Warning: this is one of those films whose subtext I cannot explain without spoilers, so read at your own risk. Anyway, you’ve had plenty of time to watch this since its release in 1967!
As The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism begins, murdering bastard Count Regula (Christopher Lee) sits in his prison cell about to be quartered. When the judge (Lex Barker) comes to read him the sentence, Regula curses the judge’s descendants. After the execution, which turns into a drawing of itself right as the gore would have begun because this is the 60s, we cut to 35 years later. Roger Von Marienberg (also Barker) and Lilian (Karin Dor) meet on the road in the same village where the execution took place. Both have received letters inviting them to the Count’s castle, like some unfunny version of Clue. It is obvious they both are the children of people the Count is angry at, although this is officially revealed later.
Because the devil is said to live in the woods near the castle, none of the villagers will give them directions, but the group soon gains an affable navigator in the form of a burly highwayman disguised as a priest (Vladimir Medar). Then they begin their fascinating descent into hell, passing a burned-out inn which houses an undead man (Carl Lange) pretending to be a deaf-mute, trees with human body parts protruding from them, a clearing with a gorgeous but foreboding orange sky, and more trees which are filled with hanged men, before reaching the castle.
On the way Lilian is kidnapped, but they find her ahead at the castle tripping balls on some drug administered by the creep from the burned building (actually the Count’s servant) and thinking she is her mother, the Baroness who escaped from the Count at the beginning of the film. They spend the rest of the film trying to beat the also undead Count while enjoying the various tortures in the castle, including a pendulum, snakes, spiders, rats, scorpions, acid, and spikes. The Count in turn has to beat the hourglass, as he only has a short time to finish the potion he began making 35 years before, using the fear and blood of both Lilian and the original murder victims. I enjoyed the look of his lab setup, which appears to be a Dr. Frankenstein special made mostly of enough glass smokeware to make Tommy Chong jealous.
Lillian’s mother was to have been the thirteenth victim, which would have given him eternal life. And now I come to what I feel is the subtext of this film: this film is at its heart a Christian film. I know some of you don’t want to hear this, but many gothic horror films of the 60s were. The Count represents either the devil or the Antichrist. His ceremony must be completed by sacrificing Lillian on Good Friday so that he can have eternal life. This is a perversion of the resurrection story, which of course has Jesus sacrificed on Good Friday so that the whole world can have eternal life. The Count is defeated by the only thing Lillian’s mother had left her, and that was a cross. Also, the man in the priest costume, the thief, risks sacrificing himself to help the others get away, when he could have run because he was not actually one of the Count’s targets. And do you know who loved thieves? That’s right, Jesus.
Returning back to the surface, overall I found this to be a stunning visual experience. It whetted my appetite for more 60s gothic horror, a subgenre which is badly underrepresented on this site. I would buy tickets at Halloween to tour a torture castle like the Count’s, provided it was for entertainment purposes only and they kept the damn spiders behind glass. One of the highlights of the castle set is a series of ghoulish wall murals depicting agonized souls and strange monsters in what appears to be pastels. But besides the sets, the real treat for your eyes is Karin Dor. I know that nearly every horror film has at least one beautiful woman, but this lady has the dark-eyed, mesmerizing look which puts her in a class with Edwige Fenech or, dare I say it, Barbara Steele. I plan to find more of Dor’s movies from the 60s just so I can stare at her.
If I had any complaint at all about The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, it would be that the music is awful. It varied between something that sounds like the hold music you hear when you call the underworld and are waiting to be connected to your party, and one repeated phrase from Wagner’s worst composition. But I realize that every film can’t be scored by an Italian prog rocker. The music didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment.
I leave you with a horror movie rule, which is an addendum to an earlier rule. You know how you shouldn’t go to claim an inheritance from a relative you’ve never met? Similarly, you shouldn’t travel out to the boonies because of a mysterious letter from a strange man who the superstitious locals insist has been dead for 35 years.