Thursday 19 November 2020

Torture Garden

Fair Warning

Torture Garden
UK 1967 Directed by Freddie Francis
Amicus/Columbia Indicator  Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some story set up spoilers.

Torture Garden is not, as I’d once assumed as a teen, an adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s late nineteenth century novel (from which I can only assume the famous fetish night club takes its name) but is, in fact, the first kind of ‘follow up’ portmanteau horror film from Amicus, riding on the success of their tremendous Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (which I reviewed here). Now, I have to say, I was very taken with that first one when I watched it fairly recently. Alas, the same can’t be said of Torture Garden which, asides from having the same director and one of the original stars, I’d have to say is a very mixed bag indeed.

The film’s opening credits are all superimposed over footage of various fast moving fairground rides and, once these finish, we are introduced to one of the fixtures of the fair, the horror museum of Dr. Diabolo. Yeah, if you’re right in thinking they replaced the train in Dr. Terror with the fairground attraction of Dr. Diabolo, you’d be right. It’s another device to open up the narrative into four separate, short(ish) horror (again ish) stories. We are presented with Dr. Diabolo showing off his exhibits and then, after the ‘official’ show, he invites members of the audience into his private rooms to see, if they so dare, the real horror they carry inside of them... for the price of a fiver each, which was a lot of money in those days (to some of us it still is). Five ‘victims’ agree and he leads them to a wax figure of Atropos, Goddess of Destiny (played by Clytie Jessop), whose countenance turns up in the odd place throughout the movie. Of course, she’s not really a waxworks figure in real life and, in the long shots, she is having a hard time keeping still. I suspect, in some of the close ups of her, a static image is inserted. Anyway, the five victims (well four of them anyway, I’ll get to that soon), have to gaze between her shears and see their ultimate fates, in the form of a short story.

Now, like Dr. Terror, there are some famous people turning up in this one but they’re not all in the bookend scenes. Dr. Diabolo himself is played by Burgess Meredith and this would have been around the time he was playing The Penguin in the Batman TV series. Which is interesting because he has a couple of costumes in this and the first one includes a top hat and cigarette holder just like the ones he used as Penguin. Also, you know he’s not quite what he seems because, when the five ‘customers’ aren’t looking, he burns the five pound notes they gave him. Of course, Meredith is one of those very interesting actors who are easy to watch, so it’s a shame he doesn’t actually appear in any of the four segments... just the binding story between them and bookending them. I’ll go through a few more of the actors as I get up to them but let me give you just a brief flavour of them as I go through the film.

Unlike Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors, the four segments here are all adapted by the same writer who actually wrote all of the short stories on which they are based... Robert Bloch, who’s name may be familiar to some of my readers as being the man who wrote Psycho. Although not titled on the screen, the four shorts are called, in order as they appear in the binding narrative... Enoch, Terror Over Hollywood, Mr. Steinway and The Man Who Collected Poe.

The first sequence, Enoch, shows a young man (played by Michael Bryant) who goes to visit his sick uncle (played by Maurice Denham) in the hopes of getting money out of him. He causes a heart attack which kills the uncle and then searches the house for the old gold coins which the uncle seems to be paying for everything with. It turns up, alright when he unearths a coffin in a dungeon beneath a trap door. There’s a cat trapped inside the coffin with the skeleton and the furry fiend houses the spirit of an old witch, which takes over the young man’s mind and makes him kill so she can feed off the victim's energy. Now, this may sound quite interesting but, honestly, this overly long segment (and the next one) is incredibly dull and not worth watching for anything other than for seeing director Freddie Francis’ various shot set ups. Indeed, there’s a remarkable shot taken from just next to the underside of the bed with the action going on in the far end of the shot, which alerts us to the presence of a trap door long before the central protagonist sees it. Also, when the cat is filmed in close up, it’s done so with the kind of bright red and green lighting scheme which instantly reminded me of the way Mario Bava used to light his movies.

Segment number two, Terror Over Hollywood, tells of a ruthless young lady played by Beverly Adams, who blags her way into being an actress in a substantial role in an American movie but, to her cost, finds out the terrible secret as to why the top ten movie stars of Hollywood look so young for so long. Out of the four segments here, I’d have to say that this one is more of a science fiction story with a possibly slight horror tinge but, even though it deals with an interesting subject matter, it didn’t exactly grab me and we were maybe an hour into the movie by this point (not leaving too much time for what I thought would be another three segments but... there’s a great little trick when you get up to the fifth person... I’ll get to that in a minute). And it was an extremely dull and hard to watch movie up until now, I thought. Not a patch on the previous Amicus portmanteau movie.

Things turn around for the last two, briefer segments, though. The first of which, Mr. Steinway, tells of a female reporter who falls in love with a successful pianist, only to find the Goddess who lives inside the piano, gifted to him by his long deceased mother, harbours a grudge and is jealous of her. So, yeah, it’s a short but sweet segment and, wonderfully, includes a killer grand piano. It’s nicely done and the combination of Francis’ shot compositions when coupled to a less dull story seems to work wonders.

The fourth segment, The Man Who Collected Poe, concerns the man who has remained wordless in the linking scenes until now, letting his presence add mystery to the proceedings until he explodes into speech for this final segment. This man is played by the wonderful Jack Palance and it’s essentially a two hander between him and the even more wonderful Peter Cushing. Oh yeah, by this point you know you’re in really good hands with a story about two collectors of paraphernalia associated with the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Palance is the jealous guy in awe of Peter Cushing’s collection and, when he gets him drunk, he gets Cushing to show him his 'even more private' collection in the basement. Here he finds brand new stories written by Poe and a surprise in store as it’s revealed that Cushing, once he has been ‘done away with’ so to speak, is from a family which has used powers of black magic, ensuring he is the owner of what I will only say here is... the ultimate Edgar Allan Poe collectible. This is a terrific piece and Palance’s nervy, 'threatening to explode in his fanaticism' performance is a joy to watch... as is Cushing’s. Anyone who thinks of Cushing as someone who is just a solid character actor should watch his performance as a slightly drunk collector in the last part of this sequence. It’s an amazing turn and really calls to attention to just what a great performer he could be, when the script gave him the chance.

And then we have the bookend scene, where the fifth victim, the great Michael Ripper (who you will probably know from damn near every other Hammer film which was made), completely flips out and... no I won’t spoil that for you other than to say... when you think you know how it’s ended, stick around for a few more minutes... not everything is as it appears and I was immensely pleased with this because, for once, I didn’t see the coming twist reveal until it was almost upon me.

The score for the film is a double hander between two composers who I only really know from Hammer film productions, Don Banks and James Bernard. I suppose they both got one or more segments to score and, I have to say, that whoever scored the first sequence, wrote a great score which I would gladly listen to as a stand alone experience (if it were possible and actually got a release) but in terms of being a back up to the ‘on screen’ images... well it just comes across as a little heavy handed, is all.

And, that’s more or less that. I couldn’t get into Torture Garden nearly as much as I could with Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors but, having said that, there were things which made it worth sticking around for. Asides from the quirky and sometimes brilliant third and fourth sections, there’s also the odd interesting idea here and there. Such as a night club scene which had a giant sized snow globe with a Christmas scene inside, with real people in it. So I’m glad I saw it but I’m very glad this wasn’t the first of these films I watched. Definitely worth persevering with if you are into 1960s British horror movies though and, once again, Indicator have done a truly marvellous job with this Blu Ray restoration. As is usual for them, it has a fistful of accompanying extras included. Not one to miss if you’re a fan of these kinds of productions.

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