Review: Torture Garden (1967)

Based on the title of this film, you would be forgiven for thinking this horror anthology from 1967 is the kind of movie you should avoid. After all, we've had a glut of "torture porn" crap over the last 10-15 years where legitimate creeps have been replaced by what amounts to an endurance test of the worst kind. There is actually no torture in Torture Garden, nor is there any real gore. No, Torture Garden is actually an old-fashioned, comic-book style horror film in the same vein as Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside, or even Trick 'r Treat. Let's be clear up front though, this movie is nowhere near as good as those. Still, it replicates--in movie form--the thrill of entering a carnival fun house and not knowing what you're going to see.

Torture Garden was made by the English movie studio Amicus, sometimes considered to be a poor man's Hammer. Though it didn't last as long as Hammer and doesn't seem to have the same brand recognition, Amicus nevertheless is responsible for some absolutely fantastic genre movies that star some of England's most talented actors. Peter Cushing was under contract with them for a while, as was Christopher Lee and even the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. This movie gives us Peter Cushing, Michael Bryant (Ghandi), John Standing (The Elephant Man), Michael Ripper (Hammer actor extraordinaire) and American thespians Jack Palance  and Burgess Meredith. There seem to be two different modes of Burgess Meredith. He has his "real acting" persona in which he conveys things like subtlety and inner angst, giving his characters multiple dimensions. Then there's the over-the-top mode that we see in his role as The Penguin from the sixties version of Batman. The latter is the one we get here, and I guess that makes sense. This movie was made in 1967, square in the middle of all the "POW" and "BAM" action of Batman's three year television run. I suspect he's in this movie because of the status that role brought him.

Torture Garden is not a particularly good or memorable movie, but it still offers entertainment and is never unwelcome. The story itself consists of bookend segments in which Burgess Meredith portrays "Dr. Diabolo," a carnival worker who operates a house of horrors and attempts to separate patrons from their hard-earned cash. Leading a small crowd of observers into his tent (called the Torture Garden), he offers to show them "the real horror" for an extra fee. This gives way to four segments of varying quality and cheesiness. One segment involves greed and a murder cat. Another follows a young socialite as she discovers the secret of longevity in Hollywood, while the third (and weakest) is about a possessed piano. Yep, you read that right...POSSESSED PIANO. The last segment is the best, with Jack Palance facing off against Peter Cushing to determine who is the ultimate Edgar Allan Poe collector. Like most anthology films, this one is a real mixed bag. Amicus more or less pioneered this kind of horror anthology, which they called "portmanteau," and it seems to be a hallmark of these things that there will be at least one weak story. I think this one is actually 50/50.

I can't imagine that the stuff in this movie was scary even back in 1967, but what it does have going for it is a late-sixties sense of cool that was unique to productions from this time, keeping things at least visually interesting. Also, a large part of the appeal is watching these actors be fantastic. Burgess Meredith is just electric and seems to be relishing every moment, delivering each line with a dastardly dramatic flourish. Peter Cushing gets to play against type as a regular guy, bookish, introverted, but also generous and friendly. I'm sure it was nice to be able to do something as normal as smiling on screen. The real scenery chewing comes from Jack Palance, who doesn't seem to have ever heard the word "subtle." He's great, though, playing the entire movie with a twinkle in his eye, like he's in on a joke that the rest of us aren't privy to. Or, maybe he's just crazy for real. Just throwing that out there.

Torture Garden is probably nobody's favorite Amicus movie, but it's still a fun ride and makes for great late-night viewing. The writing is all over the place, which is kind of surprising considering that the screenplay was penned by Robert Bloch, the author of the 1959 novel version of Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock turned that story into one of the best horror movies ever. Maybe this movie needed Hitchock? Instead it's shot and directed (capably, I might add) by Freddie Francis, an Oscar-winning cinematographer who spearheaded a string of B-movies in the sixties, including The Creeping Flesh, which I'm going to write about soon. There's a pedigree associated with this movie, from the director and writer all the way down to the stars, that elevates this movie beyond what is actually on the screen. Torture Garden is no prize winner, but it sure is fun, especially during the last half-hour, which fits right alongside Roger Corman's "Poe Cycle" for American International.

Torture Garden is one of three movies found on Mill Creek's "Psycho Circus" collection, which also includes The Creeping Flesh and The Brotherhood of Satan. You can buy it HERE.


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