If you’ve been looking for a hearty dose of Euro Trash as of late, look no further because Legend House's latest is a double bill of gothic chills from across the pond. Both films boast iconic cult actors, who despite top billing clock in minimal screen time, and both are brimming with sumptuous set pieces and stunning ladies.
Roger Mont Elise (Lex Barker) is summoned to a small German village to collect an inheritance and hopefully find answers to his uncertain heritage and secure enough funds to start a life without needing a merchant cash advance. Roger has in fact inherited a castle of which the locals are either too young to have any recollection of or are too afraid to discuss. Passing such awkward behavior off as superstitious hokum, Roger hires a coach to take to him to his new birthright. Accompanied by the boisterous pistol packing preacher Father Fabian (Vladimir Medar), the coach unexpectedly runs upon a fellow carriage being attacked by bandits. After chasing off the looters, the men pick up the coach's distraught passengers, the Baroness Lilian von Brabant (Karin Dor) and her servant Babette (Christiane Rücker), who where surprisingly en-route to the same castle as Roger. The women become separated from their party after the carriage driver falls dead of a sudden heart attack, brought on from the ghoulish inhabitants of the surrounding woods. Roger and Father Fabian eventually make their way to the castle where they met up with the ladies again, who have fallen under the spell of the palace master, Count Regula (Christopher Lee). Thirty five years ago, having been found guilty of torturing and killing 12 virgins, Count Regula was adorned with a spiked mask nailed to his face and drawn and quartered. Decades later, with the help of his faithful henchman, Count Regula has lured the last two remaining relatives of the judge who convicted him and the13th maiden whom got away, to complete the deadly process that will grant him life eternal.
Loosely adapted from Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDEL) was West Germany's answer to the series of Poe adaptations being produced by Roger Corman at the time. The film's strongest asset, besides solid performances from Lee and Barker, are its impressive sets. Quaint European villages lined with cobble stone streets set the film in a picturesque and old fashioned temperament that gradually leads into dark and ominous territory as the group must travel through a forest adorned with hanging corpses, populated by trees whose limbs include human arms and legs. As impressive as the forest of body parts is, Count Regula’s castle is a wondrous and imaginative set-up of trap doors, laboratories and various instruments of torture that embody every possible mad scientist cliché. Peter Thomas' score sets a properly eerie tone for most of the picture but there is a scene early on, just as Roger’s coach is beginning its trek to the castle, that the music becomes hilariously upbeat and out of place, as if it were swiped from an Italian sex comedy. THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM is a fun and nostalgic picture that is a throwback to the glory days of basic cable, when every Saturday you where almost guaranteed an afternoon flick full of thrills and chills, introduced by a local personality bursting with charisma and a few bad one liners.
THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM has had a rather tumultuous history with the digital format, finding its way onto DVD under several different labels and titles. All previous releases, such as JEF Films release under the title CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD, have to this point been offered full screen and sometimes edited. Legend House’s presentation is on hand widescreen, in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Although non-anamorphic, THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM is watchable, but falls short of exceptional. Colors are at times soft and washed out, but there are thankfully no major instances of distracting grain or scratches. The mono English dubbed audio is easy to follow and understand. While decidedly far from an idyllic presentation, it is a step in the right direction, and compares favorably to previous releases.
Unlike THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM, whose familiar and linear plot are easy to follow and understand, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER makes little to no sense, but is surprisingly equally entertaining. Greta (Ewa Aulin, CANDY) has fallen ill with amnesia after a sudden and disastrous carriage accident catapults her into the front lawn of Walter von Ravensbrück (Sergio Doria, THE LABYRINTH OF SEX) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo). The couple takes Greta into their sprawling abode and calls for the local authorities and doctor to care for the young woman. After a complete check up by Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski), Greta intends to continue her journey, but the von Ravensbrück's insist that she stay as their guest until her health is more suitable for such travel. Greta begins to grow on both Mr. and Mrs. von Ravensbrück and the promiscuous couple quickly begin to have a secret rendezvous with their nubile visitor behind each other's back. Jealous of her husband's growing affection for Greta, Eva immobilizes her eye-catching guest and bricks her into a room in the bowels of her mansion. With the sudden death of Dr. Sturges and the ghastly reemergence of Greta at a masquerade party, the von Ravensbrück’s quickly discover that their impromptu guest has brought not only passion and beauty to their home, but death as well.
Then there is also something about a lost Incan formula that may hide the mystery of eternal life and it's possible that Greta might even be Walter's sister. Needless to say, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER doesn't make much sense. If you watched the film a dozen times, each time you could draw a different conclusion. The plot cuts back and forth and twists and turns in upon itself as if to mimic the many bulging veins in Klaus Kinski's forehead. Despite its nonsensical story, the film itself is surprisingly inviting. D'Amato pulls off a number of impressive scenes, in particular a montage of flirtation and fornication between Greta, Walter and Eva that spins in such a way to confuse and successfully convey that all three of the participants are getting it on with one another. Granted, this carefully crafted scene follows right after one in which Eva attempts to drown Greta in a bathtub, an act which somehow arouses the lesbian lust in both of them. Ewa Aulin can’t quite pull off the air of mystery needed for the puzzling Greta, but with such attractive eye candy on hand one quickly lets such underperformances slide. And Klaus Kinski, as Dr. Sturges, is always intense even when it’s not really necessary.
Presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER's non-anamorphic widescreen presentation is a step up in picture quality in relation to DR. SADISM. Fleshtones look accurate and the blood spilled bears a solid shine of crimson. Sadly such improvements in its visual presentation didn't roll over into the sound design as well. The English dubbed mono track sounds as if it were recorded underwater. Dialogue often booms and reverberates, and on a whole is a disservice to Berto Pisano's memorable score.
Both films feature audio commentary tracks by Chris D, American Cinematheque programmer and author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, along with Wyatt Doyle of newtexture.com. While the commentary tracks suffer from a bit of background interference, most notably an ice cream truck that sounds as if it has parked in the adjoining room during TORTURE CHAMBER, both are informative and entertaining. The two men cover all the appropriate bases, discussing both films' principal cast of players and touching upon the obvious Mario Bava influences of each. I was particularly fascinated by Chris D's recollection of catching DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER for the first time on late night television and his remembrance of the its opening scenes being completely cut from the televised version. Such edits, which also included obvious exorcisms of all shots of nudity, would have made an already confusing film, incomprehensible. GORE BEAT: Eurotrash Title Mania! is a featurette that follows Johnny Legend as he quizzes people waiting in line to buy tickets to see THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (billed as "7 Golden Vampires") and VAMPIRES' NIGHT ORGY (I would have loved to catch that double bill!) at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A., about the various re-titling of European features for U.S. markets. Particular attention is placed on VAMPIRES' NIGHT ORGY (aka TEENAGE CEMETARY TRAMPS aka VAMPIRE HOOKERS.), COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE (aka THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA aka DRACULA IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN LONDON) and THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (aka BLOOD DEMON, aka THE SNAKE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) all of which are showcased by their appropriate trailers. A trailer preview of previous Legend House releases and a brief ad for newtexture.com round out the disc's extra features. (Jason McElreath)
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