Friday, October 02, 2009

31 Days of Fright: Poe, Poe Pitiful Me

Stuart Gordon's fifth feature film starts off well (and grimly) enough with the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition removing the skeletonized body of an accused heretic from the grave and giving it 20 lashes ... despite the fact that the body begins to fall apart about five lashes into the ordeal. As the corpse's wife and child look on in horror and disbelief you get the feeling that this flick is gonna have some spunk. After all, this is Gordon getting a chance to deal with history for the first time, and the film is less steeped in the "fantastic" than anything he'd done in his previous four films (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, DOLLS and ROBOJOX). However, that feeling soon dissipates, leaving this viewer feeling disappointed and convinced that almost anyone could've directed this hodgepodge of historical fact, histrionic acting, and Shakespearean goofball asides.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is based upon three Edgar Allan Poe short stories, namely the title story, "Premature Burial" and "The Cask of Amontialado" (though only the former is credited). Originally planned as major studio debut for Gordon starring Peter O'Toole as Tomas de Torquemada, the Spanish grand inquisitor, Sherilyn Fenn as the object of his desire, Billy Dee Williams (I'm assuming as some kind of suave black dude), and Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs as a scribe, the film went through several reported start-ups, delays, financial problems and more.

When the production finally did get rolling, O'Toole had been replaced by Lance Henriksen, Fenn by Rona De Ricci, and Williams by (again, I guess) Jonathan Fuller. Combs was the only major player to have remained from the original cast announcements. With a Dennis Paoli script, Poe's inspiration and Gordon's directorial hand, I felt the flick would be – at the very least – entertaining and filled with the kind of offbeat Gordon-isms that had populated all of his cinematic outings... at least up to this point. In reality, the only connection to his earlier work besides Combs seems to be another small role for Gordon's wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon.

After the grimly entertaining pre-credit sequence we're introduced to Maria (De Ricci) and Antonio (Fuller), newlywed bread bakers who know in their hearts and in their minds that what is taking place at the auto-da-fe is not right. Heavy-handed symbolism and sledgehammer dialogue abound, right up to the point when Maria prays for the souls of those being tortured, confiding to her husband that she feels their pain and suffering... like she herself was the one being tortured.

While selling bread to spectators on their way to the auto-da-fae, the two innocents are swept up in the crowd and prevented from leaving by armed guards, eventually leading to Maria's inevitable imprisonment for being a witch. At this point, PIT hits a serious treadmill: Torquemada accuses Maria; she denies it; Antonio tries to save her; Torquemada accuses Maria; she denies it; Antonio tries to save her; and so the story goes.

The basic problem with THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM seems to lie in the filmmakers' indecision. At times, the flick desperately wants to be an historical look at what really happened during the Inquisition: false accusations; sexual assault; murder; overzealous torture; the works. At other times, Gordon and Co. seem intent on making a horror film packed with the usual genre trappings: rats munching away on human flesh; bizarre torture devices; hot oil to the facial region; blood-spewing; and exploding witches. At still other times they feel compelled to throw in horribly stagey "action" scenes, as well as comedic asides that feel completely out of place. Surprisingly, the bits of the other Poe tales that Paoli works into the script come off better than the elements he uses from the "inspirational" source story. In fact, those scenes remain the most creepily effective in the entire film.

Sadly, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM only shines when either Henriksen or Combs is on screen, and even then Combs's role is a minor one.

It's unfortunate that PIT hit so many roadblocks on its way to the screen. One can only imagine how a Gordon/O'Toole collaboration would have turned out. All we're left with is one of the few instances in his career when a Gordon flick feels like it could have been directed by anyone.

Poe's work – along with Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera – again serves as a source of inspiration, this time for the 1997 Elseworlds tale BATMAN: MASQUE by Mike Grell. Elseworlds, for those unfamiliar with the term, is an imprint of DC Comics which allows comic writers and artists to flex their creative muscles by placing such characters as Superman, Flash and, in this case, Batman outside the DC Comics canon.

Set in a turn-of-the century Gotham City, MASQUE rounds up a number of familiar names and faces, all playing the same roles as their modern-day counterparts... Bruce Wayne/Batman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, even Chief O'Hara makes an appearance (and comes across as comically worthless as the 1960s TV version). Another familiar face, or should I say "Two-Face"?, appears in the form of Harvey Dent, here a ballet star whose face is horribly scarred thanks to The Batman during a performance of Poe's Masque of the Red Death. Driven underground the masked Dent sets his sights on the performance's female understudy, Laura Avian, a ballerina whose boyfriend happens to be millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.

Filled with plenty of gothic trappings like candelabras, thunderstorms, flowing nightgowns and passionate – but tortured – embraces, I frankly felt a little embarrassed to be curled up in my easy chair with the book. All that was missing was some herbal tea and a shawl! But don't be fooled by the cover pic showing a touchy-feely Batman and the flowing script that adorns the back cover, MASQUE packs plenty of two-fisted action into its pages, not to mention Dent's scarred face, dancers hung from the rafters, explosions and even a bizarre brewery mishap.

I've been wading my way through a huge box of Bat-ness thanks to TOMB IT MAY CONCERN buddy David Zuzelo and I'll admit I stuck MASQUE on the bottom of my most recent pile of reads. And while it didn't quite reach the heights of the first Elseworld's tale – GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT in which The Batman matches wits with Jack the Ripper – MASQUE delivers an entertaining "what if" tale even the crustiest Bat-lover can enjoy.

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