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During the '60s and '70s, when Britain's Hammer Studios was at the global forefront of horror cinema, there was an independent concern slicing a sanguine niche out of the market right in Hammer's own backyard. The Shepperton-based Amicus Productions was actually the brainchild of a pair of Yanks--producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. A trained eye was required to distinguish their output from Hammer's, given the overlap of talent employed on both sides of the camera, and Amicus' ability to deliver shock fare on a par with the industry leader. An earmark of the Amicus style was a preference for the anthology format, and none of their films may be more exemplary than the cult-favorite fright flick Torture Garden (1967).
The screenplay came courtesy of pulp-era fear-and-fantasy scribe Robert Bloch, whose widest and most lasting reputation stems from his having authored the original novel Psycho. Bloch adapted a quartet of his own short stories, and crafted a framing sequence that complemented the material well. The scenario opens on a shabby carnival, where the patrons are exhorted to visit - if they dare - the carny's scary exhibit. Within, a garish huckster answering to Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith) leads the crowd through a spirited tour of the tacky tableaux; at its conclusion, he dares those in attendance with a stomach for sterner stuff to attend a special presentation. Finding five takers, Diabolo leads them to a back room housing a haunting figurine (Clytie Jessop) representing the Greek Fate Atropos. The doctor challenges each of his charges to regard the shears and strands wielded by the goddess, and therefore get a glimpse into their own futures.
For the cash-strapped wastrel Colin Williams (Michael Bryant), it's a visit to the estate of his infirm uncle (Maurice Denham) in the hopes of coaxing a loan. When the recalcitrant old man has a seizure, Colin tauntingly--and fatally-- denies his medicine. As it turns out, the only forthcoming legacy is the uncle's demonic and telepathic pet cat, which promises Colin wealth--so long as certain sacrifices are made. For the gorgeous aspiring American actress Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams), her calculations earn her entre to the veteran leading man Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton) and the producer Eddie Storm (John Phillips). While cast in their next project, her curiosity about the men's unflagging health and vigor leads to a horrifying discovery regarding the Hollywood elite.
Carla's journalist cousin Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) finally lands her long sought-after interview with the reclusive concert pianist Leo Winston (John Standing). As their immediate mutual attraction grows, his art begins to suffer--and Dorothy finds an unholy rival in the grand piano that Leo's dominating mother left him. The effete Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) wheedles an invite to the home of the similarly fixated Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing). Covetous of Canning's unparalleled collection of Poe memorabilia, the jealous Wyatt discovers to his horror that his rival had been hoarding the ultimate keepsake--the author's resurrected spirit.
As with many memorable Amicus and Hammer fright films of the era, the direction on Torture Garden was ably handled by Freddie Francis, whose Oscar®-winning career as a cinematographer was marked by such A-list fare as Room at the Top (1959), Sons and Lovers (1960), The Elephant Man (1980), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Glory (1989), Cape Fear (1991) and The Straight Story (1999). "I thought quality-wise it was the best," the director said of the film when biographer Wheeler Winston Dixon asked Francis to rank Torture Garden against his other Amicus anthologies such as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964) and Tales from the Crypt (1972).
Francis' sensibilities helped make even the most improbable aspects of the scenario memorably creepy, such as the use of colored spotlights during the sequence where Ewing is stalked by the vengeful Steinway. "I tried to stylize it, especially that piano sequence," the director told Dixon for The Films of Freddie Francis (1991). "It seemed to me that a piano keyboard being white, one needed things to pick up. It was too nondescript."
Meredith brought expected brio to his turn as the sinisterly inscrutable tour guide, and Palance seemed to have fun with his uncharacteristically fey effort as the Poe geek. "I wasn't looking forward to (working with Palance), but he was sweet, absolutely charming," Francis reminisced. Many of the film's iconic images stem from the chillingly immobile presence of Jessop, who Francis also used to good effect in Nightmare (1964). Asked about her casting choice by Dixon, Francis replied, "I suppose one thing is that she must have been cheap. But also she did have this strange face, you know."
As a last aside, the film's American distribution came in the waning days of the memorable audience promotion, and lucky patrons were treated to commemorative packets of grass seed labeled as "Fright-Seeds for your own Torture Garden."
Producers: Max J. Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky
Director: Freddie Francis
Screenplay: Robert Bloch (screenplay and stories)
Cinematography: Norman Warwick
Art Direction: Don Mingaye, Scott Slimon
Music: Don Banks, James Bernard
Film Editing: Peter Elliott
Cast: Jack Palance (Ronald Wyatt), Burgess Meredith (Dr. Diabolo), Beverly Adams (Carla Hayes), Peter Cushing (Lancelot Canning), Michael Bryant (Colin Williams), John Standing (Leo), Robert Hutton (Bruce Benton), John Phillips (Storm), Michael Ripper (Gordon Roberts), Bernard Kay (Dr. Heim), Catherine Finn (Nurse Parker).
by Jay S. Steinberg