For the love of God!” pleads the Cardinal, as the last brick is hammered into place, sealing him up in the inquisition’s catacombs.
“Yessss,” hisses the serpentine Torquemada. “For the love of God.”
Not to be confused with the better-known slab of period gothic from Roger Corman and Vincent Price, which amazingly has even less to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s original 19th Century tale of suspense, Stuart Gordon (From Beyond, Re-Animator)’s 1991 torture romance The Pit And The Pendulum retains the setting and the set-piece – complete with nibbling rats, but instead makes an awkward fit of swashbuckling action/adventure and portentous neo-gothic that prefigures Francis Ford Copolla’s Dracula the year later.
If these were two separate films, the former would be laughably mediocre and the latter utterly intoxicating, thanks no end to the luscious scene-setting, all monastic chants and arch melodrama, and Lance Henrikson (Aliens, Near Dark)’s mesmerising turn as Tomás de Torquemada. The hooded High Inquisitor has a small Spanish town (filmed in central Italy, giving the cobbled streets ringed with extras a sense of rare expansive and authenticity for such a low budget offering) in the grip of witch-hunting fever, and a chance encounter brings his whole world crashing down.
When pious baker’s wife Maria (Rona de Ricci) incites the Inquisitor’s ire for intervening in a public flogging, he senses something not quite right about her – partly his own attraction, amplified by his austere insensibility, and partly her sorcerous potential, later explored by battered witch and cellmate Esmerelda (Twin Peaks and In The Mouth Of Madness‘ Frances Bay) in a series of dream sequences that make Legend look vérité.
Meanwhile, baker husband Antonio (Jonathan Fuller) buckles up some bargain-basement swash in an attempt to release her, barrelling through some mandatory fight scenes and derring do. His American accent especially is incredibly distracting, and his obtuse Princess Bride heroism at odds with the intense moral ambiguity that surrounds the rest of the film, a claustrophobic and oppressive affair set largely within cavernous dungeons where Torquemada holds court, his flunkies falling over themselves to outdo one another in their sadism – chief among them the single-minded Mendoza (Black Swan and The Fountain‘s Mark Margolis) – and Maria and Esmerelda strive to survive.
It’s fantastically tense and atmospheric, especially for a direct-to-VHS movie from the nafftacular Full Moon (the HD conversion is surprisingly crisp, incidentally) hinging on the intensity of the drama and Henrikson’s soul-boring stare, rather than the quantity of the claret – the torture scenes, and Maria’s attempted escape into the sublime having a touch of 2008’s Martyrs, don’t skimp on Gordon’s well-deserved reputation of sloshing around the gore and there’s some suitably stomach-turning set-pieces, but all of that pales before Torquemada arching his fingers and turning his steely glance toward an offending heretic.
Just as the tone and plot lurches between the two disparate halves of the film like the titular blade, so to does the cast with otherwise stalwarts undermined by inconsistent accents or pantomime villainy that jars with the icy Henrikson, the hollow-eyed Margolis, the fragile de Ricci or indeed a short but sweet turn from Oliver Reed as a cardinal in a fruity hat bellowing “EEE EEEZ ZE POPE!” The high notes in the ensemble and the intimacy of the setting make the weak links especially apparent, and regular Gordon nutbag Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, The Frighteners) initially disappoints as the purse-lipped clerk Francisco, American accent and funny glasses rivalling bread-making hero Antonio for tonal awkwardness, but his final scene redeems the role considerably, undercutting the protagonists’ triumph with a note of deadpan bleakness.
As Antonia and Maria march past the guards and through the golden light of the half open door, Francisco observes neatly, “There’ll be others.”