Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) dir. Massimo Pupillo

a.k.a. Il boia scarlatto 

Logline: In the 17th-century, a megalomaniacal recluse who dons a cape and calls himself the Crimson Executioner (Mickey Hargitay) is executed in an Iron Maiden for the crimes he had committed in his basement's own fully operational torture chamber. In 1965, a plucky group consisting of a book publisher, a photographer, and a fistful of fashion models sneak into the Crimson Executioner's seemingly abandoned Gothic castle abode to snap some kitschy photographs. Soon they discover the castle's new owner, eccentric actor Travis Anderson (also Mickey Hargitay), who is only too happy to let them stay the night and meet a certain resurrected red-hooded fiend.

Bloody Pit of Horror is a fine modern Gothic chiller that-- like the best of them-- uses this context to explore the sexual mores of its age. Unfortunately, what we're given is a rather conservative film seeking to restore heteronormative values against the threat of perversion. Like Freddie Francis' The Skull (also produced in 1965), Bloody Pit of Horror's invocation of the name of the Marquis de Sade (in this case by way of a disingenuous title card claiming that it's "based on the writings of") is intended to clue the viewer into this intention: any proclivities associated with that sick, sick de Sade surely cannot be natural, sane, or morally sound. That's precisely what the film argues with regard to male homosexuality. It's a disappointing thesis, but one that is intriguing for the overt ways the film goes about arguing it and, to a small degree, the ways in which it subverts that same point.

Our homosexual villain is bulging beefcakey muscleman and Italian genre veteran Mickey Hargitay as Travis, a self-obsessed actor turned recluse. Travis' egotism is astounding both for its depth and for his apparent consciousness of it. He has retreated to this abandoned castle in order "to avoid the contagion of human sentiment" by escaping from other humans, those "inferior creatures" who would have "corrupted the harmony of [his] perfect body." (A scene of him delicately oiling up his muscles in front of a mirror confirms he is totally serious about that last part). But Travis isn't being completely forthright in claiming that he's sworn off all human contact: this would be omitting all of the hunky manservants (dressed up in blue and white stripped shirts like sailors, no less!) at his beck and call. Moreover, another of his revealing speeches makes plain his affection for the long departed Crimson Executioner's "magnificent body." It's the male physique he worships, and escaping from society was an escape from the pressures to submit to "a woman's love," which, he freely admits, would have "destroyed" him.

Travis/the Crimson Executioner 2.0 is such a fascinating homosexual villain for 1965 because he exists completely against type. Atypically, the gay man is not a sniveling, effeminate weakling but Mr. Universe 1955. Perhaps it's a stretch to call Hargitay a heartthrob, per se, but his screen presence certainly oozes testosterone. In fact, when he first starts making eyes at the models we imagine him to be leering at and openly coveting them. The movie plays up on this default association of physical manliness with uncontrollable heterosexuality for awhile (preventing us from immediately seeing the fate of a model who we can only assume is about to be sexually assaulted), before it begins to let us realize that Travis in fact despises women and hopes to punish them all for "lechery" and "sin." Under the hood of the Crimson Executioner, Travis attacks femininity, rather than fetishizing it. The torture devices he constructs are methods for him to rebel against the "poisonous" influence of women by destroying those aspects that make them women. Particularly exemplary is a bizarre torture apparatus featuring two women strapped to a revolving pillar, one side of which faces a wall of openings through which adjustable lengths of sword can be slid. Travis violently inches the blades closer to the women's breasts on each pass, taking sadistic pleasure in the feminine symbol he is tearing apart and scarring.

So, of course, the film argues that the only way a homosexual man can stay sane and maintain his lifestyle is by going insane and destroying the women in his life. In other words, the film seems to believe that there is something psychotic, perverse, unnatural, and perhaps even evil in a man (especially a manly man) desiring other men and forsaking women. In the end, Travis is killed by falling into an embrace with his own misogynist creation: a poison-tipped dummy wearing a blonde wig, or his own manufactured symbol of poisonous femininity. Before he meekly collapses to the ground, he moans, "My pure body has been contaminated. My perfect body in the poisonous clutches of the lover of death." Heterosexuality (or the "natural order") is reaffirmed by Travis' death-by-sexual-contact and the reunion of our bland de facto hero Rick (Walter Brandi) with his girlfriend, Edith (Luisa Baratto). But this is troublesome. Rick has proved to be a totally ineffectual schlub throughout the film (he fails to save anyone other than Edith, despite his every halfhearted effort). Placed against Travis' ingenuity, passion, and charisma-- however insane they may be-- Rick is an odd and dissatisfying choice for being the bearer of the new male standard. How sad for Edith. All of those deranged gay musclemen get to frolic around together shirtless in Gothic castles while she's stuck trying to start a conversation with insipid Rick.
I'd be remiss if I failed to point out that I enjoyed Bloody Pit of Horror greatly, in spite of its clunky and backwards subtext. Its sublimely cheap Gothic castle setting, over-elaborate torture devices, giant mechanical spiders, cheesy sense of humor, and bouts of prurient extravagance led me to lend it at least a sliver of my heart. And, furthermore, not all of the film's thematic concerns are completely bunk. Somewhat clever are the macabre photo shoots staged by the hip crew staying at the castle, wherein they lampoon Gothic conventions only to have those same conventions later usher them to their own dooms. One model, staged on the floor in a puddle of blood, quips, "It's no fun being dead"-- a classic case of allowing the harmless simulations of dangers to supplant the real dangers, leaving one totally unprepared and unsuspecting of those very real real dangers (see Dick Richards' Death Valley (1982) for a more developed treatment of the same idea). Director Massimo Pupillo was having his own personal Italian Gothic Renaissance in 1965, directing both this film and Terror-Creatures from the Grave, with Barbara Steele. I've yet to see the latter, but only one of them can boast the proud distinction of being filmed, as Bloody Pit of Horror's credits so garishly (dare we say gaily?) proclaim, "in Psychovision."

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