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The Black Torment (1964)

Robert Hartford-Davies, the director of The Black Torment and the certifiable genius responsible for a trio of insane British horror “masterpieces” which, in their own little way, signalled the death of the swinging 60s and ushered in the scuzzy 70s (Corruption, Incense For The Damned and The Fiend), was obviously a man who stuck with a format when he considered it successful. The Black Torment is a far more traditional horror tale than the stuff he would end up creating, but it is an interesting signpost towards the films he would become infamous for. The beginning of The Black Torment is copied practically scene for scene as the opening for The Fiend (with the inclusion of some tremendous gospel music in the latter), as a nutcase in shiny black jackboots stalks a busty young maiden through a dark landscape.

In fact, despite having the overall look of contemporary tales from the Hammer stable - all heaving bosoms, galloping horses, oak panelling and velvet drapes - as The Black Torment progresses the viewer is left in no doubt that there are some singular minds at work here. Bits of it are in rather poor taste, even for a horror film, and there’s a distinct lack of the polite haste which signals the end of most Hammers – this film cranks the hysteria up to 11, and chucks in a tremendously exciting sword fight for good measure.

Much maligned in horror circles, The Black Torment is a minor classic, and is far more exciting than most of its ilk – said ilk being the dozens of tedious costume horrors which proliferated in the 60s whose makers seemed to assume that because they were adding a sheen of “historical” gloss, they didn’t need to put anything remotely interesting into the plot.

Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) has returned from London with his new bride, the simpering Lady Elizabeth (Heather Sears). He’s expecting a warm welcome from his tenants, but gets a comically hostile one instead, his former friend Black John the Smith calling him “son of evil” to his face, and muttering “there are some say you’ve never been gone…”

The avuncular blacksmith goes on to complain of “devilry, rape, murder” and tells Sir Richard’s faithful retainer that before she died, Lucy Judd (the girl being stalked in the opening scenes) was screaming Sir Richard’s name.

The grounds of Sir Richard’s estate are enormous, and it takes a good 15 minutes of the film for them to arrive at his mansion. This journey gives Sir Richard plenty of time to fill his wife (and us) in on the family history – his father has suffered a stroke and only communicates via sign language. Sir Richard’s dead first wife’s sister now nurses him, which, even on first viewing, strikes the viewer as hardly a good thing.

On arrival at the family pile, Sir Richard is all over-enthusiastic bonhomie with his staff and friends, but once again gets greeted with an amount of suspicious eyebrow-raising. And his forced jollity gets thrown out of the window at dinner, when a note appears which has a latin phrase scrawled on it – the family motto. After stomping off and shouting for a bit, he explains to Elizabeth that his previous wife “wasn’t able to give a child. She became deranged… she thought… I hated her. She killed herself by throwing herself from an upper window of this house. So, it (the note) was no greeting to me… it was… a warning! She was found with a note - the first time you eat in this house, our table is graced… with a suicide note!”

Richard goes on to explain that all previous heirs to the estate have been called Charles or Giles – he has no idea why his father broke with tradition and called his first-born Richard.

That night, in a genuinely unsettling scene, he looks from his window and sees a ghostly white figure standing in the gardens, which “for a moment… looked like Anne,” and when he goes to investigate the window where she took her own life, he is surprised by a servant. Every night at the same time, the window blows open, he is told.

Meanwhile in the stables, Elizabeth’s maid is getting to know a stablehands’ hands, but when he leaves, she is attacked and strangled by an (unseen by us) gibbering loon, who she appears know (“ooh, ‘ave you been ‘ere all the toim, sir?”).

The next morning, Richard’s bombastic belligerence (yup, Chris has been at the thesaurus again) reaches new heights of deep-voiced shouting as he discovers an escalating series of unasked-for occurrences have taken place during the night. Not only was his favourite horse taken out, but his new saddle has arrived (he didn’t order one), and someone has had the cheek to have it inscribed with the name of his dead wife…

 

“If they won’t have me taken to the gallows as a murderer, they’ll have me hanged for a warlock, is that it?”

His temper is now stoked to boiling point as he is told by a family friend that the townsfolk have seen the ghost of his wife riding through the woods, pursuing a horseman who looks like him, and screaming one word: “Murderer!” Which would go some way to explaining the reception he received on returning from London.

“If they won’t have me taken to the gallows as a murderer, they’ll have me hanged for a warlock, is that it?” he shouts, Turner's overacting reaching new heights (or depths). On spotting the ghostly figure again that night, Sir Richard gives chase, but ends up being chased (thereby getting suckered into doing exactly what the townsfolk have been saying he’s been doing) and is caught by the militia (painful). He finally gets home to discover from Elizabeth that he’s apparently just left her, seconds ago. “So!” he spits at her. “Even you! Understand? I understand, woman! You have joined this… conspiracy against me!”

He goes to strangle the poor girl (whose dewy-eyed looks of bewilderment have started to grate, it has to be said), but stops himself just in time… what is going on? Is Sir Richard a mentalist? Or is there some ornate scheme going on? Well, of course there is. The Black Torment is basically another retelling of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, (see Amicus thriller And Now The Screaming Starts for an even more bloody, and more supernatural, take on the whole thing) except with blood, guts and ghostly goings-on chucked in at random. And you can bet that that missing family bible has got something to do with the whole mess.

Whether or not you appreciate the growing hysteria, bulgy-eyed dramatics and distinctly obvious clues to the “mysterious” plot that have so far made up the bulk of the film, the ending will have you jumping up and down in your seat. There’s a moment of pure horror when a ghastly murder takes place on the other side of a locked door, and when the whole nefarious plot is finally uncovered, Sir Richard takes part in a tremendously exciting sword fight, the two stunt men going at it hammer-and-tongs, complete with glorious voice-over (“Ugh!” “Why, you…” “Now!” etc). The Black Torment may not be everyone’s cup off tea, but it really is quite wonderful, of its type.

Updated: February 11, 2010

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