Judge George Hatch anxiously awaited the appearance of C.S.I.'s Lady Heather decked out in fishnets and spike-heeled boots, but she was a no-show. He still had a good time, but it was virtually painless. (Dammit!)
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have a private exhibit. It's for the true connoisseurs. Right behind this curtain you will find the real Torture Garden. It is not for the faint of heart, because what you will find will be more terrifying and more horrendous than your deepest, darkest dreams. Now then, who has the courage to step inside?"—Dr. Diabolo
Torture Garden (1967) is the second in a series of Amicus "anthology" productions that hit its stride in the early 1970s with such memorable entries as Asylum, Vault of Horror, and my personal favorite, Tales from the Crypt. Each anthology employed a basic framing device that brought together a diverse group of people, each of whom had a sinister past or future that was revealed during one of the episodes.
You would think that Amicus itself had predicted the short attention span of the future MTV generation, but the anthology horror film harkens back to the classic Dead of Night (1945), with the most horrific tale being "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" starring Michael Redgrave. Several directors and writers took on the various stories in Dead of Night, so each episode had its own flavor for the bizarre.
Amicus had only one director for each omnibus, but they were true professionals. Roy Ward Baker won two Berlin Film Festival awards for Asylum and had directed several classic films including the original Titanic retelling, A Night to Remember (1958), and noir films like Inferno (1953), which was shot in the trendy 3-D format.
The Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (Sons and Lovers, Glory), put on his director's hat and helmed almost a dozen low-budget Hammer horror films, including two of writer/producer Jimmy Sangster's most highly-rated suspense thrillers, Nightmare and Paranoiac. Francis directed Amicus's first venture into the anthology format, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors; Torture Garden was his second effort.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith, Advise and Consent) operates a cheesy sideshow called "Torture Garden" in an amusement park, where he shows the rubes and gawkers fake executions and other cheap thrills. For the more discerning aficionados, he has a private exhibit, and will allow anyone to enter for a pricier £5. Thinking there might be more "bang for the buck," or, in this case, more "puissance for the pound," several people fork over the extra admission fee.
Dr. Diabolo introduces them to Atropos, "a figure from ancient legend, the Goddess of Destiny. In her left hand is the skein of life, and in her right are the shears of fate. Each colored thread represents a human life, and the shears have the power to cut it short. But this Sibyl has a very strange magic and power." Anyone who stares into the shiny, mirror-like shears will find "a memory of the future" and the ultimate horror: The secret of their own hidden evil.
The main theme of Torture Garden is greed, and each episode has a requisite twist ending. Some are telegraphed halfway through the story while others come as a complete surprise. But I guarantee you will be intrigued as each "future memory" plays itself out.
Colin Williams (Michael Bryant, The Ruling Class: Criterion Collection is the first to stare into the shears of Atropos, and sees that he's been waiting too long for his rich Uncle Roger (Maurice Denham) to die so he can collect his rumored fortune. Although Uncle Roger lives in a small ramshackle cottage that looks more like a rat-infested hovel, Colin believes the man is a miser, and is sure there's money that has been stashed away. He kills his uncle and starts tearing the place apart. In the basement (where else?), he uncovers a coffin that contains a skeleton and a very live cat that telepathically tells Colin his name is Balthazar.
Once the familiar of a witch who owned the cottage before Uncle Roger, Balthazar advises Colin that in order to be rewarded with coffers of gold coins on a regular basis, Colin simply has to feed him. Balthazar's particular culinary delight, however, is an occasional buffet of human brains.
I've read almost every short story by scripter Robert Bloch, and this
episode appears to be a reworking of "Enoch," in which the titular
entity—possibly a brain tumor or an alter-ego—controls the main
character's thoughts, forcing him to commit the most dreadful acts. I got a
vicarious kick from this story because I often feel that my two cats control me,
so I readily identified with Colin. The ending of this story is well worth
The second episode is based on Bloch's "Terror Over Hollywood." Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams, Murderer's Row) is an aspiring young actress who will go to any lengths to jump start her career. She unscrupulously manipulates her best friend and roommate out of a date with producer Mike Charles (David Bauer, Patton) and his client, leading man Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton, Destination Tokyo).
But the obtuse Carla doesn't realize the consequences of being accepted and
immortalized into Hollywood's upper crust. I won't give away the ending, but
will instead take a closing quote from Bloch's original short story, "She
looked great. And she'll look great ten years from now, or twenty. Like a
million bucks, a million bucks at the box-office." You figure it out.
I have no recollection of a Robert Bloch short story that translates into the third installment of this Torture Garden anthology, but a "killer piano" certainly falls within his sardonically warped sensibilities.
Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) is an admirer of concert pianist Leo Winston (John Standing, King Rat). Leo's agent, Miss Chambers (Ursula Howells) warns Dorothy about Leo's preternatural attachment to his grand piano that he's named Euterpe after the Muse of Music. It was a gift from his overly possessive mother, and her soul inhabits the piano, preventing anyone from coming between her son and his gifted musical talents.
It's unclear whether Dorothy wants Leo to be her mentor, or simply to marry
him and attach herself to his notoriety and cash in on his wealth. This is the
silliest episode of Torture Garden, but director Freddie Francis makes
the most of a vengeful piano chasing Dorothy around the room with close-ups of
the keyboard looking like teeth ready to devour the intruder.
The last and best installment is based on Bloch's "The Man Who Collected Poe" and stars Hammer horror staple Peter Cushing ( The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1958)) and a surprisingly subdued—and intellectual!—Jack Palance (Panic in the Streets) as two obsessed collectors of Poe memorabilia.
Ronald Wyatt (Palance) meets Lancelot Canning (Cushing) at a Poe exhibit, and he literally drools over several items Canning has on display. Wyatt wants to see more so Canning invites him to his estate to view some extremely rare items. Wyatt knows that most of Poe's original manuscripts are housed in university libraries, but Canning's collection includes unpublished manuscripts, like "House of the Worm."
Wyatt readily recognizes Poe's style and handwriting, but he quickly
realizes that these unpublished stories were written on paper with a watermark
dated 1966. Did the fanatical Lancelot Canning forge them, or has Poe continued
writing from beyond the grave?
Dr. Diabolo's parenthetical wraparound of the four stories has a twist of
its own, and you can see it coming without having to glance into the shears of
For the sake of the screenplay, Robert Bloch took some liberties with Greek mythology. Atropos wove the threads into the fabric of one's actions, but it was Lachesis who actually cut them. I assume Atropos was easier to pronounce, and must agree that it sounds much more sinister.
As with most British films, from epics to low-budget "B" flicks like Torture Garden, the enthusiastic cast is pitch-perfect to the smallest role. The biggest coup de theatre for me was watching Jack Palance play a reserved and cerebral academic, complete with a briarwood pipe. Of course, his character's fanatical obsession with Poe makes him borderline psychotic, but Palance never steps over the line.
Sony's transfer is spectacular. I only wish that the opening credits weren't superimposed over the beautifully detailed and atmospheric shots of the gaudy, neon-lit amusement park before zeroing in on Dr. Diabolo's "Torture Garden." But Norman Warwick's excellent cinematography captures the appropriately moody interiors from a dilapidated old country cottage to a glitzy Hollywood restaurant. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is crisp and clear, rendering the dialogue sharp and making the score resonate beyond expectation.
The only extras are four trailers for other Sony releases. Stephen King Presents Kingdom Hospital received an excellent review from our own Judge Bill Gibron, and Judge David Johnson sunk his teeth into Vampires: The Turning. The outrageously titled Frankenfish was hooked and reeled in by Judge Dennis Price, and he didn't throw it back in the water. Only Devour remains unaccounted for, but, then again, one of our judges has mysteriously disappeared. Hmmm…
Torture Garden may be considered one of Amicus's less effective entries, but with a screenplay by Robert Bloch (Psycho, based on some of his more outré short stories, and directed by Freddie Francis with his inherent eye for composition and knack for subtly calling attention to the most seemingly insignificant detail within a conceptualized frame, the film is definitely worth a look.
Not guilty! Gimme those shears, Atropos! I want to see what "future memory" is in store for me.
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