We have all encountered films that are less intelligent than they think they are. My favourite example of this syndrome would probably be Contact, the deeply serious Jodie Foster vehicle, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and adapted from the Carl Sagan novel. The film keeps the novel’s primary weakness (the ending, which, smacks of a writer who hasn’t worked out a full outline before starting) and introduces some unintentionally funny visual elements (the alien-inspired technology looks suspiciously like it was designed by Wile E. Coyote, and the first time out works like was designed by him, too). But the film’s biggest sin was not that it has some very silly aspects, but that it is completely unaware of same, and really seems to believe that it is Important Art. Similarly, M. Night Shyamalan has become the undisputed King of Movies Less Intelligent Than They Think They Are.
But what of the converse? Are there films that are more intelligent than they think they are? Or at least, less stupid? Let me put forward the modest proposal that there are. Exhibit A is Massimo Pupillo’s The Bloody Pit of Horror (1965, out on DVD from a variety of sources). This mid-period Italian Gothic tells the charming story of a busload of cover models who descend on a castle that happens to be the home of the obsessed Mickey Hargitay (best known as the husband of Jayne Mansfield, and these days, as the father of Mariska Hargitay). As the models pose to be photographed in and around various torture devices, their host flips out, becomes convinced he is the reincarnation of one Crimson Executioner, and starts using the devices for real on the unfortunate women.
So far, so stupid. And the always invaluable Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror agrees: “Judging by the character Hargitay plays and the prominence accorded to his well-oiled, hairless torso, the viewer is invited to derive pleasure from contemplating the male body but the trouble such homo-erotic pleasures provoke for the supposedly macho viewer is diverted towards sadistic aggression against women who thus come to function as detour and safety valve within a circuit of homosexual narcissism established between the male viewer and Mr. Universe. Desire, with all its connotations of femininity, is here only evoked to be ostentatiously eliminated as woman after woman is killed, culminating with impeccable fantasy logic in the emergence of a safely conventional couple at the end of the movie. The effects are crude, the direction primitive and the whole of interest only as a case study to illustrate a theory of cinema-as-fantasy in psychoanalytic terms.”
Without really disagreeing with this assessment, I do want to suggest a couple of further points, however. The “detour and safety valve” argument would be a bit more convincing if it weren’t for the fact that the emphasis place on Hargitay’s body is more than simply visual. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the story. As he goes insane, Hargitay goes on and on about “my beautiful body,” and quite explicitly sees the women as contaminating him through desire. Thus, the argument above is actually being made by the film itself. So yes, the movie is clumsy. Yes, it is rather primitive. And yes, it would be fair to say that the film indulges in the very misogyny it finds in its antagonist.
And yet. Everything about the climax articulates the very argument the above critic seems to have seen as accidental. So, a case of more intelligence than meets the eye? Check it out for yourself.