Horror Film Review (minor spoilers)
By Steve Biodrowski
This is one of several anthology efforts from Amicus, a British company founded by two American producers (Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky) that acted as a sort of rival to Hammer Films in the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. Unlike Hammer, which usually adapted literary classics that presented a rigidly dualistic view of a universe divided between Good and Evil, Amicus tended toward contemporary subject matter, like the stories of Robert Bloch and the E.C. comic books Tales from the Crypt and the Vault of Horror. In essence, they preferred the "gotcha" style of horror, in which the audience is tricked into identifying with some cad who seems to get away with murder (or some other vice) only to be hoist on his own petard in a final reel twist. Although Amicus produced many full-length features (e.g., THE PSYCHOPATH and THE SKULL, both scripted by Bloch), their preferred format was the anthology, in which four or five separate short stories were tied together with some kind of linking device. Previous horror films had used this approach (DEAD OF NIGHT, Roger Corman's TALES OF TERROR, and Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH), but Amicus made it their own.
TORTURE GARDEN marks a considerable step up from the first Amicus anthology, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, which was scripted by Milton Subotsky himself. This time, noted horror author Robert Bloch (whose novel inspired the classic Hitchcock film PSYCHO) adapts four of his own short stories, wrapping them together with the tale of a carnival sideshow attraction in which Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith) tells the fortunes of four patrons, all of whom come to nasty ends.
In the first a greedy man kills his uncle in order to inherit his fortune; unfortunately, along with the money comes a demonic cat that demands tribute in the form of dead victims. When the murderer is arrested (and therefore no long able to supply the necessary tribute), the evil familiar turns on him. Next up, an aspiring Hollywood actress discovers the truth about the longevity of famous film stars: no, it's not just plastic surgery; they have literally been turned into cyborgs whose artificial flesh never ages. In the third tale, a music journalist falls in love with a shy pianist who (like Norman Bates) is in a thrall to his dead mother. The spirit of the dear departed seems to reside in the piano, with fatal results for the would-be lover. Finally, a Poe collector Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) finds out that a fellow collector Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing) has obtained the ultimate collectible: Poe himself!
The film is a little bit of a mixed bag. The first episode, with the cat, is reasonably horrific, but Hollywood sequence is relatively mild. The haunted piano episode is reasonably interesting, but the sight of the "killer piano" pushing its victim out a window tempts viewers toward laughter. The final episode is perhaps the best, tying in nicely with the wraparound sequence. Unlike the other patrons, who shrink in fear at what the future has in store for them, Wyatt seems amused. Then a fifth patron (Michael Ripper) loses his cool and apparently stabs Diabolo to death, scaring the other customers away. But Wyatt remains behind, eager to make a deal with Diabolo, who turns out to really be the Devil himself.
Visually, the film is quite strong, except for the opening credits, which play over grainy, cheap-looking shots of carnival rides at twilight. Director Freddie Francis uses clever camera set-ups and tracking shots to tell the stories in an interesting way. Despite his avowed aversion to the horror genre, he knows how to use the elements at his disposal to build atmosphere, creating a movie world where the twist endings of Bloch's ironic stories make perfect sense. One subtle highlight of the film is an extended dialogue between Cushing and Palance, which occurs in a single take, the camera smoothly following their movements around a room without ever calling attention to itself.
The British cast, particularly Cushing, provide the reliably solid performances one expects, and character actor Michael Ripper is great as the nervous customer who finally explodes into murder. Burgess Meredith provides a bemused sense of good sportsmanship (he knows that warning potential victims may save a few of them from his grasp, but that's all part of the fun for him). Palance is quite a bit hammy, as if he does not take the film quite seriously, but even this works in context, when played against the more restrained Cushing.
The film has its share of oddball elements, beginning with its admittedly cheesy title, which is justified by being used as the name of Dr. Diabolo's sideshow attraction. One suspects the early plan was to call the film "Dr. Diabolo's Torture Garden, to tie in more closely with the previous Amicus anthology horror film.
Fortunately, most of the other missteps add a surreal quality to the film. The depiction of Hollywood (achieved without location shooting) more resembles swinging '60s London -- an almost timeless, glitzy vision of where the rich and pampered play. For reasons not entirely clear, the American Palance is cast as an Englishman and the very English Cushing is cast as an American. Although the budget was obviously limited, resulting in a minimum of exterior and/or establishing shots, this gives the film a more insular feel, making it into a self-contained world of its own, where strange things happen.
In the end, TORTURE GARDEN is no match for the earlier horror anthologies that it emulates, but it is a reasonably entertaining example of what Amicus had to offer. (They would later surpass this effort with ASYLUM and TALES FROM THE CRYPT.) Whatever the film's weaknesses, the wraparound story is one of the best ever contrived for an anthology; Bloch's stories are amusingly horrible without ever being genuinely convincing and disturbing, and Francis serves it all up with as much panache as he could manage on the available resources.
Decades after co-producer TORTURE GARDEN, Max J. Rosenberg dismissed Jack Palance's performance in the fourth episode, remarking that the actor "pranced around like a wounded gazelle."
Discuss this film at Fright Night Forum.