Director: Freddie Francis
Script: Robert Bloch
Cast: Jack Palance, Peter Cushing, Burgess Meredith, Beverley Adams, Michael Bryant, John Standing, Robert Hutton, Michael Ripper, Bernard King, Catherine Finn, Maurice Denham
Running time: 93 minutes
Several visitors to a fairground attraction discover that Dr Diablo (Burgess Meredith) has an additional ‘sight for sore eyes’ around the back of his standard show-piece. The good (?) doctor invites a select few of his more mainstream spectators to pass through his tent’s heavy rear drapes to come and view his usually off-limits exhibit and discover more than they bargained for! And so begins the rest of this Amicus horror anthology movie from the late, swinging sixties…
Colin Williams (played by Michael Bryant) is the first punter to experience the ‘shears of fate’, as Diablo describes them, and the film cuts to a possible future where Colin goes to see a rich uncle, who has some nasty secrets up his sleeve, which Colin finds out about much too late. This gets the film off to a good start with a strong story (‘Enoch’) about greed and needing to be careful about what you wish for, with good performances and strong atmospherics, and a story with a reasonably satisfying payoff.
The second story, ‘Terror over Hollywood’, sees aspiring startlet, Carla Hayes (Beverley Adams), sabotaging her roommate’s dinner date with a top Hollywood producer so she can get in on the action. However, things don’t go quite according to plan, and she finds that there’s a very high price to pay for so-called Hollywood immortality. This second story isn’t as strong as the first, but is still fairly satisfying in its execution, and features fun performances from a game cast, and an enjoyably mischievous twist-ending.
Sadly, the third segment, ‘Mr Steinway’ is the weakest part of the anthology, mainly due to a silly central conceit involving a successful pianist with a possessed piano that become jealous of his new girlfriend, with unfortunate consequences for both the poor young woman and her new lover. It’s all very daft (although still fun), but has the effect of dragging the overall film down a notch or two. It’s nicely shot though, with some rather gialloesque lighting.
The final story, ‘The man who collected Poe’, is probably my favourite, although that’s mostly due to the cast involved rather than for any great story concept. Jack Palance plays Ronald Wyatt, an obsessive fan of the great horror and mystery writer, Edgar Allan Poe. He’s invited to the home of fellow Poe aficionado, Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing), who initially shows him the more minor bits of his collection, but later, when drunk, Canning gets boastful and takes Ronald down to his cellar where the really ‘good’ stuff is! This is great fun watching two titans of the macabre verbally spar with each other, and the payoff is pretty good, even though it’s not very surprising.
The film returns each time to Dr Diablo’s tent, culminating with a stand-off between the clearly ‘bad’ doctor and a punter, Gordon Roberts (Michael Ripper), who refuses to face the shears of fate, and gets into a bit of argy-bargy with our devilish host. It’s all a bit of an anti-climax, but it’s nice to watch Meredith and Ripper, err, rip into each other…
Although not the best of the Amicus horror anthology films the studio made during the sixties and seventies, Torture Garden is still worth a watch due to some engaging performances from a varied cast, some good production design, and Freddie Francis’s solid direction of the material. It has plenty of flaws, especially during the ‘Mr Steinway’ section and within the framework story, but is still a mostly enjoyable slice of Grand Guignol; the sort that cinema sadly doesn’t produce any more.
Powerhouse Films are distributing Torture Garden on DVD and Blu-ray as part of their Indicator series. Special features include:
Guardian interview with Freddie Francis (77 mins) – an interesting interview from July 1995, at the National Film Theatre in London. Journalist Alan Jones hosts, and does a reasonable job of extracting information out of a forgetful Freddie. Alan Jones looks a bit starstruck most of the time, but we do find out that Francis started off as a clapper-boy through a friend, and progressed up through the ranks, learning on the job. Francis had good fun making Torture Garden, but his favourite of his own films is Girly.
Production supervisor Ted Wallis on Torture Garden (4.15 mins) – Ted Wallis talks amicably about his experiences working on the film. Apparently, it was a fun shoot, and he found producer Milton to be good at writing and editing, but not so good with the production itself.
Ramsey Campbell on Robert Bloch (16.37) – horror author Ramsey Campbell talks about scriptwriter and author Robert Bloch’s career, and shares his own experiences of meeting the man, who he found to be an interesting combination of friendly, encouraging, opinionated and acerbic.
Fiona Subotsky on Milton Subotsky (8.19 mins) – Amicus producer Milton Subotsky’s wife talks candidly about her deceased husband, and in particular about his love of sci-fi and horror. Apparently, he was, somewhat surprisingly, not a fan of sex and violence in movies.
Kim Newman on Torture Garden (24.53 mins) – the ever reliable horror writer/journalist gives a good account of his own opinions of the film, which he thought to be quite individual in nature.
Trailer (2.36 mins) – a trailer which, somewhat annoyingly, gives away the ending.
Stills gallery – 125, mostly black and white, images, which are a mix of stills taken from the film and also some publicity shots that aren’t in the film.
Lobby cards & posters gallery – a further, mainly colour, 63 images taken from the film or showing actual film posters.