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A review of "The Pit" (1981)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Although I can't call it an unqualified recommendation, I think you could do a lot worse than The Pit. It's the morbid tale of a creepy kid who murders his bullies by feeding them to monsters out in the woods.  It's got some major flaws, but if you want to see something unsettling that's occasionally pretty funny, you should check it out.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

The movie opens at a middle school Halloween party.  Jamie, a twelve year-old, goes up to one of his bullies and tells him he has "something" for him in the woods.  The bully, for reasons unknown, does not question this premise and agrees to follow Jamie out into the middle of the forest at night.

What he doesn't realize - but really should have suspected - is that Jamie is plotting something nefarious.  There is a pit out in the woods, you see, and as soon as the bully is near it, Jamie shoves him over and he falls in.  Cue spooky music.

We then cut back to some of the preceding months where we learn a little more about Jamie.  Seems he's kind of a miscreant and a dweeb.  He's unpopular to say the least and more than little bit perverted.  It's not just that he's obsessed with naked women - what twelve year-old boy isn't? - it's that he has no boundaries.  He goes so far over the line of morality that at one point he fakes a hostage situation with a neighbor's niece in order to coerce said neighbor into taking off her top, then snaps a Polaroid for future masturbatory reference.

He's also mentally unstable.  Aside from terrible mood swings, he seems to be having a schizophrenic break from reality, as he has lucid conversations with his teddy bear, Teddy, who talks back to him and instructs him as to how he might take revenge upon people who've wronged him.

Things are changing up a bit at Jamie's house, though.  His parents are going away on a trip and have hired a babysitter, Sandy, to watch after him.  Jamie thinks he's in love with Sandy and isn't terribly shy about expressing it.  Sandy is a psychology student who I guess thinks Jamie is a fascinating case study, so she deals with him with a tremendous amount of patience.

Among Jamie's many musings, he lets Sandy know one of his darkest secrets: he knows of a pit in the woods that's full of creepy ape-like things that he calls Tra-la-logs.  Sandy brushes this away, attributing it to Jamie's imagination - or possibly a hallucination.  She's not sure yet.  I guess she's working on her diagnosis?

Anyway, Jamie spends the first half of the movie torn between his fascination with the Tra-la-logs and his obsession with Sandy's breasts.  Eventually he realizes the Tra-la-logs are carnivorous and can't escape the pit to eat, so he steals some money from Sandy and buys giant slabs of raw meat from the butcher to feed them.  When the money runs out, Jamie frets that his forest friends might die of starvation... until Teddy tells him what to do.

Cue the murder montage.  Jamie goes about systematically luring various bullies and other folks he doesn't care for out into the woods, where he tricks them into falling in the pit in one way or another.  Once his victims fall in, the Tra-la-logs devour them.

It works pretty well for awhile, but then we catch up to that Halloween party from the beginning.  After dispatching the bully, Jamie is "forced" to kill the bully's girlfriend, but he has reservations; although she was kind of a jerk, she was mostly innocent.  After wrangling with his guilt for a bit, he decides he's going to reveal the Tra-la-logs to Sandy.  Unfortunately, she accidentally falls in and dies, which makes him feel even more guilty.  Dang.

Jamie decides he can't deal with them anymore, so he lowers a rope into the pit and tells the Tra-la-logs that they're on their own.  He leaves, and they climb out and escape.  From there, they go on a murder spree until they're killed by hunters.  Meanwhile, Jamie evades any suspicion from the police by framing another perceived enemy of his with all the evidence of his wrongdoing.

He eventually moves away and goes to live with his grandparents.  While getting settled into his new home, a neighborhood girl invites him out to the woods and shows him her own pit of creatures.  Jamie explains that he knows what they are... and the girl shoves him in.

The Stuff I Liked

The premise is really fun.  I love so many of the ideas behind this movie.

If you'll permit me to make a weird metaphor... I like to think that when writers are about to start telling a new story, we take a stroll down Human Street and look at a bunch of storefronts to find things we might want to put in our story.  So you'll see some shame in one window, some pride in another, some triumph here, some anger there, a troubled childhood, a difficult marriage, etc.  And a lot of storytellers will see some of the grosser or seedier aspects and pass them right by.  ("Hmm, chronic gas problems... nope.  I don't think I'm going to put that in my romantic comedy.")

The Pit makes me think of somebody walking down that street, but instead of passing by the weirdness, they put their face right up to the glass and squeal with delight.  "Oooooh!  Pervy adolescent sexual exploration?!  I can't wait!"

Jamie is this disgusting little beast full of all the dark corners of the human mind, but he's not necessarily an unrealistic character.  I like that the movie is bold enough to just take his ugliness and put it center stage.  And I love that it further compounds that by creating these vicious, id-driven primitive beasts who serve as his foil.

The Pit has a great sense of humor as well.  Ironically, almost all of the murders are intentionally funny - all the horror comes from the scenes in between where Jamie is either trying to justify his decisions or struggling to cope with his changing world.

It's a unique take on what is a fairly cliched story (troubled loner vs the world), and I enjoyed the quirkiness of it.

The Stuff I Didn't Like

I hate to bore everyone with nitpicking about story structure, but that's the sort of thing I get off on.  So please excuse me for the next ten paragraphs or so while I dwell on this.

The Pit does that U-shaped structure thing (Surprisingly, I don't know the actual term for this) where it starts with a scene toward the end, then doubles back and goes through the story in a more straightforward fashion.  In this particular case, it opens with one of Jamie's later murders, which he regrets and which serves as a catalyst for change.  Then it cuts to the actual beginning of the story and traces his path until he reaches those murders.

I hate this structure.  It's one of my least favorite ways for a story to be told, yet it's one of the most common forms you see in movies.  It reeks of laziness.  It's also boring.  In a best-case scenario, you're going to end up duplicating your content and re-hashing the same scene twice in your movie.  You'll also end up forcing your story to be predictable because you've already tipped your hand to the audience.

There's really only one reason why you would do this: you can't think of a more interesting way to get started.  A lot of times this is because you feel you need a lot of exposition before you can actually get into the conflict, but you're worried that the exposition will be boring.  So instead of opening up with twenty minutes of people explaining the premise and then getting to the action, you bookend the exposition with action scenes.

Here's the problem, though.  When you do that, you forget to answer the most important question: do you actually need the exposition at all?

If you're talking about something high-premise - like if Jamie has crazy wizard powers and the monsters are metaphysical creatures summoned by his anger - then the answer is yes, you do need that exposition, and in those cases the flash-forward is justifiable.  (I still think there's better alternatives, but at least I can respect the choice.)

But The Pit doesn't have a high-concept premise.  It's about a disturbed child who gets bullied a lot and who disposes of his perceived enemies by pushing them into a pit filled with carnivorous monsters.  That's easy to get across quickly - and in fact, the movie does get that across quickly.  It establishes all of that very quickly and very efficiently in the opening and it's really interesting - for about five minutes.

Then it pulls a "Five weeks earlier...." and turns into a slog.  We know that Jamie is bullied.  We know he's killing people.  Why are we spending so much time re-learning all this crap?  We got it already.  Why not just parse out the relationship between him and Sandy in little morsels between scenes of him checking on his "friends" in the woods?  That would be so much more terrifying and interesting.

All of this is, I guess, a really long-winded way of saying that when the movie is focused on Jamie being a criminal mastermind and psychopath, it's a halfway decent movie, but in between those scenes you have a lot of chaff to sort through.

The Stuff I'm Not Sure About

So... I'm not sure if I like Jamie's character or not.  Obviously I don't like him in the sense of "hey, I wish this character was real so I could hang out with him," but I'm not sure if I think he's a well-constructed character.

On the one hand, he's increeeeeeedibly creepy.  The Pit wasn't sure if it wanted to have a fiendish, mentally unstable psychopath or a disgusting pervert who doesn't understand boundaries, so it decided to go with both.  The result is a profoundly disturbing character.

Compounding that is the terrific acting.  Sammy Snyders puts in a solid performance and perfectly captures that awful transition period where a boy is knowledgeable and curious enough about sex to start exploring his lust, but still immature enough to cry when he can't get his way.  It's an inherently creepy part of child development and Snyders almost seems like he relishes the opportunity to milk it for all it's worth.

Jamie is also uncannily brilliant at murder.  He instinctively knows to cover his trail and frames a guy while carrying out his crimes.  In fact, he's so naturally creepy that when his frame-job is revealed, it doesn't come across as a surprise - there's no, "Oh, my God, he framed an innocent man!"  You just nod and go, "Uh-huh, that sounds like something Jamie would do."

So in that respect, I think he's a great character for a horror movie.  On paper, at least.

In practice, he's so skeevy you don't want to see him on screen for more than two minutes at a time.  It's one thing to have an unlikable protagonist, and it's one thing to have an unsettling antagonist.  But when you have an unlikable and unsettling protagonist, you just cringe the whole time and want the movie to be over.  It's incredibly unpleasant.

So... is that good or bad?  I'm not sure.  I'll just have to accept that I don't know these things.

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright infringement, you can watch The Pit on Youtube.

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