Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism directed by Harald Reinl
I have written elsewhere about my longtime love for redheaded Italian actress Lucianna Paluzzi, who captivated this viewer back in 1965 by dint of her portrayal of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent Fiona Volpe in the James Bond outing Thunderball. Two years later, another redheaded S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent also caught my fancy: Helga Brandt, Agent No. 11, in the Bond blowout You Only Live Twice. Brought to indelible life by German actress Karin Dor, she remains, 45 years later, one of the sexiest of the Bond “bad girls,” and her death in archvillain Blofeld’s piranha pool is a 007 classic. Well, despite admiring Dor’s performance in this film dozens of times over the years, I have been hard pressed to see her in anything else, other than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1969 film Topaz, in which she plays Juanita de Cordoba, the widow of a Cuban revolutionary … and a brunette, to boot. A happy day for me, then, when I found a DVD containing Dor’s next film after You Only Live Twice, 1967’s Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism.
This German production opens with a scene strongly reminiscent of one to be found in Mario Bava’s 1960 classic Black Sunday, with the Count Regula (played by Mr. Tall, Dark and Gruesome himself, Christopher Lee) getting a spike-studded demon mask impaled into his face, prior to being drawn and quartered. (Barbara Steele, in the Bava film, had had a similar mask sledgehammered into her face before being burned at the stake.) Regula, it seems, had been convicted of slaying 12 virginal girls for their blood, with which he’d hoped to concoct an immortality potion, and before his sentence is carried out, he swears to take vengeance on his accusers. Flash forward 35 years, and hunky dude Roger Mont Elise (Rex Barker) and the Baroness Lilian von Brabant (our Karin, 29 years old here), strangers to one another, meet on the road en route to the Count’s castle, to which they have both been mysteriously summoned…
Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism originally appeared under the title Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, or The Snake Pit and the Pendulum, and as the film’s credits DO reveal, it was (very) loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” It is a remarkable film in many ways, but perhaps most especially for its incredible art direction and set design. The 19th century villages in the film’s opening sequences look absolutely authentic, and Regula’s castle is a thing of ghastly and dreary beauty. Frescoes from Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” decorate its walls, weird sculptures are placed everywhere, a corridor of skulls adds an aura of even greater menace, while vultures, scorpions and tarantulas flap and scurry about in abundance. It is all a total triumph for set decorator Gabriel Pellon.
Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the dreamlike, surreal carriage ride through a nighttime forest before the castle is even reached. Arms and torsos of naked mannequins sprout from the surrounding trees, while hundreds of figures hang in effigy from the limbs in the fog-shrouded moonlight. Kudos to Austrian director Harald Reinl for bringing this sequence home in such an effective manner. (Reinl, it might be added, had been married to Karin since 1954 despite being 30 years her senior, and would divorce Karin the following year. As it turns out, he should have stuck with her, as he was ultimately stabbed to death by his later wife in 1986!)
The picture, true to its title, features several sequences of startling torture; nothing like what is to be found today in films such as Saw, but rather torture that is, uh, fun to watch. In one scene, Lilian’s maid, Babette, is suspended over a bed of knives; in another, Mont Elise is strapped under a razor-edged, swinging pendulum in a rat-infested dungeon; and in still another, Lilian stands on a slowly retracting ledge above the titular snake pit (and a high fall into a nest of vipers would certainly be as bad as being dunked into a piranha pool!). Great, ghoulish fun! Barker and Dor, it must be said, play their parts absolutely straight, and make for a very handsome couple, ultimately. As for Lee, well, he is absent, after that grisly opening scene, for the next hour or so, but his resurrection and gray-visaged, corpselike appearance should certainly linger in the viewer’s memory. Some other items to enjoy in this truly outrageous film: the sometimes jazzy, sometimes outré, sometimes goofy/non sequitur music provided by Peter Thomas; the deliciously evil performance by Carl Lange as Regula’s assistant, Anatol; and still another tasty performance, that of Vladimir Medar, as the jovial “Father” Fabian.
For this viewer, however, seeing Karin Dor in one of her difficult-to-see film appearances was worth the price of admission alone. And even more good news for me: I have just learned that a 1963 Dor picture, The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (also directed by Harald Reinl), has finally made it to DVD. Guess I’ll be heading in that direction soon…