The Pit (1981) (out of 4)
Directed by: Lew Lehman
Starring: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias, Laura Hollingsworth, Andrea Swartz, Sonja Smits, Laura Press, Richard Alden, Paul Grisham, Wendy Schmidt, Edith Bedker, Lillian Graham, Gerard Jordan
Hellgate (1990) (out of 4)
Directed by: William A. Levey
Starring: Ron Palillo, Abigail Wolcott, Carel Trichardt, Petrea Curran, Evan J. Klisser, Joanne Warde, Frank Notaro, Lance Vaughan, Victor Melleney
Every summer he got up at dawn to feed Satan’s pets for a little spending money.
Awhile back, Starz / Anchor Bay released two cheesy horrors on DVD as part of their “Double Features/Drive-In” collection, one from the very early 80s (The Pit) and the other from the very late 80s (Hellgate), and truth-be-told, they both kinda suck. But in their own weird ways they might be worth a viewing, especially the first attraction, which was released in late 1981, right when the slashers were kicking into high gear. But I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like The Pit. It stars Sammy Snyders as a creepy 12 year old named Jamie who has no friends, except for the teddy bear he keeps with him, which he can communicate with telepathically (I wonder why he can’t make friends…) It doesn’t help that Jamie is a total perv, more than usual for a kid his age, I think, since he has no problem at all staring at half-uncovered sleeping women in their bedrooms, or prank calling and tricking women into disrobing in front of their living room windows. Not enough of a turn-off for you? Well, he also discovered a secret pit in the woods containing hairy creatures with glowing eyes that he occasionally talks to and feeds. The kid’s got issues, folks, and now he’s got cave monsters as pets. Keep your children away.
She’ll definitely want to be my girlfriend after this!
It seems that Jamie’s parents are always out of town, leaving him in the care of numerous caretakers/babysitters, and they don’t tend to stick around long. There are some hints that mommy has been doting on Jamie a little too much – there’s a scene where his current babysitter Sandy (Jeannie Elias) is bathing him and he asks “Do you know why my mother washes me so much? Is she really trying to make me clean?” Sneaking under the table to catch a peek between Sandy’s legs (with his parents there!), calling the librarian (Laura Hollingsworth) on the phone pretending to be her niece’s kidnapper (“I’m watching you now, Miss Livingston”), writing “I Love You” in lipstick on the bathroom mirror while Sandy is showering… there’s not enough water in the world to get this kid clean. But Sandy sticks around, because she’s used to watching over “problem” children, which I guess includes our little serial killer in training.
That’s right, keep walking towards me in a straight line… don’t look down…
After spending some time at the deep, dark pit in the woods, he decides he needs to feed the little critters that live in there (even though they have survived just fine on their own before he showed up). At first it’s meat from the butcher shop, and when he runs out of money, Jamie decides to feed them all the “nasty” people in his life (Teddy Bear’s suggestion, of course). That includes little Abergail (Andrea Swartz), Sandy’s boyfriend (Gerard Jordan), and mean old Miss Oliphant (Lillian Graham), among others. Watching Jamie push Miss Oliphant in her wheelchair all the way into the woods and down the pit is probably the highlight of the film. Another positive is the creepiness that Sammy Snyders brings to this character, despite his over-acting in a few scenes. You almost feel bad for him… almost.
The premise of The Pit is good, but the results are a bit disappointing. Part of the problem is that the characters are so stupid. The librarian-stripping scene is laughable for its unbelievability, as is the tendency for all victims not to notice a giant freakin’ hole in the ground. Seriously, people practically jump right in. Then there’s the killing of the troll-things (“Trollogs”) by the town posse, which just shoots them dead, immediately assumes they are wild dogs, and then covers up the hole with a bulldozer. Not the brightest people on the planet, these guys. As for the monsters themselves, they kinda remind me of a cross between CHUDs and the crate-creature from Creepshow. Director Lew Lehman, realizing their limitations, wisely limits our view of them.
Danny DeVito! Oh, no, wait, it’s a Trollog.
Another issue is that The Pit isn’t sure what it wants to be – a horror movie or some afterschool special gone horribly wrong. Half the time, it’s played for comedy (especially death scenes), which had me wondering if it was originally written one way and then altered at some point by Lehman. I later discovered some IMDB trivia that suggested screenwriter Ian Stuart wrote a much darker film, making the Trollogs more a part of Jamie’s imagination. Actually, I think The Pit still works best as a metaphor for both coming-of-age/puberty and maybe also child-abuse. If you look hard enough, you might see Jamie’s possessed teddy bear as representative of the damaged child in him and the monsters in the pit as his own demons just waiting to be unleashed. The very last scene seems to fit this view (kid with personal demons gets comeuppance from another kid with her own personal demons). I mean, a huge black pit with monsters, easily accessible, and yet only one kid knows about it… what else could it be but metaphor?
While dull in spots, The Pit is a taut thriller compared to the laughable disaster known as Hellgate. Here’s a film that also tries for both horror and comedy and fails on both counts. Hellgate casts Ron Palillo as the main lead (Palillo was also in director William Levey’s cheesy cult classic Skatetown USA as well as the director’s final film Committed, so I guess they had a good relationship). Not sure why anybody would cast Palillo as a lead, but actually he’s not half bad; ditto the rest of the cast playing his college peers – Petrea Curran, Evan J. Klisser, Joanne Warde – they’re all ok for this sort of thing, and I got the sense of a nice camaraderie between the four of them. Unfortunately, they’re surrounded by nonsense.
Matt (Palillo) gets lost on the way to see his girlfriend Pam (Curran) along with Chuck (Klisser) and his girl Bobby (Warde) when he almost runs over beautiful blonde Josie (Abigail Wolcott) near the ghost town of Hellgate. He takes her to her dad’s mansion, where she almost seduces him before daddy (Carel Trichardt) intervenes, shooting laser beams from a bizarre crystal he found at the mine years earlier. It turns out that this weird crystal has power over life and death, and daddy uses it to keep her alive (she was kidnapped and killed by a bunch of bikers in the 50s, see). Immediately, Hellgate leaves the crystal’s powers undefined – sometimes it makes cheesy-looking bats come back to life, sometimes it turns a goldfish into a monster before making it explode, sometimes it makes people explode, sometimes it doesn’t. Matt escapes but decides to return to Hellgate with his buds to solve the mystery, which involves zombies, or ghosts, or zombie-ghosts. I don’t know – this movie is never clear on anything. My guess is that Levey and writer Michael O’Rourke just wanted to throw in anything that would make the film feel like a giant cheesy haunted house. So you’ll see: dancing girls, disappearing dead folks, funny action scenes done in slow motion, a sequence that seems lifted from Carnival of Souls, silly effects (including a decapitation that isn’t very convincing), and very bad acting from Abigail Wolcott.
Hey, you ever see “Basic Instinct” ?
Not that you care about Wolcott’s acting, since her gorgeous figure and breasts are the focus here (even when she’s menaced by biker thugs in the beginning, she’s posing her bod while the camera leers at her). Admittedly, there’s something hot about being seduced by an undead-Wolcott in white, but a nude Ron Palillo … not so much. The attempts at comedy are laughable for the wrong reasons (the movie’s lame joke “You know you’re an asshole? You really are. I mean it.” is repeated at least three times), and I’ll be damned, but I never saw any gate leading to Hell. The movie’s worst sin, however, is that it’s interminably dull for long stretches, making the 90 minute running time feel like more than 2 hours. You might still want to watch it, though, for offering up the kind of schlock cinema (love that undead turtle attack) that wouldn’t be out of place next to a film like Night Train to Terror.
You’ll need a bigger tank. By the way, are you overfeeding him?
The Anchor Bay DVD release of The Pit and Hellgate has almost no extras, save for a poster/still gallery for The Pit. The widescreen transfers for both films, however, are as good as you’re ever gonna see ’em. The disc has been out of print but you can still pick it up used for $25 (and Netflix has it as well). You can also buy Hellgate on DVD by itself, if that’s how you get your kicks. Some trivia: Sammy Snyders quit acting after 1982. He’s a dancer now. The late Lew Lehman never directed any other feature besides The Pit. William Levey never directed anything after 1991’s Committed. Sadly, we lost Ron Palillo last year.
– Bill Gordon
We are best friends, aren’t we, Mr. Turtle?