Robert Bloch’s “Torture Garden” Part 1

German poster for “Torture Garden” (1967).

When I was about 12 years old, I went to a birthday/slumber party of one of my classmates. I don’t remember much about it, not even the boy’s name, but I do recall the movie his father showed us on a film projector in the back yard. It was the 1967 Amicus film “Torture Garden”, and it scared the crap out of me.

“Torture Garden”, like most of the Horror films produced by Amicus Productions, is an omnibus of multiple vignettes, strung together by an over-arching narrative thread. American author Robert Bloch (of “Psycho” fame) wrote the screenplay based on some of his short stories, which he then tweaked to suit the main storyline, which is set in England.

The framing narrative tells of a group of people who are lured to a tent labeled “Torture Garden” by a carnival barker promising “the greatest thrill you’ve ever had in your life!” Once inside, they are greeted by Dr. Diabolo (played by actor Burgess Meredith with much campy gusto) who shows them what appears to be nothing more than a collection of tableaus showing various ancient modes of torture and death, culminating in a figure in a functional electric chair. Upon throwing the switch, a few of the guests are startled but quickly recover. Diabolo then announces that the exhibit has come to an end, but that for a five pound note he will take any interested parties into the next room to see the “real exhibit”.

The guests complain at first, claiming that they’ve been hoodwinked, but Diabolo stealthily plays upon their egos and coaxes them all into the next room where he introduces them to the figure of “Atropos, Goddess of Destiny; in the left hand, the skein of life, in the right, the shears of fate. Each colored thread represents a human life, and the shears have the power to cut it short.”

Colin Williams, one of the three gentlemen of the group, scoffs claiming that “It’s just one of those mechanical figures that tells your fortune for a penny.” Diabolo concedes that it can do just that, and more.

He tells the group that Atropos can tell the ultimate horror, which is the horror that each one of them has hidden inside of themselves: their “inner evil”. Thus forewarned, he claims that they might be able to change their respective current paths and avoid their “monstrous act(s) and the hideous consequences”.

He then invites Mr. Wilson, who seems to be the most vocal of the doubtful within the group, to be the first to give it a try, instructing him to “…look at the figure…it can’t hurt you. Now look at the shears…” telling him repeatedly to look deeply, thus hypnotizing him into a trance where he experiences his personal horror which is the first episode of the omnibus, which is based on the Bloch story “Enoch”.

September 1946 issue of Weird Tales, which first featured the story “Enoch”, by Robert Bloch.

“Enoch” first appeared in the September 1946 edition of Weird Tales magazine and has appeared in various collections since then, most notably in the 1960 Arkham House collection of Bloch stories entitled “Pleasant Dreams—Nightmares”.

“Pleasant Dreams–Nightmares”, Arkham House, 1960.

The original tale is a brilliantly written yarn about a man named Seth who lives alone in a shack by a swamp that has an imp named Enoch that lives on top of his head. He never sees it, and although he feels it pacing around on his head, he can never grasp it, though at times he finds evidence of its having been there in the form of nasty little scratches upon his neck that “bleed and bleed”.  Tiny and cold, pressing on the base of his brain, it whispers to him. It asks him to do horrible things, it asks him to murder, and if he ignores it, it will torment him until he obeys, but when he does what it says it rewards him by sending his consciousness into an alternate plane where Seth is a king and can have any woman he wants and every whim and desire granted.

When a victim is in his vicinity, Enoch describes them to Seth, sometimes even giving him their names, and tells him the best way to lure them and to kill them. In his confession to District Attorney Edwin Cassidy (after he is found out), Seth describes the process:

“He always makes me cut the heads off and leave them,” I went on. “I put the bodies in the quicksand, and then go home. He puts me to sleep and rewards me. After that he goes away—back to the heads. That’s what he wants.

In the interest of keeping Seth from seeming too crazy on the witness stand, D.A. Cassidy tries to get him to keep Enoch out of his testimony. In an effort to cajole him into changing his story, he offers to take on Enoch for him during the trial so Enoch won’t interfere with the proceedings.  Unsure, Seth reminds Cassidy of the consequences of such a concession but Cassidy doesn’t really believe in the imp anyway and only plays along to humor his client.

D.A. Cassidy will soon come to regret this decision.

In “Torture Garden”, Seth is changed to Colin, and he’s not a swamp dweller, but rather a middle class Englishman who is calling on his ailing uncle who lives in a mansion that used to belong to a witch.

Local gossip says that Colin’s uncle always paid his debts in gold coins, so Colin figures he will get some money out of his uncle before he dies. When his uncle tries to tell him that he in fact has no money, Colin interrogates him, withholding his medication until he tells him where it is hidden. His plans are foiled, however, when his uncle succumbs without telling him what he needed to know.

After the coroner takes his uncle’s body to the morgue, Colin rifles through the house searching for a clue as to where his uncle’s money was kept. Under the bed, he finds a trapdoor that leads him to what turns out to be the grave of the previous tenant. Upon unearthing the witch’s coffin, he finds a headless skeleton and a black cat that jumps out and scurries into the house.

Later the cat speaks to him telepathically and says that its name is Balthazar and that it has come to stay with him, to serve him, as he served his uncle. He will reward him as he rewarded his uncle, in return for things he must do for him (Balthazar).

Although the imp from the original tale, Enoch, had some cat like qualities, he was never described as being one. In fact, there is only one time where he is actually seen and only briefly as a white streak as he is summoned by Seth.

Most of the remaining movie plot follows the basic outline of the original tale but changes out the things that are germane to the Deep Southern setting of the original tale and replaces them with English ones.  In the tale, Seth is a more or less willing participant whom has lived with the imp most of his life, where the witch’s familiar of the movie is something new to the main character. His rewards in the tale are more subjective whereas in the movie they are more material. The ending is changed as well with Colin falling victim to D.A. Cassidy’s fate. The climax of this segment was the one that scared me the most when I saw it as a kid, but I now prefer the original story ending by far.

Atropos and Colin Williams.

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