Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part V): Torture Garden (1967) dir. Freddie Francis

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's second horror anthology, TORTURE GARDEN (1967). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: If I may be so bold: this week's film, TORTURE GARDEN (1967), is the first perfect Amicus horror film. I don't mean to imply that the film is a flawless vehicle for classic English cinematic frights (it's close, but it's not); rather, I'm saying that Amicus's fifth horror outing is the first to achieve the delicate balance of humor and terror, of gore and smirks, and of self-awareness and pulpy earnestness that would come to typify the best of Amicus's work as a production company. And though it's not as frequently lauded as its descendants, I'd eagerly rank TORTURE GARDEN among those best. Diverse yet thematically unified, cheeky and decidedly wicked, this is the horror anthology par excellence.

Director Freddie Francis and screenwriter Robert Bloch return yet again to Amicus's fold, and each throws down his finest effort to date. This is a well-crafted piece, swift and deliberate in execution, making cuts so fine they're difficult to feel until the blood starts running. And with a cast featuring Peter Cushing, Jack Palance, and Burgess Meredith (in full-bore Penguin mode), the film has the palpable grandeur of a prestige project, which Amicus hadn't managed to pull of since THE SKULL (1965) and which helps the film look and feel expensive (even if it wasn't).

TORTURE GARDEN also rests on one hell of a wraparound segment. Amicus would go on to pull off weirder and more memorable set-ups for the anthology conceit in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970), ASYLUM (1972), and THE MONSTER CLUB (1980), but TORTURE GARDEN's carnival show/neural time travel act is my favorite. I adore its bizarre, disjointed blending of religious mythologies (why, pray tell, is the Christian devil aided by a Greek goddess?) and its defiant glorification of low entertainment (Satan spends his days on Earth as a carnival barker). Burgess Meredith as the flamboyant, fake mustache-weraing, eyeliner-smudged Dr. Diabolo is a marvel to behold, and his admission that his act is solely for kicks-- though it risks him losing out on a few meaty souls-- creates for Amicus the freewheeling, blue (or perhaps red) collared master of ceremonies that it deserves.

In our discussion of Amicus's prior anthology, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964), we (or, more specifically, I) griped about that film's tendency towards feeling like an arbitrary assortment of stock horror elements. TORTURE GARDEN appears to operate in a similarly desultory fashion-- we have stories about a head-devouring witch cat, a cabal of glitzy Hollywood cyborgs, a jealous sentient piano, and Edgar Allan Poe's reanimated and overworked ashes-- yet the film possesses a thematic integrity binding its multifarious parts together. DR. TERROR had normal, likable folks running afoul of random supernatural nastiness, and thus its series of droll comeuppances held an air of gloominess about them; TORTURE GARDEN, in contrast, fills its ranks with deplorable (if perhaps perversely charming) rogues, making their imagined fates all the sweeter while binding the varied tales together through a shared sense of Evil Ambitions being foiled. There is even (by Satan's tongue) a whiff of satire in the blasted thing. I'd like to speak about each of the tales with specifics, but for the moment I'll turn it over to you for your general impressions. Were you as wooed as I by Atropos's dazzling threads?

GR: Here, here! They say that practice makes perfect, and Amicus proves that for a studio that people might have taken for granted as a low-rent Hammer (then and now) they were more than capable—and successful in the case of TORTURE GARDEN (1967)—in creating their own patented formula that no one else could claim. The film is the first to perfectly embody that macabre mix of biting black humor and ghoulish horror that had been the legacy of the genre anthology since the time of radio programs like LIGHTS OUT and INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES. It’s interesting to note that, on the whole, all of the studio’s solo efforts thus far (THE SKULL, THE PSYCHOPATH, and THE DEADLY BEES) strove for a feeling of genuine and respectable suspense while bypassing any winking humor whatsoever, the kind of films that their contemporaries were making. That free-wheeling giddiness that we see crop up in so many of Amicus’ portmanteau films is sadly absent in their single-story films, at least intentionally. It’s that essential spark that brings the creepy clockworks of TORTURE GARDEN to vivid life.

And TORTURE GARDEN lets us know right from the start that it’s here to show us a good time. What better visual representative do you need for that theme than the tantalizing cry of the carnival barker, here the irrepressible Burgess Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, to lure you in to the dark den of entertainments on hand? If Cushing’s reserved Dr. Schreck (one can’t help but wonder if him and Diabolo have a practice together) was too mild for your tastes, than Meredith’s portrayal is sure to satisfy your sugar tooth because he’s wickedly sweet as the clotheshorse doctor, relishing in every grave warning and enticement and looking like an old dandy the whole time. Diabolo’s secreted spookhouse room seems like it would be more fitting of the DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS title—definitely more appropriate than a deck of cards anyway—but the central gimmick Bloch uses here to weave the characters’ potential futures is an ingenious one, as you’ve mentioned. Here we see the “multiple threads” idea we discussed in regards to DR. TERROR brought to literal life, beautifully and simply illustrating how the characters are all hanging at the edge of a moral precipice where all it takes is a quick snip of the steel shears to send them screaming down into the pit.

That also brings to my mind the somewhat unconventional nature of Diabolo’s storytelling session. We find out shortly after the first tale concludes that what the characters are seeing are only prospective fortunes and will only occur if they continue pursuing their latent, dark desires. So Diabolo becomes, in spite of his devilishness, almost a guardian angel of sorts, warning the humans away from the wicked path. He’s essentially saving their souls, very unlike Satan to do based on the popular conceptions we’ve seen of him. So Diabolo’s funhouse basically becomes one of those “hell houses” that Christian groups run around Halloween to show their guests how poor life decisions can ultimately lead to fire and brimstone. I think the Bloch estate is overdue some royalty checks!

I think one of the main reasons that the tales in TORTURE GARDEN seem so much more unified and whole is because they were culled from established, published sources, short stories that had seen their premiere in magazines that Bloch adapted himself. These yarns had already been once around the block (bloch?), so to speak, so they have a level of sophistication that Subotsky’s rough, off-the-cuff pastiches from DR. TERROR don’t possess. This is the first time that Amicus has presented us with an anthology that boasts stories that have a real fullness to them, some more than others. And with that, I think this is a good spot to turn it back over to you so that we may discuss all those sinful little threads in more detail.

NT: And what prickly threads they are.

Amicus slops on its first genuine bucket of gore in the anthology's initial segment, "Enoch," which concerns the peculiar dietary habits of a witch's long-entombed feline familiar. We learn that this beautiful tortoiseshell kitty cat, Balthazar, eats human heads, and thus the segment's climax finds a decapitated (decatitated?) corpse proudly displayed on screen. A handful of years after BLOOD FEAST (1963) broke certain grisly barriers of acceptable screen depictions of cartoony violence, Amicus follows suit, in spirit if not in extremity: we see that it's going to be a goofy, gory road for the production company from here on.

Therefore, "Enoch" stands as a fine introduction to Amicus's new and improved aesthetic and tonal limits, as it revels in its own devilish conceits and the cheaply thrilling visual efforts used to sell them. It is, obviously, not easy to convince your audience to fear a pretty kitty, even if he's of the mind-controlling and brain-eating variety, and so the filmmakers don't bother. Rather, they wring the concept for every last drop of bloody fun, falling back on over-the-top extreme zooms, close-ups on whiskers, and auditory cat howl psychic blasts to heighten the aura of cinematic sensationalism that pervades the piece. The always irascible Michael Bryant (see: THE STONE TAPE [1972]) is great here as the ruthless nephew who can only utter a short "Damn" under his breath when his cruel game of Medicine Keep-Away results in the death of his unbeloved uncle, and he performs well otherwise considering he's acting against a cat in most scenes. In a way, we can read this segment as a parable about the sacrifices of cat ownership. We enter into a psychic agreement with our felines stating that they'll give us gold coins of companionship and entertainment, but in return we have to clean up their sanguinary messes. This parable also underlines a concept learned by every cat owner sooner or later: your cat actually owns you, and he's not afraid to bite your head off if you displease him.

The film's second segment, "Terror Over Hollywood," is the film's weakest on the level of narrative (the circumstances that lead to our anti-heroine discovering the robot conspiracy are so ludicrous as to be distracting: Hollywood hoods assassinating a top motion picture star-- or was it his double!?), but the film's satire is exquisite. It imagines a world not unlike our own, in which celebrities sacrifice their organic physical forms to stay at the top of their youth-obsessed business for longer (if not forever). It's easy to see the cyborg bodies of the segment's characters as akin to the plastic surgery-addled bodies of our seemingly ageless celebrities. The episode underlines the crushing pathos of the sort of desperation that would lead one to become, as the film puts it, "a living doll" that eschews love and a normal bodily existence for a perpetually successful career. It's telling that the segment's ending, in which our aspiring starlet Carla (Beverly Adams) actually succeeds in her goal of achieving stardom by being converted into a cyborg, is unambiguously coded as horrific. Pity those actors who refuse to accept the twilight of a career.

Between the final two segments, "Mr. Steinway" and "The Man Who Collected Poe," it's a real toss-up as to which emerges as my favorite of the entire anthology. Do I favor mean-spirited animate grand pianos or a fidgety Jack Palance as an obsessed collector of literary ephemera? Don't make me choose.

The appeal of "Mr. Steinway" is obvious. Euterpe, the gorgeous Music Goddess-possessed piano belonging to musician Leo Winston (John Standing, of THE PSYCHOPATH [1966]), is the film's most audacious (and best) supernatural creation. An evil, envious piano that pushes its owner's lover out of a window while it humorously plays Chopin's "Funeral March"?: be still my heart. Beyond the joy derived from observing this delightful absurdity in action, the episode also acts as an exaggeration of the perennial conflict between a person's love for another human being and the passion that person holds for an activity or object. When Dorothy (Barbara Ewing) enters Leo's life as a romantic partner, she is almost immediately perturbed by the amount of time he spends playing music with Euterpe when compared to the amount of time he devotes to her. (Granted, she is the sort of person who gifts framed pictures of herself to others, so a certain self-centered quality is to be expected.) Dorothy then tries her best to possess Leo by extricating him from the pull of his possession, but of course his piano possession is possessed and possessive of Leo, too, and not willing to give him up without a fight. It's all very clever when you spell it out. The message here: don't stand between your lover and his passion/possession.

Lastly, "The Man Who Collected Poe" returns us to the perversity of the impulse to collect and the rivalries such a hobby breeds, as previously highlighted by Bloch in THE SKULL (1965). There's much to adore here, too: the antiquarian convention, Peter Cushing acting drunk, the manuscripts for "House of the Worm" and "Arthur Gordon Pym 2," and the notion of Poe's reanimated corpse entombed in an almost "Amontillado"-esque fashion and forced to write for all eternity. As delectable as all of these elements are, none hold a Gothic candle flame to Jack Palance's performance, which ranks among the best I've ever seen from the incomparable actor. He plays collector Ronald Wyatt as a nervous, sweating, constantly squirming fiend with a pained grin perpetually etched onto his skull. He does more with his performance to diagnose collecting as a sort of mania than Bloch's script does, and imbues the segment with a frenetic energy not felt elsewhere in the film, which serves to ramp the film up nicely to a skin-blistering conclusion.

Would you rank these tales similarly?

GR: “Enoch” just may be the messiest vignette from the Amicus fold, at least the one that comes immediately to my mind, but it keeps from delving into H.G. Lewis-level intestinal juggling by merely suggesting the horrible thing that has just taken place with a little flash of garish stage blood. The entire story is actually rather restrained when you think about it; we are dealing with a demonic feline whose main diet consists of human craniums. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary film taking this very silly idea quite as seriously as Bloch, Francis, and company manage to. This could be said of the other tales as well, particularly “Mr. Steinway.” It’s this strong conviction to the material and to the idea of making the events genuinely frightening and unsettling that makes TORTURE GARDEN such a treat. Meredith may be a bright-eyed pygmy in the wraparound segment, but the stories within the film have none of his self-winking style and are all the more strong for it. Mind you, Meredith is a pure delight as Diabolo, but I think the creative team chose wisely to eschew any in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek mannerisms when spinning these wondrous threads for us.

I like too how “Enoch” utilizes the old “black sheep nephew” trope. It reminded me of “The Cemetery” segment from NIGHT GALLERY (1969), though Michael Bryant is decidedly icier than Malcom McDowell’s fruity deviant. His terror is keenly realized when facing down the glowing eyes of Balthazar, who must win an award for cuddliest-looking monster to ever crawl out of a coffin. I don’t know why, but for some reason I thought that I “remembered” that Balthazar was given a menacing voice that he used to communicate telepathically with Bryant.

As we saw that was definitely not the case, and despite what I said about TORTURE GARDEN thankfully not doing anything self-deprecating, I mean, how freaking adorable would it be to see that fluffy little guy sitting in an armchair and mentally intoning “I am Balthazar, devourer of worlds and destroyer of socks.”? I did find myself laughing out loud when Bryant turns from having just skewered the hobo to see Balthazar toss the gold coins at his feet as a reward for his services. Say what you will about witch’s familiars, but they do have an intrinsic knowledge of the token system.

Away from the rural squalor of dark witchcraft we’re whisked away to the glitzy world of film and fame with the next tale, “Terror Over Hollywood.” You’re correct in saying that this one suffers from not being quite thought out enough (why do the robotized actor and producer order food knowing full well they can’t eat it when they could have just not gotten anything without arousing Clara’s suspicion?), but the main purpose here seems to be satirizing the superficiality of the Hollywood scene (I love the completely unnecessary but entirely welcome addition of the entertainers encased inside a Christmas snow globe at the glamorous restaurant and the overall jazzy, noirish Tinsel Town feel that is all Bloch).

To be honest I don’t think that theme was explored quite as much as it could have been to really sell the idea that the people who become these soulless automatons were already that way to begin with; now they just have the benefit of an eternal, mechanized body. Perhaps if our wicked little starlet was given an intimate peek into the surgical process and, in spite of turning away at its gruesomeness, welcomed it with open arms, the horror of her insatiable hunger would ring all the clearer. That is essentially what occurs at the tale’s climax, but this jars with Diabolo’s exhibition in which the characters are exposed to futures that are meant to be terrible to them. Clara’s wish is horrifically realized in her tale, like that of the other characters, but she is still allowed an existence in which she lives out her greatest dream.

Also: “Mike Charles!”

Man, can John Standing ever catch a break at Amicus? He just got done trying to wrestle himself free from his crippled mother’s grasp and the den of the deadly dolls in THE PSYCHOPATH (1966), and now he has to contend with a demanding agent (Ursula Howells, the wolf-wife from DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS [1964]), a needy girlfriend (Barbara Ewing), and a great grand piano that is possessed with the soul of his deceased mother (playing herself). One idea that struck me during “Mr. Steinway” was that, despite this being Ewing’s story, the real victim at the center here is Standing as concert pianist Leo Standing. He’s being in pulled in all directions by these powerful female figures in his life (four if you count his dead mother and the piano as two exclusive entities). The piano is even personified as a goddess, Euterpe to be exact, the heavenly mistress of music. And there he is yet again, left alone in a dark room to contemplate the horrible things that have just transpired and what his life has now become like he was at the conclusion of THE PSYCHOPATH. And I loved the climax of this tale as well. I chucked at the sight (and sound) of the piano trapping Ewing in the room as it played its mournful dirge, but I was actually quite impressed with how truly menacing Francis managed to make the scene with those leering shots of those bone-white keys. Like that vengeful instrument, Francis attacks the scene head-on and keeps pushing until a falling scream seems like the only natural reaction.

And who can’t relate to “The Man Who Collected Poe” on one level or another? The desire to catalog and categorize every facet of a treasured figure’s life is the passion of the rabid collector, to the point that one becomes like Cushing’s antiquarian, practically living a replica of his idol’s life, even having articles of his clothing displayed proudly in his old house. And of course Poe specifically has that mystique already surrounding him given the tortured quality of his life and the grim nature of his famous works, so he’s an ample choice for speculation (and speculative fiction). There are some slightly silly moments from this segment that are used in service of the story; I like especially how Cushing basically tells Palance “My grandfather was a body snatcher AND a warlock.” As if his staggering collection wasn’t impressive enough!

I actually didn’t quite warm to Palance’s performance as much as you did. It’s true that he’s got a nice, barely contained frenzy and slight insidiousness that’s always bubbling under the surface, but my main problem was that I could see him thinking the entire time, like a dancer focusing too hard on his next move. Some actors assume their roles so easily that every little inflection and gesture seems like a natural, liquid movement. Palance has done that elsewhere, but not here. I feel like he was too brusque for the English crowd. It sounded like he was trying to affect a British accent (I honestly couldn’t tell if he was supposed to unless there was a detail I missed), but he just ends up sounding whispery. But he really does perform admirably, even if I’m not completely sold on the end result. The finale with Palance confronting the shuttered Poe in the hatch of skeletal remains is gold though. Old Edgar has become his own Valdemar, eking out a pitiful excuse of an existence under the whim of an obsessed keeper. His evil cackle that rings out as the roaring flames of Hell rise up to consume Palance is the perfect note of sardonic doom to tie this bundle of chillers up.

I will say too that the ending of our wraparound proves amusing in its own right. We get to see the ever reliable Michael Ripper (last seen in these parts as the gruff but lovable barkeep from THE DEADLY BEES [1967]) use Atropos’ handy shears to run Diabolo through, to the horror of the other carnival-goers. Only after they’ve left do we find out this was a final push for the guests to turn to lives of do-gooding, as Ripper was merely a stooge acting out a part for Diabolo. When he said that he was going to go back outside to get ready for the next performance, my reaction was “Umm, how about get arrested?” Did our frightened guests on their new journey on the path of morality forget to report the brutal stabbing that just took place to the nearest bobby? So much for leading the upstanding life. But Meredith brings the diabolical cheer back up when he turns to the camera with black horns and stache to ask us if we would pass his little test. It’s a nice little “Hee hee!” moment that gets us right back on the track to giddy horror.

NT: In conclusion, I'll respectfully disagree with one of your above comments. Or, more like "respectfully complicate." You argue that the success of TORTURE GARDEN's individual segments rests upon the seriousness with which they treat their often ludicrous concepts. I think this is partially true. I agree that what the film doesn't do is present these segments and their silly sentient pianos and telepathic cats as objects of farce, ridiculing the very notion of cinematic horror. And that's certainly for the best: I'm sure we're all well aware of the spotty track record out-and-out horror-comedies have had over the decades. But what doesn't totally jibe with me is the idea that these segments, unlike Diabolo's wraparounds, aren't on some level winking or grinning in our direction. As evidenced by several moments we've pointed out (Euterpe's funeral dirge, Balthazar's coin tossing, Cushing's drunk confessions), there's a certain self-awareness running underneath each of the film's four segments, infecting them with a droll, self-deprecating humor that allows us to accept the cheeky absurdities while reveling in their earnest presentations. As it goes, we laugh at the film not as much as we laugh with it. And this style of lighthearted self-awareness will only be amplified in our next go-around, when things go (at least partially) meta in a house that bleeds...

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