Sunday 9 November 2008

Torture Garden (1967)

The Torture Garden of the title is a carnival attraction, presented by Dr Diabolo, who is brought to vivid and outrageous life by Burgess Meredith. Robert Osborne may have introduced him on TCM as best known for his recurring role as Rocky's trainer, but it's the spirit of the Penguin that he's invoking here instead. Behind his regular Torture Garden, with its collection of torture devices and an electric chair demonstration, is something else, something for the connoisseur, for which of course there's a hefty additional fee.

What this extra £5 brings to his customers is a vision into their futures, along with a powerful warning, all provided through a model of the goddess Atropos, the oldest of the three Fates. In Greek mythology her sisters spun and measured the skein of life for every human being, but it was Atropos who cut them with her shears, thus ending lives in the manner she saw fit. Here, each character in this Amicus horror anthology gets their own segment, as shown to them by gazing at the shears of Atropos. It shows them what path the evil in their own souls will take them down but also the insight to avoid it.

They take their turns and first up is the biggest doubter of them all, Colin Williams. He goes to see his dying uncle Roger, who wants him to mend his ways and get a job, but Colin is merely waiting for what he believes will be a substantial inheritance because he's the sole heir and he's done his homework. Apparently Uncle Roger has never worked, but somehow managed to refurbish his house and pay for everything over a number of decades in gold coins. In trying to force the location of a presumed treasure out of him, the already frail Roger dies before he can reveal anything, and Colin goes searching for the treasure himself. He finds it too but of course there's a price attached that most people wouldn't be willing to pay.

This is a decent story but not a great one, not up to the general standards of writer Robert Bloch who penned all four segments. However the two that follow are worse. The second sees a TV actress called Carla Hayes deliberately screw over her roommate Millie to get a night out with agent Mike Charles, gateway to success in the entertainment industry. Her ambition knows no bounds but like Colin Williams, her success comes at a price that is far from an easy one to pay. The third sees a young lady called Dorothy Endicott insert herself between Leo and Euterpe: Leo being a world renowned concert pianist and Euterpe his piano, which is a jealous thing and has no room in its vision for a rival.

The last is the best, with the framing story not far behind. Jack Palance is Ronald Wyatt, a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe. He meets the collector Lancelot Canning at an exhibition of some of his collection and eagerly follows up on Canning's invitation to visit him at home. Canning is the biggest collector of them all when it comes to Poe, having continued the work of his father and grandfather. However this collection contains more than would usually be expected from a Poe collector, and Wyatt's greed in seeing unpublished and undocumented stories becomes his own downfall. All of these stories are about greed but this one rings the truest.

Palance was top billed even though he doesn't speak until the fourth segment of the film, in which he plays opposite Peter Cushing as Lancelot Canning. He's believably enthusiastic and carried away as a fan and Cushing was born to play an educated collector. The cast are probably the biggest success here, though director Freddie Francis does a solid job, especially in the piano story. Palance and Cushing are the best, with Burgess Meredith highly memorable as Dr Diabolo, but also notable are Beverly Adams as Carla Hayes and Maurice Denham as Uncle Roger.

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