The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism / The Torture Room / Castle of the Walking Dead / The Blood Demon / The Snake Pit / The Snake Pit and the Pendulum / Pendulum / Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (1967) -***½
How can you turn down a movie with a title like The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism? I sure as hell can’t. We have here something extremely curious. It has often been observed that numerous parallels exist between the 60’s-vintage output of German and Italian exploitation studios (for example, both countries produced large numbers of stylish, violent westerns, and I’ve heard it argued quite persuasively that the Italian giallo and the German Krimi are two sides of the same coin), but to all appearances, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism represents a deliberate effort on the part of German filmmakers to copy directly a lurid Italian gothic. It plays like a moron version of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” as adapted by people who’ve seen both Black Sunday and Bloody Pit of Horror a few too many times.
It’s impossible even to guess when this movie might be set, beyond to say that it’s a long time ago. The costumes look like the result of a headlong collision between the 1760’s and the 1880’s, the soldiers we’ll soon see standing guard in the village of Andomai’s public square are armed and equipped for the Napoleonic Wars, and the execution we’re about to witness is straight out of the 14th Century. The subject of that execution is Count Frederic Regula (Christopher Lee), owner of the old castle outside of town. Now chances are screenwriter Manfred R. Köhler chose that name in the hope that we’d all end up shaking in our boots because of the strong phonetic echo of that other count Lee was so famous for portraying, but to my ear, it sounds more like a small, characterless Japanese sedan: “Drive the new Nissan Regula— now with standard side airbags!” Regardless, Regula has been convicted of doing horrible, fatal things to a dozen teenage girls, and he’d probably still be at it if Number 13 hadn’t slipped away from him. Just his luck, the presiding judge happens also to be the escaped girl’s cousin, and that personal touch probably has something to do with why the court foregoes the usual beheading, and has Count Regula quartered in the public square instead. (Everybody who mentions the execution says the count was drawn and quartered, but the drawing— slitting open the victim’s belly and pulling out his intestines with an iron hook— never occurs.) And just so that everyone can tell immediately what will ultimately come of this bloody business, the judge begins by having a guy who looks exactly like the Crimson Executioner hammer a spiky-backed metal mask (which amusingly looks a lot more like the ubiquitous yellow smiley than it does like Barbara Steele’s Mask of Satan) onto his face.
35 years later, some old guy with one leg keeps himself busy by roaming the countryside with what amounts to a giant comic strip, regaling anyone who comes within earshot with the tale of Count Regula’s bloody reign of terror and even bloodier demise. Among the listeners we see him ensnare (on two separate occasions, apparently in two separate places) are a lawyer named Roger Montelise (Lex Barker, from The Return of Dr. Mabuse and The Invisible Dr. Mabuse) and a young noblewoman named Baroness Lilian von Marienberg (Karin Dor, from The Carpet of Horror and The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle). It simply must be significant that Montelise looks exactly like the judge who passed sentence on Count Regula, while the baroness looks exactly like the girl whose testimony brought him to justice. Sure enough, Gimpy subsequently delivers letters to both Roger and Lilian summoning them to Regula’s castle for a discussion of their family histories. Montelise knows nothing of his own background (one assumes he was adopted as an infant, although the point is never made explicitly), so this is a big deal for him. I’m not really sure what the appeal is for the Baroness von Marienberg, however.
Roger is very surprised to find that nobody in Andomai is willing to talk to him about Count Regula, or to give him directions to the castle, but I hope you won’t be. Once he finally receives some measure of cooperation from an old hermit (which is to say that the hermit tells Roger where to find the castle, but assures him that it has lain ruined and abandoned for more than three decades), he and his coachman (Dieter Eppler, of The Head and Slaughter of the Vampires) unexpectedly take on a rather ribald priest named Father Fabian (Vladimir Medwar, from Castle of the Creeping Flesh), who is passing through town headed approximately their way. Montelise also has a quick brush with the baroness, who is traveling in her own carriage with her handmaid, Babette (Christiane Rücker, from Playgirls of Frankfurt and Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks).
The journey to Regula’s place is an eventful one to say the least. First, Montelise and company catch up to Lilian’s coach just in time to witness an attack on the women by a band of mounted, black-clad bandits. Roger and Fabian hurry to the rescue, but only after the brigands have made off with Lilian’s driver. When Montelise learns that he and the baroness share the same destination, he suggests that she and Babette ride on with him and the priest. All goes well at first, but then things turn ugly again when the sun goes down. Nightfall catches the travelers way out in the middle of a reputedly haunted forest, and the driver is tormented by eerie visions in the fog. When the road leads into a grove in which seemingly every tree has a hanged body dangling from at least one of its limbs, the coachman declares that he’s had enough, and brings the vehicle to a halt. While Roger and Fabian argue with the man, those black-garbed riders return to abduct Lilian and Babette, killing the terrified driver while they’re at it. The remaining two men give chase as best they can, and they soon find themselves in what was once the courtyard cemetery of Regula’s castle. Further investigation turns up the tumbled remains of the outer walls, confirming the truth of the old hermit’s words. But then a steel-lidded trapdoor swings open, seeming to beckon the men down into the old dungeon, which is far better preserved than anything above ground level.
Once down below, Roger and Fabian (the latter of whom reveals himself at this point to be not a priest, but a highwayman disguised as clergy) are herded through the subterranean corridors by a series of doors, gates, and portcullises that open and close through no visible agency. Eventually, they reach a large chamber decorated with murals inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, where they are greeted by Anathol (Carl Lange, from The Face of the Frog and Creature with the Blue Hand), Count Regula’s trusty manservant. Lilian and Babette are there, too, but the baroness acts as though she literally is not herself— Montelise suspects (rightly) that the wine Anathol offers his guests is drugged. Drugged wine is the least of anybody’s worries, however. Anathol was hanged while his master was quartered, and the life he now exhibits is the product of the Count’s diabolical alchemy. Regula killed his victims because he had discovered that the blood of thirteen virgins could be concocted into a serum bestowing eternal life, and evidently the twelve-virgin discount version has considerable potency as well. Anathol imbibed some of the unfinished elixir before he was put to death, and he has spent the past 35 years wreaking the count’s vengeance upon the families of his victims and killers alike. Roger and Lilian are the last living descendants of anyone involved in Regula’s execution or in the crimes that provoked it, and now Anathol is ready to restore his master to life. Roger is to die beneath the traditional Poe pendulum, while Lilian will take her lookalike ancestor’s place as provider of the final key ingredient for Regula’s immortality potion. The living dead men are sure Fabian’s and Babette’s deaths will offer at least a few hours’ entertainment, too, even without any direct bearing on the Grand Plan.
Christopher Lee spent a large fraction of his career proving that nothing was so far beneath him that he wouldn’t at least consider tossing some name-recognition its way in return for a couple thousand pounds and an excuse for a working holiday in Continental Europe. Hammer might have been his main meal ticket during the 1960’s, but the man had to find something to do in between turns in the old Dracula cape, right? The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is one of the sillier films Lee made on the far side of the Channel, but also one of the most entertaining. Furthermore, it’s one of the relatively few in which the producers more or less got what they must have paid for— in stark contrast to, say, The Virgin of Nuremberg, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism casts Lee in a part the importance of which is something like commensurate with his skill and reputation. To be sure, there are moments (the climax… my God, the climax) when Lee sinks to the level of the material rather than elevating it toward his own, but Count Regula is a fairly substantial B-movie villain, and Lee’s performance is for the most part a worthy one. And although much of the film plays almost like a more innocent warm-up for Nude for Satan, a couple of scenes (most notably the ride through the haunted forest) have a bit of honest kick to them. I highly recommend The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism for any fan of European schlock and nonsense, 1960’s-style.