26 June 2013

SUMMER OF BLOOD: WHO LET THE TROGS OUT

The operating theory behind this year's Summer of Blood is there's a certain something that Canadian horror films have that their southerly neighbors just can't match: that pound for pound, the idiotic, disposable junk made by Canucks is just better than the idiotic, disposable junk made by Yanks - more mature, more psychologically astute. Every broad assumption has its debilitating holes, though and we've come to the first one: The Pit, a Canadian monster movie (from the horror annus mirabilis of 1981, no less) that's just really fucking dumb. Hugely enjoyably dumb, I should hasten to clarify, but there's no argument that I can perceive that makes The Pit a legitimately effective motion picture. Its deranged tone, bizarre characters, and a loopy structure that makes the 97-minute running time seem every bit of 20 minutes longer than the filmmakers were ready for all contribute to make certain of that.

"Loopy structure" refers to a couple of things, but one crops up in the very first scene: on Halloween night, a teen boy dressed as a pirate (Paul Grisham) and his girlfriend, dressed as a ballerina (Wendy Schmidt) are approached by a younger boy in the classic "sheet with eyeholes" ghost costume (Sammy Snyders). The boy in the sheet, Jamie, invites the other two to follow him into the woods to look for a bag of jewelry he found there, and while this is happening, the audience is hit by a speeding truck and splattered all over the road. By which I mean, we hop back in time to the moment that the older boy punched Jamie square in the face, but it's inserted at a totally random moment, and accompanied by a jarring shift in the soundtrack that feels like a sound editor was never even called in as a consultant, and coupled with the fact that all three of the characters have been either in makeup or beneath a sheet, there's no reason to assume that this scene has anything to do with the initial action, and good reason, in fact, to assume the opposite.

But no, the point is that Jamie is about to get his revenge on the teen bully, Freddy, and he does it by bringing him to a secluded clearing where a bag of what looks rather more like costume jewelry than the real stuff is right at the edge of... A Pit. Here, Freddy starts enthusiastically hunting through the loot, nd just when his attention is fully diverted, Jame appears behind him to push him bodily into... The Pit. We can just barely see some kind of movement deep within... The Pit... and it's this over this image that the film's title appears, before we launch into-

And that, not the aggressively awful flashback, is the actual loopy structure I had in mind. See, for a long time, nobody mentions the missing bully, and God knows what happens to the ballerina. It seemed like shitty storytelling, then it seemed like a poor attempt to goose the film into starting by opening with a shock scene that had nothing to do with the rest of the film, but by a certain point it becomes clear that the film opens with a flash-forward, and at almost exactly the 60-minute mark, we'll see the whole scene we just saw play out again. The. Whole. Scene. With the addition of Christina the ballerina's really strange death, in which she literally swoons and Jamie coos sorrowful things at her while struggling badly to lift her and roll her into... The Pit. That the filmmakers couldn't even slightly condense the scene that we'd already watched - that they included the exact same random shots of trick-or-treating children having a food fight - tells me that even more than this opening was meant to give The Pit a rollicking opening, it was desperately trying to inflate its running time; if you took out everything that was just awful padding, the film would barely scrape over 80 minutes, and while that might be a reasonable length for a 1981 horror movie, The Pit's makers had more ambitious aims, or something like that.

However, I don't want to hide the fact that, without this opening, The Pit wouldn't have its first kill until 52 minutes in. So it's a really pandering gesture from every angle.

With the film proper about to begin, I need to preface the plot by saying that Ian A. Stuart's script and the film that director Lew Lehman made are not the same thing, in one unspeakably important regard. For Stuart, Jamie was around 9 years old and the monsters in... The Pit... were projections of his fragile imagination. Lehman's revisions made him 12 (and Snyders appears to have a solid year or two up on that), and the monsters are very much real. For the most part, the graft holds pretty well - the weird confluence of a 12-year-old who acts immature and looks too mature fits the film's creepy sexual element - but one of the driving elements of the plot, and the source of the film's alternate title, Teddy, is Jamie's teddy bear, who whispers (in Jamie's own voice) horrifying, psychopathic advice. A plot element far too major to be ignored, but it makes far less sense if the boy isn't "actually" killing the people he feeds to his "Trolologs", or however it is that we're meant to understand the inconsistently-pronounced name he's come up with for his monsters.

Anyway, Jamie is just kicking on puberty's door, and he's doing it badly: stealing the copy of Creative Nude Photography and bringing it to school, because in whatever nebulously North American community where this takes place (it was shot in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin), they stock erotica in public libraries. Worse still, he has just about everybody in the neighborhood concerned about his aberrant behavior, so when his parents leave on a trip to Seattle, they're obliged to hire a child psychology major to babysit and watch the house, Sandy (Jeannie Elias). Having a young lady in the full bloom of womanhood right under his roof is terrible for Jamie's already overheated sex drive, and he spends an enormous amount of energy trying to spy on Sandy in various states of undress and feed meat to the troglodytes in... The Pit... that seemingly nobody else has ever heard of, despite it being just barely in the woods outside a farmer's cow pasture.

And that is all the movie we get for an awfully long hour, until Jamie runs out of money to feed the trogs, Sandy has wised up to his stealing money from her purse, and Teddy advises that the boy start throwing "bad people" to the monsters. Being a young child, those bad people consist of the various authority figures, irritating peers, and sexual rivals that he doesn't like, and I have to be at least ironically admiring of a film whose very first victim - accompanied by jaunty, "ain't this all wacky?" music - is Abergail (Andrea Swartz), a bullying little girl of about 10, nor is she the only child to be torn apart (demurely - this is a surpassingly violence-free movie) by the trogs.

While waiting for that to happen, we find that The Pit is one hell of a warped bad movie, splitting its time between utterly tormented expository dialogue (sample, from the awful little girl: "Why don't you go back where you came from, funny person? If I see you near my bike again, I'll tell your father, and it'll be too bad for you. They'll take you away."), minimally threatening moments where Teddy murmurs evil, and a remarkable prominence of totally gratuitous boobage (it is from a 12-year-old's POV), including a scene where Jamie - not having altered his voice in the least - is able to convince his librarian lust object, Miss Livingstone (Laura Hollingsworth) to strip down in front of her window, by alleging that he kidnapped her niece (the selfsame Abergail). It's all a bit tedious, even with the comically absurd excuses for nudity, and mind-numbingly repetitive.

But when the monsters start chomping down on Jamie's enemy list, then the movie takes off into the bad movie stratosphere. Part of it is because they're so abysmally-executed, rubber suits with an unfortunately porcine cast (when Sandy sensibly suggests that the creatures she's just barely seen are pigs, the film even seems to own this bit of ineffective design) and no ability to flex. Part of it is because of the desperation with which the film starts funneling victims Jamie's way. Most of it is the jaw-dropping shift in focus the movie makes with about 20 minutes left to go, with Jamie having left a rope down to let the troglodytes out of... The Pit... (he has no more enemies, so he won't keep murdering for them), and it suddenly becomes about the police hunt to stop the wild animals ravaging people up and down the countryside, with Jamie's own story having been completely dropped except for a final scene that doesn't end up fitting with anything. Insofar as the story has been able to find any kind of focus behind the immature, psychotic Jamie and the sexually obsessed Jamie, two protagonists sharing a single body and a completely disparate set of horror movie tropes, it stops pretending for a good long time to be about either of its initial strands; it feels like not just a different plot but a different genre altogether has infiltrated the movie, and it's so strange and totally ineffective that I want to jump up and down and tell Lew Lehman that it's a sin against bad cinema that he was only able to direct one film, if this was the kind of Ed Woodian disregard for story logic that he felt was "fixing" Stuart's screenplay.

The one thing that unites all of the disparate threads of the movie - the incompatible Jamies, the leaden opening hour and the giddy final third, the boob obsession and the terrible monsters - is that all of it is impeccably stupid. There's really nothing in The Pit that's anything but terrible, and its attempts at building a preteen psycho protagonist are impressive particularly for being totally devoid of any decent observation about how preteens are (Snyder's freakishly mannered performance doesn't help). It is all deranged and dreadful and divorced from human behavior, and God bless it for being so committed to its world that it never stops and asks the question, "does anything here make a lick of sense?" For if it had realised that the answer was now, we'd have been deprived of a heck of a ludicrous So Bad It's Good movie.

Body Count: 11, and though they are largely clustered into just two spree killings, that's an impressive pile of corpses indeed for something in this generic wheelhouse. I am only counting Freddy the pirate once, though we see him die twice. Also, four trogodods, or whatever they're called.

3 comments:

Mike Gibson said...

I thought Sammy Snyders was actually very effective at being a creepy kid, and once they dropped his story it really went to shit.

The wheelchair death and the whole montage that accompanies it is so great, I LOL'd.

Unfortunately, that's about all the good things I can say about The Pit.

KingKubrick said...

It's a Canadian film alright. It had a very strong Troll 2, which, perversely enough, is sort of a compliment because I love to MST3K movies like this.

KingKubrick said...

*Troll 2 vibe.