Filmed entirely on location in Montreal, The Pyx (1973) is not easily categorized. Chiefly a policier/mystery-thriller, toward the end it incorporates horror film elements. Ads for the film (see below) offered few clues: "The Pyx - See it ... find out what it means!" Its screenplay has an unusual structure, and it moves like Canadian maple syrup. But at a time when the horror genre was spiraling downward into cheap, crass exploitation, The Pyx is intelligent, well acted, and though graphically violent and sexually frank, it's anything but exploitative.
For this reason, it's mighty odd to find this title hosted by "former WWE Dvia [sic] and current TNA Knockout" Katarina Leigh Waters, a Vampira/Elvira-type hosting "Katarina's Nightmare Theater." Waters's segments aren't really offensive, fortunately, certainly less so than most campy horror movie shows of this type, and viewers thankfully have the option of skipping this material entirely. More significantly, star Karen Black is on hand for an interesting audio commentary track, and two TV spots are also included.
Originally a Cinerama Releasing Corporation title, The Pyx gets a good transfer here, reportedly mastered from the original negative, with its Panavision lensing looking good in 16:9 enhanced widescreen.
Late one evening, a passing motorist catches sight of high-class hooker Elizabeth Lucy (Karen Black) falling to her death from a supposedly unoccupied penthouse apartment. Det. Sgts. Jim Henderson (Christopher Plummer, affecting a strange accent that sounds a lot like Robert Shaw) and Pierre Paquette (Donald Pilon) investigate, while in parallel flashbacks, Elizabeth's last few days are dramatized.
Elizabeth, a functioning heroin addict, is shown secretly helping get a much worse-off colleague, Sandra (Louise Rinfret), into a drug treatment program, as well as comforting a suicidal homosexual, Jimmy (Terry Haig). However, in getting Sandra into rehab Elizabeth unwittingly has disrupted arrangements made by their madam, Meg (Yvette Brind'amour), a stern, icy woman. Meg had made an appointment for Sandra with wealthy, mysterious businessman Keerson (Jean-Louis Roux), a rendezvous stealthily arranged through his staff of well-dressed thugs. With Sandra out of the picture Meg demands Elizabeth take her place.
Meanwhile, the investigation slogs forward, with Henderson and Paquette looking into the upside-down crucifix and pyx - in Catholicism, a receptacle containing the Eucharistic host, about the size of a tin of Altoids - found on Elizabeth's body. Later, he finds a reel-to-reel tape recording of Gregorian chants. Oddly, the two stories just cut back and forth from one to the other; no attempt has been made to thematically link or transition them in some way. If you came in late, you'd reasonable assume they were occurring simultaneously, not days apart.
The Pyx is extremely slow-moving but ultimately rewarding, if not quite enough to wholeheartedly recommend it. Refreshingly, the banality of both a prostitute's and a police detective's work is honestly depicted. An early scene has Elizabeth servicing a client, going through all the motions to satisfy him but like a bored office worker watching the clock. Henderson and Paquette likewise unglamorously fulfill their jobs' obligations, which mostly involve a lot of tiresome legwork.
Because the film so successfully establishes this verisimilitude, toward the end when (non-supernatural) horror film elements are introduced, they come off as entirely believable and even a little scary. This, plus the awareness from the opening scenes that Elizabeth must end up dead add to the film's dread.
The acting is fine across the board, especially by Black, who's not only totally convincing as a workaday prostitute and smack-shooter, but who adds to the film's mood by writing and performing three songs on its soundtrack, most notably the eerie "Song of Solomon, Chapter 3, Verses 1-4," heard over the opening titles.
Also notable is René Verzier's (David Cronenberg's Rabid) cinematography, which with its darkly lit interiors and artful mise-en-scène reminds one of the work of DP Gordon Willis.
Video & Audio
Despite the fact that most of The Pyx is very dark, taking place indoors, and at night, the 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation of this Panavision production is quite good, even with minor damage and other age-related wear. Though made in Montreal by a Canadian crew, the film is in English with only short spurts of French that go unsubtitled. The region-free disc's mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is perfectly adequate.
The main supplement, unless one counts the "Nightmare Theater" material, is the thoughtful, interesting Karen Black audio commentary, well guided by an uncredited Marc Edward Heuck, which explores many facets of the film's productions and Black's approach to her character.
An interesting, almost unique work made just as the horror genre was in freefall, The Pyx is slow-moving but somewhat gratifying by the end, thanks to its intelligent, restrained approach and good acting. Drink a lot of coffee first, however. Mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for Media Blasters' Godzilla vs. Megalon (with Steve Ryfle), is on sale now.