“Terrror Creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic! And horror piles upon suspense as evil plunges into…THE BLACK TORMENT.”
Sounds pretty trashy, right? Like the excessive hyperbole associated with some deservedly forgotten exploitation film from decades past. Well, that assessment is half right: THE BLACK TORMENT is almost forgotten but not deservedly so.
Though the title suggests 1960s Euro-trash (it sounds like a German film imitating an Italian film imitating a British film), this Gothic mystery-thriller is somewhat better than its name suggests, and it actually does hail from Great Britain, exhibiting many of the qualities we associate with Anglo-horror films from that era: solid production values, good actors, atmospheric locations, and a serviceable story line. If you are a fan of classic British horror, looking for something in the same line as Hammer Films (if not as good), then THE BLACK TORMENT is worth checking out.
After a prologue in which a young woman named Lucy (Edina Ronay) is seen desperately running from an unseen attacker, the story has Sir Richard Fordykie (John Turner) returning to his ancestral mansion with his new bride Elizabeth (Heather Sears of Hammer’s 1961 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). The homecoming is marred by accusations: witnesses claim to have seen Sir Richard pursued at night on horseback by the ghost of his previous wife, and the murdered Lucy died with his name on her lips.
Though hardly a happy homecoming, this opening effectively sets the stage for what follows. The various apparitions, murders, and bumps in the night that follow are mostly by-the-book stuff, but our interest in the plot actually hinges on the increasing tension wrought by the suspicions against Sir Richard. The viewer is continually wondering, “How much worse can his circumstances become?” And the answer is always “Much, much worse!” This engenders our sympathy for the protagonist, regardless of the mechanical plot twists. Yes, Sir Richard is a privileged member of the aristocracy, but all things considered he’s reasonably affable and fair-minded – especially under these trying circumstances – and all the poor guy wants to do is introduce his bride to her new home – but circumstances just won’t let him!
THE BLACK TORMENT eventually moves into Gothic territory when the apparent apparition of Sir Richard’s late wife appears – a white figure first glimpsed through an upper story window, from which she leaped to her death. The tension ratchets up as Sir Richard orders the haunted window barred – only to later find the bars rent asunder – after which the frustrated lord pursues the ghostly figure in a nifty midnight horse ride that nearly ends in Sir Richard lynching by the local superstitious populace.
As in most films of this type, the mystery is whether the supernatural element is real or faked. Early on there is a clue that might offer an explanation for the appearance of his ghostly wife, but the other issue – the witnesses who supposedly saw Sir Richard while he was actually miles away – leaves some room for doubt about exactly what is going on.
At least for a while. The pacing of THE BLACK TORMENT is just slow enough to give viewers time to put all the pieces together before the film actually delivers the big revelation. On the one hand, one has to give the script credit for playing fair, presenting the clues that tie together; however, if the film had only moved a little more quickly, it might have reached its conclusion a step ahead of the audience.
Nevertheless, the film sustains its mood even when the mystery dissipates. We never lose our concern for the predicament suffered by Richard and Elizabeth, and even if you can figure out the basic of the plot, there are one or two details that remain elusive until the end – which unfortunately gets a trifle silly in its effort to work a sword fight into the climax: several by-standers literally stand by during the entire fight – including officers of the law. Oh well, at least the villain(s) get what he/she/they deserve.
Besides Sears, fans of 1960s British horror will note such stalwart supporting players as Patrick Troughton (THE SCARS OF DRACULA, DOCTOR WHO) and Francis De Wolff (also seen in 1964’s DEVIL DOLL). THE BLACK TORMENT is a decent example of what was being produced in England at the time: the directorial style is straight-forward but effective, using the visual materials (costumes, sets, locations) without ostentatiously showing them off. The suspense builds effectively, and the spooky moments (the midnight ride, the discovery of the broken bars) are nicely realized – just enough to send a pleasant shiver down one’s spine.
So, BLACK TORMENT is no lost classic, but it is decent genre entertainment. The film is available on DVD from Redemption Video, a company that usually specializes in sleazy Euro-trash. THE BLACK TORMENT is much less lurid, which may decrease its perceived value among cult film enthusiasts, but fans of old-fashioned thrillers will enjoy a pleasant surprise.
THE BLACK TORMENT is generally overlooked in the usual reference guides and horror history books; in fact, your humble reviewer had never heard of it until embarking on a diligent search for 50th anniversary titles from 1964.* This obscurity is somewhat surprising: although the film does not have the most illustrious pedigree, it was produced by Tony Tenser, who would later give us such memorable horror efforts as Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1961) and Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). THE BLACK TORMENT does not deserve the same exalted status, but neither is at an embarrassing skeleton in Tenser’s closet.
Except for Tenser, the behind-the-scenes talent did not go on to any great achievements. Director Robert-Hartford Davis does not have any other memorable genre credits. Co-writer Derek Ford ended up doing nudie comedies such as THE CASTING COUCH, though a year after THE BLACK TORMENT, he and his brother Donald did collaborate on the interesting screenplay for A STUDY IN TERRROR, which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper.
THE BLACK TORMENT (Compton Films and Tekli British Productions, 1964). Produced by Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger, and Robert Hartford-Davis. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis. Written by Derek and Donald Ford. 85 minutes. Unrated. In color. Cast: John Turner, Heather Sears, Ann Lynn, Peter Arne, Norman Bird, Raymond Huntley, Annette Whiteley, Francis De Wolff, Joseph Tomelty, Patrick Troughton, Edina Ronay.
- THE BLACK TORMENT did not reach the U.S. until 1965. However, it debuted in its native England in 1964.