The Dead Pit (1989)

The Dead Pit (1989)

Film review by: Witney Seibold

I, like most of my generation, have a nostalgic draw toward the gory, low-fi slasher flicks of the 1980s. These R-rated bouts of bloody goofiness were the transgressive thrill desperately sought by me and my peers, on those magical nights of video store scouring and late-night cable TV hunts.

Sadly, like most items of nostalgia, re-visitation can be a minefield; Some of your beloved childhood objects hold up remarkably well (The Looney Tunes are a standout), while others leave you questioning your own taste and childhood sanity (“Inspector Gadget” or anything based on a toy). Some of those slashers I caught as a child are still tentpoles of the genre (“Hellraiser,” “Halloween,” John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing”), while others… well, case in point: Brett Leonard’s 1989 obscurity “The Dead Pit.”

To its credit “The Dead Pit” features some remarkably good photography, a pretty lead actress, and a large, cavernous, spooky setting that is rife with possibility. Sadly, the story is pretty dumb, and some of the conceits are unexplained and/or downright ridiculous.

In a prologue, we meet Dr. Colin Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer), a hollow-eyed creep working in a mental institution. Dr. Ramzi has a peculiar MO: He sneaks into patients’ rooms at night, gives them quickie lobotomies with a wicked stabbing tool, and drags them off to a cavernous green-glowing basement where he carves mystic runes into their skin, opens their skulls, stabs their brains with needles, and then dumps the bodies into a large pit in the center of the room. A dead pit if you will. It’s never explained what the runes are or how they work; we’re only to intuit that the runes are somehow responsible for the supernatural rigmarole we’re inevitably going to go through later in the film.

One night, Ramzi is followed by Dr. Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate), who finds the dead pit, shoots Ramzi in the head, throws him in the pit, and, rather than calling the police, opts to seal up the door to the pit with drywall, and tell no one. So far so good, I suppose.

Fast-forward twenty years, and Dr. Swan is still working at the same institution.

I watched this film with a friend of mine, who is equally enthused about supernatural blood-&-mayhem as I am, and he pointed out that while the supernatural aspects could be believed in a film like this, it is not possible that a man would continue to work in the same place he committed murder 20 years previous. If I killed someone in my workplace, I’d likely quit as soon as possible. What’s more, he seems to have forgotten the details of the murder. Again, if I murdered someone in my workplace, I’d remember it.

Enter the main character of our film, Jane Doe (stuntwoman Cheryl Lawson). Jane has no memory of her past, and has checked herself in voluntarily. She is haunted by nightmares where she is stalked about the shadowy hallways of the hospital by a creepy nurse, and tied up, and sprayed with a hose until her clothes fly off.

O.k. That’s a pretty good scene.

Pseudosapphic nurse-fetish underwear horror tease. Gotta love the 1980s.

The nightmare scenes are more than a little reminiscent of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” not least because Lawson looks a lot like “Nightmare” starlet Heather Langenkamp. Jane soon befriends some of the other inmates, including, notably, Christian Meyers (Stephen Grogory Foster, a man with an indeterminate accent), and Sister Claire (Geha Getz).

An earthquake strikes. The shoddy drywall holding the dead pit cracks open, and it’s not long before a resurrected demon version of Dr. Ramzi is stalking the halls, killing people again. The demon looks kinda silly. He has glowing red eyes, a bullethole in his head, a surgical mask, rubber gloves (even though he has long claws now), and an evil signet ring, which he wears over his gloves. Since the demon Ramzi only operates at night, he manages to kill several.

There’s a lot of boring back-and-forth during the movie, where we wait patiently for the characters to piece together what’s happening. That Dr. Swan has no memory of the film’s prologue only serve to extend the film beyond reason. There are also many scenes of Jane running down hallways in her underpants, running either toward or away from dangerous areas.

There’s a wicked kill with a surgical saw, and Ramzi manages to deliver some pretty pungent Freddy-esque one-liners. Dr. Swan is eventually sacrificed to the dead pit, and a hoard of zombie crazies is unleashed. I liked the use of color in this film, and the use of light and shadow is surprisingly professional for a genre picture of its budget.

Why do I hear Iron Maiden music?

The way the villain is dispatched is actually a bit creative, even thiugh the climax grinds on for a long, long time. It turns out that Sister Claire is an actual nun, and can bless water, transfoprming it into holy water. Sister Claire blesses an entire water tower, and Christian Meyers uses some dynamite (which happened to be laying around in a toolshed) to blow up the base of the tower and flood the hospital. “The Dead Pit” only serves to reinforce that notion that no matter what your unholy cult is, it can be undone by some good ol’ Roman Catholicism.

Oh, and it turns out that Dr. Ramzi was Jane Doe’s father. Wacky, right?

There are sequences during which “The Dead Pit” is remarkable. Brett Leonard (Who directed “The Lawnmower Man,” and “Virtuosity”) has a good sense of colorful atmosphere and shadowy, grey-blue creepiness, and can construct a chase scene very well. What’s more, Lawson has a nice body, and she runs around most of the film in a half-shirt and panties, amking sure we’re fully sated in our jiggle fix. It’s a pity “The Dead Pit” has some weird acting, slow pacing, and unconvincing scares. When the zombies come lurching out of the dead pit for the film’s finale, it feels less like a culmination, and more like a mechanical necessity. Ultimately, it’s a mediocre film.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 1:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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