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The Pit:
Canada’s Answer to Manos, the Hands of Fate

[1]3,834 words

The Pit
Directed by Lew Lehman
Written by Ian A. Stuart (original screenplay; it’s complicated)
Stars [sic]: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias, Sonja Smits
Canada (it’s complicated), 1981, 1 hour & 36 minutes

We took your fantastic script and produced a piece of Grade B garbage. Sorry.”[1] [2]

If I asked you to think about Canada and horror, any number of things might come to mind: Justin Trudeau, vaccine passports, or poutine. If I said a pit was involved, you might recall the antics of Sir Simon Milligan and manservant Hecubus at the Pit of Ultimate Darkness [3]. Oh, if only it were that innocent.

Let’s let Logan-223 [4] at IMDB.com give us some idea of the delights that are in store for us:

THE PIT is the story of an ugly retarded kid who peeps on naked ladies and feeds anyone who makes fun of him to a bunch of hairy midget cannibals in a pit he stumbles across in the woods.

Wow, that must have been some pitch meeting! Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that; first, let’s go back a bit, to introduce the concept of . . . Canucksploitation!

As Wikipedia helpfully explains:

“Canuxploitation” is a neologism that was coined in 1999 by the magazine Broken Pencil [5], in the article “Canuxploitation! Goin’ Down the Road with the Cannibal Girls that Ate Black Christmas. Your Complete Guide to the Canadian B-Movie”, to refer to Canadian-made B-movies. Most mainstream critical analysis of this period in Canadian film history, however, refers to it as the “tax-shelter era”.

The phenomenon emerged in 1974, when the government of Canada [Pierre Trudeau, what else have you wrought!] introduced new regulations to jumpstart the then-underdeveloped Canadian film industry, increasing the Capital Cost Allowance tax credit from 60 per cent to 100 per cent [!] While some important and noteworthy films were made under the program, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz [6] and Lies My Father Told Me [7], and some film directors who cut their teeth in the “tax shelter” era emerged as among Canada’s most important and influential filmmakers of the era, including David Cronenberg [8] [and] Ivan Reitman [9], the new regulations also had an entirely unforeseen side effect [well, unforeseen by anyone who never had a grasp of Econ 101, or never seen The Producers [10]]: a sudden rush of low-budget horror and genre films, intended as pure tax shelters since they were designed not to turn a conventional profit. Many of the films, in fact, were made by American filmmakers whose projects had been rejected by the Hollywood studio system as not commercially viable, giving rise to the Hollywood North [11] phenomenon.

Notable examples of the genre include [I’ll only include truly notable or otherwise cool films here] Black Christmas [12]Shivers [13]Starship Invasions [14]Rabid [15], The Brood [16]Terror Train [17], My Bloody Valentine [18]Prom Night [19]Happy Birthday to Me [20]Scanners [21], Class of 1984 [22], [and] Videodrome [23].

The period ended in 1982, when the Capital Cost Allowance was reduced to 50 per cent, although films that had entered production under the program continued to be released for another few years afterward.

Well, far be it from me to sneer at a half-witted socialist investment program turned tax-shelter scam that produced the likes of David Cronenberg [24], or, among actors, Michael Ironside [25] (whom I like to think of as the Canadian Christopher Walken; he makes any movie worth seeing).

And something else it gave us was The Pit. You’ll notice that one doesn’t find a place in Wikipedia’s roll call, but I suppose it’s an acquired taste: like strychnine.

I myself was first alerted to the debatable joys of The Pit by one of the YouTube reviewer/reactors I mentioned a while ago [26] when launching my own First Time Listening/Reading series: Fanboy Flicks, aka Weird Movies with Mark. The reader may want to check his “THE PIT that makes people DISAPPEAR [27]!” to assure himself that the film under review really exists.[2] [28]

So here we go: Jamie is a 12-year-old kid with dead eyes and a very punch-able face; partly because of his absurdly big nose (which his mother, no doubt, assures him he will “grow into someday”) and partly due to his weird antics.

To be fair — and here comes problem no. 1 of many — it’s not really clear if Jamie is a creep, or if the townspeople just begrudge his existence among them for some unexplained reason. For example, when he covets a neighbor girl’s bike and dares to touch it, she appears out of nowhere, threatens to tell on him to his parents who will “send him away,” and then rides off shouting, “Go back where you came from, funny person!” Is he autistic, or retarded, which might explain his behavior and lack of affect (hence, “send him away”); or did his parents just move the family into town (hence, “go back where you came from”)? Both? Later, she rigs her bike to collapse after she invites him to try it out; her mother blames him. When he asks to join a schoolyard clique, a bigger kid just walks right up to him and punches him straight in the nose (did I mention how punch-able he is?).[3] [29] And an old blind lady in a wheelchair just straight up has her attendant ram her into him, and then upbraids him, muttering “There’s just something wrong with that boy” as she’s wheeled off. It sure sucks to be Jamie.

On the other hand . . . when we first meet Jamie, his teacher has caught him with a library book of “Classic Erotic Photography,” and when she returns it to the library, she points out to the librarian that Jamie has cut out one of the naked women; later, Jamie — lacking Photoshop as well as internet porn — has pasted it over a photo of the librarian, whom he spies on to see her shock as she opens it.

[30]

You can buy James O’Meara’s book The Eldritch Evola here. [31]

His parents, who are driving to Seattle to check out a new house (and oh boy, Seattle will really help this kid; maybe he’ll start a band) hire a live-in babysitter, whom they brief on his lack of friends and odd behavior — such as running around naked and wearing a Superman type of cape. He later drops his napkin to peek at her under the table, watches her take a shower (the bathroom has a convenient glass door), scrawls “I love you” on the mirror, and later gets caught when he stays up all night watching her sleep. (At least he didn’t write “Redrum” on the door).[4] [32] Oh, he also uses a tape recorder to phone in a blackmail threat to the librarian, demanding that she strip naked in the front window so he can take Polaroids of her.[5] [33]

Now things get weirder.

He discloses to the babysitter — who should have long since run away or at least gotten a restraining order — that he’s found a pit in the nearby woods within which are a half-dozen or so troglodytes (or “tra-la-las,” as he moronically calls them), which he’s been feeding raw meat and chocolate (of course). For now, she’s not buying it. Also, we learn that his giant teddy bear, cleverly named Teddy, has glowing eyes, moves around when he’s not there, and talks to him . . . in his own voice.

So what seemed like an Afterschool Special [34] about a very special but misunderstood boy now turns into an ‘80s slasher flick. Holy Canunksploitation! In the tradition established by The Little Shop of Horrors [35], Jamie quickly runs out of money for raw meat and chocolate, and Teddy advises him to use his newfound friends to deal with his tormentors; in the tradition established by David Byrne and later codified by Hannibal Lecter [36], “only mean people” will be thrown into the pit.

Now things get yet more weirder.

Bike girl, old blind cripple lady, Punchy the Bully, into the hole! Does the babysitter turn out to have a boyfriend? Bad luck for him, into the hole! No, wait, that’s too good for him; Jamie will deal with him later. All this is accompanied by, I swear, the sort of happy-go-lucky music you’d hear in a Disney cartoon or a video game. And in an especially goofy sequence, although the townsfolk all seem to have a convenient pit-myopia that prevents them from seeing a gaping hole in the ground before them, Jamie does have to push the old lady in, after which he rides around in her wheelchair; hurrah!

Now all we need is a dose of irony. I know, let’s have the babysitter finally go out to visit the pit with Jamie to prove there are no “tra-la-las,” and then accidentally fall into the hole. Holy pit-myopia! Distraught Jamie throws a suddenly nearby rope into the hole so that the . . . things  . . . can get out and run amok. Fly, fly my pretties! In the tradition of regional horror films like The Giant Spider Invasion (shot, like The Pit, in Wisconsin) or Galaxy Invader (shot in rural areas outside Philly) the local yokels — all well-armed hunters, of course — immediately form a hunting party slash lynch mob, track the . . . beasts . . . to their pit, and shoot ‘em up real good.

Meanwhile, brilliant local cops pin all the earlier deaths on . . . the babysitter’s boyfriend! It turns out that Jamie kept all the evidence for his antics and dumped it in the poor guy’s car. Book ‘em, Danno![6] [37] Or, in the disappointing catchphrase of this discount Kojak, “Two plus two equals . . . four!” — close, but no lollipop.

It seems Jamie is free to continue his creepiness, but his parents have finally had enough, so Jamie is sent away to live with his grandparents (because that’s what one does with such a kid). And it turns out that his little girl cousin not only instantly hates him just as much as everyone else (perhaps she’s been briefed by the townspeople), but she has her own pit! So long, you big-nosed bastard![7] [38]

But . . . what about the bear? For the love of God, what about the bear?!?

A film this messed up has to have a substantial backstory, and thanks to another YouTuber, Good Bad Flicks, we can have access to it in the short doco “Exploring The Pit — Horror, Drama and an Evil Teddy Bear [39].”

Unlike Manos, less the tale of a talentless man’s delusional quest to prove himself the equal of any Hollywood filmmaker than it is the story of a man with what might have been an interesting idea that gets caught up in a discount version of Hollywood’s “production Hell,” another kind of Pit indeed.

Aspiring screenwriter Ian A. Stewart (not to be confused with sometime Rolling Stone Ian Stewart [40]) had met a ventriloquist who told him about an autistic child who would only communicate with his dummy, and a child psychologist who told him about a “socially awkward” boy who drew monsters he called “trogladees,” which he thought would kill anyone who was mean to him, thus making them “dead to him.” Taking to heart the idea of writing what you know, Stewart proceeded to write a no doubt heartwarming tale of an 8-year-old boy who talks to his teddy bear — Teddy, of course — and fantasizes about feeding his enemies to said trogladees.

No one was particularly interested until it came to the attention of John F. Bassett, squash player and sometime film producer, who had a couple of low-budget hockey films under his belt. He bought the script with the intention of using it to cash in on the trend in horror films featuring disturbed children. Looking to cash in on Capital Cost scam, he needed a Canadian director, so of course he called up the Canadian Directors Guild. The secretary answering the phone shouted out something like, “Hey, anybody wanna direct a film?” and the President of the guild, one Lew Lehman, who happened to be hanging around the office and had written the Canucksploitation bomb Phobia for director John Huston, said, “Sure!”

These two unsung geniuses made all the quite minor changes that horrified Stewart but have delighted or disgusted audiences since: upping Jamie’s age to 12, thus transforming him from social inappropriate to an outright pervert, changing the childlike “tralalogs” to the idiotic “tra-la-las,” and finally making them — and Teddy — real. Thus was the sensitive tale of a misunderstood lad transformed into a sexed-up story of Lovecraftian revenge.[8] [41]

Another Lovecraftian touch was that, although full-metal Canucksploitation, they reversed all previous cinematic trends by moving the production out of Canada to August Derleth’s old stomping grounds, Wisconsin;[9] [42] specifically, Beaver Falls, since Bassett’s daughter attended some kind of real-life Faber College [43] in town.

Alas, having the family there prevented Lehman from fully incorporating another idea: full nudity at several points. In any event, Lehman also had the idea of ramping up the comedy, in particular filming the murders with lots of goofy music and wacky antics. Finally, the ending was changed; originally set in a psychiatrist’s office, with everyone still alive and the monsters only in Jamie’s head, Lehman provided the “ironic” ending we have now.

[44]

You can buy James O’Meara’s book Green Nazis in Space! here. [45]

When Lehman returned with his footage, the producers took one look and, shocked back into reality, fired him.

Stewart, of all people, was brought in to add the nude shots, and the tralalas were redesigned and shot in Toronto — thus never actually being in the same frame with Jamie, despite being supposedly “real”.

At this point, Lehman’s poison pill appeared. Apparently, he was the anti-Hitchcock not only in having no talent: Unlike Hitch, who obsessively storyboarded his films and even said that he lost interest when the time came to actually shoot the film — storyboard-bored? — Lehman’s storyboards were all “in his head” (like the original tralalogs): there was no way for the producers to make any sense out of his footage, so he was re-hired to finish the project.[10] [46] The last producers’ last contribution was to change the title from Teddy to The Pit, and after a brief theatrical release, it sank out of sight.

Producer Bassett died a couple of years later, at 46; Lehman hung on, with “credits [47]“ as a producer, writer, composer, music editor, or “supervisor” (including the abominable Our Man Flint TV movie!), although The Pit seems, appropriately enough, to have put an end to his directing career. He later had a handful of roles such as “Old Man,” “Man,” “Lou,” and “Bigwig #1” in the ‘90s up until his death in Toronto in 2000 at age 66.

The actors fared better. Young Sammy Snyders, who attended dance classes with Mike Myers (the comic, not the serial killer, which would have been excellent Method training) and the previous year had beaten out Michael J. Fox for the role of Tom Sawyer in a CBC TV film (FOX instead took his breakout role as a proto-Richard Spencer in Family Ties), returned to his first love: dance. Babysitter Jeannie Elias became and continues to perform as a voice artist in countless movies, cartoons, and video games; speaking of which, the much-abused librarian, Sonja Smits, was traumatized enough to become Brian O’Blivion’s daughter in Videodrome [48].

But does all this chicanery explain the hard to classify (and hard to watch) final product?

It was while reviewing the scene where the parents meet the babysitter that I noticed something: the mother[11] [49] has a really big, sharp, “beaky” nose. Jamie, too, has a disturbingly bulbous schnozzle, which is part — a large part — of what makes him so punchable.[12] [50]

Suddenly, some other odd parts of the story began to fall into place. The little bitch with the bike tells him to “Go back where you came from, funny person.” Go back where? Funny person? You mean, like a comedian? Then the old blind biddie sneers that “There’s something not right about that boy.”

Why does Jamie not “fit in”? It seems like we’ve seen this movie many times before. Is Jamie a member of The Tribe? He seems to have a Phoenician mother. The family name, Benjamin, is a clue: one of the twelve tribes, in fact, “those of the left hand,” i.e., the south — although many non-tribe members bear it. More to the point, it recalls the equally beaky, socially awkward, sexually inappropriate cuckoo egg played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.[13] [51] Running around naked — exposing his “difference”? — and wearing “a Superman kind of cape” recalls Superman’s ethnic origins, as well as that of other “comics” and “funny papers.”

Above all, Jamie’s precocious and grossly inappropriate sexuality — involving pornography, vandalism, voyeurism, and even Weinstein-style blackmail for purposes of masturbation,[14] [52] all from a supposed 12-year-old — are redolent of the members of the Phoenician Navy.

Suddenly, the film’s whole queasy fascination comes into focus: Jamie is the self-image of the archetypal Member of the Tribe, totally innocent yet compulsively tormented by the flyover townspeople for no reason at all and nursing fantasies of bloody — yet righteous — vengeance. It’s them, not me; but wait till I show them all what real power is! Into the pit with them all!

Since director Lew Lehman was the source of most of these features or changes in emphasis, we have to ask, was he Phoenician? His name certainly seems so; in fact, when I first heard it, I thought it was Lewis “Lew” Lehrman [53], the well-known New York Republican who almost beat Mario Cuomo in 1982 and remains an influential macher, and wondered if and how they were related. Indeed, Lehman has, in typical fashion, gone by several variations in professional nomenclature, such as Lewis W. Lehman (his birth name) and Lou Lehman. IMDB oddly omits his being President of the Canadian Directors Guild, which itself is a clue, as Miles Mathis would say.

Though this is not definitive, I’d say he clearly echoes. I doubt his “revision” of the film was deliberate; more likely his typical self-absorption led him to find such themes “natural,” while any normal viewers found them creepy.

Who can say? And therein lies the allure of the obscure dud. As Danny Peary noted in his genre-defining Cult Movies books [54] back in the ‘80s,[15] [55] the cult-film failure differs from the Hollywood “bomb” in that “The typical Hollywood product has little potential for becoming a cult favorite because it is perceived by everyone in basically the same way.”

As per usual, you can now enjoy a Blu-ray restoration (trailer [56]), or just look for the old DVD in a thrift store or dollar bin. I suggest you at least check out the free version on YouTube [57], despite its inexplicable Italian subtitles. In any format, it’s not to be missed by fans of Incredibly Bad Film.

*  *  *

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Notes

[1] [58] Director Lehman to writer Stuart. “You can hear Norm’s Canadian accent when he says ‘sorry’ or ‘soary’”: Bradford Strell commenting on Norm MacDonald in “The Day OJ Simpson Got Acquitted [59].”

[2] [60] According to Joe Bob Briggs, prior to the era of home video (or the internet), some thought that Ray Dennis Steckler’s Incredibly Strange Creatures that Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies was a hoax, given the title and that it only seemed to be referred to in Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (see his introduction to the DVD edition). Rock critic Lester Bangs actually did invent non-existent LP titles in an essay on garage rock pioneers Count Five (who truly only had one LP), leading late-coming fans to search in vain for such works as Snowflakes Falling on the International Dateline.

[3] [61] In sales motivational training, this is called “optimization data.”

[4] [62] After writing this, I stumbled across an article in a home improvement magazine wherein a bathroom remodel required the removal of the only window, which was compensated for by a skylight and a glass door. Is it likely that a middle-class house in (as we’ll learn) Beaver Falls, Wisconsin has such an avant-garde design feature? Was a creepy protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright responsible? Or was this called into existence by the power of synchronicity? As Sir Simon Milligan would say, Evil!

[5] [63] I must say, I did appreciate his clever use of the available technologies, such as pay phones, Highlander cassette tape, and Polaroid cameras; like I said, maybe his problem was just that he was born before the internet was available.

[6] [64] Clever, but not quite the same as:

Clarice Starling: Most serial killers keep some sort of trophies from their victims.

Hannibal Lecter: I didn’t.

Clarice Starling: No. No, you used yours to frame the babysitter’s boyfriend.

[7] [65] Thanks to Andrea Snyder [66], here’s the death count:

1. Abergail (Andrea Swartz): 60 minutes
2. Miss Oliphant (Lillian Graham): 62 minutes
3. Allan (Gerard Jordan): 63 minutes
4. Freddy Phelps (Paul Grisham): 67 minutes
5. Christina (Wendy Schmidt): 69 minutes
6. Sandy O’Reilly (Jeannie Elias): 77 minutes
7. Male Victim: 86 minutes
8. Female Victim: 89 minutes
9. Caren (Jennifer Lehman): 90 minutes
10. Greg (John C. Bassett): 91 minutes
11-14. Trogs (Harris Kal, Alison McCuaig, Paul Martin, and Tom Martin): 94 minutes
15. Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders): 99 minutes

[8] [67] “Lovecraft’s customary procedure as a revisionist was to discard his client’s draft and entirely rewrite the story in his own words . . .” S. T. Joshi, dustjacket flap copy for The Horror in the Museum (Sauk City, Wisc.: Arkham House, 1989). The novelization by John Gault [!], under the title Teddy (New York: Bantam, 1980), brings out the Lovecraftian elements, such as references to the Whatley family and tunnels connecting various pits. It’s apparently a quite good example of ‘80s paperback horror [68], so there’s that.

[9] [69] Also the home turf of legendary regional schlockmeister Bill Rebane, best known for low-budget horror movies such as Monster a Go-Go [70] (which also had quite an interesting production story) and The Giant Spider Invasion [71]. Rebane ran for Governor of Wisconsin in 1979 and 2002 as the American Reform Party candidate. “You can see why Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to live there,” snarks Crow T. Robot during MST3k’s Giant Spider episode. I briefly discuss Monster a Go-Go in “Essential Films . . . & Others [72],” reprinted in my collection Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis and Other Cinematic Metaphysicians [73] (Melbourne: Manticore Press, 2021), reviewed by Spencer Quinn here [74].

[10] [75] In a final anti-Hitchcockian touch, he sneered that the hard-working composer of the soundtrack had provided music “too good for this kind of film.”

[11] [76] Played by a discount Angelica Huston; director Lehman was one of the screenwriters on John Huston’s ill-advised tax-shelter thriller Phobia.

[12] [77] His father is played by Richard Alden, whom we first met back in the early ‘60s as the younger of the teachers tortured by Arch Hall, Jr. in The Sadist (reviewed here [78]), although at first I thought he was Bruce J. Mitchell, the student actor who played the legendary Canadian hero Zap Rowsdower [79] in The Final Sacrifice, another steaming heap of burning back bacon.

[13] [80] See Brenton Sanderson, “Jewish Themes in The Graduate [81]” and particularly Edmund Connelly’s “Jews and the Shiksa II: Dustin Hoffman [82].”

[14] [83] “I’m going to look at these pictures a lot,” he tells Teddy; are these Weinstein’s “pictures” (i.e., films)? It’s also interesting that his pornography of choice is not a plebeian’s Playboy or a hardhat’s Hustler, but a volume of “Classic Erotic Photography,” in typical “better than you plebes” fashion; however, he then vandalizes the book, cutting out a woman’s body, with which he fashions his own, crude version of the librarian. Here we see the Phoenician promoting himself as a sophisticated art lover, while under his influence art becomes crude pornography and blackmail material.

[15] [84] Now repackaged in a series of low-priced e-books [85].