Drive-In Dust Offs: TORTURE GARDEN

2015/11/07 18:11:15 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


Horror comics and magazines filled my shelves as a kid, titles such as Creepy, Eerie, House of Secrets and The Witching Hour weakening my eyes and troubling my sleep. I simply could not get enough of them. However, when I discovered that there were films made in the same multistory, blood soaked spirit, well, I forgot about sleep altogether. My first stop was Creepshow (1982), and delighted with that, I made my way back through earlier (and gentler) excursions of terror. Step right up ladies and gentlemen! Enter the Torture Garden (1967), a carnival exhibit where the evils of man are laid before you…for a price.

Released by Columbia Pictures November ’67 in the U.K. and July ’68 in North America, Torture Garden was the second film of Amicus Productions (Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) being the first) that followed the omnibus format. Amicus, started by producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, specialized in horror, usurping Hammer of its throne in popularity, especially with this subset of anthology films. Their pinnacle in this format is probably Tales from the Crypt (1972), but Torture Garden sees them having a lot of fun with four twisted tales from author Robert Bloch (Psycho).

Our film starts with five people sticking around Dr. Diablo’s Torture Garden after a perfunctory fake execution to witness real horrors promised by Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith – The Sentinel) himself. He has each of them, one at a time, stand before the exhibit of Atropos, Goddess of Destiny, until they become hypnotized by gazing into her shears. Diablo informs each that what they are about to see are future events, and each has the ability to change their own outcome. This is our setup for each of the four stories, as they unfold:

Enoch – A young man (Michael Bryant – Gandhi) visits his dying uncle (Maurice Denham – Curse of the Demon) in the hopes of collecting early on his inheritance as his uncle’s only living relative. His uncle refuses, leaving the young man no choice but to kill him and steal his hidden supply of gold coins. However, he discovers there may be more to his uncle’s wealth, including a fiendish feline with other plans…

Terror Over Hollywood – An opportunistic starlet (Beverly Adams – The Ambushers, and better known in later years as Beverly Sassoon) worms her way into the good graces of movie star Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton – The Slime People), only to find out the deadly secret behind his decades-long success in showbiz…

Mr. Steinway – A young woman (Barbara Ewing – Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) falls in love with a brilliant concert pianist (John Standing – V for Vendetta), whose playing grows worse the deeper he falls in love with her. Perhaps the piano wants him to only tickle its ivories, and no one else’s? Hmm…

The Man Who Collected Poe – An obsessive collector (Jack Palance – Dracula) of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia encounters someone (Peter Cushing – The Curse of Frankenstein) with an even more impressive collection – and will stop at nothing to claim it as his own…

Of course, after the four tales have concluded, we finish with our wraparound story, and if you’ve seen a few of these, you know how they usually end – not so here, and you should be pleasantly surprised at the denouement provided. The beautiful thing about anthology horror is if you don’t like a particular story, hold tight a few minutes and another will fill the screen, pleading for your affection, or at least your admiration. Not all stories are created equal, and that’s okay – this one has a pretty good batting average for me, all but one of the tales satisfying my lust for the quirky, ghoulish, or plain old amusing.

Let’s meet some of the barkers behind our carnival, shall we? Author Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel  Psycho which the film was based on, had a strong relationship with Amicus, providing screenplays for The House That Dripped Blood (1971) and Asylum (1972), both omnibus and both excellent. Broad strokes are pretty much all you have time for in anthologies, and Bloch excels in hitting all the beats necessary without belaboring the point. He was a great writer with a soft spot for the macabre.

Director Freddie Francis holds a unique place in horror film history – not only a great director of such genre classics as The Skull (1965) and Tales from the Crypt (1972), but a brilliant and much sought after cinematographer, winning the Academy Award for Sons and Lovers (1960) and Glory (1989). He has a lot of fun here, getting solid performances and creating the appropriate "spooky" atmosphere appropriate to each very different segment.

Speaking of performances, all the cast are strong and provide a grounded sense of reality to the proceedings. However, this may be why the Poe episode plays the best. Palance and Cushing really give it their all, with Palance especially a revelation, ever twitching and agitated, like a little boy way too eager to open that one Christmas present. Over the top? Sure. But in a crowded field of actors fighting to be remembered, why wouldn’t you shoot for the moon? It was a wise choice and a memorable role. And as our MC, Dr. Diablo, Meredith kills it. Every line of dialogue he utters is a mellifluous hiss, a sweet poison to ingest ever so slowly. No points awarded for Diablo’s true identity, but Meredith’s good humor always lets you in on the gag.

Torture Garden is not the best Amicus omnibus, but it is pretty damn solid. If I was still that kid and it was one of my comics, rest assured it would be in the short pile – the ones that I would always bring to Nana’s place, to puncture the boredom with a dose of devilish merriment, and as sure as the night is dark, troubled sleep.

Torture Garden is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: ALONE IN THE DARK (1982)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.