, and one way or another, I was gonna watch horror movies and read scary literature no matter how many times my books were taken away from me or the films deemed forbidden. So, after the onset of puberty, my love of horror grew as I was now relatively free of parental supervision and able to maintain a rental account at our local video store on my own. Though I was still a lonesome horror movie nut. I never had as friends, any like minded individuals who shared my obsession with all those scary and gross things that I now had blazing across my television screen on a daily basis. Sure, I had friends who would watch them, but more often then naught they seemed more interested in ripping the films a new one for dated SFX, less than stellar acting, or the inherent silliness of many horror movie's story lines. Which wasn't necessarily what I was looking for. I'd make my monthly trip into our local newsstand to make my routine purchase of the latest issue of Fangoria and every time I would pause and wonder to myself where the other Fangoria readers were in town. I wasn't the only one purchasing it, so where were all the horror movie fans that I could potentially befriend and hit it off with? Where were the people who knew not only who Dario Argento was, but also knew his entire filmography like the back of their hand? Where were the people who had heard of obscure cult films like Lets Scare Jessica to Death, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things or any number of titles that I was now discovering? Where were the people who had posters of Stan Winston or Tom Savini hanging on their bedroom walls? They were nowhere to be found, ultimately, and as it turns out, I wouldn't actually meet anyone with these interests until I was in my mid-twenties. Which brings me to my friends James and Arthur and finally, The Pit.

I met both James and Arthur some years ago at Cinema Wasteland (Cleveland Ohio's premier drive-in cinema expo) when they were still both heavily into their horror host routine (Gravedigger Grimm and Art Wolf, respectively). Though nothing came of our meeting initially, (they were at the time, a bit younger than I and they lived some ways away from me too) we've now forged a friendship born of a mutual love for all things horror related. However, in many ways, our tastes for the specific kinds of horror that we like, differs greatly. With Arthur, the worse the film is, the more he salivates over it frankly. With James, I have more of a kinship when it comes to appreciating similar types of horror. Well, sometimes. Like Arthur, he as an affinity for dreck I wouldn't go near with Victor Crowly's 8 foot long chainsaw (he hasn't been "allowed" to pick a movie to watch at our home since he made my husband and I endure New Year's Evil, and yes, he liked it and no, we did not). Also, it's common to find him calling me things like an "elitist make-no-sense artsy-horror-geek" among other colorful phrases. So, when this recent Christmas rolled around, I was hard pressed to think of something to get either one of them. You'd think it would be easy, knowing what kinds of things they are so dedicated to. Well, taking into consideration that they could (either one of them) open a moderately sized store of vintage horror memorabilia and used movies, it wasn't. Then I had my "duh" moment when it came to Arthur's gift. The ghost of his voice came floating back to me from this past summer, waxing enthusiastically about some obscure monster movie called The Pit. "Ah man it's SOOOOOO awesome! There are these Trogs, in this pit, and this little boys feeds people to 'em. I LOVED it, it's so good!" I had been aware of the film pre-Arthur's excited ranting (but had yet to see it), and I had heard everything but it being called a "good film". But then, it was being graded on Arthur's curve. Anyway, I quickly decided that we were going to get something Pit related for Arthur's Christmas gift. It started out we were going to get him a poster (then I realized that he already has a million film posters, and likely would not have room on his walls for another one, though he tells me that he "rotates them".) We then decided on a relatively cool Pit t-shirt that utilized the Embassy Home Entertainment VHS box art until I remembered (another "duh" moment) that Arthur doesn't even own the film, so why wouldn't I just get him that? Turning to eBay, the pickings were slim. It's only DVD release was as a split, two film release paired with Hellgate. I was certain that Arthur gets as irritated as I do when it comes to the tacky, double poster (or triple or more in some cases) box "art" for such releases, so I nixed that. I was left with choices between various VHS releases, one being advertised as an incredibly rare release from some distributor that I never heard of and whose name escapes me now. Knowing Arthur, I went with that one (the boy copies his DVDs onto Beta, trust me, he wouldn't mind it being VHS). A few weeks later his gift arrived, as did the happy accident of both boys stopping by soon thereafter. He loved his gift and as the night wore on, it became apparent what it was we were going to be doing. Gathering around the television upstairs in our living room, I fed the ancient videocassette of The Pit into my VCR (admittedly with a great deal of nervousness, it being less than 24 hours since the same VCR ate my copy of Prom Night 3: The Last Kiss) and the three of us took our places as the FBI warning flashed on screen. Arthur was pleased as a pig in shit, James was excited and I was apprehensive, but game. Fade into a (disappearing from age) overly dark scene of a children's outdoor, night time Halloween party, and we were off.

Okay, The Pit's plot is a mess, a gloriously fun mess, but a mess all the same. Lets not mince words no matter how much it seems as though people are retroactively heaping fanboy praise upon the movie as a whole (what's that about and where did that come from all of a sudden?) and no matter how much the story has charm in it's individual moments. The plot (or plots) revolve around little Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders), a 12 year misfit equally misunderstood and hated by nearly all of the residents in the small town in which he resides. His sole friend is a stuffed teddy bear (aptly named, Teddy) that secretly talks to Jamie (and curiously sounds an awful lot like our morbid little squirt, if you follow) encouraging him to act out on his baser instincts and desires. Transitioning into puberty, Jamie is discovering his new found obsession with girls (his revolving door of babysitters), the human body (the mother of the little girl who routinely torments him), and sexuality as a whole (the books of erotic photography he steals from the town's library). However, being the little weirdo that he is, along with the (self?) destructive encouragement of Teddy, Jamie takes his hormonal interests to obsessive, perverted acts of criminal wrongdoing that would certainly land him on a sex offenders registry one day. When both his parents go away on an extended business trip, Jamie is left in the care of young, beautiful psych student Sandy O'Reilly (Jeannie Elias, resembling a cute-as-a-button cross between Friday the 13th's Robbi Morgan and Piranha's Belinda Balaski), whom he immediately falls madly in love with (who wouldn't, really).

In the neighboring forest just outside of town, Jamie stumbles upon the life altering discovery of a craterous hole in the ground, the titular pit. This isn't just any old hole in the ground however, this hole is inhabited by mysterious red eyed creatures resembling poverty row werewolves (though they are chessily effective). Still absent of any meaningful friendships, Jamie forges ahead in creating an even stranger alliance than that of his relationship with Teddy, and attempts to make nice with the ravenous beasts (which he names “Tra-la-logs”, or "Trogs" as in troglodytes) by offering them his chocolate bar. As it turns out, chocolate is not on their diet plan, Jamie quickly discovering that the only sustenance they are interested in is meat. Raw, blood red meat. Things begin innocently enough as Jamie quickly becomes the local butcher's no doubt best customer, purchasing pounds upon pounds of the red stuff to keep his new found friend's bellies full. But then his meager funds quickly dry up and he can no longer afford to feed the them.What's a slightly unbalanced boy of 12 to do? Teddy has a suggestion, feed the Trogs all the adults and children that routinely torment him on a daily basis. Sounds reasonable to me. Thus Jamie begins coaxing his enemies (real and perceived), one by one, to their gruesome doom.

What a hoot of a story. Uh, I mean what a hodgepodge of a plot. As it stands, either our young Jamie just wondered out of, or into The Twilight Zone, seeing as how he has an uncanny knack for attracting and befriending all manner of unrelated, supernatural entities (when in the last act, the ghost of one of Jamie's unintended victims begins to haunt him, it hardly stretches the film's already distended credibility). Or, the bulk of Ian A. Stuart’s original screenplay should never have been altered in the manner that it was. Considerably different from what has been committed to film, in the original story, Jamie was significantly younger (8 or 9 years old) and the Tra-la-logs (and I imagine Teddy) were nothing more than figments of his overworked imagination. It's sad really that once Lew Lehman came aboard to direct, that these elements were excised in favor of real flesh and blood monstrosities. Not because I have no love for the real deal and prefer "realistic" modern day explanations for such terrors (really, an occasionally crippling vexation found all too frequently in many movies these days) but because once that story thread was removed, that the Trogs are not real, the film becomes utterly ridiculous in it's asking us to swallow that Jamie has a possessed teddy bear capable of independent thought and influence and that Jamie discovers a pit full of hungry, ancient beasts that will devour his nemeses AND that his victims can return as ghosts to bedevil the boy. Individually, I could have suspended my disbelief with any one of those plotlines, but when mashed together with no rhyme or reason into the same narrative, The Pit asks way to much of it's audience. It is a story that anyone over the age of 8 can not, will not buy hook, line and sinker. This also being of course, where the film's reputation for being a horrid turd stems from. Yet, if director Lehman had stuck to the original screenplay, I hasten to speculate that The Pit would have indeed gone on to become at least a favorably remembered hidden gem, born forth from genuine, sporadic quality rather than apologetic, forgiving goodwill such as the type I am imparting on it. The remnants of this approach remain for those interested in looking for them. There is the aforementioned voice of Teddy (Jamie, c'mon you know it's Jamie). The psychological analysis that Sandy routinely attempts in a hopeful bid to come to a deeper understanding of her troubled young charge. And don't even get me started on the plethora of Freudian and Jungian motifs (how about the vaginal pit itself, for starters) found throughout the film in relation to Jamie's burgeoning sexuality (which by the way, is no incidental, throw away subplot; it's as key to understanding our anti-hero as anything else in the film). Not to say that The Pit probably wouldn't have retained some of it's other, rather glaring problems had that been the direction they went in. Hilariously, nobody screams when they are devoured and torn to pieces by the Trogs.The structure is still all over the place (story and character come to a complete stand still in the last act to make way for a limp rampage by the unleashed creatures, not uncommon for the climax of many movies certainly, but having your lead and all familiar supporting cast completely disappear and removed from the ensuing action is). Similarly, the movie sets up what we perceive to be key players only to have them vanish entirely or kill them off unceremoniously. Hilariously, nobody screams when they are devoured and torn to pieces by the Trogs!

I have let on that I enjoyed The Pit despite all my (deserved) criticisms yes?. Young Sammy Snyders is relatively impressive in the role of Jamie. Infusing the character with genuine pathos, he raises Jamie above the truly evil, soulless incarnations of killer kiddies we are usually saddled with. For instance, there is a particularly moving scene wherein Jamie cannot bring himself to feed a living cow to the hungry Trogs. As he walks the animal to it's uncertain fate, he talks to it apologetically, trying to reassure the thing that it's for the "better good" of his friends. Try as he might though, Jamie cannot bring himself to destroy the creature, reasoning that the cow did nothing wrong to him, after all. It's touching and disarming and one of the moments (out of many) where you sit up and think "Huh, as technically awful as this movie is, it really does have some nice things going for it." Jeannie Elias makes for a very likable heroine in Sandy (me thinks I may had a minor crush on her when we were initially watching the film, I totally understand where Jamie was coming from ). Smart, beautiful, confident, sympathetic and capable (save for one unfortunate little slip in the third act) Elias' Sandy embodies the best of that era's scream queens. Unfortunately, Elias relatively disappeared from screens shortly after the release of The Pit. Well, her face did anyway as she has had a rather prolific career in providing voice talent to hundreds of animated ventures and video games. Shame, I could have gotten use to seeing this impressive lass more often.

I suppose films like The Pit embody the very definition of enjoyably bad cinema.Whereas to me, usually bad cinema is just that, bad cinema, I'll admit that on occasion, I can find the fun in schlocky, b-grade horror movie shenanigans. Hell, as I mentioned not a moment ago, the night before our screening of The Pit, I was attempting to re-watch Prom Night 3 for crying out loud, which certainly is nothing but an awful movie. So, it was with this film that I tucked away my usually overly critical quintessence in the name of both having a genuinely good time with two friends and not spoiling Arthur's Christmas gift while I was at it. In the case of The Pit, I couldn't be more glad that I did. It's a wildly uneven effort no doubt about it and if the same film was released today, I'd certainly (as would many others) tear it to shreds. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have even bothered to watch it in the first place. However, I can't help but bestow The Pit with that forgiving, loving embrace afforded to (and reserved for) films of yesteryear that though miss the mark by half a mile, they charm your pants off with their seemingly good intentions, the transparency that there were people involved in its making with at least a modicum of talent, some capable acting from the cast, nostalgic drive-in atmosphere that can only be found in productions dating from such a period, the semblance of intelligence somewhere and lastly, that there exists within the film, some genuine chills here and there. However flawed it is, The Pit is flat out fun if you go with it's kooky premise.

Curiously, the thing that I walked away thinking the most about after The Pit concluded, was my own misunderstood, admittedly morbid childhood. Or more to the point, the little Jamie Benjamin that I had in me (and as I glanced over at Arthur and James, the little Jamie Benjamin I presume they had in them as children as well). From my own tortured (not to mention terrifying), grappling of my sexuality during puberty (as frowned upon as Jamie's discovery of his), to my feverish, macabre imagination. From my cathartic revenge fantasies perpetrated against every bully who called me "fag" and every nay-saying adult who saw me as a problem child, to my never ending preoccupation with all those things that creep through fog enshrouded cemeteries or slither and squirm in the darkness of basements or scratch at your window in the dead of night, I epitomized Jamie Benjamin. As I imagine many of you dear readers, did too. There came a time in my early teens when a little light switch got flicked in my mind as I sat in my bedroom alone, surrounded by (now free of my parents aforementioned restraints) gory film posters, monster action figures and the beginnings of what is now a sizable horror film library. Glancing about at my collection, I wondered to myself perhaps for the first time "Just why am I so engrossed in all this scary, dark, horror business?" and the answer came to me almost immediately, (or, the switch was flicked). It wasn't anything profound, or nothing somebody else hadn't concluded before me, but it gave me pause nonetheless. Sizing up my life to that point, I realized for nearly my entire existence, I had always been surrounded by monsters. Only these ones, unlike the ones I had fallen in love with, were sanctioned by society. Bullies, hateful religious leaders, negligent parents, alienating teachers. It seemed at that moment, only sensible that I would then keep lifelong, close company with such "unsavory" things. The cathartic reflection was obvious. However, my monsters disappeared when I turned off the TV where they were safely kept at bay. My monsters allowed me to experience, confront, and conquer the horrors of the world free from the actual painful lessons I was learning about people on a daily basis. My monsters never even hurt a single soul, not really. Reassured, I'm certain that I smiled quietly to myself, I know that I did. Because as Clive Barker once said, "We could all use a friend in the dark." It's a sentiment that I couldn't agree with more, and I imagine little Jamie Benjamin would too.

Skull Ratings:
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst

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