The most unsettling thing about this 1973 mystery is that it comes from a time when all sorts of genre boundaries (and, in this case, cultural boundaries too) were blurring – so a straight-up police procedural can detour into hippie-era social comment before turning into a demonic horror film. One of the first large-scale movies mounted in Canada, it makes an effort to depict a multi-lingual Montreal which isn’t as sanitised as the clean cities seen in later Canadian cinema.
An investigation into the death of hooker Elizabeth Lucy (Karen Black) exposes a corruption which extends from the streets to the penthouses and eventually pits cop hero Jim Henderson (Christopher Plummer) against Satanist Herbie Lafram (Lee Broker), who claims a human sacrifice executed during a Black Mass has given him demonic powers (which, without going into full-on horror mode, he does seem to demonstrate). The film follows the cop as he digs into the case – the girl has died in a fall from a supposedly untenanted floor of a tall building, and is clutching the eponymous object (the case a priest carries the host wafers in) and a cross which turns out to be worn upside-down – with parallel flashbacks that follow the mixed-up Elizabeth as she is passed around various creepy types (Yvette Brind’amour is especially nasty as a lesbian madame), expresses dissatisfaction with her druggy lifestyle, and is coaxed into the circle to become a victim.
Certain elements prefigure Eyes Wide Shut, though it’s likely novelist John Buell was thinking of Rosemary’s Baby rather than Schnitzler when he wrote the original book – there’s always potent material in the linking of shadowy cults and power elites. Like the Kubrick film, The Pyx uses weirdly distorted backwards-sounding music to accompany a black mass conducted by an array of robed, masked figures; also, the upshot is a leftover dead naked girl the next morning, and a sense that the folks responsible are powerful enough to shut down any investigation. Towards the end, the body count is upped when Henderson finds a roomful of the minions who have delivered the girl to the cult slaughtered in what looks like a recreation of the aftermath of the Manson massacre.
Plummer was one of a few stars who parlayed a Canadian passport into a series of good roles in Canadian-backed films (the ultimate bad Santa of The Silent Partner, Sherlock Holmes in Murder by Decree) in a period when Hollywood wasn’t making much use of him – here, he takes a standard mildly embittered cop role and runs with it; as in Murder by Decree, his detective takes up the cause of victims no one is supposed to care about because they are whores and finally confronts the bigwigs who have casually ruled that some women are expendable. Black, as a more realistic call girl than the fantasy figure she essayed in Portnoy’s Complaint, gives the role her all – and even contributes several folky songs to the soundtrack. Director Harvey Hart, who made the vaguely Lovecraftian TV pilot Dark Intruder in the US (along with episodes of everything from Star Trek to Ben Casey) and later mostly made TV movies, takes advantage of this rare cinema outing to make interesting use of the wide screen shape. Hart’s Shoot, a Deliverance-style thriller with Cliff Robertson and Ernest Borgnine, is also worth a look.