The Time(s) When Matt Farley Fell in The Pit

Our Movie of the Month ritual involves everyone in the crew taking turns introducing a film that no one else has seen yet. It’s an experience we try our best to enter blind, without any preemptive research. I failed that stipulation by just a week’s time this October by watching a stealth remake of CC’s first Movie of the Month selection, the 1981 Canuxploitation classic The Pit, without knowing what I was getting into. While I had never seen The Pit before, stray details of its cult-circuit reputation were still potent enough in the ether that I recognized I was spoiling the movie for myself by watching a parody of it a week early. The question is, how could I have possibly suspected that a parody of The Pit even existed until I was already watching it? What kind of deranged madman would even think to make a feature-length parody of that little-seen Canadian horror curio, much less actually follow through? The only possible answer, of course, is Matt Farley – but it’s a discovery that only leads to more questions as you track the ripple effects of Farley’s fixation on The Pit in the larger picture of his entire Motern Media catalog.

Once you’ve seen the original work, Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel is unmistakable as a feature-length homage to The Pit. I suspected as much when I originally watched Sammy (in my summer-long determination to watch all of Matt Farley’s available filmography), but what I didn’t realize was exactly how deep that influence seeped. In Sammy, Matt Farley changes his name to Jamie to match the protagonist of The Pit, even mentally de-aging his own character with a head injury to match the original Jamie’s emotional & sexual maturity. He carries an oversized, telepathic teddy bear that encourages him to violate the sexual privacy of his babysitter (including exact recreations of two key bathroom scenes from The Pit). He gets banned from the library for staging disruptive pranks. He wages war on a bratty neighbor named Abergail, who believes the phrase “funny person” to be the ultimate insult. He lures his perceived enemies to a woodland setting, where they’re eaten by a captive prehistoric monster that eventually breaks free to cause widespread havoc. Sammy is not a loose homage to The Pit; it’s basically a cinematic cover song, a low-key remake.

However, watching Sammy and watching The Pit are too wildly different experiences, mostly because of their respective, outright opposed tones. Part of what distinguishes Matt Farley from most microbudget, backyard horror auteurs is that his work is aggressively wholesome. I get the sense that he (along with frequent collaborator Charles Roxburgh) was raised on VHS-era horror oddities like The Pit, but doesn’t have the heart to recreate their cruelty. My favorite aspect of The Pit, beyond the volume & variety of its monstrous threats, was how uncomfortable & grotesque its depictions of pubescent sexuality could be. In The Pit, Jamie is a menacing pervert who squicks out his entire community with his weaponized libido, which he barely disguises with a Rhoda Penmark-style performance of innocence. In Sammy, by contrast, Jamie is an adult man conveying that exact childish sexuality, right down to the very same acts of bathtime inappropriateness, but somehow Farley makes its impact far less creepy. His favorite aspects of The Pit were obviously the more innocuous, absurd touches like the name Abergail, the “talking” teddy bear, repetitions of the phrase “funny person,” etc. When it comes to being genuinely creepy & sexually uncomfortable, he doesn’t seem to have the heart; it’s a wholesome monster movie aesthetic that makes his already hyper-specific regional cinema ethos all the more distinct.

When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to revisit Sammy in light of having recently seen The Pit (he is extremely, radically approachable), he “joked” that I must rewatch all of his movies in that context, as they were all influenced by that formative relic. I immediately saw his point. Besides Farley’s aggressively localized, microbudget version of horror-comedy worshiping the regional cinema ethos of The Pit as if it were a religious doctrine, his own movies follow its exact narrative pattern over & over again. In most contexts, The Pit’s structure of functioning as a psychological drama & a hangout comedy until rapidly mutating into a full-on creature feature in its final minutes would seem erratic & illogical. In the context of Matt Farley’s pictures, it’s a rigid blueprint. In most Matt Farley movies there’s a Riverbeast, a “Gospercap,” a cult of modern “druids,” or a shameless peeping Tom lurking in the woods just outside of the action for most of the runtime, then rushing in to cause havoc just minutes before the end credits. Watching Sammy, I was amazed that someone had committed to remaking a minor curio as underseen as The Pit (way back in 2002, long before every movie of its ilk got the 4k Blu-Ray restoration treatment). Since Matt Farley tweeted back at me, my amazement has only deepened, as I’ve since realized he’s been remaking The Pit over & over again his entire career as a filmmaker. It’s as impressively committed as it is baffling.

As interesting of a pairing as Sammy makes with The Pit, it’s not the first Matt Farley title I’d recommend to fans of that classic. His holy trinity of greatest accomplishments – Local Legends, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, and Monsters, Murder, and Marriage in Manchvegas – all convey the taste of The Pit’s influence on the Motern Media catalog you’d need to get the full picture, and they’re each much more satisfying as isolated works. (In true Matt Farley fashion, Sammy is part of a complex mythology of interconnected “druid” films, even though it doesn’t contain druids itself.) As a stunt & an act of stubborn follow-through, however, it’s astounding that Farley & crew completed a feature-length homage to that Canuxploitation gem in the first place, one made mind-bogglingly wholesome through revision & fixation. It’s worth seeing just for that commitment & audacity alone.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at its big-budget equivalent, The Gate (1987), and last week’s examination of how it could have easily have been a Gooby-level embarrassment.

-Brandon Ledet

Tra-la-logs vs. Hoonies: Finding Gooby in The Pit

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Boomer lamented the loss of its screenplay’s original subtext about childhood struggles with Autism. In its conceptual phases, The Pit was intended to be a thoughtful insight into the mind of a child on the spectrum. Jamie’s misunderstanding of personal boundaries and fantastic obsessions with his “talking” teddy bear and the Tra-la-logs (troglodytes) that live in a pit in the nearby woods were originally intended to be empathetic teaching points about the internal processes of a child on the spectrum struggling with the emotional & sexual discomforts of early puberty. Realizing that kind of subtle, thoughtful child psychology drama wouldn’t make nearly as much money as a bonkers horror film with the same basic premise, producers pushed for a different story altogether. In The Pit as a final product, the woods-dwelling troglodytes & telepathic teddy bear are demonstrated to be real, and really dangerous. Jamie himself makes a leap from a misunderstood, bullied child with boundary issues to a full-on perverted menace who even out-creeps the flesh-eating Tra-la-logs as the film’s most hideous monster. I understand some of Boomer’s mixed feelings on this shift from empathetic child psychology drama to exploitative horror cheapie, but ultimately, I gotta say the producers made the right call (at least in terms of The Pit’s entertainment value). I’ve already seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to recapture the imaginations & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a talking teddy bear. It was 2009’s Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended terror & laughable absurdity (thanks largely to being covered on the “bad movie” podcast How Did This Get Made?); It’s the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche.

Once you consider them as a pair, the parallels between Gooby & The Pit are unmistakable. A G-rated (presumably Christian-targeted) children’s film, Gooby follows a small child struggling to adjust to his family’s move into a new home, not his burgeoning sexuality, but the ways his anxieties manifest are very similar to Jamie’s. Instead of fearing Tra-la-logs, the pint-sized protagonist of Gooby fears “Hoonies”: two-headed CGI bird-beasts that only he can see. He also processes the emotional stress of his changing life and the threat of the Hoonies through his relationship with an anthropomorphic teddy bear. In The Pit, the teddy bear is a telepathic communicator who encourages Jamie to explore his sexuality and enact his revenge on perceived enemies in increasingly unsavory ways. In Gooby, the titular teddy bear transforms into a six-foot tall imaginary friend (voiced by Robbie Coltrane, of Hagrid fame) who provides his corresponding troubled child with emotional support in a time when he’s isolated from the humans in his life. Gooby is, in theory, the wholesome version of The Pit, with all the icky sex & violence replaced with tender, empathetic insight into the mental processes of an outsider child on the spectrum struggling to adapt to a new reality and to relate to the other humans in his social circle. Yet, Gooby is deeply disturbing in its own, unintended way both because of its lighthearted, sanitized exploration of deeply troubling emotional issues and because Gooby himself is a goddamn nightmare to look at. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous threats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. Gooby, by contrast, risks the child psychology sincerity of The Pit’s original form and falls flat on its face because of its shortcomings in budget, dialogue, and character design. By trying to make the imaginary teddy bear friend of The Pit’s basic dynamic a lovable goofball, Gooby only succeeded in creating a new kind of horror, one that plays as an embarrassing mistake instead of a successful attempt at small-budget genre filmmaking. Both films are equally fascinating & unnerving, but only one’s effect feels successful in its intent – the one that asks to be treated as a horror film to begin with.

There are plenty of successful, well-considered children’s films about processing mental & emotional anxiety through imaginary devices – Paperhouse, MirriorMask, The Lady in White, A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, to name a few we’ve covered here. Gooby & The Pit attempt a very specific, shared angle on that formula in their teddy bear vs. imaginary monsters (whether they be Hoonies or Tra-la-logs) interpretation of childhood Autism conflicts. The difference is that Gooby fully commits to the “It was all in their head” metaphor originally intended but abandoned by The Pit, to disastrous results. Whether a limitation in talent or budget, Gooby never had a chance to be anything but an absurd, unnerving embarrassment headlined by a nightmarish teddy bear goon. The producers of The Pit likely saw their own project heading in that direction when they decided to bail from the original child psychology melodrama script to pursue a more marketable cheapo horror genre payoff. The results are largely the same. The Pit & Gooby are both deeply uncomfortable curios that reach a very peculiar level of terror you might not expect given how goofy they appear from the outside. The difference is that The Pit comes out looking ingenious for framing that effect as its intent, whereas Gooby persists only as a how-did-this-get-made mockery, an abomination & an embarrassment. They’re basically the same movie, but only The Pit was self-aware enough to realize its own horrific effect.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its big-budget equivalent, The Gate (1987).

-Brandon Ledet

When The Pit Got Bigger, So Did Its Scares

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Britnee mentioned that the film’s premise stoked her déjà vu of another 80s horror gem she had seen in her teens: The Gate. At the time I had never heard of The Gate, but catching up with it since I totally understand the confusion. A Canadian horror oddity about children releasing demons from a hole in their backyard, The Gate shares many basic attributes with The Pit’s DNA. At first glance, it almost seems like a more conventional take on the exact same material. While The Pit follows an oversexed, vengeful monster child who terrorizes his own community like a prurient Rhoda Penmark, with the pit-dwelling troglodytes he releases serving as his flesh-eating pets, The Gate echoes a more traditional dynamic where innocent children face supernatural dangers through no real fault of their own. The hole-dwelling demons of The Gate are described as “minions,” but they’re minions of The Devil, not the children who unwittingly release them. The Pit also boasts a grimy, microbudget quality that finds its scares in emotional & sexual discomfort, recalling other small-budget creepouts like The Baby or Pin, while The Gate is much more reliant on the physical scares of special effects work – depicting its demonic threats through traditional means like rubber monster costumes, forced perceptive photography, and stop motion animation. While The Gate blows up The Pit’s basic aesthetic to a grander, more traditional stage, however, it maintains the earlier film’s basic strangeness & willingness to throw as may varied, plentiful scares at the screen as it can manage in its 80min runtime. If anything, the increase in budget & ability to produce literal, physical dangers in the same childish headspace as The Pit only makes The Gate more terrifying.

Writer Michael Nankin explained that he constructed The Gate around “the nastiest thoughts from [his] childhood,” a tone that’s nailed perfectly in the final product. By its overwhelming finale, the film feels like a sky-high pile of varied demonic monstrosities, but each scare is generated from the detailed-fixated nightmare logic of any & all childhood anxieties. The premise is simple: two young friends discover a hole in a suburban backyard and unwittingly perform a Satanic ritual that transforms it into a gate to Hell. While being babysat on a parents-free weekend, they’re forced to contend with a wide range of hideous beasts & impossible supernatural oddities that emerge from the hole until they seal the gate with another ritual. Where The Gate excels is in finding its scares in small, detail-fixated childhood moments of fears of the unknown: dead pets, shadows cast from bugs & toys, parents rotting & collapsing into goo, treehouses struck down by lighting while children are inside, heavy metal albums unleashing demonic rituals when played backwards, a creature living behind bedroom walls, arms grabbing ankles from beneath the bed, etc. The brilliant gimmick of the tiny minions released from the backyard hole is that they can form together into a shapeshifted, larger gestalt threat that, when defeated, only re-separates into the tiny, unkillable demons. Defeating & re-containing the forces of Hell released through the gate before they overtake the world feels like an impossible task for the two young boys who face it, which only heightens the childhood-specific fear of having too much responsibility and no power or control. It’s a far cry from the telepathic teddy bear & rubber monster suits simplicity of The Pit, but the same loopy adherence to nightmare logic & willingness to escalate the extent of the threat on an exponential trajectory remains.

I’d be curious to know if The Pit was a direct influence on The Gate, which seems likely given their release dates, Canuxploitation origins, and childlike fascination with hole-dwelling monsters. It’s possible that this is a case of parallel thinking, where two 1980s filmmakers tried to recreate what inspired their worst nightmares as children and used the same starting point (a backyard hole) as their initial writing prompt. The better-funded special effects work of The Gate pushed that premise to its scariest extreme, but both films tap into the darkest corners of childhood anxiety in their own impressive, respective ways. As Britnee stated when she first compared the two: “I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.” I imagine there are entire subcults of children who were traumatized by catching either title (or both!) on late-night cable at just the right age. These are the kinds of uneasy horror films that look & feel like they were made for children . . . until they very much don’t. The Pit subverts its children’s media aesthetic by tapping into menacing sexual discomfort. The Gate goes for much more traditional, physical scares in its own depictions of hole-dwelling Evil, but its nightmare logic & gleeful sense of cruelty leads to even bigger scares than what’s lurking in The Pit. I’m not sure what was going on in 1980s Canadian holes that inspired these two terrifying oddities, but I’m grateful that it was immortalized onscreen. I just wish I had seen both films at the age when they really would have burrowed into my subconscious, when I would have been too young to fully comprehend why they’re terrifying, but just the right age to share their sensibilities.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Pit (1981)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month CC made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Pit (1981).

CC: When I was first asked to join Swampflix I was both excited and apprehensive because I knew that I would soon have to select a Movie of the Month. How could I possibly choose something that I’ve seen but none of the experts at Swampflix have? I was doubly intimidated when I was informed that my first selection would be the October Movie of the Month, which has traditionally been a horror film. Thank goodness for my years of idly watching whatever garbage played during daytime television in my cable-free, pre-internet childhood. I saw The Pit around the same time I saw the 1979 film Prophecy, a sci-fi horror featuring a truly disturbing mutated, skinless bear. As a result, I kinda mixed some parts of the two in my mind. Mainly, the disturbing gore.

The Pit is a 1981 Canuxploitation (Canadian schlock) horror film that was for some strange reason filmed in Beaver Falls, Wisconsin. It follows the story of socially inept and lustful 12-year-old Jamie, who discovers a pit full of monsters he calls “Tra-la-logs” (instead of troglodytes) in the woods behind his house. He quickly discovers the monsters will eat any meat he supplies them, even . . . HUMAN FLESH! When Jamie’s not pushing his enemies into a pit of monsters, he’s blackmailing librarians for sexy nudes and stalking his babysitter. Oh yeah, and he talks to a teddy bear who may or may not be demonically possessed. In the words of SNL‘s Stefon, “This movie’s got everything: pits full of hungry humanoid creatures, disturbingly sexual pre-teens, talking bears, MURDER.”

Boomer, what did you think of The Pit? Were there too many plot elements and horror tropes or was it delightfully overstuffed?

Boomer: I loved this movie. It definitely felt a little sporadically organized, given that there are at least three different kinds of horror going on here (psychological/psychosexual, supernatural [arguably?], and cryptozoological), and that means that the film is being pulled in multiple directions at once, but while that certainly means that it runs the risk of being muddled (and it shows its seams at times), it hangs together pretty well on the whole, minus a few things that I would consider to be poor choices. I really like that, for the most part, the film acts as an insight into the mind of a repressed little boy who’s likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He’s stuck in a state of arrested development and lives almost entirely in his own imagination, and his parents are so unprepared to deal with his specialized needs (or as Sandy says, “exceptional children”) that they treat their son like an alien being. At first, the things that we learn about Jamie—like that he was wearing a superman cape (presumably as a loincloth) and swinging around in trees pretending to be Tarzan—are unusual, but not bizarre, antisocial, or dangerous enough to warrant the kind of response that his family and community provide: old ladies talking about his maladaptive behavior when he is within earshot; getting punched in the face by a bully with no apparent repercussions for the larger, more aggressive boy; the cruel taunts and pranks from Abergail [sic]; and arguably the worst, Marg Livingstone, who treats Jamie as if he were an aggressive adult sex offender released on parole, rather than an odd little boy who needs a good talking to. If a child develops a crush and acts on it inappropriately, you would think an adult would first scold the kid and then get the parents involved if it happened again, but Marg just hides behind bookshelves like a creep instead of tackling the problem head-on like a grown-up (not that this excuses what Jamie does to her later). He builds, of course, to violence and sexual harassment (his extortion of Marg under threat of violence to her niece is when he really crosses the line), but his community already despises and ostracizes him at a time when the audience can’t help but sympathize with him.

There’s a lot that happens in implication here, much more than in other horror movies of the era, area, or budget. Jamie’s father looks to be at least a decade older than his mother, if not two, so the audience is left to assume that there’s a bizarre sexual energy in the house even before the parents abandon the boy in the hands of a local college student they barely know. On top of that, we get Jamie’s monologue in the bath about how his mother often washes him and washes him, even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, implying that Mrs. Benjamin goes a little “Piper Laurie as Margaret White” whenever Jamie acts out. Honestly, the amount of sexual repression and psychological damage, combined with the “child with a secret” trope and the northeastern US backdrop, give the whole thing a Stephen King vibe all the way through. When we hear Teddy speaking, he does so with Jamie’s voice, much like little Danny Torrance has an imaginary friend that helps him interpret the world around him when adults fail to provide even the most scant or answers (or sympathy). The titular pit is almost the least interesting aspect of the entire film, except as an objective correlative metaphor about the giant hole in Jamie’s understanding of the world that leads him to do some pretty fucked up things. For me, the only real problem is when the “tra-la-logs” in the hole are revealed to be literal and real and not just aspects of Jamie’s psyche. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does irrevocably change the tone when the psychological inspection of Jamie is interrupted for 20+ minutes by characters we’ve never seen before: a toothless and typical “monsters eat skinny-dipping teenagers” scene, an abbreviated police procedural about finding the missing persons, and a bunch of camo-hatted hunters pursuing the troglodytes back to their pit and shooting them all.

Reading up on the film, apparently the original script was more explicit in the fact that the action of the film was all in Jamie’s mind, with no escaped troglodytes and nothing supernatural about Teddy. To me, the influence of that first script is most apparent in the scene where Jamie forces Marg to strip, as we see Teddy’s (read: Jamie’s) voice coming from a recording on the other end of the phone line instead of, for instance, coming from the bear himself. On the other hand, there’s also the scene where poor Sandy finds Jamie’s nudie mags and then puts them back where they were, while Teddy’s head turns to the door after she leaves, clearly indicating that there is something not-of-this-earth about the bear. There was clearly a lot of studio interference going on here, and I wish we could see the film as it was originally intended, but nonetheless I’m delighted that I’ve finally seen it.

I’ve been hard on all of the adults in this film with the exception of Sandy (who certainly has moments where she could be a better influence on Jamie and help guide him into being less antisocial, but overall is fairly balanced in her treatment of him and only freaks out when he really crosses the line, like when he sneaks into the bathroom while she’s showering), but the one I feel most perplexed about is Marg. The film acts as if we’re supposed to have more empathy for Jamie, and reasonably so (at least at first), while Marg in general reacts very poorly to Jamie’s affections, crude though they may be. Again, why would you not address a twelve year old boy about how inappropriate it is for him to put your picture on a nude? By acting as if it never happened, you’re doing nothing to alter or change this behavior, which is irresponsible and bizarre, especially when you are an authority figure in his life. Brandon, am I being too hard on Marg?

Brandon: I think the issue is that you’re being too soft on Jamie, which is making you overly judgemental of Marg by extension. Jamie’s prurient interests in adult women goes far beyond the typical crushes of boys his age and instead weighs on the community around him as a genuine sexual menace. The creepiest thing about it is that he knows his predatory, privacy-violating behavior will be excused by the adults around him because of his apparent juvenile innocence. He’s like a horned-up version of Rhoda Penmark (of The Bad Seed) in that way, playing the part of a curious child who loves his teddy bear whenever anyone’s looking, but privately operating as a sexual sociopath with complex schemes on how to exploit the older women around him for cheap thrills. I don’t get the sense that we’re meant to sympathize with Jamie, but rather are supposed to be creeped out by his premature sexuality & his overreaction to bullies (both actual & perceived). His juvenile horniness feels like a threat that’s terrorized his community long before the film’s narrative starts, as indicated by his parents’ deliberate absence, his long back-history of traumatized babysitters, and Marg’s already-established paranoia in his presence. I’m totally on Marg’s side in suspicion & fear of that horny little devil, which is why it’s so satisfying when he ultimately meets his demise at the hands of his own Rhoda Penmark-type equal (in a conclusion that makes no logical storytelling sense, but strikes a perfect note of poetic justice anyway).

Jamie’s terrifying, predatory sexuality is a large reason why I fell in love with The Pit, because it’s a genuinely horrific threat that effectively creeped me out even though the film at large is campy & over-the-top. As already suggested, this is a film that’s delightfully overstuffed with non-traditional monsters: flesh-eating troglodytes, a telepathic teddy bear, and a horny pubescent boy. Because of the cheapness of the troglodytes’ Roger Corman-level costuming & the bear’s cartoonish vocal dubbing, it’s easy enough to laugh those threats off as being too goofy to take seriously. Jamie’s predatory sexuality is much more difficult to dismiss, recalling other unconventionally eerie films of the era like Pin, The Baby, Sleepaway Camp, and Flowers in the Attic that transcend their limited means by tapping into adolescent sexual discomfort. Britnee, did you similarly find Jamie’s sexuality to be the creepiest threat in The Pit? Were the tra-la-logs or the telepathic teddy bear at all scary to you or did they play like campy jokes in comparison to the horny little boy who considers them friends?

Britnee: When I think of what scares me the most in general, it’s children like Jamie. Creepy, sleazy little perverts who think they’re untouchable. I wanted to jump through the screen and light that teddy bear on fire just to punish Jamie for being a gross creep. Also, it seemed like the teddy bear had part of his soul, so burning it would possibly destroy Jamie (like Voldemort’s horcruxes!). Even if the tra-la-logs were more realistic and genuinely terrifying or if the teddy bear was possessed by a demonic spirit and using a child to do its dirty work, nothing even comes close to how terrifying Jamie is. He’s also at the age where kids are the most annoying: not quite a teenager, yet older than an elementary school student. All of these horrible things combined made it really difficult for me to have any sort of sympathy or understanding for Jamie, and this is why I don’t have children or work with children.

What I love most about The Pit, other than the fact that it contains my worst fear (creepy kids), is that it’s so unpredictable and goes in a ton of different directions. I just didn’t know what to focus on. Should I have been concerned about the tra-la-logs climbing out of the pit and wreaking havoc on the innocent folk of this small town? Or should I be more worried about the possessed teddy bear guiding a perverted kid in the wrong direction? I didn’t really know, but I also didn’t really care because all of the distracting little subplots made the ending of the film all the more shocking for me. There’s nothing quite like a film that ends with a twist, and oh boy, was this ending twist so satisfying. I went home and slept like a baby after the movie ended.

CC, you mentioned watching this as a young kid. How was watching it again as an adult? Is there anything that you were more scared of in the film back then that didn’t scare you in the recent viewing? Or vice versa?

CC: As mentioned previously, I had somewhat blended the plots to both The Pit and Prophecy in my 6-9 year-old brain and as a result, didn’t really remember much of The Pit beyond the glowing eyes of the tra-la-logs. It’s a strange detail to fixate on too, since the tra-la-logs themselves get so little screen time. I’m surprised that Jamie’s extremely disturbing Teddy did not leave more of a lasting impression. Mind you, I was terrified of clowns, the dark, some dolls (especially Chucky or Chucky-adjacent ones), Troll II, Freddy Kruger, walking up staircases or down hallways, and cars so I probably was just trying to make sure that at least teddy bears could stay on my “safe” list. It should also be noted that none of the weird sexual stuff stayed with me, but that might again be my baby brain trying to protect me from the world.

Perhaps one of the reasons this film did stick in my mind is that it’s not particularly scary. A psycho-sexual thriller starring a 12-year-old and lacking in significant jump scares is more creepy and off-putting than most horror I had been exposed to at this age. Boomer, what’s your take? Is The Pit a scary movie? Does it even count as horror?

Boomer: I wouldn’t necessarily consider this film to be “scary” per se, and not just because it turns into a bargain basement Don Dohler (redundant, I know) movie in the third act. I’m in agreement with Brandon and Britnee in that the scariest thing about this film is its function as a disturbing exploration of the psyche of an oversexed pubescent boy, and Jamie is, as Brandon notes, a genuine sexual menace. I just find myself having more sympathy for Jamie (initially; he falls off the slippery slope very quickly). I think that may have more to do with how old/mature we interpret Jamie to be and whether or not he has some kind of social disorder or is on the autism spectrum, and I’m quick to admit that this is likely due to my reading of the film being rooted in my own horizon of limited experience.

When I was in the fifth grade at a repressive Christian school, the students in my class were on a rotating schedule of who was to deliver the lunch orders for the entire class to the cafeteria in the mornings. I remember clearly that this happened on a Thursday, because the lunch room was in back of auditorium that was used for assemblies and in which the middle and high school students had “chapel” assemblies every week. The previous night, the son of the pastor who headed the megachurch of which the school was part had been caught in flagrante delicto with the school secretary’s daughter in his car during the Wednesday night service. Every student in grades 6-12 had been gathered in the auditorium to watch an “educational” video in which one of the talking heads (not those) stated clearly that “We [adults] always know when teenagers are having sex, because the boy is always angry, and the girl is always crying.” Leaving aside the more subtle nastiness in that statement (the heteronormativity, the prurience of adults with regards to teenage sexual behavior, etc.) and focusing on the extreme inappropriateness of the ideas presented in it, this is deeply fucked up. That’s not even getting into the fact that the girl in question was expelled and the pastor’s son was allowed to continue to attend school, and the undeniable sexism of that, not to mention the implicitness of the fact that this decision should not be questioned; after all, wasn’t the pastor ordained by God and thus above having his decisions questioned?

This was just one piece of a 5000+ component puzzle of my understanding of sexuality in an extremely religious and oppressed household and community. For years, if there was a girl who was crying at school, the only logical conclusion was that she was a slut (she couldn’t possibly have been simply frustrated at the overall sexism and degradation she experienced at this school, or in a home headed by a patriarch who considered this a sufficiently healthy learning environment . . . right?). There was nothing healthy about my own understanding of sex and sexuality until I was in my late teens at best, and even then, I was still possessed of toxic ideologies and regressive attitudes that have taken years to unlearn, and which I still find myself noticing and confronting in my life on a daily basis. I could recount dozens upon dozens of stories just like this one that illustrate how my own mind and that of many others I knew were warped by an abusive home, school, and church life that created one Jamie after another. I’m certainly not saying that I think Jamie shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions; he definitely should. Leaving aside the extent to which Jamie is mentally capable of understanding what he’s doing (more on that in a moment), I just see his home life and the repressed reactions of his parents and community as being contributing factors to his personality problems: he explicitly says that his mother enjoys bathing him despite the fact that he is at an age where he should be able to bathe himself (hinting at potential molestation); he says that his mother often bathes him even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, which immediately makes me think of poor Carrie White getting locked in her closet by her mother for her “uncleanness”; when he acts inappropriately, his father snatches him up, threatens violence, and doesn’t even consider having a conversation about consent, privacy, or the inappropriateness of voyeurism; and ultimately, his parents completely abdicate their responsibility to raise their child and leave him in the care of a stranger with, at most, a day or two’s warning.

At least one source I’ve found indicates that screenwriter Ian Stuart’s original script was explicit in its demonstration that Jamie had a developmental disorder, that The Pit was intended to be “an earnest exploration of the inner life of an autistic child” and that “[the] tra-la-logs and the talking bear were all products of Jaime’s mind, and his perversions were mostly interior.” Although no one in the film talks about neurological atypicality vis-a-vis their relationship to socialization issues (other than Sandy’s oblique references to working with “exceptional children”), after having worked in education, the signs that Jamie is on the spectrum were apparent to me in my reading of the film. With this in mind, he clearly has parents who are completely unprepared, ill-equipped, and unwilling to do the hard work of raising a special needs child. It doesn’t make his actions forgivable (in particular, the peeping at poor Marg under the threat of proxy violence is completely inexcusable and the most nauseating thing in the whole film), but I see the reactions of the adults in his life to his actions as making them complicit in the escalation of his behavior. To loop back around to CC’s question, I wouldn’t say that the film is “horror” per se, but it does effectively demonstrate the disturbing way that children with disabilities are often abused and neglected. The Arc, an organization that was originally created to assist people neurologically atypical individuals in finding legal recourse against institutions that denied services to them, reports that one in three children with autism or some other kind of mental impairment will experience abuse in their lifetimes (although they indicate that there’s insufficient study data to confirm all of their findings, and they do not differentiate between abuse by parents and other entities like caregivers or teachers).

Any properly socially aware person can see that the sexist, unequal treatment of male and female children and the cultivation of a “boys will be boys” mentality that denigrates the lived experience of women contribute to a society in which someone like Brett Kavanaugh can come within spitting distance of a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land while his accusers are doxxed, harassed, and threatened with violence. The difference is that at the time of his (“alleged”) infractions, the older and neurotypical Kavanaugh was mentally competent to take responsibility for his actions, while Jamie is (arguably) an autistic child whose need for specialized care is neglected by his parents and who is ostracized and isolated by his community. His curiosity about sexuality combined with his punishment for having said curiosity, devoid of any kind of education about why his actions are inappropriate and reprehensible and how they can be expressed more healthily, turns him into a ticking time bomb of perversion (and worse). To me, this is a movie about the horrors of abuse, neglect, complicity, and the failure of communities (on the familial and societal level) to take responsibility to teach young men about consent, assault, bodily autonomy, boundaries, and respect. The true horror of The Pit is that it acts as a mirror of society and shows us how rape culture can be perpetuated: “This is how you get Jamies. This is how you get Kavanaughs. This is how you get Brock Turners.” The only difference is that Jamie (again, arguably, given that nothing is ever made explicit about his neurological state) lacks the mental faculties to meditate on his toxic ideologies and change them without some kind of guidance, which he is denied at every turn.

Brandon, bearing in mind that the screenwriter originally intended to make Jamie’s autism explicit, and that this was one of the many changes made by the studio between conception and release, do you see any of that implied on screen, or am I giving the film too much credit? Does it affect your feelings about Jamie? Is the “Hollywoodifying” of the script (like making the bear’s possession and the existence of the tra-la-logs explicitly real on top of dropping Jamie’s disorder) something that you observe as a continuing problem in the film industry (i.e., are there any recent films in which the “seams” between the original intent and the finished product are so obvious)?

Brandon: The thoughtful child-psychology drama you’re describing is clearly detectable early in The Pit, but it’s something that gets muddled the more the film indulges in the schlocky horrors offered by the tra-la-logs, the telepathic teddy bear, and Jamie’s weaponized libido. To note a particular way that dynamic changes, consider the shifting implications of how Jamie’s relationship with his parents tracks from beginning to end. When Jamie’s just a sexually confused, mentally disturbed young boy who can’t differentiate between reality & fantasy, his parents come across as abusive brutes, ill-quipped to properly raise a child with special needs (or any child at all, really). Later, when the horrors of the film are made explicitly real and Jamie is demonstrated to be a cold-hearted, perverted killer who takes orders from a demonic toy and feeds (mostly undeserving) victims to his pet troglodytes, that parent-child dynamic shifts dramatically. The threats of physical violence, reports of inappropriate bath time scrubbing, and eagerness to delegate responsibility for the little creep to unsuspecting babysitters are still disturbing on their own merit, but they can easily be read as desperate, last-ditch efforts from parents frustrated by & fearful of a murderous, horned-up monster child. Any credibility The Pit might have had as a sincere inner-life portrait of a troubled child on the spectrum is lost as soon as magic is shown to be real & Jamie starts deploying it against his enemies . . . but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing.

On some level, I recognize that an intellectual, measured approach to Jamie’s dysfunctional psychology would likely be the more ethical path for The Pit to take, but as an appreciator of shameless, bonkers genre films, I’m honestly deeply appreciative that the original script underwent the “Hollywoodization” process instead. I’ve seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to thoughtfully capture the imagination & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a teddy bear. It was 2009’s unintentionally terrifying curio Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended what-the-fuck factor (thanks largely to being covered on the How Did This Get Made? podcast) – the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous treats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s-good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. The Hollywoodization of The Pit is partially what saves it from being an embarrassment. As an audience, we’ve practically been trained to expect the restrained “It was all in Jamie’s head” reveal from the original script, which is what makes touches like the teddy bear’s unexplained anthropomorphism or the tra-la-logs’ third act escape from the titular pit such mind-blowing developments. The producers may have pushed for an intellectually hollower effect with those changes, but it feels like they’re breaking unspoken storytelling rules as a result, and the film feels like something much wilder than the Gooby precursor it easily could have been (considering its production value & quality of dialogue).

Because of the types of films I’m most typically drawn to (“messy,” over-the-top, “style over substance” genre fare), I more often run into unintentionally implied messages & themes rather than ones that have been erased or diluted in production. Sometimes, these unintended messages can be delightfully absurd, such as how Juame Collet-Serra’s 2009 horror film Orphan makes adopting a child appear to be a dangerous terror or how the 1989 fantasy comedy Teen Witch encourages young women to ditch their loyal best friends for easy popularity without there being fallout or consequence. Sometimes, the result is shockingly offensive, such as how the 2016 horror Lights Out encourages parents with depression to heroically commit suicide to spare their children of the burden or how this year’s G-rated talking-animal comedy Show Dogs groomed children to be accepting of sexual molestation (before appropriate outrage had that underlying theme removed from the film while it was still in theaters). Whether delightful or abhorrent, I always find this kind of unintentional messaging in cheapo cinema to be fascinating, even more so than tracking the ways a screenwriter’s original intent was diluted on its way to the screen. As such, I find myself scratching my head over what the completed, explicitly supernatural version of The Pit is saying about Jamie & childhood psychology more than I am fretting over what may have been lost from its first draft on the page. The final version of the story isn’t saying much (if anything) substantial about children on the spectrum, but it’s loudly ranting about something, however incoherent.

Britnee, what moral or message are you getting from The Pit as a completed work, if any? What is the film ultimately saying about Jamie & childhood psychology?

Britnee: If there is any moral message that I got from The Pit, it’s “You can’t be a little shit without being punished.” I saw Jamie as a terror of a child who ran around terrorizing people for sheer pleasure and killing people who got in his way or did him “wrong.” The more harassing and killing he did, the more I hoped that he would be punished for his actions in some way, which in the end, he did. Not once did I think about what was causing him to be so horrible. I just assumed he was pure evil. Now that it’s been a while since I initially watched the film and I’ve read Boomer’s take on Jamie’s character, I definitely see how Jamie was a victim of abuse and neglect. For instance, when I watched the bathtub scene, I thought he was acting like a perv and manipulating Sandy into the bathing him for sexual pleasure. My dislike for his character made me disregard his cries for help when he told her about how his mom bathed him hardcore even when he’s not dirty. While Sandy seemed concerned after hearing this, she did nothing. Sandy was really the only person he seemed to trust (he even told her the tra-la-log secret!) and she failed him. So between Sandy and his neglectful parents, he really didn’t have anyone to guide him in the right direction and get him the help he desperately needed.

In regards to childhood psychology, the film may be trying to say, “Hey, if you have a disturbed kid like Jamie, pay attention to their abnormal behavior and get them help before they do some serious damage.” It’s possible that Jamie would’ve had a chance if his parents would have brought him to a therapist or psychiatrist instead of ignoring him, hoping the problem would just go away on its own. All that being said, I still really hate him, but I sort of understand why he’s such a terrible human being.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I usually don’t do any prior research for Movie of the Month choices before watching the films, but I did a quick Google Image search for The Pit because it sounded like a movie I watched as a teenager. The movie I was thinking of was 1987’s The Gate, which is about a group of kids that unleash demons from a hole in their backyard. I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.

Brandon: The Canuxploitation factor of The Pit, combined with its Wisconsin shooting locale, is undeniably part of its value as a curiosity. There’s a whole outsider-artist industry of regional genre cinema out there that rarely reaches wide distribution or acclaim, but can be fascinating in its creative dissonance with routine Hollywood filmmaking. To that point, I accidentally spoiled myself on some of the film’s stranger touches when I recently watched Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel for an unrelated viewing project. Farley himself is an outsider, regional artist who makes backyard movies with friends & family in New England, far from The Pit’s Wisconsin locales. He must see a kindred spirit in The Pit’s aggressively local aesthetic, though, as Sammy is – unbelievably – a feature-length homage/spoof of this little seen cult classic, set in Farley’s Massachusetts haunts.

As strange & highly specific as The Pit can be, there’s an entire world of regional cinema weirdos out there producing curios just like it for barely existent audiences (and in the case of Sammy, I mean just like it). As an amateur, localized film critic with a deliberately D.I.Y. blogging aesthetic, I find that pocket of outsider filmmaking to be inspiring, if not outright heroic.

CC: I’m a big fan of films where children are put in danger (like The Goonies, The Monster Squad, or even The Nice Guys) so a film where children are both in danger and the source of the danger are really enjoyable for me. I’m glad my co-writers were also able to have fun with this weird gem.

Boomer: Super grateful that CC brought this gem to the table. I’d like to apologize for any lack of clarity on my part with regards to Jamie’s monstrosity and if it appeared I was trying to completely deflect responsibility for his behavior onto the myriad of (mostly bad) adult caretakers and gatekeepers in his life. I’d also like to forewarn any interested parties that, should you find this film on YouTube, although it will at first appear that it’s been mangled in some way and starting in the middle, but no, that’s just the way that it is.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Brandon presents Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew