On the surface, the Torture Garden is a cheezy little traveling carnival sideshow and wax museum. However, for select customers, its proprietor, Dr. Diabolo (Meridith) pulls back the curtain on real horror, by bringing them face to face with the Goddess of Fate and their futures. When five such customers (Adams, Bryant, Ewing, Jack Palance, and Ripper), four tales of obsessions that end in horror unfold .
"Torture Garden" is the second of a string of excellent horror anthology pictures made by Amicus at the tale end of the British horror boom. It features decent performances and competent direction from some of the people who gave birth to the boom, such as diretor Freddie
Francis and actors Peter Cushing and Michael Ripper. The stories aren't the best, but they're well told, and, like all anthology films, even the weakest one is so short that it doesn't damage the movie too much.
The film opens and closes on a strong note, with its framing story featuring sideshow performer Dr. Diabolo and his vision-inducing statue. Burgis Meridith does a great job as a circus performer with a sinister edge. He is particularly good in the closing portion of the segment where his performance makes the ending that manages to both be surprising and predictable at the same time.
As for the four stories that are the visions experienced by the visitors to the Torture Garden, two are mediocre, one is about average, and one is excellent aside from a weak ending.
The first vision is a predictable tale of a greedy man who, to his eventual deep regret, discovers the secret source of his uncle's fortune. Although the character is utterly repulsive, Michael Bryant manages to give a performance that still makes us care about what happens to him... and not just in a way that makes us want him to get what's coming to him.
The second story is the weakest of the bunch. In at, an overly ambitious young actress (Adams) ends up paying the ultimate price for stardom when she discovers the source of the seemingly endless youth and energy that Hollywood's most powerful producers and bankable stars seem to possess. While the Big Reveal of the dark secret that keeps the "Top Ten" of Hollywood youthful and in power wasn't what I expected it to be (I figured it would be a trite play on the fact that agents and producers are "bloodsuckers"), the actual twist is even goofier. To silly to be scary, and featuring a character who is too coldblooded for the viewer to give a damn about and too stupid to be even remotely likeable, this tale feels like a filler and time-waster when it's over.
The third story is the oddest of the bunch. It sees a music journalist (Ewing) who attempts to seduce a world-famous concert pianist (Standing) away from his music... only to find that some rivals are jealous beyond measure. (I think this is probably the high-water mark of killer piano films, and it's main virtue is that it's short and to the point. It's more silly than scary, but it moves so fast that one hardly has a chance to dwell on its silliness.)
The fourth tale, and the best of the bunch by far, features two actors at opposite end of the quirky scale-- Jack Palance and Peter Cushing--playing obsessive collectors of Edgar Allen Poe memorabelia. Palance excudes such menace that one has to wonder why Cushing's character was crazy enough to invite him over to see his collection, no matter how proud he was of it. (And the menace is enhanced even further by the way Palance seems to loom next to the slight and small-statured Cushing!) As for the story, it takes some nice twists and turns as it unfolds, ultimately resolving in a slightly dissapointing way... but that dissapointment is more than made up for with a tie-in to the framing story, and the excellent performances by Cushing and Palance.
If you enjoy horror short films, and particularly if you enjoy horror anthology films, then "Torture Garden" is worth checking out. It's not as good as "The House That Dripped Blood" or "From Beyond the Grave", but you'll nonetheless find it to be a worthwhile viewing experience. (Palance and Cushing make the film worthwhile all by themselves.)
Starring: Burgess Meredith, Beverly Adams, Jack Palance, Peter Cushing, Michael Bryant, Barbara Ewing, Michael Ripper,and John Standing
Director: Freddie Francis