CAPSULE: THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967)

AKA Castle of the Walking Dead

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DIRECTED BY: Harald Reinl

FEATURING: Christopher Lee, Lex Barker, Karin Dor

PLOT: Count Frederick Regula sought eternal life by sacrificing thirteen virgins, but he only made it up to twelve before the authorities nabbed and executed him; years later, descendants are haunted by his spirit, contrived by a sinister inheritance.

Still from The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (1967)

COMMENTS: First, let’s get Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” out of the way. It’s a very short story serving as an exercise in building suspense through dread. There’s no plot to it; it is literally a stranger in a cell menaced by various torments until he’s rescued by a deux-ex-army at the end. Take note, lest you think I disrespect the Master of the Macabre, that Poe himself would go on to mock his own story with the satirical A Predicament, about a curious woman getting slowly decapitated by the sharp minute hand of a clock. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is about a man getting slowly sliced up by a descending blade. If you want to blow this up into a whole movie, you’re going to have to pad it out. Well, Poe does mention (“Nobody expects… !”) the Spanish Inquisition, so there’s our padding right there.

So now that we’ve dialed our expectations back from Eurotrash to Euroschlock, we can start with the pleasant surprises. The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is actually a stylish (but very outdated) Gothic-period horror flick of the kind that Hammer Films, Amicus Productions, and Tigon were cranking out at the time. In fact, it is exhaustively derivative of the European 1960s horror genre, to the point where you could assemble this movie out of pieces of other movies and get the same result. There’s a mad scientist’s alchemist workbench with bubbling beakers of vegetable glycerin, there’s a carriage ride through the woods with wolves howling in the background, there’s a castle full of deadly booby traps and no OSHA compliance, yada yada. And boy howdy, do they ever love skulls as a decorative element! This movie could serve as a shopping list for a trip to a Spirit Halloween store.

Christopher Lee is Count Frederick Regula, the gluten-free equivalent to Count Chocula. The evil Count is executed for murdering twelve virgins—but this was decades ago, and we switch to the movie time frame proper where Roger Elise (Lex Barker) and Baroness Brabant (Karin Dor) receive mysterious letters inviting them to a castle. One is to receive an inheritance, and the other is just a “find out the secrets of your past” deal. Turns out they each have a connection to the castle’s former owner; Roger is a son of one of the executioners, while the Baroness is the descendant of Regula’s intended 13th victim. You see, the whole murdering-virgins bit was so the Count could achieve immortality by brewing blood into an elixir. Not that Count Drac-oops Regula is a vampire (Christopher Lee playing a vampire? Preposterous!), but because he just dabbles in the black arts that way. Well, he did before he got executed, but never mind all that, because a member of the Count’s loyal staff has sworn to finalize his resurrection plans, and has a whole castle dungeon full of diabolical weapons at their disposal.

Before we get to the castle, there’s a whole half-movie worth of set-up to plow through. First, they have to ask directions, because the letters didn’t include a Google Maps link. All the townspeople have to scowl about the sinister rumors around the castle. Then they have to have a not-quite-trusted monk along for the ride to act as a guide. Then they get waylaid by a gang of bandits on the road, since locking doors for horse-drawn carriages hadn’t been invented yet. We also tour the most haunted woods ever, populated by trees that sprout corpses and skeletons willy-nilly. After all this, the castle turns out to be subterranean, entered via a spiked iron door. Minutes later, we hear the line “I knew it! We’ve fallen into some sort of trap!” Darn it, if only there had been any ominous events and signs along the way to warn us.

On the plus side, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is filled with gorgeous sets and atmospheric practical effects. The performances are capable and even though the whole story is one big Gothic formula, they do the genre proud. One downside is the music, which is way too whimsically “spooky” and lighthearted for the intended tone. The soundtrack becomes a sarcastic commentary punctuating every major scene, like if you had Frank Zappa score a Batman episode. You will also need to rub some liniment oil on your jawbone so you don’t hurt yourself yawning at the dragging pace, despite its 79 minute run-time. This is the part where we’d normally call it a vintage Euro-horror treasure, but let’s be honest: there are so many movies exactly like it that we’d like to sign some kind of Pittman Act where we opt to melt a bunch of them down to reclaim the celluloid. The weirdest thing about The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is its ridiculously misleading title. The promotional art for this film hypes this image, setting you up for an Ilsa She Wolf of the SS exploitation boob-bath. What you get is a hum-drum, if stylish, West German Edgar Allan Poe “adaptation.” We already have so much Poe around here that we have to scrape the raven crap off the index periodically.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an odd one; the basic plot is very familiar indeed, but it has bizarre and decidedly eccentric touches to it.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967)”

  1. Don’t get me started on OSHA. I lost all respect for that regulator when I discovered the “acceptable” foot-candles allowed for office illumination. I spent my final year at my office job in Ray-Bans because the glaring from above was somehow in compliance.

    1. Speaking of messed-up things the government does, my next review is something *besides* midcentury Hammer horror. For a change. This is one of those queue picks where you stop and say, “What? We haven’t covered this one yet?”

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