The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (Germany, 1967)
Some films demand to be watched purely for their titles, be they Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body? or The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? While The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism definitely falls into this category, it offers many strange delights beyond a lurid title.
One drawback of having watched many hundreds of horror films is that I often find myself bored with the same plots, imagery and ideas coming up over and over. This why I gravitate toward European horror films from the 1960s and ’70s – they come from a place and time of experimentation, vivid imagery and outright bloody-minded weirdness. While I’ve come to expect this from Italian, Spanish and French films, it’s heartening to see that the Germans had their stab at vibrant lunacy as well.
The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (my fingers are going to cramp typing that out) opens with Count Regula (the Dr Sadism of the title, portrayed by a stony-faced Christopher Lee) in a dungeon, awaiting execution for the torture and murder of twelve virginal girls. His executioner, obviously a fan of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, hammers a spiked metal mask onto his face and then takes him outside to be drawn and quartered. We cut quickly from his death to a one-legged man 35 years further on (but still apparently in the 18th century or so) explaining the dark history of Count Regula to a rapt crowd.
The one-legged man turns out to be an agent of the supposedly deceased Count Regula, sent to pass invitations to the Count’s castle to a select group of guests. When the guests reach the nearest town, the townsfolk act with the fear and denial that is demanded of them by their role in the story, but a suspiciously streetwise and well-armed priest comes to their aid, and our protagonists are soon on the road to the sinister and bizarre castle of the Count.
From this point onwards, it’s torture, deathtraps, twisted artworks, creepy crawlies and necromancy all the way, delivered in a style that is part Salvador Dali, part Edgar Allan Poe and part bad acid trip. The story isn’t incoherently surreal, but it is thoroughly dreamlike in its execution.
The credits and the original German title of the film (Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel) would have us believe that The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is based on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, a claim as accurate as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre being based on a true story or the remake of The Haunting having anything but a passing resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s novel. Sure, there is a pendulum in The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism, but the rest of the script is pure hallucinogenic word abuse.
It really is difficult to convey how weird a film The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is. This weirdness isn’t apparent from a plot description, or even cataloguing some of the scenes; it’s a cumulative effect of snippets like a priest drawing guns on a cowardly coach driver to the complete lack of consternation of the other passengers; said coach driver passing between trees with human body parts hanging from them but only being upset by the presence of crows; a servant who wanders around a dark castle with an unlit candelabra; a random corridor in the dungeon filled with vultures; and an escape plan based on making a ladder from a wooden leg. Over time, you will start to wonder if you are really watching this or if you’re dreaming. If you don’t find yourself saying “What the fuck?” at least once every five minutes, you’re watching the wrong film.
All of this is made even weirder by the incidental music. Much of it is appropriate for the Gothic atmosphere, but every now and then a refrain will come in that sounds like it belongs in a Children’s Film Foundation short or a Carry On feature. It’s difficult at these points not to wonder if The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is a knowing parody, or if it has simply pushed its genre tropes so hard that they have broken.
I can’t imagine that it’s biologically possible to be frightened by The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism, but it is still a feverishly entertaining and memorable film. I’ll leave you to decide whether this is for the reasons the film-makers had in mind.