1967 / Freddie Francis
Torture Garden (UK, Freddie Francis,1967), is one of the fabled omnibus films produced by Amicus founders Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, the second in a series that starts off with Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (UK, 1965), also directed by Francis. Torture Garden is the most uneven of the three omnibus films made by Francis for Amicus. It’s not nearly as solid as either Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or Francis’s later triumph, Tales From the Crypt (UK, 1972), but it’s still worth a watch.
The film begins with the by-now formulaic “framing” story, from a screenplay written by horror great Robert Bloch, adapting four of his own short stories. This time, the framing story follows a group of carnival attendees visiting a so-called “torture garden” — a smaller version of the Black Museum, displaying instruments of torture and execution. It’s run by the legendary American character actor Burgess Meredith, camping it up in various bizarre costumes of red, white, and black as ‘Dr Diabolo’. Meredith, who plays a demon in Michael Winner’s perverse and sleazy Satanic Panic film, The Sentinel (US, 1977), is very good at exuding an affable sort of menace.
At the end of the tour, Diabolo offers the tourist group a chance to see more intense sights of terror in the back room for a few extra quid. The takers include American actor Jack Palance (Shane–George Stevens, 1953 ); Michael Bryant (The Stone Tape (UK, Peter Sasdy, 1972)); John Standing (V for Vendetta (UK/US/Germany, James McTiegue, 2005); and the Canadian actress, Beverly Adams (Murderer’s Row (US, Henry Levin, 1966).
In the mysterious back room, the carnival-goers meet Atropos, a creepy wax dummy of the Greek Goddess of Fate, who wields wicked-sized scissors, used for cutting the threads of life. As a side note, Atropos is played by Clytie Jessop, who also essayed the terrifying ghost of Miss Jessel in The Innocents (UK, Jack Clayton, 1961), which Francis shot as Director of Photography. As Atropos, Jessop has a face made for horror movies; it’s severe and angular, with death-stare eyes, and it adds much to the film’s ambience.
After some bloviating from Dr. Diabolo about predicting the futures of the respective tourists, the film launches into the first vignette. This is “Enoch”, featuring Bryant as Colin, a callow young man who demands his inheritance from his elderly Uncle Roger (Maurice Denham). In a scuffle, the uncle dies and Bryant inherits his old dark house and possessions, which include a trove of valuable gold coins. He searches in vain for the coins, until a fat tortoise-shell cat shows up. The cat—apparently some kind of demon—can communicate telepathically with Colin. Kitty unfortunately has an unusual appetite and makes it clear that Colin must satisfy it in exchange for the coins and other goodies. This, Colin learns, is the same bargain the cat once made with his occult-loving Uncle Roger. Enoch stands out for its Gothic atmosphere and quite a bit of suspense, as Colin tries to fulfil his macabre part of the bargain.
The second vignette, ‘Terror Over Hollywood’, is a ho-hum episode covering familiar ground: Hollywood stars searching for eternal youth. Adams plays Carla Hayes, a young, ambitious starlet who falls for an A-List leading man thirty years her senior named Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton, You Only Live Twice (UK, Lewis Gilbert, 1967). Benton has odd habits, such as not eating or drinking, and he’s also being chased by a disgruntled stalker. When the stalker appears to kill Benton while Carla watches, his body is taken to an exclusive sanitarium for the rich and then is mysteriously revived. She later discovers why he and other select stars never seem to age and the high price they pay for this privilege. The acting is subpar and the sets are sometimes cheesy.
The third vignette, ‘Mr. Steinway’, is the weakest one of the bunch. John Standing plays a famous concert pianist, Leo Winston. His whole life is his career until he meets a comely young woman and starts to neglect his practising. His expensive grand piano is both sentient and apparently a jealous female, who despises Leo’s new girlfriend. It doesn’t end well for the girlfriend.
The final segment is by far the best. Titled ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’, it features Palance as Ronald Wyatt, a wealthy collector who is obsessed with the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe. At an auction of Poe memorabilia, he meets Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing, Star Wars (US, George Lucas, 1977)), who invites Wyatt to visit him at his house to see his own Poe collection. Canning shows Wyatt around and explains that he is a third-generation Poe collector, who looks after a huge archive first started by his grandfather. He can’t resist showing Wyatt his secret basement where his most valuable Poe memorabilia is stored. In the basement, Wyatt notices several manuscripts in Poe’s handwriting, but on modern paper watermarked in the 1960s. Canning says they are unpublished works he has managed to collect. Palance isn’t satisfied and keeps badgering Canning until he finds out the terrible truth about the manuscripts. This segment is well-paced; the premise is clever, and the acting by the two old pros, Cushing and Palance, is very good.
As a side note, Cushing’s frequent collaborator, Christopher Lee, was originally approached for the part of Wyatt, but the film’s American distributor, Columbia Pictures, insisted on an American star. It may have been even better with Lee in the part.