01 November 2011

TORTURE GARDEN/1967/AMICUS

TORTURE GARDEN

1967/Director: Freddie Francis/Writer: Robert Bloch

Cast: Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, Beverly Adams, Peter Cushing, Maurice Denham, Barbara Ewing, Robert Hutton, Michael Ripper

I remember the first Amicus film I ever was Tales from the Crypt on late night TV. I had always been intrigued by the film’s poster art which I saw on one of the issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland. That film and Vault of Horror typify the Amicus approach to many of their pictures as they were patterned after the EC comics of the same name. There are usually four or maybe five stories linked together in some fashion and sometimes featuring a host. In the case of Torture Garden the host is the sinister sideshow carny Dr. Diablo played to the hilt by Burgess Meredith. This sort of story telling – called portmanteau - was not invented by Amicus and probably goes back to the 1945 film Dead of Night. Of course there is the classic Black Sabbath by Mario Bava, one of my all-time favorite films, with three supernatural yarns woven together by host Boris Karloff. But the format would become practically synonymous with Amicus thought they did produce feature length films as well. It can be easy to think that you’re watching a Hammer film when watching an Amicus production. The style is often visually similar – though the Amicus stories and settings are less Gothic than Hammer’s – and often the cast and crew included many Hammer notables. Like Hammer Amicus was a British production company though founded and ran by two American producer and screenwriter Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. Torture Garden lacked Christopher Lee – a decision made by the American producers – but was capably directed by cinematographer and Hammer director Freddie Francis, who also directed the first Amicus portmanteau Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. Hammer institution Michael Ripper has a small but vital role and the film’s final and best story features Peter Cushing. And if you read the credits – like I do looking for some familiar name – you will see that the film’s score was composed by James Bernard who did some of the best Hammer soundtracks. In fact during the 60’s it is hard to find a good Hammer film that Bernard did not score.

But for me the thing that seemed to make the Amicus portmanteau style films famous is also the thing that sort of annoyed me a little, even as a kid. One problem I have with the way the stories are told is that the stories have no real connection to one another. Each is a totally separate story that does not really tie into the other tales in any way. When the film is over there is nothing that rings all the short episodes together into some sort of climax. They are all literally done in a multiple story comic book style. The only thing that supplies some sort of continuity to the tales as a whole is the people featured in the stories are the same actors whose characters are brought together in the narrative section. I guess that is a small quibble and I just wanted to get it out or my system. Torture Garden is penned by Robert (Psycho) Bloch and they could certainly have gotten a weaker screenwriter.  The dialog is okay and Burgess Meredith seems to get the best lines and eschews them with diabolical glee. On most of the posters Jack Palance gets top billing but during the narrative sections he does nothing but fill his pipe with tobacco and grin. Of course a Jack Palance grin is loaded with more meaning than any soliloquy by Hamlet. But Palance’s performance is a treat in this one and he has not done more talking and emoting in a film since 1955’s The Big Knife. But I will get to that in a moment. Let’s take a look at exactly what is going on in The Torture Garden. The story takes place at a carnival where some patrons to Dr. Diablolo’s -oh and in case some of you don’t know, Diabolo is Spanish for the Devil. Duh! Right? I think the film makers were actually banking on the fact some viewers would not know this and therefore not have the ending telegraphed in the first five minutes- are invited to an after show viewing of the good Dr.’s private collection of horror items. Though skeptical of the five pound admission fee the group go into the back and there find the figure Atropos, the Greek goddess of destiny who wove men’s fortunes from her skein of like in one hand and her silver shears in her other. And thanks to Wikipedia you too can become an expert in Greek mythology. Atropsos actually did not spins men’s destinies on her own. She was one of the three Moirae, the sisters of fate. Her sister Clotho spun the fabrics which Atropos wove from and Lachesis measured and cut the threads. It might have been better to have all three of the Fates in Dr. Diabolo’s private chamber but we are stuck with only Atropos who does all the work. She si supposed to be a wax figure but you can see the actress breathing on several occasions.  Differnet members of the small group are to stare into the shiny shears and see a ‘memory of the future’ and view a story that involves the actor but as a different character. The stories seem to revolve, loosely, around a theme of greed in one form or another.


1967/There are four stories in Torture Garden. They do not tie at the end of the film in any way –as far as I can tell- and exist as separate short stories that different people experience while hypnotized by Atropos’s shears. Two stories are pretty good, one is average and one is filler at best. The first story is a retelling of a Robert Bloch short story called Enoch in which a brain tumor, possibly, controls the lead character’s actions. In the film the tumor is replaced by a black cat. Michael Bryant play the greedy and calculating Colin Willaims who is out to get his hands on his Uncle’s secret treasure. He will let nothing stop him including a little murder. The treasure however is guarded over by a scraggly black cat who calls himself Balthazar (warning!) and in exchange for allowing Michael to pilfer the treasure all he asks for in return is that Michael kill some people once in a while so kitty can have some human brains for a snack. I my opinion this is the average story. Not special or surprising but it looks nice in the director hands of Freddie Francis who coaxes all he can from the story.

The next story is a little better and features Robert Hutton (The Slime People, Trog, Invisible Invaders –click links for my reviews-) and Beverly Adams. Adams plays Carla Hayes who wants nothing other than to be a success in Hollywood. She finds her opportunity when she meets the ‘ageless’ and perennially popular actor Bruce Benton (Hutton). Benton is part of a secret society of Hollywood types who have been behind the scenes for longer than seems possible and she wants in. Benton is against it but in the end we have to be careful of what we wish for as we just might get it. The following story is the weak link in the chain and could have been left out as far as I am concerned and the other stories could have been made a little longer or another tale all together put in. Pretty Barbara Ewing plays reporter Dorothy Endicott who interviews reclusive classical pianist  Leo Winston (John Standing). Endicott falls in love with Winston but has to contend with the jealous Euterpe (the Greek Muse of music). The weird thing is that Euterpe is Winston’s piano and no matter how you try, even with Freddie Francis directing, a piano chasing a kill around a room is simply not scary. Not sure how the greed theme –which I may be projecting into the movie myself- works in with this story.

The best is wisely saved for last. Jack Palance plays Edgar Allan Poe collector Ronald Wyatt who becomes fixated with the collection of one Lanelot Canning (finely played by Peter Cushing). Seems some of the unpublished collection of Poe manuscripts  is written on paper with a watermark of 1966. Is it a hoax? Or has the master of the macabre cheated death and is alive and still writing in Canning’s basement? I think you can guess the answer if the story is too be interesting and supernatural. Both Palance and Cushing give the best performances of the movie of course and the segment is wisely placed at the end. Maybe not the best from Amicus but certainly not the worst either. Eventually will get to their other films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horror, The House that Dripped Blood, Aslyum, The Crypt of Terror and Vault of Horror. But I think Torture garden is as a fine an introduction into the Amicus world as any of these other films.




3 comments:

Dr Blood said...

I like "The Man Who Collected Poe" best of all the stories but the first one was pretty good too if you see it as a precursor to "The Black Cat" (1981) and a certain story by R. Chetwynd-Hayes which I'll let you discover on your own. :)

occhio sulle espressioni said...

This is a blog of what I like, I read
for some '! :)

I love the Amicus, at times more than the Hammer, but the classic
less particular.
It is true, this is not the best, and even my
preferred that it's "From Beyond the Grave", but
Poe's episode struck me very much!
However, in "From Beyond the Grave" and in Dr. Terror's
House of Horrors ", the stories are so different, but in
somehow connected, type in the finale of "Dr.
Terror's ...".

Sorry for my bad english language! :)

Luigi

Bill D. Courtney said...

Dr. Blood/Luigi

I just watched From Beyond the Grave and it suddenly has become among my favorite of the Amicus magazine style films. The Poe story was great in this one and over all it was a nice piece of viewing as well. If I get stuck on the story by Hayes I may have to plead ignorance but let me check into it some first. All the stories for From Beyond the Grave were by him I think (??) but I am not sure which one you might me referring to in particular.

Luigi, your English is fine. Please feel free to comment here any time. Thanks.