My last torture essay focused on The Raven (1935) and – as much as I relish that juicy melodrama – wasn’t especially kind to it. Here, then, is an attempt to make amends: a study of those tortures in classic horror that remain legitimately horrifying. To simplify (as much as I ever manage that), I’ve divided my argument into three basic points. The whole involves somewhat less Raven-bashing – though a total absintence proved impossible.
First: torture must be hidden away to horrify. The dungeons of the Inquisition are the ideal example – the setting, incidentally, for Poe’s story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, one of the dubious inspirations for The Raven. No attempt was made to translate Poe’s oppressive seclusion: Vollin invites four house guests as additional audience for his torture spree – and, presumably, witnesses to his crimes. This dimension turns The Raven into the equivalent of the public execution: repulsive to be sure, but more straightforward entertainment for the masses; auto-da-fé rather than sheltered dungeon.
The Black Cat (1934) – Universal’s Poe-inspired predecessor to The Raven – did get this principle of hiding spectacularly right. The film climaxes with Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive, but with an admirable reliance on suggestion. The Black Cat invites favourable comparison with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1933), which ends with Charles Laughton suffering vivisection without anaesthetic. In both films, Lugosi is chief torturer, anticipating the cruelty with dialogue that makes the best of his unique grasp of intuitive rhythm. In The Black Cat, Lugosi’s passion is such that he invents a new verb for skinning: ‘Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’s what I’m going to do to you now! Tear/pare/flare the skin from your body! Slowly… Bit by bit!’ Meanwhile, Island of Lost Souls requires no more than Lugosi’s rhapsodic upward inflection as he utters ‘the House of Pain…!’ Both films then proceed to shots of gleaming razors being collected. This is particularly nauseating in Island of Lost Souls, as the razors are taken up by the island’s hideous beast-men. It creates a quite striking contrast of glass and metal – gleaming, polished, manufactured – and beast-flesh – dirty, atavistic, repulsively organic. Much of the terror is that these filth-encrusted beings are not organic but, like the razors, created.
Most importantly, though, both films hide their tortures at the crucial moment. The Black Cat collapses into a chain of shock cuts: the screaming heroine, Karloff’s writhing hand, and a crucifixion-like shadow of Karloff on the rack, Lugosi’s razor merrily flicking away. Island of Lost Souls has the camera discreetly glide away, eventually settling on an exterior shot of the House of Pain. The viewer’s last glimpse of Laughton is of the beast-men swarming in on him. As they block him from sight, the nauseating, Frankenstein-like contrast is completed, the dazzling white suit of Laughton’s civilised scientist surrounded and encased by hairy horrors. Interestingly, both sequences are completed by a scream. Laughton’s scream is an orgasmic hollering, drawn-out and discomforting (but quite in keeping with Laughton’s gallery of sex-haunted monsters, from Nero to Moulton-Barrett to Quasimodo). Karloff’s scream is so bizarre that it seems doubtful it was even performed by the actor: a sudden wolfish eruption, part heave and part hiccup. The early sound film was well-equipped for suggesting its tortures. It clung to the silent cinema’s aesthetic of images teased from shadows, whilst contributing a visceral edge through primitive sound techniques. The interferences of the burgeoning Production Code didn’t hurt either.
Second: torture is more horrifying when women are the victims. There are deep-rooted reasons for this disturbing truth – too tangled to go into here, but probably best distilled in the fact that men are biologically stronger than women. It’s disturbing also to find a general historical bias: whilst the execution and even torture of men often went on in public, it was hidden away when done to women. (For example, female ‘witches’ were seldom left hanging from trees in England. It was thought distasteful that decomposition should produce female nudity. A sadly misjudged modesty.) The few instances of women being tortured in Golden Age horror are downright horrifying. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is particularly vile, with Lugosi (again!) draining the blood of a prostitute bound to a beam in his laboratory. Her ‘rotten blood’ gives rise to misogynistic rantings of ‘You cheated me! Your beauty was a lie!’ and an unceremonious dumping through a trapdoor into the River Seine. Universal may have learned their lesson: in The Raven, it’s Bateman’s outrage at the thought of a woman being crushed to death that leads him to betray Vollin.
Bondage scenarios were commonplace in classic horror – Fay Wray seldom got to the end of a film without being tied up – but interestingly it was usually men who were tortured in this context. The best example is The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), in which the naked torso of the young hero is stroked and ogled – across multiple scenes, beautifully photographed in the MGM house style – by Karloff’s gently gay Fu and his whip-crazed daughter. For a film about romantic obsession (one inspired by Poe, no less), The Raven is, by contrast, almost bashfully sexless.
Even unrealized horror tortures depended more on sadistic women torturing men. In 1933, John Balderston was planning all manner of whip-and-chain scenarios for Dracula’s Daughter (1936), none of which made it into the film:
The use of a female Vampire instead of male gives us the chance to play up SEX and CRUELTY legitimately … We profit by making Dracula’s Daughter amorous of her victims … The seduction of young men will be tolerated whereas we had to eliminate seduction of girls from the original as obviously censorable.
Unbelievably, bondage was also considered for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Still in existence is a detailed story treatment called ‘The Captured Prince’ (the link provides some eye-opening production information). Yet the gendering renders the torture a mild thrill rather than an out-and-out horror show.
At the outset of the sixties, however, actress Barbara Steele became the centrepiece for two of horror cinema’s most nightmarish tortures. Bava’s The Mask of Satan (1960) opens with Steele tied to the stake, swearing vengeance on her tormenters as they prepare the eponymous iron mask. As the mask is brought forth, there comes a striking subjective shot of its inlaid spikes. Finally, the mask is hammered onto Steele’s skull with ghoulish zeal. There’s a quite startling attention to the resulting putrescent outpour – an effect repeated in Bava’s stomach-churning use of poached eggs to suggest regenerating witch-eyes.
Even more effective is the ending of Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The film’s survivors stand atop a dungeon staircase. Their intention is to close the dungeon up for all time: ‘No one will ever enter this room again.’ Leaving, they close the door behind them. Then the camera whips round to an Iron Maiden. Steele’s still-living eyes gaze, catatonic, through the device’s window. Fadeout. Credits. The film’s climax has been so packed with event – notably a certain outsize pendulum and Vincent Price running amok in full Inquisitorial dress – that the viewer has forgotten Steele’s dilemma completely. It’s an exquisite variation on torture by suggestion (now set in a literal Inquisition site), with the viewer’s imagination left to complete the agony.
The gender problem is central to the tortures in both films. Each torture is (in part) a punishment for untamed female sexuality: vampire-witch seductions in The Mask of Satan, adultery in Pit and the Pendulum. This is accentuated by the dual horror of constraint and penetration (by tapered iron spikes) that defines the tortures, an unpleasant sexual analogy. But most effective is the focus that both films provide the eyes, ensconced and engirdled in medieval wrought iron. There is no more emotive image to sum up the human pain at the experience’s centre.
Third: torture is most horrifying when it makes least sense. Now, The Raven very often fails to make sense, but in a way that draws attention to its absurdity. How, for example, has Vollin constructed his numerous industrial torture devices? Why is his modest American house undermined by a cavernous medieval dungeon? What made him such an idiot as to attempt all this – and on the flimsiest of justifications? Regrettably, the answer to all three is that The Raven is just an assembly-line potboiler. Yet the best of the Golden Age horrors (such as The Black Cat, made by the same studio only a year earlier) transcended mere formula to become genuine classics. As Karloff later commented on The Raven: ‘Here was an attempt to pile on the thrills without much logic.’ The Raven presents Vollin as a supreme egotist: early on, he describes himself as ‘a god – with the taint of human emotions’ (conceited devil). But to truly threaten, torture has to represent something much more threatening, and much less explicable, than one man’s ego. George Orwell’s 1984 is an excellent example of this orchestrated senselessness. The tortures of Room 101 can’t be traced to any one individual – least of all the shadowy Big Brother, who, like Goldstein, may not even exist. The ambiguity is central to the horror.
With The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973) – two artful proto-slasher films starring Vincent Price – much comedy comes from the tortures making an over-abundance of sense. In each film, the murders follow a pattern delineated by a canonical literary source. The Abominable Dr. Phibes seizes on the Bible’s Ten Plagues of Egypt. It’s appropriate to the god-like aura of Phibes himself, a being neither living nor dead who smites down those who invoke his wrath. Memorably gruesome is a re-engineering of the frog-plague as an oversized frog mask at a masquerade – a mask fitted with a device that makes it tighten, inexorably, about the victim’s throat. Cue much writhing and blood-splattering.
Theatre of Blood improves on even this, in harnessing the god-like delusions of (certain) actors. The film has an old Shakespearean, Edward Lionheart, pick off his critics with murders culled from the Complete Works. This is a pedant’s darkest dream: beheading from Cymbeline, cannibalism from Titus Andronicus, even burning alive from the little-known Henry VI. There are also a few tortures that never made it into Shakespeare – such as a version of The Merchant of Venice where Shylock finally gets his pound of flesh.
Yet the Price films commit so thoroughly to their premises that they become disturbing as well as funny. Price’s supreme gift as a horror actor was in portraying fanaticism. He pushed his characters to the limits of self-parody – and then kept on going, where meeker actors feared to tread. So committed are Phibes and Lionheart to following their literary sources, that they pass into the vale of a frightening internal logic. This is aided by the parallel plotting in both films, alternating between scenes of gaudy bloodshed and the surrounding police investigation. These investigation scenes are funnier than even the murders, with the arbiters of law and order expressing baleful admiration for Price’s homicidal genius. Particularly good is a one-liner from Ian Hendry in Theatre of Blood: ‘It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.’ The Raven never quite makes the same leap; Lugosi never quite grasps the joke of fanaticism and runs with it. Had he been equipped to do so, Price would have had a hard act to follow.
In closing, it’s worth acknowledging the project that’s provoking these sadistic ramblings: In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, West End. I urge you to book your tickets as soon as possible. I’ve the distinct feeling it’ll provoke more varied and searching reflections on suffering than any number of Bela Lugosi films.