October Horrorshow: The Dead Pit

One would be hard-pressed to find a horror film that takes as much inspiration from the works of Dario Argento as The Dead Pit, the 1989 film from first-time director Brett Leonard.

From a screenplay by Leonard and the film’s producer, Gimel Everett, The Dead Pit stars Cheryl Lawson as Jane Doe, a patient at a mental hospital suffering from amnesia. Only she claims it isn’t amnesia at all. She says that a mysterious doctor removed her memories surgically. Her therapist, Dr. Swan (Jeremy Slate), doesn’t believe her, of course. He thinks some traumatic event in her past has welled up in the present and caused her brain to lock away her memories. Although, he of all people should listen a little more closely to her claims.

That’s because twenty years earlier, Dr. Swan put an end to grotesque experiments that were being carried out by the insane Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer), in which Ramzi had been performing unauthorized surgery on the brains of the hospital’s patients. In a bloody confrontation in the basement of one of the hospital’s buildings, Swan kills Ramzi. The horror of what Ramzi had done causes Swan to seal up the basement area and pretend that nothing ever happened down there. But, an earthquake breaks the seal, and the spirit of Dr. Ramzi is set loose to prey on the patients and staff of the hospital.

While more and more cast members meet their demise, Dr. Swan and the rest of the staff are unaware that anything is amiss. Only Jane knows something is wrong. She keeps having horrible dreams, and when she awakens she has visions of Dr. Ramzi that no one else can see. It all leads up to a climax where Ramzi unleashes forces from the underworld upon the hospital and surrounding area.

I wrote above that Leonard was influenced by Argento, and that’s readily apparent to any viewer familiar with the Italian auteur’s work. The main character played by Lawson is interchangeable The Dead Pitwith Jessica Harper’s character from Suspiria or Jennifer Connelly’s from Phenomena. A lonely young woman in a strange, institutional setting was Argento’s forte.

It’s also heavy on the same type of atmosphere. There are lots of colored lights and synthesized music, but it doesn’t have the same level of artistry as Argento. This aspect of the film feels as much 1989 as Argento.

The film doesn’t have the same psychedelic and dreamlike intensity of an Argento film, but this is where Leonard strikes out on his own. It’s also where his limitations as a storyteller are found.

There are narrative inconsistencies that only reveal themselves after further delving into the plot, and I don’t wish to spoil any more. Just know that there are some large holes that have to be ignored.

Leonard had a tiny budget to work with. According to IMDb, this film was made for an estimated $350k. This limited amount of resources reveals itself the most in the bit players in the cast. Many have such amateurish readings that it’s a blessing for the film that they only have a line or two here and there. The rest of the main cast performed to the material.

What viewers get with this film is a fairly typical 1980s horror flick. It has a decent amount of gore and a decent amount of suspense, but the producers chose not to break the bank on serious talent. It’s worth a watch, but then becomes forgettable.

It’s also not as scary as it was thirty years ago. The more time goes by, the less scary films like these become. They are going from being immediately fearful to being a dramatic interpretation of fear, even if that wasn’t the filmmakers’ intent back when these were made. 1980s horror movies aren’t as scary as they used to be for the same reason ’50s horror movies and ’30s horror movies aren’t as scary anymore, and the same reason Shakespeare’s jokes are such a chore to even understand, much less laugh at. They’re speaking a storytelling language from previous generations, one that viewers don’t respond to in the same way. It’s a good thing no one’s going to stop making movies anytime soon, then.