Saturday, October 20, 2012

Torture Garden directed by Freddie Francis (starring Peter Cushing, Burgess Meredith, Jack Palance)

Torture Garden (1967). Screenplay by Robert Bloch, based on his short stories "Enoch," "Terror Over Hollywood," "Mr. Steinway," and "The Man Who Collected Poe."

Horror and carnivals: how long have these two been connected?  In any case, Torture Garden — a horror anthology film based on short stories written by Robert Bloch (who also wrote the screenplay, adding the wraparound story that ties them all together) — begins with a barker inviting us into the show.  

"You'll shriek, you'll shudder, you'll shiver," he promises.  "But it's all in fun and no harm done."

We pay our half-crown and enter the realm of Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith, looking reminiscent of his turn as the Penguin on TV's Batman).  His private exhibit offers patrons a look at their potential future, and the possible manner of their death if they give in to their inner evil.

The first story, loosely based on Bloch's 1946 Weird Tales story "Enoch," involves a man's search for his uncle's gold stash.  What he uncovers instead is a devil cat with a hunger for human heads.  Michael Bryant is somehow believable as a man under feline mind control, and the closeups of the cat's eyes help it along.

Next comes an adaptation of "Terror Over Hollywood" from Fantastic Universe in 1957, centering on an actress (Beverly Adams) who sabotages her roommate's date with a Hollywood bigwig to take advantage of it herself ... and gets in way over her head when she sticks her nose where it doesn't belong.  Adams is good as an overly ambitious starlet, but the story derails when it veers off into science-fiction territory.

The starlet's best friend (Barbara Ewing) is up next as a reporter who interviews a concert pianist (John Standing) then falls in love with him — much to the consternation of his piano, a jealous embodiment of the musical goddess Euterpe.  This silly conceit (originated in "Mr. Steinway," Bloch's feature in the April 1954 issue of Fantastic) is not helped by the predictable narrative, though the piano is suitably menacing.  ("She" also gives the best performance in this section.)

Finally, after standing around with a pipe in his teeth for over an hour, Jack Palance utters his first words as Ronald Wyatt, an Edgar Allan Poe fanatic who gets very excited when he finds that the collection of fellow Poe aficionado Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing) also includes the famous author himself. 

Author Bloch was a huge Poe fan in his own right — he was the first to complete the one known incomplete work, "The Lighthouse" — and this knowledge adds to the verisimilitude of the story, based on "The Man Who Collected Poe" from Famous Fantastic Mysteries in 1951.  Also a plus is Palance, who is cast against type as an anxious, bookish type.

Much like Bloch's novels from the era, the stories in Torture Garden combine his talent for eerieness with a tongue-in-cheek approach that is not afraid to court the ridiculous in the name of a well-told story.  Those not familiar with Bloch's work may use Tales from the Crypt as a comparison (also directed by Freddie Francis and featuring Peter Cushing), though it came out five years later.

In addition to the stories mentioned above, the movie also features the goddess Atropos and her shears.  She (Clytie Jessop) appears in a different manifestation in each tale (really the only thing other than the wraparound that ties them together), and even the wraparound has a twist.  Torture Garden is by no means a classic, but it is definitely a good, fun time for those who enjoy horror anthology films.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: Horrorween by Al Sarrantonio (Halloween horror, Orangefield series)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Orangefield is a strange little town. As Detective Bill Grant said in The Baby, a lot of "weird shit" happens around Halloween, in one way or another involving the participation of Samhain, the lord of the dead. A children's-horror author, a five-year-old boy, an older girl named Wizard, a Halloween historian, and a pumpkin tender are all connected by visits from Samhain. Horrorween chronicles a series of events that comes to a head on Halloween, when people will die, others will redeem themselves, and Samhain with either succeed or fail.

Horrorween is primarily composed of three early Orangefield stories -- the short story "Hornets," the novella The Pumpkin Boy, and the short novel Orangefield -- tied together with narrative glue to form a novel that is a surprisingly cohesive read.

Sarrantonio combines the horror and innocence of Halloween in a way no one has since Ray Bradbury. Horrorween, unlike the vast majority of modern horror novels, is subtle, not beating the reader senseless with shock after shock but developing a sustained level of tension. When Sarrantonio delivers the final blow, it's almost a relief.

And his horrors are truly shocking events that anyone can relate to -- not based on what Stephen King called "the gross-out." Don't get me wrong: some of my favorite horror authors are gross-out artists, but it's refreshing to encounter horror of the old school that seeks to truly terrify, yet is otherwise basically PG-rated.

Though Sarrantonio has a very accessible style, his storylines manage to be unpredictable and not easily summarized because to describe the action would either be unhelpfully vague or would give something away. And that would be a shame because Horrorween offers such a terrific ride for lovers of Halloween and light horror fiction.

For more Halloween recommendations, check out my 2009 Halloween feature.
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