1965 | Italy, United States
AKA: Il Boia Scarlatto
Director: Massimo Pupillo

If you’re in a deploring mood, there is much to deplore in the sexual politics of 1960s men’s magazines. But, putting aside the rather ungainly issue of the representation of women, can it truly be said that our newsstands’ depiction of men has improved all that much in the ensuing years? To my eye, the typical men’s magazine of today features a heavily photoshopped Ashton Kucher on the cover and, inside, an even more photoshopped spread of some skeletal romcom starlet in her underwear, along with a bunch of “fake it til you make it” columns on how to appear like less of an uncultured dick than you really are and some snarky article about how to nail the new temp in your office.

By contrast, the typical 1960s men’s magazine cover would feature a guy waist deep in quicksand, his shirt shredded to reveal a latticework of candy-apple-red lacerations on his sinewy torso as he punches a rabid wombat in the face, gritting his teeth in an expression that puzzlingly combines agony and deep, almost otherworldly satisfaction. In the background behind him, lashed to some kind of horrific idol, would be an impossibly lingerie-clad woman who, despite being threatened by an army of lusty savages, would be unable to take her adoring eyes off of him. I then imagine that the articles within such a magazine would be various expressions of the sentiment “RARRRGHH!!!!!”

So, in short, yes, I would indeed take those old magazines’ vision of raw, explosive masculinity — one that could only be unleashed once all femininity had been safely tied up to the nearest idol — over the smug, self-regarding date rapists who seem to smirk out at me from between every line of the newer model. There’s a kind of virtue to that kind of crassness, crudity, and uncultured-ness, not the least being that you know it’s never going to sneak up on you from behind a mask of civility. This is something that I’d like to think Italian director Massimo Pupillo’s 1965 shlock horror masterpiece Bloody Pit of Horror understands implicitly — even celebrates, if that title is any indication.

For instance, take the film’s protagonist, Rick, played by Walter Brandi. The screenplay positions Rick as a writer, but in the world of Bloody Pit of Horror, he is only so by dint of his ascot and notch-collared cardigan, both of which provide a bohemian contrast to the crisp suits and ties worn by the other male professionals in his group. What scant little is left to Rick’s character beyond that is all classic Man of Action — though in combat, Rick’s cultured background perhaps makes him more prone to doling out a judicious karate chop over the more plebian knuckle sandwich. And in keeping with him being an author in the red meat and potatoes world of Bloody Pit of Horror, we first join Rick as he takes part in what we writers know is one of the most important aspects of the craft: accompanying a group of voluptuous lingerie models on a days-long search for the perfect castle in which to shoot the lurid cover photo for his latest potboiler.

“Lurid” is an important word to have on hand when describing Bloody Pit of Horror. It may even comprise a kind of terse mission statement on the part of the filmmakers. At least in terms of what they promise, that is, which, unmistakably, is thrills of a dark and unseemly nature. What is actually delivered, on the other hand, tends to be more on the merely naughty side. Forget the opening titles’ claim that the film is “based on the writings of the Marquis De Sade”; this is strictly a burlesque show version of De Sade, with no knowledge of the author required beyond that necessary for making winking cocktail party chatter. In fact, an actual reading of The 120 Days of Sodom might even spoil the fun somewhat. Thus, despite all of the death and defilement that’s so enthusiastically pantomimed throughout the movie, any formal reassurance that no lingerie models were harmed in the course of its filming is wholly unnecessary.

Of course, it is not only lingerie models that accompany Rick on this sojourn. His publisher, Daniel Parks (Alfredo Rizzo), also apparently has nothing better to do than spend several days rubbernecking the cover shoot for a trashy paperback. And then there is smoothie Dermott (Ralph Zucker), the photographer, makeup and wardrobe lady Edith (Superargo’s Luisa Baratto, aka Liz Barret), and the two beefy male models who round out the on-camera talent. Fortunately for the group, they eventually come upon a creepy 15th century castle suitable to their purposes, its exterior played by the oft-used Balsorano Castle in L’Aquila, Abruzzo. Thinking it deserted, they force their way inside, only to be confronted by the owner’s burly, gondolier-shirted security guards, who look like they sprang from a piece from the imagination of Tom of Finland.

Said owner is one Travis Anderson. And because Bloody Pit of Horror’s tangential relationship to reality allows for some pretty preposterous coincidences, it turns out he was once married to Edith, the makeup and wardrobe lady — although, upon meeting her, he offers no hint of recognition. At a later point, Edith tells Rick that the well-sculpted Travis disappeared without a trace several years ago and that, before that, he had been a “muscleman in costumed films.”

This description has some verisimilitude to it, seeing as Travis is portrayed by Hungarian bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, who indeed did appear in a couple of peplums during his day, and who furthermore fits the description of a muscleman. Hargitay made his screen debut as a bit player in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, in which he was cast at the insistence of the film’s female lead, his then-wife Jayne Mansfield. Mansfield met Hargitay while he was performing as part of a sort of beefcake chorus line in septuagenarian sexpot Mae West’s popular stage show, and the two, once married, appeared onscreen together on several occasions. In fact, a part had been written for Mansfield in Bloody Pit of Horror, but by the time production began, the couple had divorced. These many years on, the most significant link on Hargitay’s family tree might well be considered his parentage of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit actor Mariska Hargitay.

Perhaps due to Mansfield’s absence, it is Hargitay who gets the above-the-title billing in Bloody Pit of Horror. And I don’t think anyone can deny that he really gives it his all, sinking his teeth — and everything else — into his role with an almost disconcerting gusto. This is especially true once events transform his character into a homicidal maniac. You see, Anderson’s castle, as the story goes, had previously been the home of a notorious 17th Century pervert known as the Crimson Executioner, who, in a prologue reminiscent of Bava’s Black Sunday, is shown being confined for eternity inside his own Iron Maiden. Despite the leering enjoyment that the Executioner is shown taking in the torture of attractive young women, we are told that his was an obsession with purity — an obsession that Anderson apparently shares.

As such, Anderson spends a lot of time admiring his muscled torso in the mirror and making hysterical speeches about mankind being inferior creatures who, had he not withdrawn from them, would have “corrupted the harmony” of his “perfect body”. Indeed, one has to wonder if the film is positing Anderson’s descent into madness as somehow the result of his retreat into narcissism, a turning of his back upon the world of action inhabited by two-fisted ladies men like Rick that could only lead down the path to effeteness and perversion. In any case, once Anderson has made the full transformation into the Crimson Executioner, it’s clear that he’s meant to be every bit as ridiculous as he is frightening. Hargitay’s version of a maniacal grin borders on being outright goofy, and the red luchador costume he wears as the Executioner does nothing to further dignify matters.

But before all of this can happen, of course, Anderson must decide what to do with his unexpected visitors. After first testily ordering Rick and Parks to leave, he reconsiders upon seeing the assortment of young ladies they’ve brought with them, allowing them to stay just long enough to take the necessary photos. There then follows an awesome montage depicting the actual cover shoot itself, at once a celebration and good-natured satire of the very pulp tradition of which Bloody Pit of Horror sits soundly at the center of. In one tableau, a woman is strangled from behind by a skull masked killer in a suit of armor, in another, a scantily clad woman prepares to behead her male victim with an oversized medieval ax. In each case, the shot is freeze-framed to represent the final published product, an effect enhanced by the film’s bold and comic-bookish, Eastmancolor-enhanced color scheme (and perhaps also by “Psychovision”, another process that the opening credits claim the movie was filmed in, though, not knowing what that is exactly, I couldn’t say so with any authority).

All of this calls to mind the design aesthetic of, not only the aforementioned “men’s adventure” magazines of the era, but also a wider tradition that includes the delightfully lurid — there’s that word again — covers of German krimi novels, Italian gialli, and the macabre European photo comics that gave birth to the likes of the murderous antihero Killing. (One of the male models is even seen at one point wearing a skeleton body stocking reminiscent of that worn by both Killing and Kriminal.) This graphic sensibility carries over into the murders themselves once they begin, especially that of the model Kinojo, a faux exotic played by Wild Wild Planet’s Moa Tahi. Rick and Edith find the girl decorously tied up in a huge, room-sized spider’s web and clad only in an abbreviated two-piece sarong, each of the web’s strands attached to a wall-mounted bow and arrow that is poised to fire at the slightest tension. Meanwhile a huge mechanical spider, its claws coated in poison, inches ever closer to the terrified girl’s face. The whole scene is as reminiscent of an old “Spicy Adventures” pulp magazine cover as it is the sleeve of a Les Baxter exotica album come to life.

Needless to say, by the time of Kinojo’s death, Anderson has completely lost it and set himself to the task of killing off the models one by one, presumably as punishment for their criminal desirability. (“They desecrated your world of beauty with their sordidness!”, he opines at one point, addressing the spirit of the Crimson Executioner.) This all leads to a delirious conclusion in the Executioner’s underground dungeon, a place in which the torture devices, following the spirit of the endeavor overall, appear designed less for the inflicting of pain than they are for displaying barely clad girls to best advantage. One of these is a turntable on which two bound models stand, brushing against, as they rotate, a series of wall-mounted daggers that only succeed in teasingly unraveling bits of fabric from their undergarments.

Even more amusing is the “Lover of Death”, which is basically just a sparring dummy with knives sticking out of it (as you will notice, the Crimson Executioner is really fond of having knives sticking out of everything) that the Executioner has hung from the ceiling. It is this last diabolical implement that proves the Executioner’s undoing, as he haplessly finds himself within its fatal embrace at the tail end of a prolonged fistfight with Rick. “My perfect body in the poisonous clutches of the Lover of Death!”, he exclaims, and more pithy last words may never have been spoken. I would’ve liked it if he had also added, “Oh, the irony!” But I have to admit the moment is perfect as is.

In fact, Bloody Pit of Horror, as is, is an almost perfect B-movie, embodying all of the good qualities that designation implies and few of the bad ones. The performers are bad rather than non-actors, defaulting to excess in a way that compliments the overheated material. The pacing is as fast as you’d expect from something that is constantly trying to distract you from how nonsensical it is, and there is just enough of a nasty edge to it to give it bite without undermining its inherent goofiness. Furthermore, the movie actually seems to embrace its status as a silly piece of trash, even going the extra distance by making itself as much the platonic ideal of that silly piece of trash as is humanly possible. This gives Bloody Pit of Horror a remarkable consistency that escapes more slapdash efforts. Clearly, there was a vision here, a top-down vision of cheesy, sophomoric excess painted in lurid splashes of seasick green, boudoir blue, and candy apple red. There goes that word again.

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