Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg's Amicus films were mostly a downmarket attempt to horn in on Hammer's corner of the horror film racket, and their specialty were omnibus films, often with the same gimmick. A mysterious character tells a group of suspicious characters their fortunes, which play out in a selection of horror vignettes. In their first omnibus film Dr. Terror's House of Horrors the spiritualist turns out to be a death figure, with his customers already dead, their fates sealed in their future tales. Torture Garden is supposed to be one of the better of these pictures, and it can boast a fine leading trio of players in Burgess Meredith, Jack Palance and Peter Cushing. And we can't forget to mention the fact that frequent horror director Freddie Francis' work in this one is much better than usual.
Amicus eventually made a killing with its cheesy omnibus movies by upping the budgets enough to ensnare more big-name talent. Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, From Beyond the Grave took advantage of the collapsing English film industry to nab people like Sir Ralph Richardson and Joan Collins. The episodic nature of the filming made it possible to schedule a top star for a minimum of days, also a budget booster.
The much earlier Torture Garden has a couple of name Americans along with Peter Cushing but uses them all as economically as possible. Note that Jack Palance stays in the periphery during most of the filming, only coming forward when it's time for his scary future to unspool. Subotsky and Rosenberg's choice of the omnibus format was clearly budgetary and not taken for aesthetic reasons.
Robert Bloch's huge boost from Psycho had been weakened by his terrible follow-up film Cabinet of Caligari. The Psycho connection made him one of the few horror writers to be mentioned by name in advertising; William Castle even included him in the (embarrassing) trailer for Strait-Jacket. Subotsky ruined plenty of movies with his own screenwriting but was a well-read fan of horror literature and wisely had Bloch adapt several of his old-fashioned ghost tales. Each is little more than a short story, with skimpy characterizations that wouldn't hold up the average TV episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But they're efficient and easy to understand. They're also not particularly adult in concept or gory, which made Torture Garden a good candidate for the main U.S. market for screen horror in 1967 - kiddie matinee shows.(mild spoilers)
Dr. Terror's House of Horrors had more variety in its episodes, with menaces ranging from voodoo and a disembodied hand to creeping flora and a suburban vampire. Torture Garden is a bit less inspired. A witch'es cat is found inexplicably alive in a long-buried coffin; it likes to eat human heads. An actress finds that big stars are being replaced by robots, a theme that Subotsky returned to later in Scream and Scream Again. In the least creative episode, a piano comes to life.
The best episode has a feverish Jack Palance square off with proud Poe collector Peter Cushing over a treasure trove of memorabilia. Whereas the other tales are nicely timed, this one seems rushed. The two actors hurry skilfully through some preliminaries until the reason Cushing has so many unpublished Poe works is revealed. (spoiler) Through a diabolical deal with the devil, Cushing's family resurrected the author and the literary great is kept imprisoned in a dungeon. This clever twist begs for further elaboration but the episode quickly winds up in a fire scene. The satisfying wrinkle is that the thief and murderer Palance happily perishes in the blaze, thrilled at the privilege of being a 'star' in Poe's 'last masterpiece' -- which turns out to be Performance Art.
Keeping all of this silliness afloat and making up for the threadbare production values is Burgess Meredith's hammy Dr. Diabolo. Meredith must have realized that if he didn't make the role extra juicy there wouldn't be anything to hold the attention, and ratcheted up his performance accordingly. Dr. Diabolo appears in a cheesy goatee, moustache and waxed eyebrows, and grins satanically while burning the 5-pound notes paid by his audience as an admission fee. He creeps around his torture devices and pitches his patter with great accuracy. It's a hambone role, but not as broad as The Penguin or other cartoony parts he's played. The goofy Dr. Diabolo would be wonderful as an off-the-wall intruder in some less-typical show ... what if he suddenly stood up as a senator in Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent? 1
Most of the actors are pretty forgettable, although 3rd-tier actor Robert Hutton has a good metal-man makeup for a scene where his face gets scratched, and Michael Ripper does well as a fifth 'victim' who panics at the last minute. At least his bit has a good 'Carny' twist. Repeating in yet another silent role as the mysterious statue-like gypsy is Clytie Jessop. Her spectral appearance in The Innocents must have endeared her to director Francis, for he cast her in a similar part in Nightmare before this third go-round. Of course, once we see a catatonic woman holding a large pair of shears, we expect trouble ... the image is an echo of a madwoman in Val Lewton and Mark Robson's Bedlam.
Sony's DVD of Torture Garden looks fine in a colorful enhanced transfer. The photography doesn't work up much in the way of atmosphere but it's clear and sharp - allowing us to examine Burgess Meredith's overdone makeup job. The only extras are promos for a set of really pitiful-looking contemporary horror pix. Of special note is the simply awful text on the back of the package, an ungrammatical mouthful that gives away the main surprise of the film and gets the plot wrong at the same time. There's no other explanation for this terrible copy - someone in the Sony home video department must be pressed into writing these ill-considered blurbs for free.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Torture Garden rates:
1. I guess this is where Joe Dante and Charles S. Haas got their 'Dr. Diabolo' for their sublime comedy about 60s monster fandom, Matinee.