Terror Trash: The Pit (1981)

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Terror Trash: <i>The Pit</i> (1981)

Terror Trash is an ongoing series celebrating and delighting in some less-than-sterling entries in the horror film genre. After several years of highlighting great films in our Century of Terror and ABCs of Horror series, it’s time for a loving appraisal of some decidedly more trashy, incompetent, or enjoyably cheesy material.

Typically, it’s nice when a bad movie offers its viewer a little conceptual and tonal variety. Perhaps it’s a horror film with a twist of science fiction, or a bad comedy with a sprinkling of action tropes such as car chases and shootouts. The dustbin of forgotten cinema is full of such instances of directors or producers figuring that they were offering more “bang for their buck” to the consumer by jamming different ideas together. But rarely will you ever find a film that demarcates its sections into such jarringly different camps as 1981’s The Pit. This is less a feature film, and more an exercise in the cinematic equivalent of dissociative identity disorder, with three separate portions so completely divorced from each other that they seem like they must have been shot by each of the director’s warring personalities. It’s a film that claims to be about a scary hole in the ground, but it’s also so much stranger.

The Pit is a Canadian production, what is sometimes cornily referred to as “Canuxploitation,” though it was actually filmed and set in northern Wisconsin. Its protagonist, Jamie, is a 12-year-old Canadian boy, a detail that is only important for the fact that he’s teased mercilessly by the locals for the crime of being a bacon-addled Canuck. The first thing we see of Jamie, in fact, is him being punched square in the nose by some local bullies, to peals of laughter from all the assembled onlookers, so clearly we’re laying some motive for the revenge spree to come. The bullies here rank somewhere in the middle of the “hilariously cruel schoolyard tyrants” hierarchy—they’re not quite the kids who chant “Orphan, orphan!” at the protagonist of Halloween 4, but there is a positively charming little girl who invites Jamie to use her bicycle, only to reveal that she sabotaged it to fall apart as soon as he tries to ride. Later, he runs into her exiting a store and she blesses him with the most enviable nickname imaginable: “Well, if it isn’t Clumsy-Stupid!”

Which is not to say that Jamie’s behavior doesn’t deserve a certain level of concern, if not abject disgust. You see, 12-year-old Jamie isn’t quite right in the head. He’s become distressingly obsessed with adult women and sex, and his only friend is a stuffed teddy bear he talks to incessantly. And when the bear starts talking back … well, it’s the basis of what I’m going to call Movie A.

Most of the first half of The Pit falls squarely into the camp of Movie A, and Movie A contains by far the most creepy and genuinely “horror genre” material. The crux of the plot here is Jamie’s deeply inappropriate behavior toward various women in the town, most notably his babysitter/caretaker Sandy, on whom he develops a jealous fixation. But the little perv also finds time to send pornographic letters to a middle-aged local librarian, and in the film’s most startlingly cruel segment he fakes a kidnapping phone call to the librarian’s home, in order to blackmail her into stripping naked and standing in front of her window so he can photograph her from behind cover. When he’s not committing felonies of sexual coercion, meanwhile, Jamie is pathetically trying to ingratiate himself to babysitter Sandy, who is looking after him for an extended period while his family is conveniently out of town. Perhaps staring at her while she sleeps, or scrawling “I LOVE YOU” on the bathroom mirror in her lipstick while she’s showering will get his romantic point across? As Jamie, actor Sammy Snyders delivers a performance that is simultaneously laughable and wooden, but also intense and frightening—he has the presence of an android that developed sentience by studying 4chan incel message boards.

the-pit-1981-mirror.jpg This is the plan that finally works, I can feel it.

Throughout these hijinks, Jamie is egged on by the voice of his teddy bear, and the voice the audience hears is unmistakably that of Snyders. It’s therefore natural for us to assume that the bear is a focal point for Jamie’s own mental illness; a way for his disturbed subconscious to give voice to the thoughts he doesn’t dare speak out loud. It’s a pretty conventional prop for a story about a mentally disturbed child … right up until the scene halfway through when Jamie leaves the room and the camera pans in on the bear, which proceeds to TURN ITS HEAD ON ITS OWN, establishing that it apparently truly is alive or possessed.

Now, you’re probably expecting the rest of the movie to revolve around the just-revealed demonic teddy bear, right? That’s a pretty significant revelation they just dropped on us, right? What if I told you that not only does the demonic bear then recede into the background, but that it never impacts the rest of the story in any way? Because this is precisely what happens.

This movie is, after all, called The Pit, and viewers probably expected a pit in there somewhere. Thus begins what we’ll call Movie B, which trades the psychosexual tension and mental illness of Movie A for wacky slapstick comedy and a hole in the ground full of monsters.

You see, Jamie found himself a pit in the woods at some point in the recent past, and it’s become his latest obsession—when he’s not inflicting emotional anguish on any of the women in his orbit, he’s out there tending to the pit, by which I mean “casually chatting with the handful of hairy monsters milling around at the bottom of the pit.” It’s really not clear what these things are, though the film’s tagline refers to them as “troglodytes” and Jamie inexplicably calls them “trologs” for short. Regardless, Jamie has decided that as Keeper of the Pit it is his burden to find sustenance for the monsters, despite the fact that they’re implied to have been sitting there happily for hundreds or thousands of years prior to his discovery. Truly, the hunger of the beasts is primarily an excuse to start disposing of Jamie’s enemies, solving two problems at once.

the-pit-1981-hole-inset.jpg No really, there’s an honest-to-god pit in this movie.

What follows is a relentlessly zany series of pit-related misadventures, in which Jamie tricks, lures or just simply dumps people he doesn’t like into this swimming pool-sized hole in the ground, where they’re presumably torn to shreds by the monsters. Little girl who so callously dared to label him as Clumsy-Stupid? He stands on the far side of the pit with her bicycle, and she’s so eager to take it back from him that she blunders straight into the 30-foot wide gaping hole in the ground in front of her. Bully who punched him in the face? Shoved in the pit. Boyfriend of babysitter Sandy, who is clearly standing in the way of Jamie getting some? He’s pit-bound, obviously, falling in while trying to catch a football pass. Perhaps the crowning moment is when Jamie decides to eliminate the wheelchair-using old biddy of a neighbor who had been narcing on his pervy tendencies, and proceeds to wheel her for miles through the woods in order to physically dump the screaming old woman into the pit. It’s a sequence one really needs to see in order to believe.

Looking at that footage, surely you’re imagining that the rest of The Pit contains nothing but the same brand of zaniness—the music, the wide shot of the howling woman being pushed in her wheelchair through the field—it all screams over-the-top comedy. And yet the Movie A segments of The Pit play like a serious, harrowing psychological horror film, about a little sexual deviant driven to kill by his demonic teddy bear. But whenever the actual PIT gets involved, and Movie B rears its absurd head, the film suddenly plays like the goofiest and most whimsical horror comedy imaginable. And would you believe we’ve still got a Movie C as well?

Following the death of babysitter Sandy, via completely accidental pit mishap, a despondent Jamie decides to be rid of the responsibility for feeding his monstrous pets, so he proceeds to lower a rope into the pit so the hairy beasts can climb up and escape. The final 15 minutes are a truncated Movie C, as The Pit suddenly morphs into a languid, zero-budget Bill Rebane or Don Dohler monster movie, as the “trologs” lumber around and kill random victims we’ve never seen before, while being hunted by local rednecks we’ve also never seen before. Of all things, I’m reminded of director John S. Rad’s infamous Dangerous Men, in which a villain first established in the final 20 minutes is defeated by a protagonist ALSO established in the final 20 minutes. These sequences elicit similar levels of consternation, though The Pit can also boast that “vaguely Canadian” flavor so difficult to replicate elsewhere.

It’s difficult to even hazard a guess at what would compel the people behind The Pit to do something like write a demonic teddy bear and then never do anything with it, or spend 90% of their film with the character of Jamie, only for him to be completely removed from the conclusion of the titular storyline. These are the kinds of choices for which there can never be a genuinely satisfying answer, as much as we would like for it to all make sense. If someone claims to have deciphered the mysteries of The Pit, point them in my direction—I’ve got a big, monster-free hole in the woods to sell them.


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.