Is it better to have a movie that is good but boring, or a movie that is not the great but fascinating? And weird? Personally, I prefer the latter. And Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon [AKA The Mansion of Madness] definitely fits the bill.
Included on my 50 Chilling Classics 50-movies-for-$20 boxed set, which turns out to be an ABSOLUTE TREASURE TROVE, I threw this on one night when I still wasn’t tired, thinking it would be total schlock and I would just get a quick sense of it before falling asleep. What a surprise, then, when it turned out to be creepy and artistic and deeply disturbing… just the way I like it… and I knew that I would have to devote an entire evening [or, you know, the 90 minutes before I go to bed] to examining it in detail.
The full title of the movie is Edgar Allen Poe’s Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon. I have no idea how closely this follows the Edgar Allen Poe story, or if it just uses the name and goes off on its own, or of there is a story by that name at all. But who cares, because the movie is such a weird delight on its own.
We begin with this silly voice-over narration about how this reporter loves nature, as he and this woman and this other guy, Louvier, are driven via carriage to the lunatic asylum of Dr. Maillard, who is said to be very secretive and employ unconventional methods. The woman is Dr. Maillard’s daughter. They are driven by bald, mustachioed strongman Henri, who… I want to date. What happened to the bald strongman with a big handlebar mustache of yore? We could definitely use a return of that venerable type in these troubled times.
Anyway, so they approach the gates when they are met by these two armed guards who fix them in their gun sights until this creepy, effeminate circus-emcee figure [a little like Sid Haig’s character in House of 1000 Corpses, but more effeminate] orders the guards off and lets them in. Gaston, the reporter, wanders around for a while seeing various insane people creeping around. At one point he sees a number of inmates circling around a balcony overhead while we hear the cries of shrieking birds. But things are not going so well for his friends. They, I believe, are trying to return in the carriage, when this strange guy jumps out and mops and mows in front of the carriage, until this old monk figure appears and drives him off by yelling verses at him. They are attacked by lunatics, and the woman runs. One of the first super-creepy images, of which there are a great many, is of her face in a pile of foliage as a lunatic looks for her overhead. He passes by, but this other lunatic finds her and utters this awfully bizarre yell, which causes the guy to return and rape her. While he does this, the other lunatic stands over them and bellows incoherently.
So Gaston meets the man in charge of the asylum, who claims to be Dr. Maillard. He leads Gaston on a tour, saying things of the inmates like “This is their home… as much as it is my kingdom.” He gives Gaston the tour as he talks about the innovations of the asylum: they use the heat generated by the lunatics kept in the tower for energy, and concentrate it enough to turn it into a drug that transforms men into id-machines, who enact their wildest whims without violence. Some of the heat is so potent it actually becomes luminous, and will soon be incorporated into the nervous system of a new breed of human. So Gaston—and you—are slowly beginning to realize that THIS GUY IS NUTS, and a very effective tension is starting to rise about where all this is headed and how Gaston and co. are going to get out of there.
Along the way a lot of very effective tension has been generated by the off-kilter visuals. There is one long shot [in both senses of the phrase] looking down an outdoor corridor between two buildings. As the doctor and Gaston walk slowly toward the camera, the doctor spouting weird nonsense delivered in a tone that sounds as though he’s making sense, a group of men fighting each other with sticks gradually moves from the distance toward the camera. Simultaneously, a group of women in the foreground form a line and start skipping in an S-pattern through the men and into the distance. And several visuals are just very striking and the whole thing is very lurid. There is only one other movie on this site where the primary adjective I came to is “lurid,” and that was Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People. This movie was made in Mexico and filmed in English, and a lot of the particularly striking shots do seem to have a Mexican sensibility with big, bold image placement and oversaturated colors. The other thing this reminded me of was the “city of zombies” sequence in, of all things, GYMKATA. I remember thinking “If the rest of this whole movie [Gymkata] weren’t so silly, this part would be genuinely scary.” Well, here’s that part, taken seriously and blown out to movie length.
The doctor takes Gaston to see this man who believes that he’s a chicken, saying “we overlook his antics.” They go down to the dungeon and see a very emaciated old man hanging in the stocks. Then this woman does this incredible nude dance. During this time we have witnessed the friend Gaston came with being caught and bound hand and foot by inmates. He escapes, but since he is bound he has to hop to freedom—and this is accompanied by Disney-esque flutey “Bloop-de-doop-de-doo” music on the soundtrack which is WHOLLY INAPPROPRIATE and very jarring—especially as the scene itself is quite terrifying. It persists every time we see the guy hopping. I guess in Mexico, hopping is ALWAYS funny, even if you’re doing it to escape an unimaginably horrifying fate at the hands of violent mental patients.
Gaston retires, but has visions, including a repeated one of [woman] saying “Gaston, tonight in the garden—please be there.” Gaston wakes and finally confronts the doctor with the fact that he’s not Dr. Maillard, and is locked away, but escapes. He finds his grilfriend, Eugenie on a giant dining table, covered by grapes as though she is to be a banquet. She is delirious, repeating “Father, help me.”
They run into Louvier, tied up, and set him free. Then Gaston and Eugenie NUZZLE for a while as they talk, and by this time I had noticed that Gaston is quite attractive [with a very well-formed nose, chin and lips] that, well, I was into that nuzzling part. There’s not enough erotic nuzzling going on in movies, or in life. Plus, nuzzling is completely safe. But I digress.
Then Gaston has to confront various inmates, and we discover that Louvier is NO help in a fight—and is actually quite a hindrance. It’s a little comical. They both then go around bonking various inmates on the head [a bit like Shaun of the Dead], then are captured. Louvier is thrown into a very packed cage with inmates [scary] where he finds hot muscleman Henri [my TOTAL BF] and the REAL Dr. Maillard! You see, the other fellow led an inmate revolt, locked the doctor away, and took over the asylum.
A lot more goes on, and it’s finally resolved, but I think I’m going to stop there. There are a lot of bizarre inmate parades and such toward the end, and finally everything is resolved.
I was super, super into it. The combination of total weirdness, striking photography, constant scary tension based around what the inmates are going to do next, and the vague off-kilter nature of it due to its being Mexican was quite intoxicating. The director, Juan López Moctezuma, has another, perhaps better-known movie available in America, Alucarda, and now I’m really looking forward to it [and have since seen it: it's good, but I like this one better]. He is said to have been a collaborator of Jorowosky, of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Anyway, if you like it darn bizarre, this movie is for you.
Yes, it’s weird and deeply creepy in the best way imaginable.
ALUCARDA is a slightly better-known movie by the same director, about two women who have a lesbian relationship in a convent, and as such are obviously ripe to be possessed by Satan.