Sunday, July 7, 2024

The Pit

The Pit Poster

(1981) Directed by Lew Lehman; Written by Ian A. Stuart; Starring: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias, Sonja Smits and Laura Hollingsworth; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***

Jamie Stares Into the Pit

“I look back and I think to myself, there’s always things you can do better… Jamie’s character, even when you watch it today, is gonna freak you out. You can see the eyes on Jamie. There was something there, and I’m proud of that.” – Sammy Snyders

Talking with Teddy

Everyone likely has a story about the weird kid at school other kids seemed to steer clear of, because of their appearance or behavior (Hey, no judgment here! I was probably that weird kid).  By necessity or choice, they become immersed in their own world – someplace they feel accepted. While we wonder what’s his or her deal, our imaginations take flight with idle (and often inaccurate) speculation. In most cases, they’re harmless but lack the social skills to navigate the nuances and pitfalls of social interactions, have interests that no one else cares about, or just behave a little differently from their peers. The Pit (1981)*/** is about a not-so-benign oddball kid, with the repercussions of his social estrangement taken to horrible extremes.    

Fun Fact #1: Although The Pit was another example of a Canadian tax shelter production, filming was predominately in the United States (with a combination of Canadian and American cast and crew), in the small town of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. 

Fun Fact #2: The film’s original title, Teddy, was also the title of the novelization.

Jamie and Sandy

Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders)*/** is a smart but troubled 12-year-old boy that other kids avoid like a communicable disease. Everyone, including the adults in his life, sense something is “off” about him. Interactions with other kids often end in disaster (such as the opening scene, where he’s punched in the face by a schoolyard bully), so he mostly keeps to himself. His only friends are the critters he keeps in an overcrowded terrarium and his stuffed toy, Teddy, who “tells” him what to do. His frustrated parents (Laura Press and Richard Alden) have gone through several babysitters, but when they need to travel out of town, they hire a new sitter, perky college student Sandy O’Reilly (Jeannie Elias). Sandy views Jamie as an interesting challenge. With a major in psychology, she somehow considers herself qualified to conduct some dime-store analysis on him (which goes about as well as you would imagine). While she gradually earns Jamie’s confidence, she becomes the unwitting object of his infatuation. In an effort to gain her trust, he reveals his secret about a pit hidden in the woods (with some particularly nasty little residents), but things don’t quite end up as planned. 

* Fun Fact #3: Screenwriter Ian A. Stuart was less than enthused about the final results, claiming that his “story was destroyed,” turning it into a pure horror film rather than a psychological drama. The filmmakers omitted the ending as originally written, which suggested that everything was in Jamie’s mind (and depicted Jamie institutionalized). 

** Fun Fact #4: Stuart’s screenplay envisioned Jamie as a pre-pubescent boy, around 8 or 9. Instead, the filmmakers cast 14-year-old Sammy Snyders to play the now12-year-old lead character, significantly changing the dynamics of the movie.

An Inappropriate Moment

We’re never sure how we should feel about Jamie. On the one hand, it’s easy to sympathize with his social and mental isolation as a result of the ostracism he endures. On the other hand, it’s not so easy to excuse his antisocial (not to mention wildly inappropriate) behavior. In one especially uncomfortable scene, when Sandy reluctantly agrees to wash his back, Jamie confesses that his mother still bathes him (“She really tried to make me clean.”), providing some insight into the family’s dysfunctional relationship. He follows up by asking Sandy, “Do you like washing me?”  which predicably sends her running out of the bathroom. In a later scene, he extorts the town librarian (who believes her niece has been kidnapped) into giving him an impromptu striptease (Yes, this scene is about as creepy as you would likely imagine).* In another scene, he professes his love to Sandy by writing on the bathroom mirror while she’s showering. In times of discomfort or indecision, he consults his teddy bear (whose voice sounds suspiciously like him), bringing to the surface his suppressed urges. In the case of Teddy, the conversations are strictly in Jamie’s head. It’s not so easy to explain away the existence of the pit and some troglodytic primordial humanoids (which he calls “Troliwogs”)**/*** that dwell at the bottom. He takes it upon himself to feed the creatures (buying meat with stolen money), but the food supply quickly diminishes, forcing him to take more drastic measures – anyone he deems to be a "bad” person is fair game for the pit. He once again faces a moral dilemma, however, when his supply of enemies runs out. 

* Fun Fact #5: According to Stuart, director Lew Lehman’s wife (who was frequently on the set) didn’t want her husband directing the brief nude scenes. Those sequences, shot later as inserts, were directed by Stuart instead. 

** Fun Fact #6: The troglodytes were initially played by young children, but when the kids started getting sick and passing out from the constrictive costumes, they were replaced by adult little people. 

*** Fun Fact #7: There were two types of costumes used to depict the troglodytes, with the initial crude, makeshift costumes created on location. The filmmakers weren’t impressed with the results, prompting them to fabricate new costumes for close-up shots in a Toronto-based studio.


Feeding the Pit Creatures

Considering the scenes that preceded his homicidal conversion, it’s an odd choice of the filmmakers to play Jamie’s murder streak for laughs. The Pit lapses into dark comedy through a montage of scenes (accompanied by wacky musical cues), as he leads his enemies (real or perceived) to their doom. Following an argument with Sandy (who believes the pit creatures should be studied), Jamie allows them to escape to the surface, which in turn condemns them to a harsher fate. At this point, the film’s narrative loses its way, with our central character disappearing for the next few scenes. Left to their own devices, the little subterranean beasties create more murder and mayhem than they might have been capable of otherwise. The local police and townspeople combine forces to hunt down the malevolent troglodytes, but it’s never made clear whether Jamie learned about their eventual fate or if he felt any remorse about them. 


The Troglodytes

The distributors should have warned audiences about the risk of whiplash, considering the abrupt mid-film tonal shift, when Jamie starts luring his victims to the pit. In the context of the film, it’s a jarring choice (it’s a credit to composer Victor Davies that he does his best to keep up with the changes). By far, the best part of The Pit is Sammy Snyders’ convincing and creepy performance as the antiheroic main character. Despite the excesses of the rest of the movie, Snyders creates a believable character in Jamie, with a warped sense of justice but recognizable motivations. In Jamie’s defense, the adults he interacts with aren’t much better than his peers, ranging from dismissive to outright hostile, so it’s hard for Jamie to find a moral/ethical compass when no one else does the right thing around him. The Pit is a fascinating mess – a near-miss that almost works, despite its numerous inconsistencies and weird structure. Fans of offbeat low-budget horror may want to give this a try. All others might consider proceeding with caution. 

* Fun Fact #8: Some of The Pit’s disjointed nature could be attributed to the fact that director Lew Lehman was fired before the film’s completion, and wasn’t available to provide input for the subsequent editing. 


Sources for this article: Blu-ray commentary by Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky; Interview wish Sammy Snyders, “The Babysitter – An Interview with Jeannie Elias,” “Teddy Told Me To – An Interview with Ian A. Stuart.”



  1. Great write up, Barry! The pit sounds disturbing until it turns into...a comedy!?! Perhaps the plot had one too many plates spinning, but it sounds worth watching. So I'll definitely keep an eye out for it!

    1. Thanks, John! It's a mess, but a fun mess. I think you'd like it. It's available on Tubi, and often pops up on other services as well! :)

  2. Nicely done, one of my favorites.

  3. THE PIT is an absolutely unique film with its unconventional structure. It probably became something of a cult film because we want to keep watching it until we can settle into it odd tangents. If the film stuck to the writer's original ending, it might have made more sense, though I wonder if it would still be as weirdly compelling.

  4. I agree that the "odd tangents" are the very things that give The Pit its unique charms. And I like the ending, just the way it is. Thanks for stopping by!