Friday, June 2, 2017

Monster Rollercoaster: THE PIT

Tone is key to good storytelling, especially within film.  An inconsistent tone can undercut suspense, blunt the impact of a death, or make jokes fall flat.  That is what makes horror comedies so hard to get right.  Make it too silly and you lose any potential for genuine scares.  Make it too harrowing and the jokes could come off as mean spirited.  Balancing different tones takes a deft touch.  Some directors, like Taika Waititi, are masters of tonal shift (HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE flows through comedy, drama, action, and heartbreak as effortlessly as water).  Many directors never get there.  In my opinion, if you can’t handle the subtlety of a seamless tone shift, go as far as you can in the other direction and make your lane changes as audacious as possible.  Morph your musical into a slasher film midway and see what happens.  It may not result in a critically acclaimed success, but chances are anyone who sees it will remember it, for good or for bad.  Just look at Lew Lehman’s 1981 psychological horror/bad seed/evil toy/monster movie THE PIT.  

The Capsule:
Twelve year old Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders) has it rough.  Everyone in town thinks he’s a twisted little weirdo—which he is, but they don’t have to be such dicks about it.  His parents are emotionally distant and try their hardest to be physically distant as well, leaving him with a continuously revolving roster of babysitters for weeks on end.  His latest caretaker, Sandy (Jeannie Elias), a college student experienced with troubled youths, is unexpectedly nice to him.  So much so that he forgets about his stalker crush on the town librarian (Laura Hollingsworth) and instantly falls into creepy child love with her. Oh, and Jamie has conversations with his stuffed bear, Teddy, who is either a projection of his imagination, or a vessel for pure evil.  And it is also worth noting that he is caring for a pack of very real bloodthirsty monsters in a pit in the woods that only he knows about.  As his social problems continue to mount, Jamie realizes he can kill two birds with one stone by providing the Tra-la-logs, has he calls them, a healthy diet of asshole townsfolk.  While initially successful (by his standards), things eventually get out of hand and even worse, out of the pit.  

THE PIT is a runaway train of tone mutations.  In the beginning it has the feel of a coming of age film, which slips into uncomfortable pyscho-sexual territory, wobbles around with the supernatural, becomes a revenge flick, then takes on a junior serial killer vibe, before turning into a monster bloodbath.  If it is on the map, this movie has drunkenly swerved through it.  Look no further than the opening scene to demonstrate what kind of madness you are in for.  The movie was obviously sold on the whole monsters in the pit angle, but since no one gets killed until almost an hour in and they don’t even show the pit until the twenty minute mark, someone decided to jump start the action by lifting an ENTIRE sequence from later on when Jamie lures some victims to the pit and make it a cold open.  The scene just starts.  You have no idea who any of these people are or what the hell their deal is.  Jamie is introduced in a faceless Halloween costume.  There is a flashback to a scene that hasn’t happened yet.  And the full scene plays out again an hour later where it was supposed to.  It’s kind of amazing.  

We get our proper introduction to social misfit and future bully killer Jamie in afterschool detention, repeating a sentence on the blackboard over and over, Bart Simpson style (perhaps this was Matt Groening’s secret inspiration). 

It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Jamie, as every single person in town hates him.  Some have legitimate reasons to dislike him. Others are hostile on sight, reacting like he’s giving off some kind of abuse pheromone.  When he politely introduces himself to an older kid on the school playground and asks to join his club, the kid just hauls off and punches Jamie in the nose.  The kid didn’t actually say it, but we can assume that his answer was a “no.”  

Then we are introduced to Abergail (Andrea Swartz), an adorable redheaded little girl who, in any other problem child movie, would be the problem child.  She screams at him for admiring her bike, then wheels around taunting him that his dad is going to put him in an institution for being such a weirdo.  Later she apologizes to him for being so mean and offers to let him ride her bike, only to bend over laughing when the bike falls apart and knocks him on his ass (she hatches impressively elaborate pranks for being such a little turd).  She even adds a surprisingly cutting level of venom to her clunky, eight year-old insults, like when she calls him a funny person, or, my favorite, “Well, if it isn’t Clumsy Stupid.”  Jamie has his problems, but my god, Abergail is a pint sized ginger Satan.  

Adults who should know better are just as bad.  Even blind old Miss Oliphant (Lillian Graham), whose nurse purposefully rams her wheelchair into Jamie’s feet while he’s standing on the sidewalk, loudly complains about what a horrible child he is and that he’ll probably grow up to be “one of those… hippies”.  

Before you can become too sympathetic to poor Jamie, we find out his extra-curricular activities include swinging naked from the trees and sending anonymous, sexually explicit artwork to Marge, the librarian.  At one point the little perv goes so far as set up a fake ransom call to Marge claiming to have kidnapped her niece Abergail and blackmails her into stripping at the window so he can take pictures from behind the bushes.  What a scamp.

The majority of the movie revolves around Jamie’s relationship with Sandy, who really needs to screen her babysitting gigs more carefully.  Jamie’s mother even warns Sandy that the kid is going to crush hard on her because he’s at that age where he’s starting to notice girls and also he’s a junior sexual predator.  She begins to get the idea when she wakes up in the morning to him standing at her bed, staring at her exposed nipple.  When she gets upset, he explains that he was just watching her sleep, as if that would reassure her.  

It’s a foregone conclusion that Jamie would fall for Sandy since she is the only (real) person in his life that doesn’t treat him like shit.  She calls him out on his bullshit, at least the stuff she knows about, but she also genuinely wants to connect to the little misfit and help him through his issues.  She does need to get better at establishing boundaries, though.   Things get super uncomfortable when Jamie talks her into washing his back in the bath (“but I’ll be all covered in suds” should not be a compelling enough argument).  The awkwardness only rises as, during their tub side conversation, Sandy begins to suspect that Jamie and his mother have an even more inappropriate bath time routine.  

Honestly, I would have liked this movie even without all the other crazy shit, because this relationship is so interesting all by itself.  Sammy Snyders’ performance adds an authenticity to Jamie.  He’s a twisted little freak, but his reactions are believably childlike.  It is understandable that Sandy would treat Jamie’s talk of Teddy and the Tra-la-logs as purely imagination because that is exactly the kind of stuff a lonely, hurt little boy would come up with.  And apparently, in the original script, that’s all it really is.  The fantastic elements happen in Jamie’s mind.  

Of course, that’s not what we get in the actual movie, and that decision changes a compelling but oddball story into absolutely legendary realms of absurdity.  

Take Teddy.  Jamie’s wicked little companion is an average, ratty looking, stuffed toy.  He only speaks to Jamie, and only in voice over, which is a slightly altered version of Jamie’s own voice.  All of Jamie’s worst behaviors are at Teddy’s suggestion.  Jamie is obviously projecting all his dark and inappropriate thoughts to his imaginary friend.  There is even an ironic moment when Teddy tries to convince Jamie that the vision of one of his victims is all his head.  Except there is one scene where Sandy is leaving Jamie’s empty room and Teddy, sitting alone on the bed, turns his head as she leaves.  That is the only time Teddy ever moves on his own and there is no follow up or explanation at all for that scene.  What the fuck, THE PIT? 

The pit monsters are no surprise, but are just as confusing.  Jamie decides early on he needs to feed the Tra-la-logs (the questions of what the beasts ate before he found them or why the hell they are living in a pit in the first place are never addressed).  He starts with chocolate bars (not well received), before switching to raw beef from the butcher shop.  When he runs out of meat money, he tries to coax an uncooperative farm cow into the pit.  Teddy convinces Jamie start feeding them the town’s most numerous food source:  jerks.

Jamie devises a series of clever ruses to lure in victims, mostly predicated on their inability to look down while walking (they would have probably died from falling into open manholes or elevator shafts eventually, anyway).  Naturally, the first in line to become a monster snack is little Abergail.  She died as she lived, insulting Jamie.  Next, Miss Oliphant gets wheeled into the pit.  Sandy’s football playing boyfriend is next (go long, Allen).   

Finally we get back to the scene from the beginning, where Jamie lures in the school bully and his girlfriend with the promise of “jewels and stuff” left by a robber (not the brightest of bullies).  Up until this point, all the deaths had a sort of triumphant revenge of the underdog feel to them.  As soon as he goes after the bully’s complicit but terrified girlfriend, the music and tone become much more serious and suddenly Jamie looks like a serial killer.  He goes so far as to frame Sandy’s new boyfriend for all the disappearances, and even plants the nude pictures he took of the librarian on him to boot.  The little mastermind probably would have gotten away with it if the the sheriff wasn’t too lazy to bother investigating the crimes at all (hmm, maybe this is where Matt Groenig got the idea for Chief Wiggum as well).

After the [spoiler] unintentional, and seriously gory, death of Sandy, Jamie has had enough of killing.  He throws a rope into the pit and frees the Tra-la-logs to fend for themselves.  Now the movie becomes an old fashion monster rampage.  The hairy beasts chow down on a smorgasbord of cyclists and skinny dippers before the sheriff gathers together a mob of shotgun toting hicks to hunt them down, instructing them “don’t think, just shoot.”  Have I mentioned the sheriff is a really terrible elected official?  The mob find the Tra-la-logs cowering in their pit and blasts them into chunks.  I’m not even sure anyone got a good look at the creatures.  The sheriff just writes them off as wild dogs and has all the evidence of the undiscovered species immediately bulldozed over.  I’m sure that cuts down on the paperwork.

If you have any interest in seeing this movie, do yourself a favor and skip this paragraph, because I’m going to [spoiler] spoil the most perfect ending in all of cinema.  Jamie’s parents, possibly suspicious that everyone connected to their son is now presumed dead, pawn him off on his grandparents in the country.  Things seem to be turning around for the little sociopath.  He even meets a girl his age, Alicia, who doesn’t immediately insult or physically assault him.  She is actually nice to him and asks if he wants to play.  As he is chasing her into the woods (it’s just a game, he’s not trying to kill her, I don't think), they come across a very familiar looking pit with very familiar noises coming from it.  “They’re Tra-la-logs,” Jamie mansplains, “they eat people.”  Alicia sweetly replies, “Yes, I know,” and shoves Jamie into the pit.  Freeze-frame on Jamie’s terrified face and The End.  Death by irony!  And being torn apart by monsters.  The only way it could have been better is if Alicia pulled out a demonically possessed stuffed unicorn and started talking to it.

First time director Lew Lehman never made another picture, but since THE PIT feels like at least four different movies in one, I guess he felt he didn’t have to.  Taken individually, any one of those movies would be pretty entertaining, but when mixed up all together, the resulting lunacy is unforgettable.  Also incomprehensible.  It’s a hell of a lot of fun, at the very least.

Nice job, Clumsy Stupid.

C Chaka

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