Torture Garden (1967)

*. So if you come to this knowing it has nothing to do with the novel by Octave Mirbeau but that it’s one of the horror anthologies put out by Amicus the first thing you’re likely wondering at is the presence of Burgess Meredith and Jack Palance.
*. Well, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were originally slated to star but since Columbia was supplying the money they wanted a couple of American names, hence Meredith and Palance. I don’t know if Palance took Cushing’s part or if he just jumped up to star billing. It’s not that it’s a big role anyway, though I think Palance is effectively countercast as a raspy connoisseur of Poe.
*. Aside from that quirk in the casting, this is a very typical Amicus product. Direction by Freddie Francis. Script by Robert Bloch (based on stories he had written). Four brief spooky tales bound up in a supernatural frame story.
*. I didn’t find this one very interesting. The main problem, I think, is Bloch’s script. The stories are pretty stupid, the frame is silly, and there’s a real lack of energy to drive things along.
*. That frame consists of Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, a fairground sinister who curates an exhibit of macabre waxworks. One of these is introduced as Atropos the Goddess of Destiny who holds the hypnotic shears of fate. When one of Diabolo’s guests looks at the shears they are offered a vision of their future doom in the form of a dark fantasy vignette.
*. This all seems a stretch to me, even beyond the usual. Here is Dr. Diabolo’s spiel: “There is a theory: the past, the present, and the future are merely different aspects of the same moment in time and space. You understand that theory? Then perhaps you can understand that since a drowning man can view his entire past in a few seconds, he can also view his future by the same rule.” How can you argue with that? After all, he is a doctor.
*. Stretching credulity further is Dr. Diabolo’s commentary that the visions of Atropos are warnings about “things that can be.” But these are not visions about things that anyone could believe actually happening, however far-fetched they may seem. They aren’t like the premonitions of disaster served up in the Final Destination movies. Instead they are weird tales of supernatural occurrences. And why would anyone be frightened by predictions of evil cats or killer pianos?
*. The same concept of prophecy was used in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which I believe was the first of the anthology horrors Amicus did and which was also directed by Francis. To be honest, I think the idea of having the fates of the characters revealed after the fact, though it leads to some other problems, makes more sense. This was the route Amicus later took with Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
*. The first story, “Enoch,” is very dull and predictable. Just another case of the grasping heir getting more than he bargained for with his inheritance.
*. “Terror Over Hollywood” struck me as the best of the bunch, and even stole a march on The Stepford Wives by five years (though the basic idea is nothing new). Beverly Adams is also great as the rising star Carla Hayes.
*. This segment also illuminates an interesting cultural shift. I think a lot of us might ask today what the big tragedy is about Carla’s fate. Hasn’t she wound up with everything she always dreamed of, and more? Success, fame, money, beauty . . . forever? Today, of course, the idea of transplanting (or uploading) one’s consciousness is something a lot of money is being spent researching. If only we knew the secret of Dr. Heim!
*. “Mr. Steinway” is about a haunted piano. At the end of the story it pushes the heroine out of a window. Really. The piano. It was going to take something special to make that work.
*. “The Man Who Collected Poe” is a somewhat interesting idea but it gets a very pedestrian treatment without any real twist. A lot of people like this episode the best but I think they’re just deferring to the leads. There’s nothing special about it.
*. It’s odd that Palance seems to have an almost orgasmic look on his face at the end. Was such a climax not frightening to him, but a consummation to be wished?
*. In sum, the individual stories, though weird in terms of content, are all pretty basic. Greed and ambition are punished (even the girl in the third story is an obnoxious climber, with her “Leo belongs to me now”). The frame ends on a bizarre note, not because of the silly revelation of Dr. Diabolo’s identity but because of his final interaction with Palance. What happens there? What deal have they struck?

*. The production is what you’d expect, and the same goes for Francis’s direction. He shows off his usual affection for depth of field, foregrounding or backgrounding key elements like the shears, a glass of medicine, a trapdoor, the tines of the pitchfork, the mother’s portrait, or the set of keys. But that’s really his only flash of style here.
*. As with all of the Amicus anthologies, it’s not a great movie but you do get something mildly entertaining. If you’ve seen enough of these, you’ll have a pretty good idea why the format never really took off. That’s a shame, as it always had potential (see Dead of Night or Kwaidan). But for various reasons it remained stuck in a rut of inexpensive and formulaic quickies.

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