❉ “Why are musical geniuses on film always piano players?”, muses Iain MacLeod. “You never see a tortured accordion player or obsessed washboard player.”
The anthology horror film has been a staple of the genre ever since 1945’s Dead Of Night and has always been a beast of varying quality. The sub-genre seemed to have its heyday in the late 60’s to early 70’s and Torture Garden, recently released on a gold standard Blu-Ray by Indicator, arrived smack dab in the middle of this period from director Freddie Francis.
As known for his cinematography for films as varied as The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Straight Story, as his directing career, this was already Francis’s second foray into the world of the horror anthology. Torture Garden being his middle entry coming after 1965’s Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and then followed up with 1973’s Tales from The Crypt, all of which were presented by Amicus Productions. Torture Garden is a prime example of the anthology horror by taking a loose framework to tell a quartet of spine tingling tales and its mixed results.
While not a prime example of the sub-genre, it is worth examining for its screenwriter Robert Bloch, author of the original novel on which Psycho was based. Bloch was a prolific pulp writer with numerous credits in print and screen, indeed he and Francis had previously collaborated on The Skull in 1965 and Torture Garden is a fine taster for those who may only know his name from its association with Psycho, newcomers can get a real taste for the author here as screenwriter and adaptor of four of his own stories. And as a bonus one of the numerous extras included here on the disc is a conversation with horror author Ramsey Campbell detailing his friendship and appreciation of the writer that goes into his work in more detail.
The framework that the film takes on to tell its tales takes place in an English fairground where the most ghoulish attraction detailing death and torture is run by the devilish Dr Diabolo, played by the Batman-bothering Penguin himself Burgess Meredith. Diabolo gains a captive audience, including a quietly creepy Jack Palance, to take place in an even scarier attraction where they can gain a possible glimpse into their own futures via a mock-up – or is it?! – of the goddess Atropos and her “shears of fate.”
Based on four of Bloch’s own tales the audience bear witness to Enoch; the tale of a greedy young man hungry for his dying uncle’s fortune finding himself at the mercy of a malevolent cat held captive in the cellar. This is followed up by Terror Over Hollywood, a tale of ruthless Hollywood backstabbing on every rung of the fame ladder and a mysterious surgeon who provides a sinister service to the stars. Mr Steinway, the least successful entry here, details the efforts of a young woman trying to get in between the relationship of a tortured musical genius and the obsession he has for his piano Euturpe. (Why are musical geniuses on film always piano players? You never see a tortured accordion player or obsessed washboard player.) Jack Palance then takes centre stage in the closing tale The Man Who Collected Poe, wherein his pipe smoking Poe collector has designs on Peter Cushing’s vast collection which holds more than a few surprises of its own.
The film is nicely dated from its cast in their prime to the vintage colour schemes used in Diabolo’s corner of the fairground and to some of the dialogue itself – “It could have been a real swinging scene!”, said without irony while women lounge around in giant snow globes in restaurants with cigarette girls wandering by. Indeed, the film was dated by the following year when George Romero’s gut munching opus Night Of The Living Dead arrived in cinemas bringing in a new era of onscreen violence and socio-political context that would mark out the next decade of horror cinema.
It is a charming yet inessential film. (If you want really spooky, bizarre and malevolent cats and pianos check out the insane 1977 Japanese freak out Hausu.) But yet again collectors label Indicator prove themselves as one of the best providers of overlooked cinema with yet another beautifully presented transfer and a wealth of extras that go above and beyond and can keep one occupied for days. Amicus Studios, who often raided Bloch’s catalogue of stories for their other anthologies, is examined by Kim Newman in one featurette, whilst that other expert of the horror genre Alan Jones can be seen in conversation with Freddie Francis himself in a lengthy 1995 Guardian interview onstage. It is a beautifully presented package and one hopes that other Amicus efforts benefit from the same treatment from Indicator in the future.
❉ ‘Torture Garden’ (Limited Blu-ray Edition) is out now from Indicator, RRP £15.99.
❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.