Review Date: January 15, 2012
Released by: Scorpion
Release date: October 18, 2011
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
Watching The Pyx
, I’m reminded about fame and how this notion of the celebrity is formed. Today Hollywood struggles to give us bonafide stars – even the once surefire box office titans, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Mel Gibson have all faltered. There are so many different forms of media now, and “reality” programming has fragmented the market so much that fame seems to last but a few fleeting moments before the next person becomes a Google search term. But in the past, a big part of celebrity was because there were so few avenues for art. There were a few TV stations, a movie theater with one screen – so selection was limited and the stars were virtually pre-determined by studio heads. The other thing, and this is where The Pyx
comes in, is that we just plain got to look at celebrities on screen a lot longer then. Takes were longer, the pace was slower, and there were just less effects to distract our eyes away from the figures on screen. The Pyx
in particular just seems to linger on shots of Karen Black to the point where for clumps of seconds the plot just seems to drift away and we instead admire her beauty, or the nuance of her eyes, the pout on her lips, the curvature of her breasts. With all these quiet, intimate moments the director allows us with the actors, be it Black or Christopher Plummer in this, it helps create a kind of idolatry, the mentality of star worship, between the viewer and the performer. With the time directors gave us to watch their actors do their craft it’s no surprise the “movie star” was so big in Hollywood for so many decades. We’re in a different time now, but thankfully this time still allows us to reflect upon the past, and finally, almost 40 years since it was first released, The Pyx
can be seen once again in its proper aspect ratio from Scorpion Releasing. Inside the pyx do we find the Eucharist, or is it just stale bread?
One of the most memorable movie openings for me is the first Lethal Weapon, where that coked up prostitute jumps off a high rise, falling into the cacophony of bright Los Angeles lights. Consider this the Canadian precursor. After an understated opening with religious symbolism and the diffused lights of urban Montreal (set to music sung by Karen Black
herself), we quietly watch as a woman falls to her death from an apartment building. It’s darker, slower, and not nearly as sensational as Lethal Weapon, but behind it lies a brooding mystery and a quest for redemption that drives the rest of The Pyx
. Detective Jim Henderson (Christopher Plummer
, Murder by Decree
, The Silent Partner
) is called to the scene along with partner Pierre Paquette (Donald Pilon
) to try and figure out why this pretty young prostitute Elizabeth Lucy (Karen Black
) would take her life, draped in satin on a cold winter’s night.
As the detectives investigate, we see flashbacks simultaneously of Elizabeth’s final days before the tragedy. The age old dichotomy of saint or slut is evoked quite palpably, as we see Elizabeth on one hand as a call girl with a heroin addiction, and on the other as a woman willing to sacrifice herself for the salvation of others. Elizabeth has had quite the history, and as we see early on she’s trying not to let it repeat itself with one of her call girl friends, Sandra (Louise Rinfret
). Elizabeth has her secretly checked into an institution to get her away from drugs, although we later see that Elizabeth herself hasn’t quite kicked the habit. She wouldn’t mind a habit of another kind either, as she peers through the backs of churches wishing only to find redemption for a life that has seemingly spun out of control.
In Sandra’s absence, Elizabeth is asked to visit Sandra’s biggest client, Keerson (Jean-Louis Roux
), a businessman preaching about a miracle. He ends up being Elizabeth’s last client, and when Jim and Pierre ask Elizabeth’s madam, Meg (Yvette Brind’amour
) for some names, she remains curiously secretive. Just when they think they’re on the right path while questioning Elizabeth’s best friend, gay roommate Jimmy (Terry Haig
, Happy Birthday to Me
), tragedy strikes and they’re left scrambling for answers. This leads us ultimately to where the two paths meet, a cloak and dagger cult high above Montreal but still so very far from the heavens.
Before she became somewhat of a horror icon with projects like Trilogy of Terror
, Burnt Offerings
, Invaders from Mars
and It’s Alive III
, Karen Black was first and foremost daring intellectual actress. She was the figurehead for the changing of the guard in New Hollywood, BBS’s go to girl in important works like Easy Rider
, Five Easy Pieces
and Drive, He Said
with how messy, honest, emotional performances that brought about a new realism in cinema. Although dubbed a horror film, The Pyx
is less like her accomplished horror movies to follow and more like the new wave pictures before, a slow but intimate look at character and being in a largely godless world. As a thriller or police procedural, it’s certainly a slow burn, but as a character piece it really shines with Black as the delicate center. Known usually for his stoicism, Christopher Plummer also excels in the co-lead here, transitioning nicely between tough cop and a man with regret over a wife he lost. Whether in the past or present, this tandem really invigorates what on the surface looks like verite realism.
Although the novel was written out-of-sequence, the way it is presented in the film comes off very fresh and in stark contrast from most of the films of its time (and for many years afterward, too). It gives us the jolt of a murder to start the film, and weigh the number of soul searching scenes with Black that follow with a heavy fate. It slowly builds to a surprisingly disturbing climax, with sped-up soprano Gregorian chants driving a really bizarre final ritual. The odd, contrapuntal link between music and image seems like it shouldn’t fit together on paper, but in The Pyx
it provides a memorably off-kilter conclusion that effectively translates to the audience just the kind of disarray that was going through Elizabeth’s mind before her death. It sure takes its time getting there, but one the film reaches its climax it is a pretty affecting communion.
As has already been hinted at, the pacing of The Pyx
is slow, as is usually the norm for Canadian genre film of the seventies and eighties. It’s certainly an acquired taste for horror fans, but with pedigree like Black Christmas
, My Bloody Valentine
, it's a taste worth acquiring. Also requiring a bit of patience is the cinematography by Rene Verzier (The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
). The first portion of this movie is incredibly dark, so dark that in a bit of unintentional humor one of the characters actually says “how about turning on some lights…it’s a little dark in here”. The funniest part is that he does turn on a light and it’s STILL too dark. Verzier employs the same flat, naturalistic lighting scheme here that he does in Rabid
, and while it can at times be overly dark or ordinary, he still is able to find plenty of poetic shots, like those bits that have Black silhouetted down a hallway like an angel. Blame the lack of backlighting or fill on the cinema verite tradition that must certainly weigh on any cinematographer who came of age in Quebec in the sixties.
has a few great jolts throughout (the one surprise attack in the apartment certainly got me) but on the whole this is more a moody character piece than it is a thriller or a horror film. It’s about two characters’ search for divine forgiveness, both for the harm they cause/d to themselves and the same that they unknowingly dealt on others. Made in an era when the camera could linger on its subjects without a fancy move or a quick cut, the style allows us to endear ourselves to the characters and the stars themselves. Black and Plummer are terrific and it’s a treat to just eat up each and every nuance as they peel away the layers of these complex characters. Today, we spend most of the time trying to peel away the artifice of the cinematic process to find these things as simple as human emotion. As simple and understated as it is, The Pyx
reminds us of how much more can be told with so much less.
Rene Verzier went for a gritty, au naturel look for The Pyx
, and that look is preserved here well by Scorpion Releasing. Since the film used fast stocks and available light, the resulting print is grainy, dark and occasionally soft. Portions of the film, particularly the night sequences at the start and end, are a little underexposed, but surprisingly the black levels hold up and appear clean. Like previous Scorpion trasnfers, the colors here are again quite vivid, looking much fresher than they aught to. It’s a fairly earthy movie, but you can really see the color detail on some of Black’s clothing at her apartment or some of that dated seventies wallpaper. Specs and the occasional cigarette burn are present, and the film has a slight black flicker and jitter shake to it that can be visible if you look closely. These are light imperfections, but work to remind the viewer of the time and place of this 39-year old movie. Shot wide in 2.35:1 the film has hardly ever been displayed that way in its lengthy history, so it’s a rare find that Scorpion was able to preserve the aspect ratio the way they have here.
You should know what to expect here. Mono mix, light hiss, lacking range but still audible and relatively clean sounding. That and all that high-pitched chanting at the end is really, really creepy.
This is another entry in Katarina’s Nightmare Theater, but we have a few more extras than just the regular Katarina programming. Firstly, I honestly wouldn’t recommend the Nightmare Theater option this time around, since Katarina really doesn’t bring much of interest to the table this time around other than spoiling the definition of what a pyx is, which in the film is saved for a fairly pivotal moment late in the second act. Skip that, but be sure to listen to the commentary by Karen Black and film historian Marc Edward Heuck. Heuck on his own is a treasure in his lucid, neverending film trivia knowledge, but more importantly he brings a deeper thinking to theme, mise-en-scene and the creative aspects of film that are often overlooked by historians. Pairing Heuck with Black though, creates something truly magical. Black is a beautiful loon, so candid it’s crazy, with a stream of conscience delivery on all things, from what she thought of an actor’s performance, to her lack of a bra and to the changes she would have made to the film in regards to pacing, plot and trust me, so much more. Each speaker brings a different element to the commentary, and together it really plays like a good cop, bad cop kind of thing, with Black often just cutting Heuck off with random thoughts or disagreements, but still calling him “honey” and championing a lot of his insights. There’s plenty of detail about the production and the cast and crew revealed by both parties, and it’s fascinating to see the whole gist of The Pyx
tackled in such a dynamic, unpredictable fashion by the pair. The commentary is something that’s become somewhat of a predictable feature these days, but this one is a wild delight. It’s a real gem.
Also included, in addition to the usual Katarina trailers, are two trailers for The Pyx
. Although it’s only listed as “Theatrical Trailer” singular on the menu, there are two (and considering they are fairly short and full screen they might not even be theatrical).
is an icy little Canadian character drama erm, crossed, with thriller and horror elements. The story is woven together interestingly in a non-linear fashion and presented in a way that allows us long, uninterrupted views of the actors and their layered performances. There are a few jolts and an unsettling climax, but this is for the most part a somber study of redemption in the same mold of the same year’s Don’t Look Now
. Image and sound are represented accurately on this disc, and if you’re at all a fan of the film or Karen Black in general, then the hilariously candid commentary really is a sweet listen. I’m not sure if this is worth the weekly Sunday visit, but The Pyx
is certainly worth a trip to the altar.
Movie - B
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B
Supplements - B
- Running time - 1 hour and 48 minutes
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 2.0
- Audio commentary with Karen Black and moderator Marc Edward Heuck
- Katarina's Nightmare Theatre option
- Katarina's trailers
- Theatrical trailer