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Black Torment, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1964
Studio: 
Odeon Entertainment
Genre: 
Horror
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
1.66:1
Directed by: 
Robert Hartford-Davies
Cast: 
Heather Sears
John Turner
Peter Arne
Ann Lynn
Raymond Huntley
Movie: 
3
Extras: 
2
Bottom Line: 
3

1788. Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns, after a three month honeymoon in London, to his family’s ancestral country Cornish estate Thorndyke House, buoyantly ready to present to the household his new bride, Lady Elizabeth (Heather Sears). Excitement at the prospect quickly turns to confusion and dread when Sir Richard discovers that a ‘devilish’ murderer and rapist stalks the nearby village, and that many local people, including some tenanted on his land such as local blacksmith ‘Black’ John (Francis De Wolff), actually suspect him of being the culprit because his name was mentioned by one of the victims immediately before her death. Furthermore, a superstitious rumour has spread amongst muttering yokels that Sir Richard was also responsible for the murder of his first wife (who officially died from suicide after defenestrating herself at the Manor out of guilt for her inability to supply Sir Richard with an heir). Claims that he has been seen during the period he was supposed to be away in London, riding through his estates in the moonlight pursued by her vengeful ghost – a lady in white who shrieks ’Murderer!’ at his fleeing figure – only bolster such suspicions. Upset and confused by these barmy events, Sir Richard becomes increasingly more vexed and irate as incidents multiply, especially when the window from which the former lady of the house threw herself keeps banging open by itself on windless nights, and a wispy veiled woman in white is spotted by Sir Richard himself, waiting at the spot at which his first wife’s body was originally discovered. Such events serve only to reveal a violent temper lurking beneath Sir Richard’s theatrical jollity, further stoking the black rumours now enshrouding his name. Things are to get even more troubling when various locals swear to having seen or even met and talked with Sir Richard when he was in fact elsewhere, including – eventually -- Lady Elizabeth herself!  When Sir Richard’s crippled and mute, stroke-suffering father Sir Giles (Joseph Tomelty) is also found murdered, the head of the local militia, Colonel Wentworth (Raymond Huntley), is brought in to investigate, uncovering what turns out to be a strange and twisted tangle of family secrets, jealousy and betrayals …      

By 1963, Soho businessmen Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger had made considerable inroads in getting their share of the ailing British Film Industry’s increasingly paltry box office take.They’d been making hay during one of the Industry’s periodic slumps with the exhibition of X-rated foreign import movies which they would screen at their Members Only cinema club, later expanding operations into the domestic distribution and exhibition markets by teaming up with the Cameo cinema chain and setting up Compton-Cameo, named after the pair’s offices in Old Compton Street. That move was quickly followed by their first tentative steps into the world of film production, via the financing of a number of cheap independent exploitation flicks funded through Compton’s new subsidiary production arm, Tekli. Each of these somewhat unremarkable early pictures was designed with a specific popular market in mind, their content very much informed by what was proving to be a most popular new crowd-puller for the film world at that precise moment in the 1960s, i.e., sex  …  although Tenser, Klinger and their rapidly expanding retinue of Soho-based writer-producer-director collaborators, which included the likes of George Harrison Marks (“Naked as Nature Intended”) and Gerry O’Hara (“That Kind of Girl”), and house writers Derek and Donald Ford (“Saturday Night Out”), always found ways of circumnavigating the concerns of John Trevelyan -- Britain’s ‘top’ censor during the 1960s -- by re-framing their lurid attempts at titillation, such as “That Kind of Girl” (1963) and “The Yellow Teddybears” (1963), as social interest films -- supposedly tackling great issues of contemporary public concern, such as venereal disease or teenage promiscuity, with an educational remit always in mind!  

‘We decided we had done the sex, or rather the nudie side, and I thought the next thing for us was of course the Horror film,’ Tenser told John Hamilton for “Beasts in the Cellar”, the writer’s history of Tenser’s illustrious career in British exploitation, his comments made in reference to the company’s decision to green light the movie “The Black Torment” (1964). This was the first fruit born of the increasingly successful duo’s plan to enter the mainstream proper by demonstrating the partners’ readiness to take on the likes of Hammer Productions in the one area the Bray outfit had been marking out as its own territory since the latter half of the 1950s, namely the period Gothic thriller. Horror films were not just popular in Britain by this point: thanks in large part to the saleability of the Hammer brand they’d become exportable the world over, and “The Black Torment” was supposed to be the Compton group’s  own launch pad onto the international stage, marking a more active involvement in film production from this point on. Although, in the event, it was to be a relatively unknown Polish director by the name of Roman Polanski who was to end up being the true catalyst for Tenser and Klinger’s big breakthrough in that area, thanks to the acclaim afforded his psychological chiller “Repulsion”, which Compton-Tekli financed.

In the meantime, this initial effort in the more traditional realm of costume drama-based frightners was to prove something of a hit-and-miss affair. Although “The Black Torment” holds some degree of interest for the fan of classic British Horror of the 1960s, both historically and content-wise, it can hardly be thought of as a trailblazing example of its kind. That being said, Compton-Tekli was by no means the first independent producer to chance its luck taking on Hammer at its own game, and with “The Black Torment” Tenser and Klinger did manage to produce a curio that, though it must have seemed derivative even for its time, nonetheless was made with enough panache for it to still pass muster after fifty years as a fairly decent example of the era’s Gothic romance sub-genre, boasting a fair few quirky performances and some decent technical virtues to boot, even if it does lack in genuine excitement for a large section of its run time.

 But it’s also a film that in some respects anticipates many of the qualities of later Tenser-backed Horror productions that have since gone on to be viewed as classics of their kind, specifically “Witchfinder General” and “Blood on Satan’s Claw”: composer Robert Richards, for instance, comes up with an opening main theme that provides lush orchestral colouring for a melody that draws heavily on English folk traditions in the act of providing suitable accompaniment for director of photography Peter Newbrook’s bucolic opening images of autumnal English landscapes,  thus anticipating many of the tonal qualities of the British Horror films that would later come to be grouped together under the banner of Folk Horror. The Basingstoke and Northumberland shooting locations furnish fine country house exteriors and numerous Hampshire-based examples of pastoral idyll or wooded verge that profitably double up as Gothic countryside backdrops for diabolical goings on in deepest, darkest Cornwall. However, Tenser’s commercially minded hands-on approach can be spotted a mile off before we’ve even reached the verdant-looking opening title shots: a pre-credit sting in which a ‘buxom wench’ played by Bardot-lite Edina Ronay is pursued through some Hammer-esque day-for-night woodland scrub by an aristocratic assailant in black riding boots, is the first crass result of Tenser’s insistence on exchanging the 19th century setting of Donald and Derek Ford’s original screenplay treatment, for a date somewhere in the late 1780s -- a change made for no other reason than for the fact that the 18th century justifies a décolleté which is at extreme variance with the buttoned-up empire line of the Regency or Victorian eras but more in keeping with the demands of cheesecake publicity stills!

 Miss Ronay’s sole purpose was to provide plentiful cleavage for the publicity department to exploit in their endeavours to make the film a hit, even though she has no involvement in the plot after the opening first few minutes. However, Tenser’s best efforts stand in stark contrast to the screenplay’s focus on some rather hoary Gothic cliques cribbed by the Ford Brothers from the work of the Brontes and Daphne du Maurier; while the story ends up humourlessly rehearsing a predictable if implausible line on the reheated plots busily being boiled up by Jimmy Sangster for his Les Diaboliques influenced ‘mini Hitchcock’ Hammer thrillers of the same period. Most viewers today will have no trouble figuring out the culprits responsible for Sir Richard’s plight, when –spoiler! -- Sir Richard’s best friend Seymour (and cousin of his dead first wife) turns out to be played by Peter Arne – an actor who seemingly only ever essayed sneering supercilious aristocratic villains in a variety of potboilers throughout the 1960s.

Although the flamboyant theatricality of John Turner’s fruity performance in the male lead role helps to make the predictability of the denouement more bearable, with a nicely staged sword fight and impalement on a pike for the villain to round off otherwise sedentary proceedings with an unexpected jolt of action, the film is nevertheless fairly flat in comparison to Hammer Films at their best: director Robert Hartford-Davies was more influenced by the stately but stylish Italian Gothics that were at the time inspired by Hammer than he was by the Hammer formula itself, taking his cue from the likes of Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti rather than from Terrence Fisher. Despite some terrible notices in the press (The Times review tartly notes how the film’s director ‘has a genius for putting the camera in all the wrong places at the wrong time’) Hartford-Davies does in fact create a fairly accomplished facsimile of the Italian Gothic style here, with his friend and constant collaborator Peter Newbrook working productively with art directors Alan Harris and John Siddall to surround a talky, mostly studio-bound affair with copious visual stimulation in the form of a baroquely decorated (and very turquoise) Fordyke House set. Character actors such as Patrick Troughton and Norman Bird help provide colour to an otherwise quite dry script that forsakes the underlying humour of the Hammer approach, and there is one bravura sequence of (perhaps) ‘supernatural’ confrontation that allows Turner fully off the leash in a most entertaining case of over-acting.  

Meanwhile, veteran of the Soho ‘café scene’, director Robert Hartford-Davies’ many contacts, made in the industry across his twenty-five years as a technician, had been furnishing Compton with a host of talent ever since he first began his association with Klinger and Tenser as a producer. He’d directed, cast and co-produced all of the Compton group’s biggest ‘hits’ thus far, but his determination to produce a beautifully rendered bauble of Gothic splendour on a shoestring budget saw his ambitions get the better of him and the film infamously fell behind schedule soon after shooting commenced, prompting an intemperate set visit from Tenser that resulted in the producer ripping a page from the script for every day Hartford-Davies had over-run (ten in all!). Hartford-Davies almost walked off the film over the incident and never worked with Tenser again after completing “The Black Torment” with editor Alastair McIntyre (whose next project would be Polanski’s “Repulsion”); instead he set up his own production company with Newbrook, Titan International, and went on to direct fascinating exploitation one-offs “The Fiend” and “Corruption”, while Newbrook also became a director, and later helmed third tier Brit Horror ‘classic’ “The Asphyx”.

 Perhaps the main problem with “The Black Torment” is that it doesn’t have the charismatic presence of a Barbara Steele to offset the atmospheric longueurs that were a recurring motif of the ornate Italian Gothic style during the 1960s. Despite being cast for her star appeal after having previously appeared to good notices in “Room at the Top” and “Sons and Lovers”, the British Academy Award-winning Heather Sears’s career was by this point on the way out, and in any case the Fords’ script gives her absolutely nothing whatsoever to do but simper girlishly (making a mockery of her top billing) while John Turner gets on with the main business of smouldering angrily as he’s assailed by faux ghosts and gibbering doppelgangers. However, this new HD transfer gives the movie some much-needed extra pep: previous DVD releases have featured a muddy, washed out full-screen print, but now we have the film restored in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio with a mostly crisp new transfer that is particularly impressive during the interior scenes where Fordyke House’s busy furnishings give the impression of a much more impressive budget than was actually the case. A half-hour of anecdotal memories documented from the set by actors Annette Whiteley and Roger Croucher offer, as the disc’s sole extra feature, an interesting snapshot of this period for jobbing performers working on low-budget British independent movies between stage roles, even if the couple’s limited involvement in the film meant that they weren’t always privy to some of the franker exchanges. Overall, this UK release from Odeon Entertainment will make a very worthwhile addition to the collections of fans of classic British Horror, allowing a much fairer assessment of the film’s relative strengths and weaknesses.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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