Saturday, December 26, 2009

BLACK TORMENT (1964) d. Robert Hartford-Davis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

As time passes, what once was a staple interest of people becomes passé as fresh and more exotic pastimes replace the old standbys. As a child, I saw the final days of the joy of collecting and playing with marbles. I was transfixed by the seemingly endless assortment of agates, cats-eyes and other styles and by the myriad sizes that could be obtained. While I was a boy who tended to be more interested in “active” pursuits, playing with marbles was a pleasure in which I would occasionally indulge when the more contemplative side of my nature emerged, the same side that motivated me to build models and to illustrate science fiction scenes. I can no more imagine children today playing with marbles than I can envision them drinking Moxie. Just as that carbonated beverage of another era is an acquired taste, one of the most popular genres of film from bygone days has also become somewhat of an “offbeat delicacy” to modern masses, the Gothic Thriller. Once, that type of motion pictures thundered across the cinematic landscape like the buffalo, but now is just as rare and not nearly as fascinating to the young mind as the plains-darkening herds once were. Gothic novels and movies seem “quaint” and “old-fashioned” and perhaps they are. Sadly, an entire series of generations will likely miss out on this once proud genus, for this type of movie is just not being made anymore, and most would just pass by something like BLACK TORMENT. It is a shame, for while not an outstanding film, BLACK TORMENT is entertaining and even a little informative when it comes to old mores and fashions.

BLACK TORMENT is the story of Sir Richard Fordyke and his lovely new bride, the Lady Elizabeth. Sir Richard has just returned to his family estate after more than three months of sojourn in London. During his return and once he arrives, whispers and rumors begin to spread that it is Sir Richard who is to blame for the recent rape and murder of the daughter of one of his tenants. Before long, eerie incidents and ghastly goings-on cast even deeper suspicion over Sir Richard, a man whose first wife Anne died under mysterious circumstances and who now may be haunted by her spirit. Sir Richard’s sanity comes under assault as a doppelganger seems to be perpetrating new crimes, or is it Richard himself and he can no longer control his mind and body? Only the servants know the truth in this convoluted tale of 18th Century duplicity, murder and revenge.

BLACK TORMENT starts off a bit slowly and winds its way through a narrative that has more in common with Gothic soap operas like DARK SHADOWS than it does a horror movie. By the mid-point of the tale, the drama begins to escalate and the pace picks up, weaving in very delicate threads akin to ghost stories, mysteries and romantic suspense. While some may not make it to the pay offs late in the film, BLACK TORMENT does deliver some pleasant “shocks and surprises” that may seem obvious to the modern, cynical audience, but are still quite enjoyable and charming none-the-less. The plot is both predictable and yet gripping, and it is only in the last acts that some of the “knowing looks” of the villains tip off “who done it”. It is the wonderfully dramatic overacting coupled with the atmosphere of the film that helps to make BLACK TORMENT a very satisfying experience. Just as with an 1960s English, Regency Romance, the performances are meant to be a little “over the top” and when stitched together with the sumptuous costuming, attractive and even opulent interior sets and the emotively archaic score, there is a deeply authentic feel to BLACK TORMENT. While not the grandiose spectacle of the typical early 60s Hammer Films production, this British cousin still radiates a charm all of its own. The aristocratic men are dashing and suave, the peasants thoroughly rustic, the ladies bedecked and coiffed beautifully and just as impressively heaving out of their scoop necked décolletage. From the overly dark “day for night” scenes, to the cerulean-tinted hues of the evening interiors, to the wide-eyed portrayals of Enlightenment-era characters pushed to the brink of madness, BLACK TORMENT is a delightful admixture of daytime TV and London stage performance that is probably not for the “adrenaline junkies” of today, but I liked it for what it was.

From a technical standpoint, BLACK TORMENT is a mixed bag. The audio is crisp and clean, which is not always typical of early 60s Euro-cinema. While not as gaudily colored as it Hammer Films rivals, there is still a visually alluring element to this flick that probably has more to do with the very competent manner in which it was shot than anything else. Scenes are well-framed and well-composed and over the last one-third of the movie, there are some excellent and creative camera angles that help to intensify the shift in mood and tone. The transfer that Redemption Films had to work with may be the culprit when it comes to final quality. There is a slightly grainy and washed-out look to most of this dvd and the brightness and contrast come and go at times. All too likely, the people at Redemption had to work with either a variety of quality levels for film stock and/or negatives and the end result was uneven, but still impressive. That this none-too-well known film survives at all is notable and from a purely historical standpoint, that is cause for praise. Classic Dr. Who fans will certainly recognize Patrick Troughton as The Ostler in this film. For that cameo alone, BLACK TORMENT has its own fascination.

The bonus features of this disc are thin but better than most dvds that aren’t “special editions” or “big releases”. There are two small stills galleries. One is called “Artwork” and features promotional literature, while the other is a series of black & white photographic stills. There are five Redemption trailers of a wide variety. Strange to say, only one I had seen so far, so that was a bit of a treat. The jewel in the crown was the 13 ½ minute interview with director Robert Hartford-Davis, who died in 1977. The interview was done with “TV legend” Bernard Braden and is a compelling look back at this project and the era in which the interview takes place, which seems to be shortly after BLACK TORMENT was released. Much like the feature itself, from a purely historical standpoint, this is a rare treasure and should be regarded as such.

BLACK TORMENT is certainly not the finest Gothic Thriller I have ever seen nor the best British film has to offer, but it is still worth your time if you have a hankering for “old school” cinema, or looks and sounds of an era long gone, or a story that just doesn’t get told anymore. I doubt that many of today’s young people would find all that tempting, but then again who knows? My 10 and 11 year old students enjoy having J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels read to them and that is as Victorian as it gets. Possibly, we are seeing the pendulum swing back the other way and that more effete times are upon us once more.