Freddie Francis, 1967
Starring: Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, Beverly Adams, Peter Cushing, Michael Ripper
Dr. Diabolo — the always terrifying Burgess Meredith in a fantastic role as an extravagant, mustachioed sideshow performer — invites five seemingly random circus-goers in for a private tour of some of his more gruesome attractions, including murder reenactments and fare similar to wax museums. Diabolo eventually introduces them to the wax figure of Atropos, the Greek goddess of fate, and her menacing sheers destined to snip each and every human lifeline at one point or another. One after another, the five characters are sent into trances as they stare at Atropos, where they all get foreboding visions of their respective violent fates.
After 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Amicus finally returned to the portmanteau film subgenre that would become the studio’s signature. This second entry — after a number of standalone features like The Skull, Deadly Bees, and The Psychopath, all directed by Freddie Francis and scripted by Robert Block — very much follows the same formula as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors: it begins with a framing story that borders on camp with a central figure who doles out horrific fates to a group of strangers, who are all first unbelieving or indignant, but are soon terrified. And Torture Garden has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of its forebear, in the sense that some of the stories are very strong, while others are just disappointing.
Torture Garden’s main strength is that it’s not only penned by Robert Bloch — unlike Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which was written by Amicus co-owner and producer Milton Subotsky — and is based on some of Bloch’s own tales. In the first, “Enoch,” a man attempts to wrest the family fortune from his dying uncle, but is in for quite a surprise. Personally, I’m a bit exhausted by the inheritance plot as motive for murder, which is a default plot many of these British suspense/horror films. SPOILERS: I’ve written a few times now about horror movies with possessed or evil cats — films like The Uncanny, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, and Hammer’s own The Shadow of the Cat — a trope that continues to be just absolutely ridiculous. While Night of a Thousand Cats is admittedly my favorite of these films, this segment in Torture Garden deserve at least a round of applause. This fucking cat is telepathic, apparently possessed by a witch, and psychically manipulates a man into killing people so it can eat their heads.
It eats their heads.
Unfortunately the second story, “Terror Over Hollywood,” is a massive disappointment and is a bit more sci-fi than horror. It follows a bitchy actress (Beverly Adams) — the same woman that earlier in the framing sequence introduced herself as being from Hollywood, not Los Angeles or California — who maneuvers her way into a date with some Hollywood big shots. When she is given her big break, she’s so obsessed with a lead actor that she soon realizes that he and some of his coworkers are androids, once famous actors who had their consciousnesses transported into metal bodies by a menacing doctor. I certainly hope this was intentional on Bloch’s part, but the dialogue in this one is absolutely grating. For instance, there a shot where Adams says “this noon” instead of “this afternoon,” which makes me want to actively kill myself
The film redeems itself a bit with the last two stories. In “Mr. Steinway,” the poor John Standing — who was just so obsessively controlled by his demented mother in The Psychopath — is here an unstable pianist being controlled by a manipulative girlfriend (Barbara Ewing) and a demanding agent. But his piano, with a mind of its own, has enough and throws his pushy girlfriend right out the window of his apartment, which just happens to be several stories off the ground — all while playing Chopin’s “Funeral March.” I wish this sense of bleak, campy fun had wound its way throughout the film, though fortunately it’s also present in the last story.
In “The Man Who Collected Poe,” Peter Cushing appears in a story not dissimilar to The Skull, where he faces off against an even more rabid collector of Edgar Allen Poe paraphernalia — played by a raving Jack Palance. Few could chew scenery better, as is proven by films like Hawk the Slayer and Dan Curtis’s 1974 Dracula, and the combination of Palance and Cushing is just delightful. This film was actually supposed to highlight Christopher Lee and Cushing, rather than relegating Cushing to what is basically a side role, but American financers demanded some bigger American names like Burgess Meredith and Palance. And while I love them both, their combined weight and frothy-lipped scenery chewing makes this feel less like an Amicus anthology film and more like a colorful, low budget series of episodes of something like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
British horror fans really seem to especially love or hate this one, which I find kind of baffling. Torture Garden — which lacks any gardens or scenes of torture — is far from the best Amicus film, but has its enjoyable moments. Did I mention already that a telepathic cat makes someone kill people so that it can eat their heads? Not their brains, but their entire heads (a feat that would actually be physically impossible for a common house cat). There’s also a delightful epilogue starring one of my favorite Hammer actors, Michael Ripper, and the typically bone-headed twist that most of these anthology films include. While it lacks the grace, style, or teeth-gnashing camp of The Skull — which might still be my favorite Amicus film — this is worth watching and can be easily found on DVD.