The fun thing with horror anthology films is that they are a bit like carnival sideshows – one is guaranteed to see a variety of oddities. Even if not all of the acts are hits, one almost always finds something one likes. With Amicus Productions’ Torture Garden (1967), director Freddie Francis and screenwriter Robert Bloch present a sideshow where all of the acts are worth catching. Five strangers enter the sideshow tent of Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith), where he invites them to see something really scary. It is a statue of Atropos, the Goddess of Destiny (Clytie Jessop) who shows each of them the evil within themselves and the dire fates that await them. As with a number of Amicus’ anthology films, Torture Garden has an excellent cast. Written by noted horror author Robert Bloch (Psycho (1960)), the stories are consistently creepy. Even more importantly, the tales go in unexpected directions, even surprising fans of similar horror anthologies.
Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith) runs a cheese carnival sideshow and he dresses the part, wearing “monster” gloves, a cartoon villain mustache and goatee, and heavy eye makeup. Most of his exhibits are rather run-down waxwork displays of torture devices and execution methods. After the show, in the fine tradition of the carnival blow-off, Dr. Diablo invites five of his patrons to see something “really scary” – for only £5. While the customers head to the special area at the back of the tent, Dr. Diablo removes his makeup and, unbeknownst to them, burns their money. In the area for the extra show, Dr. Diablo shows the select few a rather lifelike statue of Atropos, the Goddess of Destiny (Clytie Jessop). He tells them that she can show them the ultimate horror – the evil within themselves.
The customers are skeptical, at first, but as each of them, in turn, gazes into the shine from Atropos’ shears, they are each shown a vision of their future, the evil of which they are capable, and the terrible fate that awaits them if they do not alter their course. In the story Enoch, Colin Williams (Michael Bryant) causes his rich Uncle Roger’s (Maurice Denham) death so as to obtain the secret to his uncle’s fortune. When he finds that the secret involves service to a mystical cat, which is possibly a witch’s familiar, he ends up facing bigger horrors than simply being poor. In Terror Over Hollywood, rising starlet Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams) sabotages her roommate Millie’s (Nicole Shelby) date with older Hollywood producer Mike Charles (David Bauer) so that she can go out with him herself. Mike introduces Carla to producer Eddie Storm (John Phillips) and movie star Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton), two of the Top Ten, a group of actors and studio executives that seem to be Hollywood perennials. As Carla grows closer to Bruce, she wonders how older stars such as him never seem to age. Unfortunately for her, she finds out. Mr. Steinway tells the tale of Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) who strikes up a relationship with Leon Winston (Sir John Standing), a concert pianist. She learns too late that it does not pay to interfere in the love between a man and his piano. In The Man Who Collected Poe, dedicated Edgar Allan Poe collector Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) visits the ultimate collector of Poe, Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing). When Wyatt discovers the nature of Canning’s most special Poe artifact, how far will he go to get what he wants? When the fifth patron, Gordon Roberts (Michael Ripper), is faced with the prospect of learning his fate, things do not go as Dr. Diablo planned . . . or do they?
As with many of Amicus’ anthology films, Torture Garden has a rather notable cast and crew. Genre favorite and two-time Academy Award winner Freddie Francis directs. This is the second of several horror anthologies that he directs for Amicus Productions (Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Tales from the Crypt (1972)) as well as other studios (Tales That Witness Madness (1973) for World Film Services). Burgess Meredith has fun hamming it up as sideshow carnie Dr. Diablo. He shifts Dr. Diablo’s persona as the character’s role changes throughout the framing story. Jack Palance, who does not utter a word in the film until the fourth segment, is a fantastic presence, as always. During the framing sequences leading up to The Man Who Collected Poe, Palance presents the air of a man who knows more than the others in regards to what is happening. During the Poe story itself, Palance’s Wyatt comes across as a near-fanatical collector. It is completely believable as to how far he goes to satisfy his need to get his hands on Canning’s ultimate Poe collectible. Speaking of Canning, Peter Cushing is fantastic as always. His screentime is briefer than usual, but he is a delight. His reaction to Wyatt’s increasingly manic behavior is spot on.
When watching horror anthologies, one always expects to find one or two of the stories to not be up to quite the same level as the others. This thankfully is not the case with Torture Garden. The tales, including the framing story, are equally strong and interesting. This is in no small part due to the fact that the film is written by legendary author and screenwriter Robert Bloch. Most know Bloch as the author of the novel Psycho (1959), the basis of the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic, but he also has a history with writing more supernatural tales, such as the ones presented in Torture Garden. Bloch is actually the protÃ©gÃ© of none other than H.P. Lovecraft, with many of his early tales appearing in the pages of such magazines as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Bloch brings his signature blend of horror, inventiveness, and playfulness to all of the stories in the film. Often, the framing stories in horror anthologies are given short shrift, but Bloch pays as much attention to crafting an interesting wrap-around tale as he does to the stories contained within.
As with most horror anthologies, the tales in Torture Garden all end with twists of fate or poetic justice for the characters. In other films, genre fans can often spot the twist coming from the onset of a particular story. What sets this film apart from others of the same type is the fact that, in almost all cases, the story twists are ones that are genuinely surprising. One really cannot predict where a particular story is going to go. It is rare that anthology films can pull this off, but Torture Garden does it consistently throughout. Even the framing story does not go where one expects. Sure, part of the wrap-around story’s twist is pretty darn obvious, but how it gets there and the details of what happens are rather unexpected.
Horror anthology films often can be hit-or-miss affairs. This is not the case for Torture Garden, which delivers excellent, and consistent, chills and surprises throughout. Veteran horror director Freddie Francis directs a stand-out cast of horror veterans. The screenplay by noted horror author and screenwriter Robert Bloch is as first-rate as one expects from a writer of his renowned. Even jaded genre fans will be surprised and amused by the unpredictable plot twists in the stories. Horror fans looking for something that manages to be both familiar and surprising should seek out Torture Garden for a fun collection of creepy tales.
Torture Garden (4.3 / 5)