Bloody Pit of Horror
Posted on March 20, 2019

Perfection, Psychosis and Pupillo: Il boia scarlatto (Bloody Pit of Horror, 1965)

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M.B.S. Cinematografica released Il boia scarlatto (Bloody Pit of Horror or The Crimson Executioner) in Italy on 28 November 1965.  Grossing 65 million lire during its domestic theatrical run, it was subsequently purchased by Pacemaker Pictures in the United States, where it opened as a double feature with director Massimo Pupillo’s Cinque tombe per un medium (Terror Creatures from the Grave, 1965).  Completing Pupillo’s trilogy of gothic horror was La vendetta di Lady Morgan (Lady Morgan’s Vengeance), released in the same year.

The plot of Il boia scarlatto is relatively simple: in 1648 Italy, the Crimson Executioner (uncredited) is sentenced to death for pursuing his sadistic and murderous fantasies.  In the dungeon of his castle (the actual location of which is Bracciano, just outside of Rome), the Crimson Executioner vows his revenge as he is entombed in an iron maiden, or virgin of Nuremberg—a medieval torture device, traditionally shaped like a coffin or sarcophagus with the face of a maiden, which slowly kills its victims via strategically placed spikes that do not penetrate any major organs.  The narration—the apparent ruling of the tribunal against the murderer—is layered effectively over the scene and informs the audience that the Crimson Executioner is eternally damned, as is the dungeon and the castle itself, which has seen “such indescribable horrors.”  As the Crimson Executioner slowly dies, the device is sealed and the narrator issues a warning: no man should ever dare to break it.

Check out the trailer for Bloody Pit of Horror here:

In the present day (1965), Rick (Walter Bigari) is a journalist-turned-horror writer with a new fotoromanzo or photonovel (plural: fotoromanzi; in which stories are told through captioned photographs) due for release.  He has travelled with his publicist, Daniel (Alfredo Rizzo), his secretary, Edith (Luisa Baratto), a photographer, Dermott (played by producer Ralph Zucker), and several models to a remote castle in order to shoot the photographs.

Though Daniel supposedly secured the rights to use the castle as a location for their shoot, there is no answer when the crowd arrive in their brightly coloured cars.  Believing the castle to be empty, Rick scales the wall and lets the group in—only for them to discover that the castle is inhabited by a reclusive figure.   The unseen man initially insists that the group must leave but allows them to stay upon seeing Edith, spying on her from several peepholes throughout the castle.

Bloody Pit of Horror

The Crimson Executioner

As the group prepare to take the photographs—taking full opportunity of the handy medieval torture devices stored in the dungeon—several members are murdered.  Edith discovers a portrait of herself in one of the rooms and soon finds herself face-to-face with the castle’s owner, Travis Anderson (Mickey Hargitay).  A former actor, Travis once dated Edith and still appears to be infatuated with her.  He tells Edith that he purchased the castle as he wanted to attain spiritual enlightenment, needing solitude in order to achieve the perfect physical body.  The trauma of Edith’s arrival—she is presumably the reason he sought seclusion in the first place—causes Travis to literally assume the identity of the Crimson Executioner.  After escaping a torture device and taking out Travis’s henchmen, Rick fights Travis while Edith watches helplessly, tied to a torture device.  Travis dies after fittingly falling into “the poisonous clutches of the lover of death”, a dummy studded with poisonous darts.  Rick frees Edith and the pair flee the cursed castle.

The ostentatious production design, with its vivacious red palette, embellished décor, and eccentric costumes, results in the film often being cited as camp, trashy and laughable by critics.  However, these elements appear to be drawn from the narrative focus on Rick’s fotoromanzo within the film.  Emerging in Italy during the 1940s, the fumetto (plural: fumetti) or photo comic was popular in Italy well into the 1950s.  The fumetto was the progenitor of the fotoromanzo, serialised in popular fotoromanzi magazines in Italy from the late 1940s to the 1970s.  Fotoromanzi also emerged in Latin America, the United States, and Canada during the 1960s and 1970s, and adaptations of popular films, television series, and original stories were extremely popular in these regions until the emergence of home video technology in the 1980s reduced audience demand.  In Il boia scarlatto, the costumes alone—from the block colours and hooded design of the Crimson Executioner’s outfit, to the matching stripy t-shirts worn by his henchmen—allude to the exaggerated styling of both fotoromanzi magazines and traditional fumetti.

Bloody Pit of Horror

Double Feature: Bloody Pit of Horror & Terror Creatures from the Grave

Thus, instead of dismissing the film as a schlocky and inferior entry into Italian horror cinema, further cultural references can be read from the production choices within the film.  The iron maiden looks as though it would be more at home on the elaborate stage of Italy’s horror theatre.  Indeed, the wobbly sets, rudimentary props, and sensational themes of sex and death imbue the interior shots with a sense of temporary disposability and vaudeville that calls to mind Alfredo Sainati’s Italian take on horror theatre, La Compagnia del Grand-Guignol (The Company of Grand-Guignol).

Established in 1908 and dissolved in 1928, the theatre may well have contributed to the myriad of genre influences upon this film, particularly as Italy was a late bloomer in regards to a definitive horror cinema: Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (The Vampires) from 1957 is critically considered to be the first example.  This was of course largely due to regulation from the Fascist government in Italy during the 1930s and 1940s. The Italian film industry greatly recovered in the decade after the Second World War, largely thanks to the replication of the Hollywood studio system, which itself relocated several productions to Europe (specifically at sites in Britain and Italy, the latter being of course Cinecittà (Cinema City), which was erected during the Fascist era).  The strengthened post-Second World War national film industry in Italy resulted in much more domestic output—specifically genre content—being produced.  In this context, Il boia scarlatto can be read as a wonderful domestic celebration of the genres that Italian audiences were starved of during the war years, including international imports, and specifically American and British genre influences.

As an extension of this, and perfectly matching the garish visual design of the film, Gino Peguri’s penetrating score meshes influences from Italian crime and western films, as well as the country’s burgeoning horror cinema.  The use of staccato trumpets bears more than a passing resemblance to Mario Bava’s official directorial debut (he is credited for completing Freda’s I Vampiri when the director allegedly left the project): Gothic horror La maschera del demonio (The Mask of the Demon or Black Sunday, 1960).  The film also features an historical evil returning from the dead—in the form of actress Barbara Steele, who of course starred in Pupillo’s Cinque Tombe per un Medium—to seek revenge, and begins with a similar prologue, complete with an omniscient narrator.

Bloody Pit of Horror

The other two entries in Pupillo’s trilogy of Gothic horror were very much centred on the female characters at the heart of the stories, allowing Pupillo to explore the complexities of, and relationship between, female hysteria and monstrosity.   Refreshingly, both the victim and aggressor in each film is a woman, the latter supported by and/or manipulating male characters.  Il boia scarlatto expands upon the Italian gothic horror tropes within the other entries in Pupillo’s trilogy—specifically melodrama, eroticism and sadism—but instead of a weak or corruptible male character manipulated by a woman, the film presents a male aggressor with an obsessive nature: a desire to attain the perfect body and live in seclusion, away from the vices of the outside world.  Travis, played by Hargitay, Mr. Universe himself in his first acting role, looks like he has just wandered onto the set from a peplum film.  With his sandy hair, and tanned and toned physique, he looks every part the Herculean, egotistical monster he strives to become.

The representation of male and female characters in the film has been largely criticised.  Travis’s narcissism and psychosis, revealed in his adoption of the Crimson Executioner’s persona and subsequent torturing of his victims, was deemed by Bryan Senn to be a “homoerotic fantasy “safely” circumvented by the torture of women” that simultaneously masks an exploitative and misogynistic attack upon the female characters (2007: 155).  As an extension of this reductive reading, a large majority of reviews focus entirely on the torture of the women or incorrectly state that Travis only tortures women.  While torture scenes featuring women are more sustained and gratuitous—as many of the women are semi-clothed—the reviews completely ignore the male deaths at Travis’s hands, including an horrific murder by immolation.

Reviews also ignore the fact that Hargitay is shirtless and sporting skin-tight trousers. The casting of Mr. Universe underscores an innovative and wonderfully refreshing inversion of female hysteria explored within other examples of the genre, in Italy and beyond. The film addresses anxieties and pressures surrounding the male body and the pursuit of perfection that do not allow for feelings, flaws, or rejection in a patriarchal society—issues that are sadly just as pertinent over half a century later.  After losing Edith, Travis sought seclusion from the outside world in his obsessive quest to become the perfect man; this unachievable goal further augments Travis’s psychosis in ignoring the instigating factor of Edith’s rejection, and Travis literally becomes another man by assuming an alter-ego.  The fact that Travis was ultimately consumed by the identity of a legendary villain, immortalised for his crimes, is telling and fascinating when considering his personal pursuit of perfection/psychological breakdown.

Bloody Pit of Horror

When comparing the films within Pupillo’s trilogy of horrors, it must be noted that his other two entries in the Gothic vein are much more critically acclaimed.  The director was no stranger to admitting his grievances with the commercial aspect of filmmaking and even television.  Aside from the somewhat pioneering exploration of male narcissism and psychological trauma, Il boia scarlatto features a protagonist who has left his truth-seeking profession for monetary gain within popular entertainment—which can be read as a quietly scornful portrayal of the commercial film industry itself.  Pupillo returned to television and subsequently documentary filmmaking—where his heart seemed to truly lie—after he completed a further couple of genre films: a western, Bill il taciturno (Django Kills Softly, 1967), and a mondo, L’amore, questo sconosciuto (Love: The Great Unknown, 1969).  Though Il boia scarlatto feels in many ways like Pupillo’s resignation letter from genre filmmaking, the reluctant director’s triad of gothic horror is a limited, lasting legacy.

Bloody Pit of Horror is streaming on Amazon:

And you can also find it on a special edition DVD:


Rebecca Booth has a master’s in Film Studies from the University of Southampton. She is the co-editor of House of Leave Publishing’s forthcoming anthology, Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film (2019). Formerly the managing editor of Diabolique, her book on The Devil Rides Out (Devil’s Advocates) will be published in 2019 by Auteur Publishing. In addition to contributing essays to printed collections, most recently Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Spectacular Optical, 2017), she has been published on several popular culture websites such as Den of Geek, Scream and Wicked Horror.

Rebecca Booth has written previously for Horror Homeroom on True Detective and Slumber Party Massacre 

Twitter: @rebeccalbooth / @HoL_Publishing

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