Judge Gordon Sullivan prefers his torments in orange.
What was the deadly power that desired and devoured the women of Fordyke?
The Gothic has been around almost as long as the novel, a unique mix or horror, the supernatural/mystical, and geographical isolation. It has proven perennially popular, with regular classics coming out every few decades, from Dracula to Rebecca, and it's no surprise that the genre translated well to film. Hammer Films gets a lot of credit for that, as the studio dominated the horror market in the '50s and '60s. Along the way they produced some great films and influenced a generation of filmmakers. However, Hammer isn't the only name in Gothic horror, and their dominance has kept a few films in their shadows for too long. One of those films is 1964's The Black Torment. Released near the height of Hammer Horror, it's easy to write the film off as a cash-in attempt from producer/director Robert Hartford-Davis, but watching the film fifty years later, it seems more like a genuine attempt at a period tale of madness and isolation. Though it hasn't aged as well as the classics, The Black Torment is a fine Gothic tale for fans of the genre.
The Black Torment opens on a young woman being chased through a fog-ridden landscape by an unknown assailant, who catches her. She is killed. Something is obviously not right, and into this world comes a local nobleman (John Turner, Merlin) and his new wife (Heather Sears, Sons and Lovers). He thinks he's bringing her home to introduce her to his father and the locals, but he quickly learns that he's suspected of never having left so that he could commit a series of heinous crimes against the young women of the town. With everyone turning against him, even he starts to doubt his own sanity.
The first thing that The Black Torment feels like it gets right is the sense that it's ticking all the Gothic boxes without feeling goth-by-numbers. We've got the period setting, the dashing nobleman, the lurid murders, the isolated setting, and the question of madness. All are essential ingredients in this kind of Gothic thriller, and the particular way they're mixed in The Black Torment makes them feel both timeless and not cliché.
More importantly, though, The Black Torment skillfully executes all of its elements. There are numerous examples of Gothic films that had all the elements but didn't stick. In contrast, the film puts all the elements into play with a wonderful eye towards detail. The opening scene, with a woman running for her life through the fog, signals the film's commitment to building suspense and crafting visually interesting takes on the standard Gothic elements. Even though I'm not the biggest fan of Gothic films, The Black Torment maintained my interest by how well it put together the elements I was expecting.
The folks at Redemption have given The Black Torment a fine DVD release. The film's 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is surprisingly strong for a film of this era. The print used for the transfer is in good shape. Detail is generally strong and black levels are surprisingly deep and consistent. The film's colors are muted, a common choice for this type of period piece, but the transfer seems to render them accurately. The Dolby 2.0 Mono track keeps dialogue clean and clear. The film's score is especially evocative, and is well-balanced with the dialogue.
The disc's lone extra is a 13-minute interview with Hartford-Davis. It's an unedited portion of an interview from around the time of the film, and we not only get to hear Hartford-Davis discuss his approach to filmmaking, but also see the behind-the-scenes aspects of the interview. It's not the most extensive extra, but for a fifty-year-old film of this type, it's a fine addition.
Not everything about The Black Torment is perfect. Some allowances must be made for the film's fifty-year vintage. The acting often comes off as stagey rather than authentic characters inhabiting an historical setting. More significantly, the film feels excessively tame by contemporary standards. Though not every film needs to be filled with gore and nudity, this one hints at enough dark things to make contemporary viewers wish it was a little more explicit. There are undercurrents of madness, sexuality, and violence, but The Black Torment never offers much in the way of torment itself. Some might call it tasteful—which it surely is—but the film also feels like a number of cards have been left on the table.
The Black Torment is a fine Gothic tale of madness and murder. Though it's relative tameness compared to recent horror might turn some viewers off, those with a fondness for Hammer horror should at least give this disc a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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