Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967)

(West Germany - 1967; 1969 US release)

Directed by Harald Reinl.  Written by Manfred R. Kohler.  Cast: Lex Barker, Karin Dor, Christopher Lee, Karl Lange, Vladimir Medar, Christiane Rucker, Dieter Eppler. (Unrated, 80 mins)

Edgar Allan Poe was all the rage in the 1960s thanks to a series of Roger Corman/Vincent Price collaborations from American International Pictures that began with 1960's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and ended with 1964's THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (Corman made eight Poe films in all, seven with Price--Ray Milland starred in 1962's THE PREMATURE BURIAL).  The Corman/Price partnership had run its course by 1965 as Corman moved on to other drive-in genres with counterculture films like THE WILD ANGELS (1966) and the Jack Nicholson-scripted THE TRIP (1967), but was still enough in the public consciousness that when Price starred in Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), the film was retitled THE CONQUEROR WORM by AIP in the US to make it appear to be part of the Price/Poe series.  AIP continued producing other Poe adaptations, but most of these, such as THE OBLONG BOX (1969) and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971), both directed by Gordon Hessler, paled in comparison to the Corman/Price glory days.  Elsewhere, British studios Hammer and Amicus were releasing a slew of gothic horrors of their own and Mario Bava was making trailblazing Italian horror films like BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and BLACK SABBATH (1963) that were very much in line with Corman and Hammer and the like, but with the Maestro's own unique, matte-painted nightmare visions propelling them along.

During this time, West Germany for the most part didn't partake in the gothic horror parade and was instead producing an untold number of krimi based on the work of legendary mystery writer Edgar Wallace (1875-1932).  One of the major figures in the krimi movement was Harald Reinl, a journeyman Austrian director in postwar Germany who found his niche with the krimi explosion with films like THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG (1959), THE TERRIBLE PEOPLE (1960), THE FORGER OF LONDON (1961), THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE (1963), and ROOM 13 (1964), most of which starred his then-wife, German actress Karin Dor.  Reinl also helmed a few entries in the updated DR. MABUSE series reboot in the early '60s after Fritz Lang revived the Weimar-era character for 1960's THE 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE  . When the krimi became passe, Reinl moved on to a series of WINNETOU westerns based on the works of Karl May, and it wasn't until 1967 that he decided to belatedly get in on the Poe/Hammer/Bava action with a film that's been released under several titles, the most well-known being the beautifully lurid TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM.

According to the film's opening credits, SADISM is "based on the novel The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe."  It's a 12-page short story, but I suppose that's neither here nor there.  It's at best loosely based on the short story, and by "loosely," I mean yes, there's a pit and there's a pendulum, but that's about all that made it from the page to the screen with this film.  Originally titled DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDEL (translated, "The Snakepit and the Pendulum"), the film was released in the US in 1969 by drive-in outfit Hemisphere Pictures as BLOOD DEMON ("in Blood Dripping Color!"), where it was on the bottom half of a double bill with the 1968 Filipino horror film MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND. It wasn't until it was sold in a TV syndication package that it was rechristened TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM and that's the title that's stuck, though it was also released on VHS as CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD, and may have been shown as BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS in some parts of the US.

Original German trailer

In a small Bavarian village of Andomai, nobleman Count Frederic Regula (Christopher Lee) is imprisoned for the murders of 12 virgins and was caught in the act of attempting to kill a 13th (Dor).  He's sentenced to be drawn and quartered by Judge Reinhold von Marienberg (Lex Barker) who, tragically, is never referred to as just "Judge Reinhold."  35 years later, attorney Roger Montelise (Barker again) and Baroness Lillian von Brabant (Dor once more) are separately summoned to Andomai under mysterious pretenses of learning the true nature of their pasts.  Montelise is an orphan and has no idea of his lineage, and the Baroness knows of no connection she has to Andomai, and the two meet on the road when the Baroness' coach is attacked by highwaymen and she and her servant Babette (Christiane Rucker) are rescued by Montelise and his traveling companion, Father Fabian (Vladimir Medar), an incognito highwayman himself.  They eventually cross paths with the mysterious Anatol (Karl Lange), the undead cohort of Count Regula, whose soul is still alive and waiting to reanimated in his long-dormant body. Once everyone is at the castle in Andomai (and there's a lot of walking around the castle in circles, as if the cast and crew are waiting for Lee to get there for his customary four-to-five days on the set), Anatol, who cannot be stopped by bullets and bleeds green blood, revives Regula, who reveals that, yes, Montelise is the secret son of the judge and the Baroness is the daughter of his would-be 13th victim, and he needs the blood of that 13th victim to achieve immortality.  Montelise is tied under a swinging pendulum as Count Regula prepares to drain the virginal Baroness' blood...is there any chance Montelise will escape and rescue the damsel in distress?

TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM was in regular rotation on a lot of Saturday afternoon and late-night Creature Features in the 1980s and it's been a longtime sentimental cult favorite of many over the decades.  It's not what one would call well-known by the masses, but horror fans who know the film feel a unique affection for it.  It's very silly, the score is often laughably inappropriate (ranging from upbeat lounge music to jazzy saxophone interludes) and the low budget is sometimes painfully apparent, but it was unusually gruesome by the standards of older movies on Saturday afternoon TV for a young horror fan seeing this back in the '80s,  Reinl, cinematographers Ernst W. Kalinke and Dieter Liphardt, and set decorator Gabriel Pellon work together to create some truly arresting visuals that still pack a punch today.  A carriage ride through the vast forest leading to Regula's castle starts with thick fog and gives way to a blood red sky, with some nightmarish imagery of limbs, torsos, and faces protruding from the trees like malformed branches.  Regula's castle features a long, narrow hallway lined with skulls.  Reinl and screenwriter Manfred R. Kohler introduce a pair patently ridiculous plot elements late in the game, one involving Regula being afraid of crosses (an obvious reference to Lee's DRACULA films) and Regula announcing out of nowhere that the Baroness' blood won't provide immortality unless she's sufficiently frightened.  So, as if the idea of being murdered by having her blood completely drained isn't scary enough, Regula forces her to run a gothic gauntlet through the twisting corridors of the castle, where she's assaulted by vultures, lizards, scorpions, and spiders before finding herself trapped on a retracting plank that's positioned over a snakepit.  As a 40-year-old who's seen too many movies, this is ludicrous.  But as a kid watching this on TV 30 years ago, this was some pretty intense shit.

While Lee's presence is the most "horror" element, he's not in it very much, as so frequently has been the case throughout his incredible career that's now in its eighth decade. In fact, he seems a little bored (maybe he's just tired), even though this is one of the few horror films of his that he's admitted to somewhat liking (though not under its most famous title, which happened to him again when 1970's THE BLOODY JUDGE--a generally serious film featuring one of his strongest performances from that period--was absurdly retitled NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER for its 1972 US release on the grindhouse circuit). Lee's in the first two minutes of SADISM and then doesn't reappear for another hour. 

Barker in his TARZAN days with Cheetah
Lee is there for horror cred, but this is more of a Lex Barker movie, as the former Tarzan (he replaced Johnny Weissmuller in 1949) and one-time husband of Lana Turner left Hollywood and became a huge star in German westerns and adventure films in the 1960s.  After stepping away from the TARZAN series in 1953 after five films, Barker was one of the first major American stars to test the waters of the European film industry, dividing his time Hollywood and Italy for the next several years, most notably appearing in Federico Fellini's classic LA DOLCE VITA (1960).  Barker ended up in West Germany by the mid '60s and made a series of the Karl May-based WINNETOU westerns with Reinl, where he played Old Shatterhand to Pierre Brice's Winnetou, plus a few 007 knockoffs like SPY TODAY, DIE TOMORROW (1967) among many other films, which led to him becoming the most popular star in the country--a sort-of 1960s David Hasselhoff, if you will--and a regular guest on German talk shows while being largely forgotten back in Hollywood.  TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM was his only horror film, and a few years later, he made his way back to the US and seemed destined for a busy TV career with guest spots on THE NAME OF THE GAME and NIGHT GALLERY among others, but his Hollywood comeback was cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1973 at just 54.

Reinl and Dor in a 1963 photo
Dor was a very busy actress in German genre fare and was a regular star of many of her husband's films.  The same year she made TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM, she had what's easily her best known role to mainstream audiences as doomed SPECTRE agent Helga Brandt in the 007 film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, where she suffers a memorable demise courtesy of Donald Pleasence's Blofeld and some hungry piranha.  Dor tried to get a Hollywood career going with Alfred Hitchcock's TOPAZ (1969), and guest appearances on TV shows like IRONSIDE, but she didn't find much success in America and continued making German films throughout the '70s.  She went into semi-retirement in the 1980s, and today, at 74, she still occasionally turns up in guest spots on German TV shows.  She and Reinl divorced in 1968, and Reinl, who started calling himself "Dr. Harald Reinl," went on to have the biggest hit of his career with his Oscar-nominated 1970 documentary CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, based on the speculative best-seller by Erich von Daniken.  Reinl met a tragic end in 1986 at the age of 78 when he was stabbed to death by his third wife.

TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM has been represented inadequately on US home video.  There were several VHS editions under both the SADISM title and CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD.  The best, and it's still problematic, is probably the Legend House DVD that was released in 2008, which paired the film with Joe D'Amato's bonkers DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1973).  Legend House's discontinued DVD is gray-market at best and non-anamorphic but at least presents the film in its correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio, unlike a previous Retromedia release, which grouped a cropped, 1.33:1 SADISM with three other random titles (1973's CLAW OF TERROR, 1974's BLACK MAMBA, and 1984's MOVIE HOUSE MASSACRE, aka BLOOD THEATRE) for a package titled SUPER CHILLER BLOOD-O-RAMA.  It's surprising that a film with such a strong cult following still hasn't been ideally represented on DVD, but if you come across it (probably at a ridiculous price--used copies start at $32.50 online), the Legend House DVD, while neither perfect nor legit, is easily the best bet, and there's a commentary with American Cinematheque programmer and former Flesh Eaters frontman Chris D.  The impressive visuals would probably benefit from a proper HD restoration, provided the elements for such a thing exist.

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