The Black Torment (1964) ***
It occurs to me that despite the frequency with which the subject of gothic horror comes up around here, Iíve never really taken the time to discuss what that term meansó or at any rate, what it meant before several decadesí worth of critical imprecision reduced it to a genteel synonym for horror itself. The gothic style is much older than the movies, older indeed than the concept of horror fiction as such in English-language literature. It arose in Great Britain, during the second half of the 18th century; Horace Walpoleís The Castle of Otranto, published circa 1765, is usually put forward as the earliest full-blown example of the form. Even more than most genres, I think, the gothic is best conceptualized as a specific intersection of setting, plotting and character tropes, and theme. Traditionally, most gothic tales take place a long time ago and very far away, with a timeframe of 50 to 200 years before the authorís day being almost common enough to constitute a standard, and with Italy and Germanic Central Europe standing as the favored locales. This minor exoticism served primarily as a means of lightening the burden of disbelief for an audience that was generally assumed to have all the imagination of a tube of hemorrhoid cream, but it was also (at least early on) a stratagem for avoiding the unseemly suggestion that horrible things like those that comprised the typical gothic plotline could go on in cozy and enlightened England. And just what were those horrible things? Stuff like devil-worshiping clergymen keeping innocent, young noblewomen imprisoned in disused monasteries; or sadistic barons forcing innocent, young noblewomen into marriage against their will by threatening violence against their harmlessly insane sisters, and conspiring to have the men they really love guillotined for crimes they didnít commit; or innocent, young noblewomen falling in love with dashing counts and going to live with them in their haunted castles, not realizing that the counts were murdered on their wedding nights and replaced by their evil twin brothers. The gothic story, that is to say, is not a hospitable environment for innocent, young noblewomen, whether it take the form of novel, short story, stage play, or film. Other commonplaces of the genre include ghosts, vampires, revenants, family curses, centuries-long blood-feuds, and men pursued by the consequences of unconscionable things they did in their youth, which collectively point to what I would call the overriding theme of all gothic fiction, however fast and loose its creators might play with the details of the form. The gothic, at bottom, is about the persistence of evil; it is about chickens coming implacably home to roost, and the sins of the fathers being visited upon everybody the sons have ever met unto the third and fourth generation.
As for The Black Torment, itís pretty much British horror cinemaís equivalent to the much older American movie, The Black Room, a virtually perfect encapsulation of everything early gothic literature was about, translated into the medium of film. Itís also an avowed attempt by British filmmakers to exploit the success of Italian imports like The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Ghostó which had themselves been inspired by the overseas popularity of horror films exported from Britain! The Black Tormentís producers, Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, had distributed the aforementioned Ricardo Freda movies as supporting features for two of their homegrown sexploitation flicks, and had turned a tidy profit on the venture. For their next go-round, Klinger and Tenser evidently decided not to wait around for a new offering from Freda, but to make their own ďItalianĒ gothic instead. In effect, they were taking after Walpole himself, who originally presented The Castle of Otranto as a translation of an imaginary Italian manuscript.
Itís the middle of the night, and a blonde girl (Edina Romay, from The Collector and Prehistoric Women) is sneaking through the woods as if somebody were pursuing her. Somebody is. The chase lasts just long enough for the girl to relax a little, evidently believing that she has given her stalker the slip. Then an elegantly clad arm lunges around from behind her, the hand locking itself around her throat.
Two days later, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner, of The Giant Behemoth and Captain Nemo and the Underwater City) and his new bride, Elizabeth (The Phantom of the Operaís Heather Sears), ride into the village of Tiverton, which the Fordyke family has ruled since time immemorial. The reception they receive is not at all what Richard expected, however. Black John the smith (Francis DeWolff, from The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll) is flatly hostile toward the squire when his carriage pulls up to the smithy to take on an extra pair of horses for the steep final climb to the chateau, grumbling vague accusations about a dead girl and a secret early return from the honeymoon. Sir Richard doesnít learn what itís really about until he arrives at Fordyke Manor, where Seymour the steward (Peter Arne, of The Oblong Box and AIPís Murders in the Rue Morgue) explains that a shepherdís daughter by the name of Lucy Judd was lately raped and murdered. The girl was still just barely alive when she was found in the forest, and her last words before succumbing to her injuries were Sir Richardís name. Consequently, there are some in the villageó Black John obviously among themó who believe that their regent lord is responsible for Lucyís death, either by sneaking home a few days early or by using witchcraft to place himself simultaneously in Tiverton and on the road from London. Either way, itís a hell of a thing to come home to.
Now the reason Sir Richard is the regent lord of Tiverton is that his father, Sir Giles (Joseph Tomelty, of Devil Girl from Mars and The Atomic Man), is still alive, but paralyzed by stroke. He canít walk, stand, speak, or move much of anything apart from his hands, and the only member of the household who understands the sign language he uses to communicate is Diane (Screamtimeís Ann Lynn), the younger sister of Sir Richardís late first wife, Anne. Ah, yesó thatís something I should probably have mentioned earlier, isnít it? Sir Richardís first marriage ended very badly, for Anne was barren, and she came to believe that Richard and his father hated her for her infertility. The misapprehension was perhaps understandable, seeing as this is a family that mentions the perpetuity of the line on their freaking coat of arms. Anyway, Anne threw herself from an upstairs window, leaving, by way of a suicide note, a scribbled quotation from the aforementioned family crest. Thus it puts Richard in a foul mood indeed when he learns that persons unknown have sent him a message bearing exactly the same Latin motto.
From that moment until the end of the film, Sir Richard will enjoy scarcely a momentís peace. The villagers with whom he has dealings keep referring to arrangements he never made with them, and swearing that Sir Richard conducted these strange bits of business in person. The members of Richardís household start in on it, too, including even Elizabeth. Somebody keeps taking the squireís favorite horse out of its stable by night, and running the poor beast ragged. Mary (Annette Whitely), one of Elizabethís maids, is murdered the night before she was to ask Sir Richardís permission to marry, and her lover (Roger Croucher) fingers Richard as the culprit. Colonel Wentworth, the local head of law-enforcement (Raymond Huntley, from Symptoms and The Ghost Train), canít ignore an accusation like that, no matter how hard he might scoff at the villagersí insinuations about Lucy Judd. More rumors circulate, now claiming that Richard was repeatedly seen in the woods surrounding Tiverton during his supposed month in London with Elizabeth, fleeing on horseback from the similarly mounted ghost of Lady Anne. And Richard himself begins seeing the specter of his first wifeó once even being chased through the woods by it, just as the villagers describe. Unfortunately, weíve all known whatís really going on since the 27-minute mark, when Elizabethís tour of the Fordyke family portrait gallery revealed that Sir Richardís name broke an heir-christening tradition that the clan had followed since there first was a grandfather for a Squire Fordyke to be named after.
What impresses me most about The Black Torment is that it mostly works even though it completely blows the ďmysteryĒ during the first act. I think the secret to that success is the filmmakersí apparent determination to play every riff in the gothic repertoire that was remotely compatible with the basic premise, to the extent that I quickly found myself relating to The Black Torment less as an individual horror movie than as a how-to guide to its genre. After so comprehensive a catalogue of gothic conventions, it would be almost disappointing if the movie had resolved itself any other way. That said, The Black Torment does have one conspicuous point of divergence from the norm to give it distinctionó although it begins with the expected innocent, young noblewoman marrying her way into danger, Elizabeth is not the focus of the story, nor is she the focus of the deadly conspiracy that haunts Tiverton. Itís Richard the villains want, and Elizabeth isnít even a terribly useful way of getting to him for their purposes.
That being so, even more of The Black Tormentís weight rests on its lead actor than would normally have been the case. Fortunately, John Turner is up to the challenge. Sir Richard is a difficult, arrogant, and often personally unpleasant man, and Turner portrays all that very convincingly while still leaving enough human decency visible for us to feel sort of sorry for the squire in the face of his travails, even if itís impossible to actually like him. After all, it isnít his fault that he was brought up to assume that his birthright as heir to the house of Fordyke includes having his every whim catered to by everyone, no matter how unreasonable it might be. Thereís something disarmingly childish about the way Turner handles Richardís reaction to his persecution, a sense that his increasingly frequent and increasingly bellicose rages are driven by terror at the unaccustomed circumstance of being unable to control his situation. Itís also worthy of note that Turner never acts quite like the hero of this story, even when that would be the natural and obvious thing to do. When the secrets all finally come out, and Sir Richard is forced to mount an active, physical resistance to his tormentors, Turner still hangs onto enough petulance and barely contained panic to show that Fordyke has risen to the occasion only by a very generous standard. Horror movies in general have a rather poor track record for presenting their characters as responding in truly believable ways to the dreadful events that comprise their plots, and the consistency Turner brings to his role does a lot to elevate The Black Torment above what should probably be its natural station.