“By thunder, sir, you’ll pay for that insolence!!”
The above is not an exact quote from this Tigon chiller, but it might as well be. If you’ve come looking for a proper, old-fashioned Brit horror yarn, one that pays no heed to the turning tide nor cinematic trends, and remains firmly within the traditions of good old-fashioned gothic terror, country ‘ouses and sinister blacksmiths an’ all, then you’ve found it in The Black Torment- one of ‘those’ films which, back in the 80s, illuminated ITV and thus many a night of teenage boredom.
From the opening scene, you know what you’re in for, as a blonde ‘wench’ pegs it through a forest somewhere between Slough, Staines and Shepperton, seemingly fleeing from some unknown assailant. Her fate is about as sealed as yours: hers immediate bloody death, yours almost 90 minutes of utter cheese that should warm the cockles of one’s heart on a cold winter night in front of a roaring log fire.
So, what’s it all about? Put simply, something horrible is going on down on the homestead. Sir Richard (John Turner) has returned home to the family pile with his new wife, the bounteous yet frail Elizabeth (Heather Sears) and is therefore rather miffed when, instead of he usual prodigal’s welcome, he receives the cold shoulder from all and sundry, especially his blacksmith (Francis De Wolff) a sullen type at the best of times, who won’t talk politely to him, and seems to be under the impression that his master never left the area in the first place.
Allegedly, ‘Sir Richard’ has been seen riding through the woods at night with his late wife’s white-clad ghost in pursuit, crying ‘Murderer!!’ at his mare’s galloping heels. Which of course, he swears he hasn’t, and we are inclined to believe him. Oh, and, lest we forget (sort of key to the matter, really), some local girls have been murdered. Otherwise, riding around on horseback in the dark would, by itself, not exactly be an arrestable offence. Anyone who’s seen the later Sith Iffrican chiller HOUSE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Ray Austin, 1971) will know what’s going on here, not that I intend to explain it in any detail, nor that seasoned horror fans will have difficulty working it out for themselves. Let’s just say that the term ‘scooby doo horror’ never felt more apt. Not that this is in any way a bad thing.
The late Robert Hartford Davies was a director of considerable skill, and though it’s strange to see him working in gothic melodrama here, as opposed to his usual urban/modernist metier, he takes what could easily have been formulaic, hoary old subject matter and manages to inject it with enough zing, venom and downright nastiness (not to mention some sterling photography from that stalwart of Britsploitation, Peter Newbrook, who manages to make even the day-for-night shots seem bearable) to keep us interested. The plot (revealed as the evil handiwork of Derek and Donald Ford, up to their usual mischief but without the smutty bits) may be more predictable than a Stenhousemuir away result, but to invoke the old adage, ‘it ain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it’.
Some may have chosen to cover the cracks with flashy photography or cheesy SFX: not in this case. Instead, THE BLACK TORMENT makes up for whatever it may lack in originality or believability with a stellar ensemble cast that any right-thinking horror director would have chopped his own nadge off for. Just look at the names- Ann Lynn (stunning as ever) Peter Arne (shady and clandestine as usual) Norman Bird (always a pleasure), Raymond Huntley (I wonder if Compton-Tekli knew they were casting Britain’s first Dracula?), Annette Whiteley (fresh from GIRL ON APPROVAL, and definitely a contender for the ‘where the hell are you now’ files), the aforementioned DeWolff, Patrick Troughton (YES!!), Derek Newark (DOUBLE YES!!), and in his final role, Joseph Tomelty. There’s even a bit-part for future stalwart Edina Ronay, seen here hitting the trash trail early on in her career as the first victim- or at least the first that we see- of the (not-so) mysterious ghostly fiend. Bloody ‘ellfire, with actors like that, and the directorial/scriptwriting talent involved, who needs a plausible plot?
Admittedly, the ‘stars’ are probably the weaker links in the chain. Turner, a man obviously hired when Tenser and Klinger realised they couldn’t afford Christopher Lee, and therefore instructed to shout and bellow as much as possible, was never the most prepossessing of leading men, and makes a less sympathetic hero than his better-known counterparts, although he does his best given the material he has to work with He never actually shouts ‘Oons!! Thy rakish knave!’ at any point, but always looks as if he’s about to, and by the final reel you almost find yourself wanting a Sir Richard Fordyce spinoff series. Almost being the operative word.
Sears, on the other hand, makes a bit of a wet heroine, to the point where you’re not really all that bothered what happens to her as long as there are plenty of bloody deathings and an exciting climax- a relative term, of course, as nobody watches these films for thrills and suspense anymore, although sometimes one could be forgiven for wondering if they ever did. But we have to remember, without wanting to sound like a Guardian reader, that these films were written, produced and directed by men- and, it was hard then even for a top-billed actress to assert herself and develop her presence in a role that effectively acts as a mere foil for the hero, so she can be easily absolved from all blame. Veronica Carlson, Peggy Cummins and Hazel Court all suffered similar fates, so at least she’s in good company. Such was ever the nature of the commercial horror film.
Despite its well-trodden subject matter (already dated in 1964) the film can still be viewed as an entertaining one- not a cinematic work of art in the style of Polanski’s REPULSION (ironically, released the same year by the same producers, who I’m sure were happier churning out standard genre productions of this nature than they were working with the decidedly more arty Mr P) but a damn fine ‘rollicking romp’ all the same. Sadly, this style of filmmaking has become known with hindsight as ‘high camp’, a term which, as a horror fan, I find snobbish and disrespectful- but if one is honest, there is enough eye-rolling, overacting, swashbuckling (the penultimate scene culminates in a swordfight atop the baronial staircase, complete with handily-positioned axes) and general braggadocio on offer here to qualify that description.
Of course, to a certain type of viewer (well, me, to be honest) these are all requisite criteria for enjoyment of a film (when in the right mood), and all the protestations in the world won’t do a thing to change it. At least once a year, I find this world of blue ceilings, tiled hallways, frilly cleavage and ridiculous wigs extremely alluring, not to say every bit as irresistible as CAPTAIN KRONOS or COUNTESS DRACULA. Not that it’s all as cosy or quaint as some may make out: there’s a genuinely unpleasant and chilling death scene involving a disabled character and their wheelchair, which still engenders a slightly queasy feeling some 25 years after I first saw it, and one sequence which, if you’re easily freaked out by the sight of hooded, faceless, sheety things in the dark, you won’t be watching alone in a hurry.
Released on DVD by Redemption/Image, but now available as part of the Best Of British collection from Odeon, and shown periodically on TV, where most readers will have glimpsed it, it’s neither rare nor hard to see, thus diminishing its status among collectors, but then again, rarity is hardly a guarantee of quality, as anyone who’s sat through DISCIPLE OF DEATH, THE SNAKE WOMAN or WOMANEATER will confirm. For fans of a very particular type of horror, it’s no less than the definite article. To others, merely nostalgia incarnate, perhaps of the type they’ve been trying to forget. For best results, view through haze, as best achieved by several glasses of port and plate of something savoury, cigars optional. A film, it would seem, for chaps and chappesses everywhere. By thunder, Sir, indeed.