Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Fordyke Saga


A panting Edina Ronay makes for a memorable opening to THE BLACK TORMENT. The Anglo-Hungarian daughter of food critic Egon and mother of actress/writer Shebah, Edina was noteworthy for her fleeting turns in A STUDY IN TERROR and PREHISTORIC WOMEN. In the mid-70's she retired from the screen to take up fashion design, specialising in knitwear.

TAKING its cue from Hammer's costumed gothics, Compton's THE BLACK TORMENT is an underappreciated gem that also draws upon the aura of Mario Bava and the eloquent staging of Roger Corman's Poe pictures. Set in the spring of 1780, the film opens with a young woman fleeing across a nocturnal wood, as a murderous assailant gives chase. After being attacked and left to die, she utters the name ... Sir Richard! Days later, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns to his Devon estate with second wife Elizabeth (Heather Sears). Although he has been away in London for three months, villagers claim to have seen the aristocrat riding through the woods, chased by the spirit of his first wife Anne, who supposedly committed suicide four years previously. With Sir Richard increasingly being manipulated into an alleged ancestral madness - including finding his crippled father hanging - he turns to magistrate Colonel Wentworth (Raymond Huntley) to help him solve the mystery. The final revelation is less a surprise more a sign-posted but illogical confirmation: this particular backward "evil twin" brother can not only rape and pillage, but place detailed orders to a Tiverton saddle maker.

The posters for THE BLACK TORMENT went into hyperbolic overdrive: "terror creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic"; "the screen shudders with raw and violent savage suspense!"; " the screaming terror of a woman's fear" et al. Underneath this barrage you actually get a richly rendered production filled with solid performances (though Turner often subscribes to Elizabeth's line "Oh Richard, you're overwrought") and meticulous supporting players such as Peter Arne (whose trademark swarthy villain is a role identical to his appearance in THE HELLFIRE CLUB) and Patrick Troughton (who appears as a stable groom). A colour long associated with sensations of infinity and imagination, cinematographer Peter Newbrook smothers the film in languorous blue, and as Jonathan Rigby argues in English Gothic, perhaps a more apt title would have been THE BLUE TORMENT. Known for his moving camera and zooms, director Robert Hartford-Davis was indulging in his lush sets and costumes - including the obligatory low-cut frocks - until an on-set visit from the studio's wheeler-dealer partners Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser. Compton had already committed to a number of projects so budgets were tighter than ever, and after running three days behind schedule, allegedly Tenser ripped out ten pages from the shooting script in front of the director and proclaimed "there you are, you're back on schedule."

No comments: