Sunday, 13 March 2011

Torture Garden (1967)

Country: UK

After the resounding success of their first portmanteau horror film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) it was inevitable that Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky would initiate a second. In the meantime Amicus had produced eight single narrative films with varying degrees of success. The commercial high point of this two year period was without a doubt Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD (1966). But in terms of creativity Amicus hit a home run with the peculiar contemporary set gothic chiller The Skull (1965). The short story that formed the basis of this distinctive film was written by Robert Bloch, and it was to his short stories that Amicus would turn for their second anthology Torture Garden. This time Subotsky took a back seat with regards to the writing and allowed Bloch the opportunity to adapt his own stories. One of the weaknesses of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was the clichéd nature of Subotsky’s screenplay, the stories themselves were highly predictable, but the movie was saved by an ingenious framing narrative. Although Torture Garden has aged very badly (it is easily amongst the weakest of Amicus’ anthologies) the stories themselves do at least possess a certain off kilter originality, and a weirdness and unpredictability that makes them far more intriguing propositions than the desultory generic retread Subotsky had provided two years before.

Nevertheless despite the promise of Bloch’s fervent imagination Torture Garden is still, in large part, a dismal failure. Although the framing narrative features the brilliant Burgess Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, the film wastes too much energy on whether he is a con artist or whether he possesses a genuine malevolent side. One look into the eyes of Meredith at any point tells you all you need to know. The establishing shots of a fairground are handled well, and it sets up a theme of carnivalesque disruption which Meredith plays up to with relish. Unfortunately the risible production design of Amicus strikes again, after an initial establishing shots, we cut to a very poorly decorated and shoddy set. As each person stares into the shears of destiny the terrible consequences of their actions in a possible future plays out before them. The opening story Enoch is unusually grim and grisly. But beneath the supernatural trickery this is another tired story about a greedy bastard knocking off an old relative to get his money. In this case it is Michael Bryant who is the selfish playboy who is determined to learn the secret of frail Uncle Roger’s (Maurice Denham) wealth. Any suspense is utterly destroyed however by a throwaway line stating that a witch used to live in the crumbling old cottage. The familiar of the witch is a cat called Balthazar, he has a taste for human heads, and he soon enslaves Colin when the idiot releases him. This story has a certain gothic charm aided immeasurably by the dank cottage with its creepy basement and barn. The visual style of Freddie Francis and DOP Norman Warwick gives the tale a certain atmosphere which is undermined somewhat by the utter stupidity of the premise.

The second story Terror over Hollywood is easily one of the tackiest and least interesting to ever grace an Amicus anthology. This is a great shame because the comment Bloch makes on the nature of stardom is intriguing and subversive. Bloch offers a very cynical view of a Hollywood populated by automatons, but the filmmakers manage to destroy this by utterly leaden exposition. This isn’t helped by dreary performances from Beverly Adams and Robert Hutton, and art direction that makes the world of filmmaking look about as attractive as a syringe ridden inner city council estate. The third story Mr. Steinway has traditionally received the most flak, but any tale that features a possessed homicidal piano is going to struggle to be taken seriously. I actually quite like this third tale, and to accusations of silliness I would say if it was alright for Stephen King’s Christine surely it’s alright for Robert Bloch. The piano is possessed by the mother of gifted concert pianist Leo (John Standing) a morose little bastard who somehow manages to pull the attractive Dorothy (Barbara Ewing). The piano harbours resentment and jealousy towards Dorothy whose own selfishness is draining Leo of his inspiration to write and perform music. In its own way this is a veiled statement on the way in which some relationships are more akin to vampirism. For this selfishness Dorothy is punished in the most ridiculous sequence to ever feature in an Amicus film.

The final story The Man Who Collected Poe is far superior to anything that has preceded it. In fact it remains one of the greatest stories to feature in an Amicus anthology. This is entirely due to the casting of Peter Cushing and Jack Palance who play a pair obsessed with collecting everything and anything to do with Edgar Allan Poe. Cushing’s Lancelot Canning is the one with the amazing collection that Ronald Wyatt covets, but on accepting an invitation to his home Wyatt discovers that Canning has employed the supernatural to acquire the ultimate collectors piece; Poe himself! For anyone who has ever collected anything the breathless excitement of Wyatt on discovering original manuscripts and sundry rarities will be familiar. This story does an excellent job of exploring the fevered desperation of the obsessive collector, and also possesses a wonderfully gothic flavour courtesy of a fiery and supernatural finale. Torture Garden never fully recovers from its opening three stories, but there is still much of interest here. The film looks typically impressive thanks to Francis’ visual stylisations and is well served by a solid if unimpressive score from Don Banks and James Bernard. A low point creatively for Amicus perhaps, but this was still commercially successful enough to convince the producers to continue with the portmanteau format.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I was so excited to buy the DVD for this when it became available as it was the one Amicus movie I never got to see. I was soundly disappointed to say the least. I ended up giving the disc away. It was just $10 at Best Buy so I wasn't out very much money. Still, I'm glad I saw it, and as you said, Shaun, the last story is the best.

  2. Oh I still wouldn't dream of giving my copy of TORTURE GARDEN away, even though the film is, to put it bluntly, utter crap. My personal favourite Amicus anthology is THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD which doesn't seem to have a lot of supporters.

  3. Apart from Asylum (which is superb) I'm not that much a fan of Amicus's horror anthology flicks. They're OK but I think they're overrated by horror fans.

  4. HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is my all time fave as well, but I didn't realize it didn't have many supporters. I thought, at least over here, it was generally thought quite highly of. It's coming out on Blu here at some point if I remember right.

  5. They're OK but I think they're overrated by horror fans.

    You're talking out your arse!

  6. I think HOUSE THAT DRIPPED is regarded quite well Brian, its just that it's rarely considered the best Amicus anthology. That honour usually goes to DR. TERROR'S, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, or ASYLUM. I have no knowledge of a Blu Ray, but that would be one I'd certainly purchase, simply for Cushing's nightmare sequence which is very colourful.

  7. Torture Garden is still sitting on my wishlist next to From Beyond the Grave, at $1 used on Amazon I have still been reluctant to make the purchase. Maybe we can compare notes when it hits $0.01 =D

  8. That is still to expensive Carl, how about comparing notes when somebody gives you a copy for free?, Even then you might be reticent to accept! :-)


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