Sinister sideshow huckster Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith) offers to give a group of strangers a glimpse of their not-so-rosy futures in this anthology from Amicus…
Given the box office success of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), it may seem surprising that it took producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky several years to light upon the idea of delivering another horror film in the same vein. They had explored sci-fi via a pair of juvenile Dr. Who vehicles, and had explored horror in various forms via such Robert Bloch properties as The Skull (1965), The Psychopath (1966) and The Deadly Bees (1966), but somehow they had failed to capitalize upon the box office potential of the anthology format. The tide changed when they enlisted Bloch to pen a new anthology, which was then envisioned as another vehicle for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Things changed a bit when Columbia Pictures was enlisted to infuse some much needed financing, but the film’s box office takings persuaded Subotsky and Rosenberg to direct much of their energy to further multi-story offerings for the remainder of their partnership.
Things kick off with a splendid slice of grotesquerie starring Michael Bryant, Maurice Denham and Niall MacGinnis. There are no end titles, and as such there are no official on camera segment titles, but this segment is known as “Enoch,” and it casts Bryant as a ne’er-do-well who seeks to cash in on his uncle’s demise by using the old man’s money to get himself out of debt. Little does Bryant realize that the money carries a witches curse, and the witches familiar - a black cat - has every intention of seeing this legacy fulfilled. Director Freddie Francis slathers on the atmosphere with moody lighting and interesting camera angles; it marks one of his most successfully realized mood pieces, and helps to get the film off on the right foot. Bryant, who had not long prior “finished” filming a lead role for Orson Welles (in a project destined to be uncompleted, unfortunately) and was already established as one of the notable “leading lights” of the British theatre, gives an excellent performance in the lead, and it’s fun to see Maurice Denham and Niall MacGinnis reunited, as it were, from Jacques Tourneur’s magnificent Night of the Demon (1957).
The quality dips sharply in the next two segments, unfortunately. First up is “Terror Over Hollywood,” in which grasping wannabe starlet Beverly Adams unwittingly sells her soul for fame and fortune, and then “Mr. Steinway” tells the tale of how Barbara Ewing (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) falls victim to - wait for it - a possessed piano. The former is dreadfully dull, done up in a bland, smothering “lite jazz” score by Don Banks, while the latter is simply too silly for words. Kudos to Francis for trying to make the latter halfway credible, but all the gel lighting and canted angles in the world can’t shake the silliness from the basic concept.
In the grand tradition of saving the best for last, the film wraps up with “The Man Who Collected Poe” - it is for this, fellow Cushing fans, that we are here assembled. The segment stars Jack Palance as the most obsessive collector this side of, well, Peter Cushing in The Skull. Determined to avail himself of some of the “treasures” of fellow fanatic Cushing, he decides to play dirty - but may or may not live to pay the price.
The segment allowed Cushing his only chance to share scenes with Hollywood heavyweight Jack Palance, who was then about to enter something of a dry spell with appearances in numerous B and Z grade productions. Even so, he already had an Oscar nomination (for Shane) under his belt, and the Golden God would become his in the future, thanks to his career-rehabilitating turn as Curly in the audience friendly family comedy City Slickers (1992). Palance was as intense as he was imposing - standing a full 6’ 4”, and built like a tank, he had been a boxer and a decorated WWII veteran before turning his sights to acting. Palance had the face of a heavy, and he knew it - far from resenting it, he capitalized on it and turned it in to an advantage. Palance wasn’t afraid of hamming it up, and it seems that on occasion a fondness for the bottle took its toll on his work (witness his turn as the head of a strange religious sect in director Jess Franco’s Justine, 1969, for a truly “bombed” appearance), but more often than not he was able to inject substance and interest into even the least defined of characterizations.
Torture Garden afforded Palance one of his few truly good horror genre roles. The character of Ronald Wyatt is a fanatic extraordinaire - his sheer giddiness and glee at handling the various items in Cushing’s collection of Poe memorabilia may seem over the top to some, but if you ever get a chance to attend, say, a horror film convention, you’ll realize it’s not far from the truth. Palance doesn’t underplay the part, but it’s not a role that calls for understatement, either. Wyatt is something of a functioning junkie, though his addiction is Poe rather than any illicit substance. Palance nails this aspect of the character with ease, and he never seems to be playing down to the audience.
As one might expect, Cushing’s performance as his “rival” collector, Lancelot Canning, is more reserved. Even so, he also manages to express the character’s almost orgasmic love of his collection - handling the items with tenderness, talking of them as one might of a lost love, and also reveling in the fact that he has the upper hand on his American colleague. The two actors also display a real chemistry, and play off of each other very well. When Palance first visits Cushing’s home, for example, the former is so overcome with excitement that he can barely focus on the formal pleasantries. Ever the gracious host, Cushing offers a choice of drinks - upon saying “whiskey,” Palance blurts out an eager “yes,” and then Cushing proceeds to offer sherry as an alternative, whereupon Palance continues with “yes, thank you!” Wyatt is clearly not even paying attention, and Cushing’s sly double take manages to convey a sense of amusement without milking the scene for laughter. The two men then proceed to virtually worship at a portait of the late author, hanging in Cushing’s salon. Canning offers a pithy analysis of Poe’s genius, while Wyatt silently, somewhat mockingly, sizes him up. It’s clear early on that he realizes that he’s bigger, tougher and more cunning than his “opponent,” and if he doesn’t exactly have murder on his mind, he is nevertheless bound and determined to see the full extent of Canning’s collection. Wyatt plies Canning with alcohol, affording Cushing a rare chance to play “drunk” on screen. Cushing does so without resorting to over the top theatrics, subtly slurring his words but not going for slapstick in the process. The episode basically plays out as something of a bizarre ritual, as the two men, unified in a common obsession, test and tease each other, each itching to come out on top as the ultimate fanatic.
Here, as elsewhere, Francis directs with a keen eye for the visual. He offers a wide variety of interesting camera set ups, ratcheting the tension as Palance’s obsession tilts from barely contained to positively dangerous. He elicits excellent performances from his actors, and the pace is taut, with no longeurs to complain of. This stands in contrast to Subotsky’s allegations that Francis was good with visuals, but lousy with story - thus prompting the producer to perpetuate the myth that he salvaged much of his work in the editing room, a claim which Francis strenuously objected to.
Interestingly, this marked the only time that Amicus hired Hammer’s in house composer James Bernard to pen the soundtrack. Bernard sat out the Terror Over Hollywood segment, allowing Don Banks to deliver a more “modern” sound apropos to the subject matter, but his contributions to “Enoch” and “The Man Who Collected Poe” are strongly felt. Perhaps because of the fact that he didn’t score the film as a whole, it’s a score that doesn’t generate much attention among his fans - but truly, it deserves more appreciation. As in the best of his Hammer scores, Bernard’s music not only complements the mood - it helps to elevate it where needed.
Ultimately, Torture Garden is an uneven picture. Two segments work, two segments don’t - and on this level, it’s hard to give it a full endorsement. Fans of British horror would be remiss to skip those two key segments that do work, however, as they offer all the attributes one associates with the golden age of British horror filmmaking.
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