Sunday, December 4, 2022

Bloody Pit of Horror / Il boia scarlatto (1965)

Fun is only partially the name of the game with a film like Bloody Pit of Horror. With its comic book style influence, there’s lots of fun to be had, but it’s got a mean side too, as sadism is also the name of the game. The mix of fun and dark in the film is an influence from a style of Italian adult-oriented superhero, crime, and erotic comics known as Fumetti Neri, which consists, among many others, of flamboyant masked super heroes/villains: Diabolik, Kriminal, Mister-X, and Satanik. The antagonist in Bloody Pit of Horror could’ve easily come out of this subgenre, but he’s no fantastic masked superman. He’s a fantastically cruel masked super-sadistic-madman, the Crimson Executioner, played with love, enthusiasm, and high energy by a chiseled Mickey Hargitay.


The trailer and the intro to the English edited version of Bloody Pit of Horror wants you to believe that the film is based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade. This is fair, since it is surprisingly sadistic at times, with a fair share of medieval dungeon torture devices, but it’s a lot more on the Fumetti Neri side, consciously so, as the characters in the film include a photography crew and a company of lovely cover girl models in an old castle shooting some violent and sexy material for a fumetti style photocomic book called Skeletrik. It is also influenced by the more sexually playful gothic Italian horror of the era, such as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), The Vampire and The Playgirls (1960), and The Monster of the Opera (1964), with an introduction bringing to mind Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960). It was Massimo Pupillo’s second stab as director of a horror film, the first being Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965) with Barbara Steele.


Despite displaying a knack for it, horror was not where Massimo Pupillo wanted to be. He started making horror movies so he could transition from making documentaries to making commercial films. To his disappointment, from his horror efforts, he ended up classified as a horror director in Italy. Concerned he wouldn’t be able to escape this label, Pupillo gave up making horror films, which is really too bad, because the trio of horror films he did direct, which also included Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (1965), are quite interesting and notable. I always thought this small body of horror work from Pupillo would make a nice Blu-Ray boxset.


I feel like Bloody Pit of Horror is by no means obscure or even underappreciated, as it does seem to have a fan base who love it for many different reasons. It gets docked by some for cheap practical effects and minimal gore, but it is still interesting to note that the special effects are by the legendary Carlo Rambaldi (E.T., Alien, Deep Red, Tragic Ceremony, Barbarella, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, etc.) in the earlier phase of his career.

Over the years, Bloody Pit of Horror was a film I rarely went looking for, but it just kept finding me, first as an inclusion on one of those 50 movie bargain bin DVD collections, then later as a RiffTrax episode, next on a so-so DVD, and then finally as a beautiful looking uncut Blu-Ray from Severin. It feels like an old friend at this point who’s come a long way, and I’m happy to see it still thriving. The film itself was ballsy for its time, considering the torture spectacles in the last third of the film, but it also fits right in with the Italian gothic horror of its day while also offering a standout exuberant performance in Hargitay’s role as the Crimson Executioner. It’s easily rivalled by Antonio Margheriti’s The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963) and Mario Bava’s Baron Blood (1972) in the medieval torture department, but this one has a higher level of energy, playfulness, and camp.


After the obligatory flashback intro to Bloody Pit of Horror, the setup with a sizeable group of about ten characters arriving to a castle (the famed Castello Piccolomini in Balsorano) in several vehicles almost feels like an Eastmancolor Italian counterpart to a similar setup at the start of the black & white House on Haunted Hill (1959). The movie doesn’t waste too much time populating the creepy old castle with a high volume of fun characters, such as models, assistants, a greedy business man (Alfredo Rizzo), a mild-mannered writer (Walter Brandi), striped t-shirted henchmen (Gino Turini and Roberto Messina), and a has-been actor going full misanthrope in his old castle to protect his ideals and, as he puts it, his “pure body” from the corruption of the outside world. It’s also supposedly haunted by the ghost of a 17th century executioner (the castle interiors were filmed at Palazzo Borghese in Artena).


The characters are sometimes annoying, sometimes likeable, but always fun, especially the lovely and comical models, who all seem to be having a good time while preparing and shooting a number of horror scenarios for the magazine using the castle dungeon as a photography set.

Kudos have to go to Femi Benussi, Luisa Baratto, and Rita Klein for really selling their anguish during the climactic torture scenes at the hands of the movie’s monster. A peplum actor turned dungeon sadist is just a marvelous concept, especially when he ends up looking like a mix between a wrestler and a super hero. He’s entertaining, flamboyant, and really cool, but he’s also a real dangerous prick who likes to hear himself talk, almost like a de Sadean libertine but maybe more clown-like here.

Pupillo had kind things to say about Mickey Hargitay as a person while also claiming that he couldn’t act to save his life. Perhaps that’s true with regards to dialogue, but as far as body-language goes, the man is on fire in this film. He is dubbed in both the English and Italian versions, so I personally couldn’t tell that he was a bad actor, but I do know that I also loved him in the two Renato Polselli films he was in: Delirium (1972) and The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973).


In addition to the antique castle ambiance, the supervillain killer, and the bevy of beauties, the torture set piece spectacles in the film are another draw. They consist of real and fictional torture devices that are not just all show, as some are put to surprisingly brutal use. Some are quite simple while others are overly elaborate, like the spider web with the mechanical spider, which is a great excuse to put a provocative woman (Moa Tahi) in spider web bondage that certainly is one of the film’s more memorable set pieces. (This scene and Hargitay’s costumed character seem to be used the most to sell the movie.) Even though it is referred to as a poisonous mechanical spider in the film, it is still quite laughable (in a fun way) though not quite as a laughable as the spider in Nude for Satan (1974).


Every time I hear the strange music by Gino Peguri (that’s a little reminiscent to that in The Devil’s Nightmare (1971)) over the castle visuals towards the start of the film, I’m immediately pulled into the film’s isolated world and am usually reminded of how much I like this film more than I thought.        

The camp is maintained throughout Bloody Pit of Horror, but the movie purposefully goes from playful and innocent to deadly with a terrifically high body count. I initially thought that the nature of the sadism was kind of distasteful and mean, but it’s theatrically entertaining, and I feel that everyone gives it their all. I do believe the film is self-aware of its camp value as well and is not meant to be taken seriously. It’s not like a, 'we tried so hard and failed,' but rather, 'we know this is kind of wacky and absurd, but we’re all having a fun time and hopefully the viewers are too.'

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. The music is really fantastic. I've always loved the Italian composers' use of female vocalizations.

    1. Right!? It's really so seductive at times. It just raises my endorphin levels.