What appears on the page is not always what appears on the screen. The screenwriter has most times defined what he/she hopes to see translated, but that’s not always the case (and when it isn’t, it’s usually for the worse). However, sometimes a film will morph from the pen to the multiplex in a post-faithful state that exceeds expectations. One such film is The Pit (1981), a Canadian made, US lensed flick that started out as a psychological breakdown of a delusional little boy, and ended up in B Movie Heaven, where it is personally fanned and fed grapes by Ed Wood and William Castle on a daily basis. There’s no other film quite like it.
The Pit, AKA Teddy, was thrust upon an unsuspecting public October 23rd by New World Pictures in the States. Produced by Amulet Pictures (the fine folks who later begat Spring Fever) for an estimated $ 1 million Canadian, it did not bust any box office records nor endear itself to the critical community; this makes total sense because The Pit is extremely compelling but completely insane. This thing is weird even by New World’s standards.
How weird, exactly? Let’s start in the middle, since that’s what the filmmakers decided to do. An adolescent bully and his girlfriend are led into the woods on a promise of hidden treasure by Jamie (Sammy Snyders – The Last Chase), the antagonist of our tale. As soon as the bully sifts through the bag of promised goodies, he’s pushed into the depths of the titular object where we hear him being eaten by something. We then head back to the beginning of the story (unbeknownst to us at the time) with Jamie’s parents heading out of town, leaving him in the stead of babysitter Sandy (Jeannie Elias – Over the Hedge), a local college student majoring in psychology.
Jamie confides in Sandy that there’s a pit filled with, as he calls them, “Tra-la-logs” (he means troglodytes, but I’m not sure the filmmakers do; they look like giant porcupines with glowing red eyes) – and he feeds them butcher’s meat to keep them satiated. Sandy thinks it’s nothing more than the folly of a pubescent twelve year old. Before long Jamie is compelled to feed his tormentors to the denizens of the pit; will Sandy realize the truth before it’s too late?
Okay, so far The Pit sounds like just a goofy, fun, B monster movie. However, we haven’t even started to lacquer on the weird yet.
In Ian A. Stuart’s (writer of the documentary The Highland Regiments of Canada) original screenplay, Jamie is supposed to be eight or nine years old, not twelve. By changing his age, director Lew Lehman (he co-wrote John Huston’s dire attempt at a tax shelter slasher, Phobia) alters the tone of the film completely, yet preserves some of Jamie’s pre-adolescent attributes. He still has a teddy bear (that he talks to, and it talks back – did I forget to mention that?), wants Sandy to tuck him into bed, and in the film’s ickiest scene, he has her wash his back during tubby time.
And yet significant portions of The Pit seem practically focus-grouped towards the adolescent male fantasy. Jamie is obsessed with the town librarian, Mrs. Livingstone (Laura Hollingsworth, I presume?). So taken is he with her up do and glasses that engulf her pretty face (a standard pubescent male dreamscape) that he a) cuts out pictures from the library’s book on nude photography (when I was in school, we had to settle for National Geographic), pastes on the librarian’s head, and sends them to her; and b) pretends he kidnapped her niece, and blackmails her to strip in front of her window (while he takes Polaroids) if she wants to see her niece alive again. Not content with drooling over pics of Mrs. Livingstone (which he shares with Teddy, natch), Jamie ogles Sandy as she sleeps (with a gratuitous POV boob slippage shot) and as she showers, professing his affections by etching “I love you” on the steamed mirror.
But Stuart’s vision fights for screen time too; Jamie is still portrayed as a sympathetic boy regardless of his borderline psychotic, leering behavior. Allusions to familial sexual abuse arise during the bathing sequence, and for whatever reason, Jamie seems to be the town punching bag. (On the surface he appears to be just an annoying twelve year old boy; and really, have you met one who wasn’t?) It isn’t hard to see the character study that Stuart was shooting for; but when Lehman externalizes Jamie’s flights of fancy, it crashes any chance of being taken seriously (and the landing gear had already faltered on that approach).
In the screenplay, Teddy and the troglodytes are merely a figment of Jamie’s diseased mind; on the screen, Teddy is given a sentient moment where he turns his head turns towards the camera, and of course our troggos are not only real, they’re unleashed upon the town when Jamie gives them a rope to climb out of the pit and fend for themselves.
So, in the struggle between the somber intentions of the page and the gleeful exploitation received, who wins? The viewer, that’s who. We still get our monster munches and nudity, but it’s the undercurrent of rippling psychosleaze that really sets this oddity apart. And hats off to Snyders for portraying Jamie, amongst the madness, like the protagonist in an ABC Afterschool Special – his aww shucks dourness contrasting beautifully against the lurid shenanigans. Elias holds her own too; her megawatt smile standing out like a rose blooming in an outhouse, creating someone very likeable (and relatable; very important in a film this ungrounded) to root for.
And yet all the disparate elements somehow come together; I suppose there’s a willingness on behalf of the viewer to not only accept the events as they unfold, but actively pursue a resolution that happily will not materialize – what you get instead wraps a giddy bow around the whole damn affair. Oh I almost forgot! You get a ghost too. Was it in the script? Who cares? As the residing President of The Pit Booster Club (Calgary Chapter), it’s my duty to tell you – if you’re ever in doubt, you just need to recite our pledge: If it fits in The Pit, it must be legit.
The Pit is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.