“The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism” is one of those weird little nuggets of trash cinema from a period where movie tickets were sold based on impossibly lurid promises of weird sex and gory violence. While H.G. Lewis’ films like “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) offered graphic splatter, a majority of horror filmmakers in the 1960s skirted the edges of taboo in order to avoid cuts due to strict censorship laws in export markets. In spite of a one-two punch of TORTURE and SADISM right in the title (backed up by a German pedigree, no less), “Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism” is charmingly quaint in its embrace of gothic-pulp storytelling. From the damsel in distress to the “cursed bloodline” plot to the implausible sorcery, this movie is proof that nothing’s new this side of Otranto. Like so much genre movie-making, though, the movie’s delights reside in its cobwebby, candlelit details–all of which are gleefully ridiculous in this particular flick.
As is the case with many of “Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism”‘s 60s gothic genre-mates, the story is nominally based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe–“The Pit and the Pendulum,” to be precise, although this feels more inspired by the Corman version of that story, with its secret torture chamber and mad murderer. To put a bow on it all, there’s the bookending appearance of horror screen star Christopher Lee to give the entire affair a bit of international marketing clout.
The story begins with the evil black magician and murderer Count Regula’s* execution by quartering after having a “Black Sunday”-style mask hammered onto his face. Much like the villainess in that film, Regula swears revenge on the descendants of his executioners. Flash forward about 35 years: nobody wears powdered wigs and tricorn hats anymore, having transitioned to a sort of Hammer-Victorian drag realness. The ludicrousness kicks in really early, since the movie wants us to accept that over the course of this 35-year period, Regula’s castle has been entirely ruined, no one has told their children the awesomely-terrifying tale of the murderin’ warlock who lived up the lane, and neighboring villages are entirely ignorant of the hideous deeds perpetrated nearby. If you take delight in this brand of nuttiness, then you’re like me and you know that what follows will be bizarro fun.
* I like to imagine that Regula is Dracula’s cousin who went on to be a chino-wearing accountant. Dr. Acula was forced to change his name after being “Ellis Islanded.” None of them especially like to talk about Drugula.
Handsome strangers Roger Mont Elise and Baroness Lilian von Brabant are on their way to the Castle Andermeyer to learn about a mysterious inheritance they are each owed. You get precisely no bonus points if you realize that these are the unwitting son and daughter of those responsible for Regula’s death. With the help of Lilian’s maid Babette, a priest who is not what he seems to be (played by character actor Vladimir Medar at his Oliver Reed-iest), and a reluctant carriage driver (who never mentions the bodies hanging from trees he sees as they approach the Castle, which I guess is the mark of a good Victorian-era servant), the two finally reach their destination. The castle is a ruined heap, but the group proceeds anyway, only to find undead evil living within its walls (like you do). They find a bunch of other stuff in the ruined castle, including:
- Subterranean vultures–I assume these are related to the crypt armadillos from Tod Browning’s “Dracula.”
- Plentiful ad sciencey glassware
- Undead servants
- Snake pits
- Torture equipment galore
- Remarkably well-preserved bodies from Regula’s initial reign of terror
Director Harald Reinl’s approach to the film is capable without being especially artful. Having directed a number of Edgar Wallace krimis, Reinl is clearly familiar with the pacing and feel of pulp stories and his film advances from plot point to plot point with reasonable briskness. Actors convey their lines with a reasonable degree of passion without ever crossing into remarkable performances, aside from Medar, who sells his boisterous clergyman with broad gestures and a booming voice.
A creepy mood is evoked through the use of painted backdrops and some punches of colorful lighting, though nothing in here comes close to the chiaroscuro black and white of earlier krimis, or even the splashy comic book mise en scene of “The College Girl Murders” (also made in 1967). The soundtrack is unremarkable, blending some generic synth crashes into what feels like stock music.
In many ways, the movie feels like it was made much earlier in the decade; even as a devoted fan of the gothic, I have to admit “Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism” is old-fashioned and creaky. It lacks the kind of artfulness that sets later gothics like Bava’s “Baron Blood” apart from the pack while never achieving the charm of a Hammer production of any era. This movie is best classified as a gothic for completists–it’s got plenty of insane details, but it lacks the special sauce of its best genre-mates.