“TORTURE CHAMBER” (Movie Review)
Horror is a base genre in many respects, as it taps into our anxieties about what’s beyond the door for us all, about death and what–if anything–lies beyond. Shame then, that most genre movies get bogged down in pedestrian plotting, exasperating exposition and trivial twists. The greatest horror films are not steered by their scripts; rather, they are works of sensual alchemy. Martin Scorsese once said of Bava’s work–and I’m paraphrasing–that “Bava made films that bypass your brain and go right to your gut.” Indeed his films, and many of the great works of European horror, trade in visceral imagery and sound design to bring their nightmares to grand fruition. And if you’ve ever had a really juicy, heart squeezing, body sweating, wake-up-screaming-and-pull-the-covers-up-close nightmare, you’ll know that plot, character and dialogue aren’t what gets blasted forever onto your psyche. What strikes you and what sticks with you can’t even find articulation for, it just is.
Dante Tomaselli’s latest film TORTURE CHAMBER is a nightmare.
Tomaselli’s modus operandi is right there in his title, as it was with his even more freeform work of imagination, 2002’s HORROR. He’s not here to divert you with 90 minutes of contrived TV level storytelling with dullard “screenwriting 101” mechanisms, rather he wants to damage your central nervous system, to stimulate that primordial ooze that lies bubbling within all of us regardless of race, class, creed or culture. When he succeeds in doing so, he simply has no contemporary peer. Even SUSPIRIA went out for a smoke with muddled dialogue and laughable plot explanations on occasion. This film never really does. It just sticks to what it wants to do, dedicated and unrelenting with just enough set up to hook you.
TORTURE CHAMBER is ostensibly a kind of American Gothic gone to hell, playing with religious iconography but never actively exploiting them in the kind of ham-fisted fashion that many inferior horror films do. In it, a rather unpleasant little boy sits imprisoned in a shadowy institution because his family believes him to be the victim of demonic possession. They’re right, of course, but the allegory is clear: this is a deeply troubled clan and devil or not, no child would likely emerge unscathed.
When the boy escapes his confinement with the aid of his gaggle of reverent followers, he grabs his kindly art teacher/therapist (the always intense Lynn Lowry who, as usual, delivers a layered, emotional performance) and hightails it to a looming castle complete with a torture chamber. The rest of the film sees images smash upon images as his teacher, family and anyone who attempts to track him get theirs on his body twisting devices.
Imagine Ken Russell directing a SAW film but secretly remaking SALO on the sly, and you get an idea of the eye-opening impact TORTURE CHAMBER has in store. Nobody smiles in Tomaselli’s world, no sunshine is allowed and Catholic guilt is a major allegorical force (no surprise that the director is remaking his uncle Alfred Sole’s hyper-Catholic giallo ALICE, SWEET ALICE next). It’s not an oppressive experience, however. From a purely cinematic standpoint it’s consistently energizing. In many ways, this film, in its own humble, economically budgeted way, is the film that Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM thinks it is: a complete and utter surrender to texture and a deep drop into an audio-visual rabbit hole. The performances run hot and cold, sometimes barely registering (again, save for Lowry who really is one of the genre’s most undervalued actors and an authentically gritty turn from THE SOPRANOS’ Vincent Pastore), but Tomaselli doesn’t dwell on these limitations, rebounding instead with another shuddery visage of wrenched flesh, psychosexual obsession, weird masks or wild-eyed stares coupled with Tomaselli’s own punishing music and wall to wall sound design.
Like any self-respecting nightmare, TORTURE CHAMBER traps its audience in an environment and won’t let them go until it’s finished with them. Many won’t connect with the film, searching for a clear point A-B-C thrust that is simply not there. But those who like to get lost in cinema and allow themselves to take a trip will find this film unforgettable. As of this writing I have no idea when or where you’ll be able to enter Dante’s meticulously designed inferno (I was given an advance screener) but when you get the chance, buckle in, turn down the lights and do it. And be warned…