Pitfalls and fantasies in ‘The Pit’

A couple of months ago, Movie Vigilante, a long-time reader and supporter of Reel Librarians (thank you!), gave me a heads-up about the new release of the 1981 film, The Pit (aka Teddy). It’s a pretty obscure film, but one that has developed its own cult following. I pre-ordered a copy of the DVD, and it arrived on my doorstep this past weekend, just in time for me to watch and analyze it for the blog. As the film is a horror film — and it even begins with a Halloween party scene! — it’s perfect timing to round out our scary movie theme for October.

*PLOT SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*

The basic plot? This plot summary from IMDb.com sums up The Pit quite well:

Twelve year-old Jamie Benjamin is a misunderstood lad. His classmates pick on him, his neighbors think he’s weird and his parents ignore him. But now Jamie has a secret weapon: deep in the woods he has discovered a deep pit full of man-eating creatures he calls Trogs… and it isn’t long before he gets an idea for getting revenge and feeding the Trogs in the process!

One major detail this plot summary leaves out? That Jamie talks to Teddy, his teddy bear… and Teddy answers him back. Teddy even gets highlighted in the film’s title card sequence, as seen below.

Reel Librarians | Title card from 'The Pit' (1981)

Title card from ‘The Pit’ (1981)

The original screenplay, written by Ian A. Stuart, was a bit different from the final film. Jamie was younger, 8 or 9 years old, and the “tra-la-logs” (what Jamie calls the Trogs) were imaginary, not real. It’s kind of a shame that the director, Lew Lehman, didn’t follow that original vision. I always prefer psychological horror — are they real? are they not real? — because your imagination makes things scarier and more horrifying. And that’s the major pitfall (har har) of this film, the cheesy special effects. Plus some gaping plot holes that rival the actual pit in The Pit. ;D

The Pit is definitely an odd film in many ways, including the fact that it’s a Canadian horror movie that was filmed entirely in the United States. More specifically, it was filmed in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, utilizing well-known locales in that city. Beaver Dam is even thanked in the film’s credits!

Reel Librarians | Special thanks in end credits of 'The Pit' (1981)

Special thanks in end credits of ‘The Pit’ (1981)

When I unwrapped the DVD, I read the back of the cover, which states:  “Jamie will teach everyone a lesson:  the kids who teased and bullied him, the mean old lady down the street, even his pretty new babysitter.”

Reel Librarians | DVD cover for 'The Pit' (1981)

DVD front and back covers for ‘The Pit’ (1981)

My senses went up at the “mean old lady” comment, wondering if this was the reel librarian? But I was mistaken! The reel librarian character, Marg Livingstone, is a much younger and attractive woman (in her 30s?) played by Laura Hollingsworth. IMDb.com lists this as Hollingsworth’s sole film credit. She gets 4th billing, and the credits also list a Library Clerk, played by Cindy Auten.

But before we get to the library scenes — there are several in this film! — let’s get to the context. Within the first five minutes of the film, Jamie (played by Sammy Snyders) is seen writing sentences on a school blackboard, punishment for bringing in a naughty book. The schoolteacher opens the book, titled Creative Nude Photography, and comes across a page with a nude silhouette that’s been cut out.

Reel Librarians | Book closeup in 'The Pit' (1981)

Book closeup in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

Even though the book clearly has NO CALL NUMBER on the spine (the tell-tale clue to differentiate between books in a bookstore vs. a library), the schoolteacher assumes it’s a library book. She also states that she’s sure “Ms. Livingstone can find some way to repair it [the book].”

We then see her walking up to a large and beautiful stone building with the words “Williams Free Library” in scrollwork atop the front windows.

Reel Librarians | Williams Free Library exterior seen in 'The Pit' (1981)

Williams Free Library exterior seen in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

Side note:  The Williams Free Library was also the first public library in the United States to have open stacks, which is quite impressive. This stone building was completed in 1891 and is one of the most well-known buildings in that region. Beaver Dam built a new library in 1984, so this building now houses the Dodge County Historical Society.

Even though a few websites erroneously list Miss Livingstone as a school librarian, it’s clear that she’s actually a public librarian. Here’s a peek into the library itself (the library interiors were actually filmed at Wayland Academy in Beaver dam), when the teacher comes in to the drop off the book. In the screenshot below, you can see a corner of the nameplate on the front counter, which reveals the librarian’s name (and marital status) as Miss M. Livingstone. You are invited to also visually contrast the more formal (and dare I say, more glamorous?) attire and hairstyle of the librarian with the more casual look and hairdo of the library aide beside her.

Reel Librarians | Public library counter in 'The Pit' (1981)

Public library counter in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

Here’s how this scene plays out:

Librarian:  Hello, Marian. What can I do for you?

Teacher:  I’m returning this. Jamie, one of my little boy borrowed it. There isn’t likely to be any record of it having gone out. Perhaps you could slip it back for me?

Librarian:  I’ll make sure it’s put back on the shelves.

Teacher:  There’s been a little clipping from one of the pages, I’m afraid. One of the figures cut out. Can you fix that?

Librarian:  We’ll just take out the whole page. Thank you.

The dialogue of this exchange seems innocuous enough, but the expressions on their faces reveal a deeper subtext. The librarian’s face visibly tightens when the teacher mentions the clipping, and the teacher notices this and looks a bit puzzled.

The next scene reveals WHY the librarian reacted this way to the news about Jamie and the clipping from the book. After the teacher leaves, Miss Livingstone immediately takes the book and her purse to a back room in the library. Unbeknownst to her, Jamie is also peeking in on this scene. (One of many convenient plot points.)

Reel Librarians | Library backroom in 'The Pit' (1981)

Library backroom in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

She then takes out an anonymous letter from her purse, which reveals that Jamie has sent her the nude clipping with a picture of her head glued on top! Definitely creepy and unsettling! And now the librarian knows who sent her the letter. But instead of alerting authorities, she just rips up the letter.

Reel Librarians | Ripping up an anonymous letter in 'The Pit' (1981)

Ripping up an anonymous letter in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

The commentary track, provided by a film critic and film historian, highlights a major problem I had with this scene. It’s clear Miss Livingstone is an object of Jamie’s fantasies, but what was his plan or motivation for sending the letter? Is he trying to flatter her? Or is he trying to creep her out? It’s unclear.

Whatever Jamie’s motives, Miss Livingstone remains suspicious of Jamie. This also rises to the surface in the next scene in the library, almost a half-hour into the film. This is when Miss Livingstone meets Jamie’s new babysitter, Sandy, who has come to the library to check out books on “problem children.”

Sandy:  I’m working for Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin, looking after…

Miss Livingstone:  Jamie. Yes, well, I can certainly understand why you’d want a book on problem children. […] Look, I’d like to tell you something about that little boy that you might not know. As another woman, I’m sure you’ll understand.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'The Pit' (1981)

Library scene in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

Although Miss Livingstone takes the opportunity to warn Sandy about Jamie, it’s clear that, once again, she chooses NOT to go to the police or other authorities to warn them about Jamie’s escalating behavior.

The next, and final, scene that takes place in the library clocks in at 37 minutes, when Miss Livingstone observes Jamie browsing the shelves at the library. The camera angles on this scene are fantastic, revealing the librarian’s suspicions nature about Jamie. It also visually posits the librarian as the “peeping tom” in this scene. Role reversal!

Reel Librarians | Librarian observes Jamie in 'The Pit' (1981)

Librarian observes Jamie in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

Reel Librarians | Librarian observes Jamie in 'The Pit' (1981)

Librarian observes Jamie in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

The librarian then questions the library aide, seen shelving behind Jamie, about what he checked out.

Miss Livingstone:  What kind of books was that little boy taking out?

Library Aide:  Art.

Miss Livingstone:  What kind of art?

Library Aide:  Some drawing and painting. How-to-do-it stuff. And some on animal husbandry.  Maybe wants to be some kind of veterinarian.

Reel Librarians | Library steps from 'The Pit' (1981)

Library steps from ‘The Pit’ (1981)

We then see Jamie opening up one of the animal husbandry books on the library steps, where he learns about carnivores. Uh oh! This is a pivotal scene, as the library book provides Jamie with knowledge about what to feed carnivores. He starts out buying meat from the butcher’s shop to feed the tra-la-logs… and then when his money funds out, he starts feeding them humans! Convenient that he only feeds them people who have been mean to him…

Jamie’s next prank is quite complex, as he successfully blackmails the librarian. He waits until her niece, Abigail (which he keeps mispronouncing as Abrigail, very annoying), is out of the house and Miss Livingstone is doing yoga in her leotard. He then plays a tape recording over a public pay phone with a pre-recorded message stating that he has kidnapped Abigail and won’t release the child unless Miss Livingstone takes off her clothes. Jamie then sneaks under her window and takes pictures of her on his Polaroid as she undresses.

Reel Librarians | Peeping Tom and polaroids from 'The Pit' (1981)

Peeping Tom and polaroids from ‘The Pit’ (1981)

Major plot holes with this scene? First, Jamie makes NO ATTEMPT to disguise his voice on the recording, and Miss Livingstone has had several disturbing encounters with Jamie already. Why doesn’t she recognize his voice? (The commentary track also brings up this issue.) Second, he says on the recording that he’s watching her yet she DOESN’T BOTHER to look out the window, where she could easily spot Jamie with his camera. Third, a 12-year-old boy has pre-recorded the blackmail message, therefore having to anticipate the reactions of a 30-ish woman. Like I said before, another very convenient plot point.

When Jamie takes the Polaroids home, he shows them to Teddy, who says, “I’m going to look at these a lot.” Creepy! And then I realized that these Polaroids of the librarian are actually included on the film’s poster. Double creepy!

Reel Librarians | Polaroids in a scene from and poster for 'The Pit' (1981)

Polaroids in a scene from and poster for ‘The Pit’ (1981)

We never see the library or librarian again in the film. It’s interesting to note that Miss Livingstone does survive in the end, and there doesn’t seem to be any attempt on Jamie’s part to include her with the “bad people” he lures into the pit. (By the way, the aforementioned niece, Abigail, is not so lucky. She was mean to Jamie and played a trick on him with her bicycle. She got scolded by her librarian aunt for this trick, but that was not punishment enough for Jamie… )

In general, Miss Livingstone comes across as a pleasant, stylish, competent, and intelligent woman (except for when she didn’t recognize Jamie’s voice over the phone). She is seen both inside and outside the library, including at home with her hair down) as well as around town. The reel librarian is a supporting character, earning The Pit a spot in the Class III category.

Reel Librarians | Closeups of the librarian in 'The Pit' (1981)

Closeups of the librarian in ‘The Pit’ (1981)

As for what purpose or role she fulfills in the film? Primarily, she’s an Information Provider:  she, or the library she represents, provides pivotal information to Jamie — unwittingly helping escalate his behavior. Miss Livingstone also provides a reference point, a touchstone, for the audience as she mirrors our growing dread and suspicion of Jamie.

Although she doesn’t actually portray a Naughty Librarian in the film, it’s almost as if the filmmakers are pitting her character against that fantasy in others, namely Jamie. This is also echoed in the commentary track for the first library scene, as the film critic and film historian (both males) talk about how Miss Livingstone is an object of Jamie’s affection.

1st commentator:  You can tell because the glasses are so enticing. [sarcastic tone]

2nd commentator:  At some point … the hair’s going to go down and the glasses are going to come off, and she is going to be a hottie.

Here’s how the reel librarian character is described on the Canuxploitation site:

“Miss Livingston is the world’s most uptight librarian and appears to hold some deep, dark secret which is never revealed.”

I don’t agree with this characterization, that she is “the world’s most uptight librarian.” I interpreted her reactions to Jamie’s behavior as quite understandable, as a woman who is trying to do her job and go about her daily life. Instead, she has to deal with unwanted and inappropriate — not to mention unsolicited! — sexual attention and fantasies from a young boy.

Can you tell who I sympathize with in this movie? It sure isn’t Teddy…

One final note:  Although the creatures are listed as “Trogs” in the film’s credit, Jamie refers to them as “tra-la-logs” throughout the entire film. Every single time, this made me think of the “Mr. Trololo” singer and YouTube video clip that made the rounds on the Internet a couple of years ago. More creepiness!

So that wraps up this year’s scary movie posts, an annual tradition each October on the Reel Librarians blog. Here are the scary movies and reel librarians we looked at this past month:

After collating this list, I also realized that during this past month we have looked at movies from four different decades:  the ’50s, the ’70s, the ’80s, and the ’90s. 🙂

Which scary movie post was your favorite? Please leave a comment and share.

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6 comments on “Pitfalls and fantasies in ‘The Pit’

  1. Excellent review! I’m glad you were able to squeeze it in just in time for Halloween.

    Thank you for the shout out 🙂

    There’s a great interview on BadMovies.org with Ian Stuart which reveals how much the finished film differed from his screenplay. http://www.badmovies.org/interviews/ianstuart/

    I must admit that the “bad movie lover” in me enjoyed The Pit for what it is but the “discerning movie lover” in me would have loved to see Stuart’s psychological horror version. I think as it is, the best thing The Pit has going for it is its creepiness factor demonstrated by the characters of Jamie and Teddy, as you pointed out.

    Is Jamie trying to flatter or creep out Miss Livingstone when he sends her the nude image with her head pasted on it, you ask? I think in Jamie’s mind he thought she would be flattered but he is puzzled when she rips up the image. He just doesn’t understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

    We see a few other examples of this in the film. When Sandy wakes up in bed and is startled to see Jamie has been watching her while she slept. She scolds him and he doesn’t realize what he did wrong. Another time is when Sandy is in the shower and Jamie sneaks into the bathroom and writes “I love you” in lipstick on the mirror. Nothing creepy about that, right? Wrong. Sandy freaks out when she sees the creepy message and once again, she scolds Jamie, who still doesn’t understand what he’s doing is wrong.

    The scene with the tape recorder is ridiculous on many levels which you accurately point out. There’s no way Jamie could anticipate how she would react and answer to a pre-recorded message.

    As for not disguising his voice on the tape recorder, that’s debatable. It is Teddy’s voice on the tape even though Teddy is just Jamie’s voice spoken slower and creepier. You’re right though, Miss Livingstone still should have been able to recognize it.

    I also have to disagree with my fellow Canuck’s characterization of Miss Livingstone. She may be a bit reserved but I don’t think she is uptight or hiding any dark secrets. She’s entitled to react the way she does in light of Jamie’s creepy behaviour. She’s too embarrassed to say anything to anyone about the nude image Jaime sent her and she’s further humiliated when he blackmails her into undressing (even though she doesn’t know he’s the blackmailer, she must suspect he is).

    I’m glad you mentioned the “tra-la-logs” because I too was reminded of something else whenever I heard Jaime call the troglodytes that. It wasn’t Mr. Trololo, although I’d never seen or heard of that before, it’s pretty funny.

    Whenever I heard “tra-la-logs”, I couldn’t help but think of the theme song to the Banana Splits (The Tra La La Song). https://youtu.be/juJpyUkHPCA

    I never understood why this was filmed in the U.S. The cast was Canadian and the producers were Canadian. It’s not like we couldn’t dig a big hole in the ground here in Canada.

    Oh, well.

    The Pit is not a great movie but it is sure to give you a creepy feeling in the pit of your stomach, this Halloween.

    • Yes, thank you for recommending The Pit! I’m glad I was able to get the post done in time to go live for this year’s October-fest of scary movies. You make a good point of Jamie consistently not understanding appropriate behavior.

      And thanks for linking to the interview with the scriptwriter — fascinating that one of the inspirations was a ventriloquist who used dummies to communicate with psychotic children.

  2. popegrutch says:

    I’ve never seen this movie – and I have a pretty good knowledge of low-budget horror, so that’s a bit of a treat for me!
    I think you may have missed a bit of the portrayal of this librarian, however, when you say:
    “You are invited to also visually contrast the more formal (and dare I say, more glamorous?) attire and hairstyle of the librarian with the more casual look and hairdo of the library aide beside her.”
    Actually, the library aide has what is a decidedly hip and glamorous look, while Miss Livingstone looks freakishly out of place in the 1980s (I speak with some authority as a teen of the 80s). It appears to me that they are making her look uptight and repressed, and decidedly out of touch, although also setting her up to be sexy underneath that, as suggested by the commentary. The bun should really tell you all you need to know, but the huge glasses emphasize the point as does the bizarre gigantic bow on the front of her top.
    I don’t know if her look alone can qualify her as “the world’s most uptight librarian,” and I certainly missed the “deep, dark secret” from this description, but I’d definitely lean away from calling her glamorous or stylish.

    • I have to stand by my assessment that Miss Livingstone is stylish — but in a very specific way. This was THE kind of look for professional women in the early ’80s, with the pussy bow and sculptural buns, even the huge glasses. This kind of look said (or screamed?) “professional” — which is appropriate, given that she is the professional librarian, and the library aide is a student or part-time worker — and it was a time period when women were dressing like this as more women entered the workforce. They wanted to be taken seriously, so they dressed more seriously. And Miss Livingstone’s more serious and professional work look serves as a shortcut for the audience to give her more authority in the library scenes she appears in. Everything Miss Livingstone wears is well-fitted, even a pair of wide-legged trousers in the bicycle scene. And the purple dress she wears, again, quite well-fitted, also reveals a bit of her feminine side and stylish flair, with the bright color and the bit of flowers on the lower v-neck.

      I do agree that the glasses and the hair do serve to put an “uptight” spin on what she wears, but her subtly stylish work outfits — and in my opinion, very much on-trend look for the time — show that she cares about being a working woman and being respected as a professional. Which is probably another reason why it flummoxes her about what to do regarding Jamie’s inappropriate attention!

      • popegrutch says:

        That’s quite a defense! I’m not going to try to refute it, except to say that, based solely on a few stills, I’m not certain that your reading is what the filmmakers intended.
        I forgot to mention the other thing in this review that surprised/impressed me! That’s that there is no moral panic over a) the fact that library has a book with nude pictures or b) an underage person was able to check out that book. The moral issue seems to be that he defaced the book and used it as a means to stalk the librarian. That’s fairly progressive thinking, for a horror film.

      • We can agree to disagree, although I might go back and insert a collage to better showcase her stylish work outfits. You’re right about no moral outrage about the book on the teacher’s side, which is interesting, but I don’t think it’s actually a library book. There’s no call number! So it makes Jamie’s scheme even more far-fetched!

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