Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Pit (1981)

Young Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders) isn’t very well-liked around town.  Marge Livingstone (Laura Hollingsworth), the local librarian, is leery of him.  Her niece Abigail (Andrea Swartz) delights in tormenting him a la Lucy Van Pelt and her classic football gag.  Freddie Phelps bullies him and won’t let Jamie join his “club” (we’re never told what kind of club it is).  But Jamie sees a ray of sunshine through the grey clouds when Sandra (Jeannie Elias) shows up to watch him while his parents are away.  If only it weren’t for that pesky pit out in the middle of the woods that is filled with monsters (dubbed “Tralalogs” by Jamie).  

Lew Lehman’s The Pit is the oddest of odd ducks.  It is a pubescent boy’s wish fulfillment/power fantasy, yet the script by Ian A Stuart is weirdly structured, giving the audience what it wants a bit too early and then changing the film into a different film for about the last third.  Jamie is picked on by absolutely everyone who comes across him, and his mother (Laura Press) seems to dote on him too much to his detriment.  Meeting Sandra, Jamie has something to aspire to, even though there’s never a chance for romance with her, and this impossible love is what fuels some of Jamie’s actions.  Being left alone with a nubile co-ed day and night is enough to put any adolescent boy into a tailspin of emotions, all of them focused on sex.  Jamie watches Sandra while she’s sleeping, staring at her bare nipple.  He writes “I love you” on the bathroom mirror for her while she showers.  Clearly, the boy has boundary issues.  And Sandra is nice but not overly accommodating to Jamie, the first person (we can assume) to try to connect with him rather than reject him out of hand.  

The pit becomes Jamie’s super power, in a way, as it’s the agency by which he can take care of his enemies, to have power over them (both his enemies and the Troglodytes [not Tralalogs, Jamie]; He says, “They’re looking up to me,” referring to his station as the Giver of Life and Death, a god, for these monsters and the people of his town).  The pit is concurrently a metaphor for Jamie’s puberty.  It’s dark, filled with hairy things that likely stink, and those hairy things are just chomping at the bit to do what they do best.  When the pit is finally utilized, it’s Jamie’s self-discovery of his true self, the person he was always going to become, a man.  This puberty facet is also reflected in a visual way.  There is a scene where Jamie looks at his family during dinner through an empty glass, their images warped and distorted, their world alien to him (or he an alien on their world).  This motif is mirrored by the Troglodyte Vision POV shots.  They are tinted yellow, slightly fish-eyed, and have a blurry, wavy quality to them.  Jamie and the Troglodytes are directly linked because their outlooks are similar to each other’s and different from the rest of the world’s.  In like fashion is Jamie’s teddy bear, Teddy, who talks in Jamie’s voice but with a slight echo.  Teddy is Jamie’s tempter and advisor, always pushing him to go one step further.  Teddy recognizes what Sandra means for Jamie (“She’s just what we’ve been waiting for”), and he is the rationalization Jamie uses to justify the actions he takes.  Further, Teddy is a bridge between childhood and adulthood.  He comforted Jamie when he was a child, and he counsels him as Jamie changes.

While we can understand why Jamie is the way he is, however, we also can’t stand him.  Yes, he’s a social outcast and put upon by the world, but he’s an obstinate brat.  Snyders does his level best to sell us on this, though my guess is that wasn’t necessarily his intent.  For as much shit as Jamie is given on a daily basis, he sure doesn’t shy away from dishing it out.  Take Marge Livingstone, for example.  Jamie cuts a nude photo out of an art book from the library and sends it to Marge with a picture of her head taped on it.  Later, he anonymously tells her that Abigail has been kidnapped and the only way to secure her release is for Marge to show him her naked body (while he takes polaroids from the shadows and giggles about how low he is able to bring her).  The way Marge acts around Jamie is peculiar.  Just hearing his name, she seems to tense up (this is before the false kidnapping), and she behaves as though either there may have been something which had passed between them (which would have been truly skanky) or she can read into the boy, knows what lies underneath, and is afraid of him.  When Jamie steals money from Sandra and she confronts him about it, he runs away, unsure how to deal with this (he settles on picking flowers for her).  Jamie throws a tantrum (either ignored or unnoticed by Sandra) when her beau’s football team wins a game.  He is quick to anger, irritability, and self-righteous indignation.

Aside from the randomness of the Trog pit, the film has one other distinctly bizarre touch.  Teddy is presented as Jamie having an interior dialogue with himself, but at one moment in the film, Teddy’s head turns toward Sandra all by itself.  Does Jamie have psychic abilities?  Is Teddy alive?  We’re never told, just as we’re never told how a pit full of monsters just appeared (Who dug it?  How did all the Trogs fall in at once?  How long have they been there?  How long can a Trog last without eating?).  We expect from The Pit that Jamie will get his revenge on his tormentors, and he does.  But this all happens in the span of about five minutes.  It’s what happens afterward that makes the film feel like either it wanted to go in a different direction entirely, or that the story had run its course and now there’s a new story the filmmakers had to tell to fill out the runtime, one which is more conventional and less satisfying than the one they had been building up to that point.  It throws the film’s pacing way off.  Yet, the film is intriguing because it comes across as so guileless, so matter of fact, that when the freaky elements pop up, they’re both startling and fully acceptable.

MVT:  The oddity of the premise.  It’s hard to fathom who thought this was a sane idea, but the way it’s presented makes it easy to swallow.

Make or Break:  The cold opening (which is shown again later in the film, almost shot-for shot) is creepy and blackly humorous.  But mostly creepy.  

Score:  6.75/10    

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