Following up on two pairs of William Castle and Hammer Films double-feature Blu-rays released last year, Mill Creek Entertainment licenses more classic horror from Sony, giving us the highly anticipated Blu-ray premieres of Freddie Francis’ TORTURE GARDEN and THE CREEPING FLESH. Oddly titled “Psycho Circus” (which only remotely relates to TORTURE GARDEN and its carnival wraparound scenes) and even more oddly that THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN is part of this collection (Mill Creek previously released it on Blu-ray, paired with MR. SARDONICUS), this single Blu-ray’s quality is the main concern here, and it’s a pleasure to again delve into these three...
In the late 1960s, character actors L.Q. Jones and Alvy Moore formed a film company and began producing their own efforts. Only three films were actually made and all were drive-in movies within the realm of science fiction and horror. The first was 1969's THE WITCHMAKER and the last was 1975's A BOY AND HIS DOG starring a young Don Johnson. Sandwiched in between was 1971's THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (in which both actors also appeared in), a piece of cinema which was riding on the occult/Satanism film craze, spawned by the success of ROSEMARY'S BABY.
The story has Ben Holden (Charles Bateman, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE), his young daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl, best known as the impostor Jan Brady from "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour") and his gorgeous girlfriend Nicky (Ahna Capri, ENTER THE DRAGON) driving through a desert town on their way to grandma's house. After the shocking site of car-crushed dead bodies, they alert the panicked townsfolk of their discovery. It seems as though there's a force that's cutting the town off from the outside world. Residing in a community that resembles a dilapidated Mayberry, the always interesting Jones is the sheriff, while Moore is his goofy deputy, and it still seems like he never left "Green Acres." Ben and his family are at first thought of as suspects, but after most of the local adults are found massacred, and since they can't leave anyway, they stay and assist in any way that they can. At the same time that the adults are found dead, their children have all disappeared, and soon after, Ben's daughter is also missing.
In the midst of all this we learn of a coven of mostly elderly Satanists (obvious shades of ROSEMARY'S BABY) secretly lead by the town doctor, played by Oscar winner Strother Martin. Since the late Martin barely got any horror parts (SSSSSSS and NIGHTWING were still years away), it's good to see him hamming it up in flashy red Pagan gear. THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN is definitely a moody, creepy little PG-rated film that keeps the monsters and demons unseen while still delivering the chills. Utilizing shadows, fog and unusual camera angles, it boasts some clever ideas, such as children's toys working as murder devices, but I don't want to give too much more away.
Like their rivals Hammer Films, Britain’s Amicus Productions was able to establish themselves as prime providers of the macabre for thrill-seeking moviegoers in the 1960s and early 1970s. With 1964’s DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, Amicus found their niche in anthology (multi story) features, and the second of an ongoing series of these was 1967’s TORTURE GARDEN, released theatrically in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures. Like DR. TERROR'S, the film was directed by Freddie Francis and again featured Peter Cushing, and the screenplay by Robert Bloch (who previously scribed Amicus’ THE SKULL, THE DEADLY BEES and THE PSYCHOPATH) was adapted from his own short stories.
TORTURE GARDEN commences at the carnival exhibit of Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith, THE SENTINEL), who after his ghastly stage act, invites a handful of patrons to a back room for further excitement, showing them glimpses into what wicked events the future holds for them. Each stares into the "shears of fate" of a motionless fortune teller called Atropos (played Clytie Jessop, whose unusual look was also well-utilized in Hammer’s NIGHTMARE), and in a nice touch, the image of her face is seen somewhere in each of the yarns that ensue.
In “Enoch,” Colin Williams (Michael Bryant, GIRLY) visits his elderly uncle’s (Maurice Denham, COUNTESS DRACULA) home, trying to get a hold of his gold coin fortune. When he refuses to hand out any dough, Colin takes away Uncle Roger’s medication, and the old man drops dead soon after. Now tearing apart the house searching for gold, he discovers a cat buried with a human skeleton in the cellar’s ground. The sly animal is able to communicate with Colin and lead him to the fortune, but in return it demands that he conducts a series of murders, as his will is now totally under control. The episode also features Niall McGinniss (NIGHT OF THE DEMON).
In “Terror Over Hollywood,” struggling actress Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams, DEVIL’S ANGELS) double crosses her roommate and ends up on a date with a tinseltown bigwig, leading to her meeting producer Eddie Storm (John Phillips, THE MUMMY’S SHROUD) and heartthrob actor Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton, THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE), who seemingly hasn’t aged despite being in the business for decades. Soon she discovers the secret of his longevity, and knowledge of this could prove deadly. Hutton was actually a Hollywood lead in the 1940s, but by the 1960s ended up in British exploitation films until his retirement. Let’s just say he’s perfectly cast here when you discover what his character really is. This segment also stars Bernard Kay (TROG) as a crazed surgeon.
Arguably the weakest segment in the film, “Mr. Steinway” has blonde journalist Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE) going to the home of timid concert pianist Leo (John Standing, THE PSYCHOPATH) for an interview. The two quickly fall in love, and despite the advice of Leo’s agent (Ursula Howells, the she-wolf in DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS), they accelerate their romance, subtracting from his time behind his grand piano, which is named Utopie. It seems the piano becomes jealous of the relationship and takes revenge as best as a bulky wooden instrument on wheels can!
The best episode, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” has obsessed Edgar Allan Poe collector Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance, CRAZE) running into ultimate Poe collector Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) at an exhibit. Although he refuses any monetary offer for anything in his collection, Canning invites Wyatt to his home in the States, and needless to say, he salivates over all the priceless items he sees. After an evening of boozing, Wyatt is taken to Canning’s cellar, where he finds unpublished manuscripts by Poe mysteriously written on new 1966 paper. But the ultimate discovery is yet to come!
Bloch’s stories here are far from flawless, and none of them are all that shocking. But as a whole, TORTURE GARDEN is an entertaining film, with Burgess Meredith’s Dr. Diablo holding things together, and his sinister performance (with a number of costume changes) is slightly reminiscent of his rendition of “The Penguin,” from the “Batman” series (which was airing at the same time as this film’s release). Of course the last segment is a treat not only to see stalwarts Palance and Cushing together, but also for the eerie unveiling of Poe himself, as played by Hedger Wallace (THE OBLONG BOX, SON OF DRACULA, and also in THE CREEPING FLESH), whose resemblance to the famous author is almost uncanny. It’s nice to see Hammer bit player Michael Ripper in a rewarding supporting role, and Don Banks and James Bernard (in one of his few non-Hammer scores) provide the terrific, moody music.
Following their memorable turn in the popular HORROR EXPRESS, scare cinema superstars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee followed it up with another triumph, THE CREEPING FLESH. An enthralling mélange of science fiction, gothic horror and themes of madness, the handsomely-produced THE CREEPING FLESH is one of the duo's last great films together and one of the finest in director Freddie Francis' resume.
In Victorian London, scientist Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) returns from New Guinea with an incredible discovery, that of a giant, prehistoric skeleton. While washing one of its fingers, the exposure to water causes veiny flesh to grow on it, coaxing Emmanuel to sever it and take some blood tests. Creating theories about the origin of his discovery, he creates a serum from its blood, believing it will act as an antidote against evil. Before fully testing it, Emmanuel injects his neglected daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron, THE GIRL IN A SWING), who has just discovered that her mother (Jenny Runacre, THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH) had only just died, even though she believed her dead for years. Since Penelope's mother was insane, Emmanuel fears his daughter will inherit this trait, but of course, his desired intention of injecting her goes haywire.
Emmanuel's half-brother James Hildern (Christopher Lee, SCARS OF DRACULA) is a rival scientist, competing for a noted medical prize. Running the local insane asylum, Emmanuel's wife had died in his brother's care, and after being injected with said serum, so has his drastically changed daughter. When James finds out about his brother's fantastic discovery, his coldness is calculated and ethics go out the window as he arranges to have it stolen. When the towering bag of bones (sans a finger) is let out in the rain, the "evil one" once again walks the earth.THE CREEPING FLESH was produced by young Michael Redbourn, a sound/dubbing editor who had worked on some of Gordon Hessler’s AIP horrors (THE OBLONG BOX, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, CRY OF THE BANSHEE) with the intent of being a return to the glory days of Hammer and Amicus, and as the film was released at a time when the great era of British horror was about to close, it fully succeeds at what it set out to do. Financed by World Film Services, the project was brought to the attention of horror/exploitation specialists Tigon (headed by Tony Tenser) and they released it theatrically in the U.K. with Columbia picking it up in the U.S. The easily recognizable soundstages of Shepperton Studios make for a visually lurid depiction of the seedier areas as well as the upper crust residences of Victorian London, and this is heightened by the cinematography of Francis’ expert cameraman Norman Warwick, who also shot TORTURE GARDEN and a number of other British genre classics (including THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE). Paul Ferris, who composed the music for a number of Tigon horrors but is best known for WITCHFINDER GENERAL, turns in terrifically haunting score.
THE CREEPING FLESH can be accused of possessing a convoluted story (there's a lively subplot involving an escaped mute lunatic played by Kenneth J. Warren, DEMONS OF THE MIND), but the screenplay by Peter Spenceley and Jonathan Rumbold is fresh and original. The chemistry between Lee and Cushing is at its peak on the screen and both (Lee top-billed with less screen time) are at the top of the form. Lovely Lorna Heilbron is excellent as Penelope, transforming from sweet and innocent to mad and deadly magnificently. It's a shame she didn't do any other genre films, with the exception of Jose Larraz's recently-rediscovered SYMPTOMS. Though Freddie Francis took many a directorial job as just work, it seems his heart was in this one. THE CREEPING FLESH is on par with Francis’ most memorable Hammer and Amicus efforts, and includes some of his best camera set-ups—namely the use of distorted lenses to suggest a character's descent into insanity and a point of view shot from the inside of the monster's gooey skull cavity (similar to what he did earlier in Amicus’ THE SKULL). Speaking of Hammer, fans will be delighted by bits by several Hammer vets, including Michael Ripper (who also re-dubs the voice of a policeman here), Duncan Lamont (FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN) and George Benson (HORROR OF DRACULA), and Hammer make-up man Roy Ashton also worked on the film.
As for the quality, all three movies have been put on one Blu-ray (something sure to give a number of fanboys pre-purchase jitters) but rest assured, the overall quality here is quite good. As mentioned, Mill Creek previously released THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN on Blu-ray (on a double feature with William Castle’s MR. SARDONICUS, which they’ve since re-released on Blu with HOMICIDAL), and the solid transfer looks the same as it did on the previous disc. The 1080p HD image is presented in a 2.40:1 Techniscope aspect ratio. Visually, the colors are perfectly solid and bright, and the source print is in excellent shape with very few imperfections, only some minor speckling. Black levels are generally good, while textures remain satisfyingly filmic with a study coating of light grain to prove it.
Like Sony’s previous DVD release of TORTURE GARDEN, this version runs about 100 minutes, seven minutes longer than the previous VHS release. This longer restored version includes more opening moments with the Dr. Diablo character (garbed in an executioner’s hood) showing off his various torture devices. There is also more footage of him giving a ranting speech before staging a victim’s death by electric chair. The rest of the restored footage is during the “Terror Over Hollywood” segment, including the onscreen murder of the Mike Charles (David Bauer) character. TORTURE GARDEN is presented in 1080p in a fitting 1.78:1 aspect ratio (though the back of the Blu-ray mistakenly lists it at 2.35:1). This is a considerable improvement over the DVD. Overall, the image is very sharp with great clarity that brings out the subtle lighting and neutral colors (accurate, if somewhat subdued) of the original production. The transfer is very clean, while black levels are solid and the grain structure is tight. The textures in the skin tones are most impressive in close-ups, while hues bend to the darker side (a common trait of 35mm Technicolor prints of the period) without the least bit of loss in detail.
The HD treatment given to THE CREEPING FLESH also results in a significant improvement over Sony’s previous DVD release, and it's presented in 1080p HD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (though the back cover has it at 1.85:1; don’t freak out boys, it only means there’s a sliver of extra picture information on the top and bottom to fill HD televisions). From the start of the film, on display is tight, filmic grain (no artificial “waxing” has been done on any of the three titles here) with colors being consistently sharp. Fine detail is abundant, black levels are deep (no signs of crush) and the original elements are nearly flawless in that they show no significant speckling or other defects. Night scenes are timed right in that they properly showcase darkness without drowning out picture detail. All three features have perfectly fine 2.0 English tracks, but there are no subtitle options for any. There are no extras on the disc, but the cover insert is reversible (see above photo), with a more desirable layout showcasing poster art for each of the three films (as well as a spine that lists their titles rather than just “Psycho Circus”). Well worth the under-$10 asking price. (George R. Reis)
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