Among those classic horror fans who are responsible for keeping its memory alive at all, Amicus Productions is first and foremost associated with its series of anthology films (or "portmanteaus", to use the official company line), so much so that oneย  might suppose they never made anything else. On the contrary, the studio was awfully slow to arrive at the form that primarily made its reputation. Between 1962 and 1967, Amicus released 12 feature films, and a grand total of two of them were portmanteaus: 1965's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, and our present subject, released in November of '67, Torture Garden.

This is a roundabout way of saying that when Torture Garden came out, Amicus didn't really have a concrete idea of what the portmanteau films were doing: they were just one possibility out of a whole slate of horror and non-horror films the studio had dabbled in. Or at least, this is what I elect to tell myself, to explain away why Torture Garden is such a damp squib. It feels very much like a retread of Dr. Terror, which feels a bit insane on the face of it; by definition, an anthology film shouldn't be able to feel like a retread. But once again, we have a group that encounters a man who promises to tell their futures; once again, those futures are a little grab bag of different horror subgenres (though more unified than in Dr. Terror, they all involve the paranormal), once again they end with an ironic twist that derives from the character flaws of the person being told their future, and once again the framework narrative itself has the same kind of twist. This time around, the five victims are a randomly thrown-together group that has attended a show at Dr. Diabolo's Torture Garden, one of the attractions at a carnival.

Before we get there, a word on that carnival: the music by Don Banks and James Bernard immediately leans in to making it sound leering and menacing, and in concert with the threatening low angles of carnival rides, it feels like some kind of spooky carnival of the damned. This is not, in the end, the case. But I mention this because of something the film does to murder its own horrific atmosphere, just as it's getting going. May I present, ladies and gentlemen, the Torture Garden title card:


Now there's a typeface to make your skin crawl and your blood run cold, amiright?

Anyway, I was about to introduce Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith). He's the proprietor of what appears to be a kind of magic show demonstrating various old-fashioned torture devices; we walk in right as a performance is ending, and he's selecting a few likely targets for the hard sell on an even better, scarier experience, right behind this curtain. The five individuals he names are all curious enough to lay down their ยฃ5, to find that the scariest thing of all is what looks like a mechanical doll, designed to look like Atropos of the Greek Fates (Clytie Jessop, doing a fine job of holding extremely still in an awkward pose - she'll also put in some kind of cameo in each of the stories proper). Diabolo gives the spiel - Atropos, oldest of the Fates, was the one who cut the thread of a human's life, and just look at that, she has just as many threads as there are guests in his tent between the blades of her comically large shears right now! He invites the first customer, Colin Williams (Michael Byron) to stare at the gleaming shears for a glimpse of his future. And oh, what a nasty future it will be.

In short, Diabolo is letting the people see the circumstances of their death - but unlike Dr. Terror before him, he extends the possibility that they can change their doom (it is implied that they will not do so). And, of course, the four stories that make up the bulk of Torture Garden will be these visions, all scripted by Robert Bloch, adapting his own story - making the first time that Amicus would rely on the concept that would guide nearly all of their portmanteau films going forward, that they would all be based on the work of a single contemporary horror and/or weird tales author.

Colin's story, "Enoch", begins with him arriving at the home of his rich, dying uncle Roger (Maurice Denham). Through Colin's exertions, "rich, dying" very shortly turns into "rich, dead", at which point Colin tries to figure out how best to rob the place blind, but there's a hitch: Roger had a cat, Balthazar. A very uncomfortably knowing and charismatic cat, at that, one that seems to have very detailed thoughts behind its feline eyes. And, increasingly one that is communicating with Colin somehow, in a way even he doesn't seem to understand or know how to articulate. The cat needs a new human to help it, and since Colin has taken Roger out of the picture, he's the obvious candidate. In exchange, Balthazar assures him riches and success and power, but not for free. In fact, the price will be human sacrifice, with the cat eating the heads of the people Colin kills. Colin proving to be a very bad murderer, he quickly gets found out, at which point the demonic Balthazar grows very, very annoyed with him.

Colin is quite rattled, but dismisses it all as hypnosis. Diabolo shrugs this off and invites the next guest up: now the American Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams) will learn about the "Terror Over Hollywood", for she is herself an aspiring movie star, presently visiting her cousin Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) in England. Carla's story begins with her making the calculated decision to fuck over her roommate Millie (Nicole Shelby, losing a war with the most rickety American accent I've heard in some time), who had a date with a lecherous old executive, Mike Charles (David Bauer). Mike himself ends up being of very little use to her, but he does put her within pouncing distance of Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton), a handsome leading man, and his favorite producer, Eddie Storm (John Phillips). Maybe this would have been good for her career, maybe not, but fate intervenes: Mike dies in an accident that very evening, only to mysteriously turn up a few days later looking rather hale and hearty for a dead man. Carla is curious enough to start poking around figuring out why, and in the process, she discovers why Bruce, Eddie, and some other members of Hollywood royalty never seem to age. And they are not at all happy with her for discovering this.

And with that, it's Dorothy's turn! "Mr. Steinway" is by far the loopiest of the four stories: it is all about the love triangle between Dorothy, her new boyfriend Leo Winston (John Standing), and his sexually jealous haunted piano, Euterpe. I don't even know that it's possible to do more of a synopsis than that. Dorothy and Leo are very much in love, and Euterpe starts doing weird things, and attempts to kill her, despite being a grand piano.

At last, it's time for the man who has been watching all of this with a strangely intense, eager look. This is Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance, who isn't using an English accent in the framework and is using one in the story itself), who is "The Man Who Collected Poe". Memorabilia of dead American horror author Edgar Allan Poe, that is, and he's just met the only man more obsessed with this hobby than himself, Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing). Wyatt first tries to buy an incredibly rare book off of Canning that the latter man refuses to part with, and this sparks of a friendly, competitive chat, at which point Canning hints around that he has the ultimate Poe collectible in the basement. And so they go down into the depths of what I was 100% sure was shaping up to be a "Cask of Amontillado" riff, so kudos to Bloch for misleading me in such a breezy way. Because it's definitely not that, although it's definitely the case that Canning would have been much better off not telling Wyatt anything. And Wyatt would have been better off as well.

So, first things first: these are all pretty dumb stories. "Mr. Steinway" at least has the grace to fully own that fact, and it is for this reason maybe the most satisfying of the segments; also because it is the shortest. But a haunted piano is only vaguely sillier than a head-eating demon cat, and the secret behind Canning's Poe collection, when we learn it. As for "Terror Over Hollywood", that's just some kind of what-the-fuck nuttery that has nothing to do with the other three at all: it's a poison-pen satire of Hollywood social norms shoved into a trio of tales that all feel pretty laconic and British, in their ways.

Thereon hangs a tale. Torture Garden was a co-production with Columbia, over in the United States, and they had some demands. Mainly, they demanded that some American stars be put in there, which is how Meredith ended up in a role earmarked for Christopher Lee, and Palance got the role that Cushing had first. This isn't all bad: Cushing is better in his role than I think he'd have been in Palance's, and while I regret the absence of Lee, Meredith is fantastic as the sneaky, devilish carnival huckster. Indeed, Meredith's flamboyant portrayal of hammy diabolic theatricality is so rich and enjoyable that it makes Torture Garden something I have never experienced: an anthology film in which the framework narrative is better than any of the actual stories. Really, the story of Diabolo and the secret of his Torture Garden isn't the only part of the film where I never once rolled my eyes at how damn goofy it was, without doing anything to earn that goofiness. Whether this is because the framing story isn't goofy, or because Meredith earns it, I leave as an exercise to the individual viewer.

In general, Torture Garden lives and dies on its acting. Bloch's writing is much too formulaic and hung up on a terrible mixture of the humorless and the absurd. And Freddie Francis is, for once, fumbling his job as director. The one and only place that the film comes alive specifically because of what Francis is up to, I am a little bit abashed to say, is the killer haunted piano sequence. The ludicrous scenario has apparently opened him up to play around a little bit: he goes all in on the dramatically off-kilter close-ups sliding along the length of the piano keys in the big climactic scene, and if he is entirely powerless to make the concept scary (or even funny), he at least suggests that he was taking it seriously, and that by extension, we should take it seriously, too. It's the exact right amount of tongue-in-cheek gravity that the sequence needs, and it's almost all of the reason that "Mr. Steinway" ends up being even a little bit interesting to watch. Otherwise, there's very little here that shows off the kind of visuals that Francis's earlier horror films had all boasted, even the thoroughly hokey The Deadly Bees. The cluttered basement set that production designer Bill Constable lends to "The Man Who Collected Poe" is good for some free atmosphere, and the staging of the last chunk of the framing narrative has some startling use of direct address, but this is otherwise the first Amicus horror film that simply isn't all that interesting to look at.

And so, back we go to the actors, who are doing pretty much all the work. The big problem being that the cast of Torture Garden isn't really all that great. Meredith is on fire, as I've said, and Cushing is as reliable as ever as a prim Poe enthusiast, and Michael Ripper (playing the only one of Diablo's clients who doesn't get his own story, for good reasons) has the usual meat-and-potatoes stability that he provided in so many Hammer films. But that's it as far as the actively good performances go, and I'm a little tempted to say that Bryant and the cast of the piano story are the only people who rise up to "perfectly fine". "Terror Over Hollywood" is a bit of disaster, acting-wise, with everybody playing up the caricatures of Hollywood types beyond what the tacky satire is able to cope with. And Palance, though he's fine as a smug and slightly threatening figure in the framework, is irritating as hell in the body of his story, where his attempts to play a literary nerd come off as some of the most insincere mugging I've ever seen that actor give - and I am not one to credit Jack Palance with an overabundance of sincerity, or restraint in mugging.

"Enoch" therefore ends up being the sequence with the fewest marks against it; every one of the others has at least one major weakness, and that's ignoring how robotic the twist endings feel when they arrive. The result is a film made up of flashes of goodness interspersed with a whole lot of half-hearted mediocrity, bland horror scenarios, and characters whose ironic comeuppance is too schematic to feel biting and insightful. The good news is, Torture Garden is by general acclamation the weakest of Amicus's seven portmanteau films, and so there was nowhere to go but up. But this does not provide a comfort in all the long minutes of watching it.