Friday, March 27, 2020


Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (aka Mansion of Madness) (1973) d. Juan Lopez Monteczuma (Mexico) (82 min)

Newspaper reporter Gaston LeBlanc (Arthur Hanel), interested in exploring his French ancestry, requests that his editor send him on assignment to a remote country sanitarium using the groundbreaking “soothing system,” where patients are encouraged to explore their emotions to the fullest without discipline, punishment, or confinement. Upon touring the facility, however, LeBlanc comes to the horrifying realization that the mental hospital is actually being run by the inmates and the mysterious and charismatic Dr. Maillard (Claudio Brook) is allowing them to live out their wildest and most bizarre fantasies.

When sitting down to watch a movie called Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon, one can be forgiven if certain assumptions come to mind, especially if the film is 1) independent in origin, 2) made in the 1970s, 3) foreign, and 4) utilizing a relatively minimal budget. In short, we’re expecting the three Bs (blood, boobs, and beasts) and not much more. This was my state of mind as I settled onto the couch, at least. However, as soon as I saw in the opening credits that the director was none other than Juan Lopez Monteczuma (Alucarda), I wondered if I might not be in for something quite different. 82 minutes later, Something Quite Different was what I got. (Cue the Chicken Man!)

Combining equal parts Peter Greenaway’s The Cook The Thief The Wife and Her Lover, Tinto Brass’ Caligula, Ken Russell’s The Devils, Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade, and the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky (with whom Monteczuma collaborated on Fando y Lis and El Topo) which are then forced through a Euro-horror lens of practical locations, crumbling castles, lush forests, cobblestone paths, and bizarre musical choices, this is far from the cheap little Mexican film with a blatant exploitation title on a 50-Movie box set of public-domain titles that I was expecting.

Shot in English and dubbed into Spanish for its home territory, there are numerous extended long takes that are epic in their scope and blocking, with dozens of actors simultaneously moving through the frame, and sumptuous production design that belie Monteczuma’s live theatre background. In addition to being a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (1856), there are any number of literary references to be identified by the sharp of ear, ranging from Dante Alighieri to John Donne to Aleister Crowley and even a nod to Edgar G. Robinson’s breakout screen role in Little Caesar (1931). (According to the Juan Lopez Monteczuma Page, the film won numerous awards at international film festivals in Italy, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, and France.)

As our resident bull goose looney, Brook is absolutely on fire, bellowing and soliquizing to the rafters a la Peter O’Toole, leaving Hansel somnambulistic by comparison, although he does dish a dashing dab of derring-do during the dicey duels. (Say that 10x fast.) There is not much to the female roles assayed by Ellen Sherman and Monica Serna (as Eugenie, the female patient that catches LeBlanc’s eye and Blanche, the niece of the rightful Dr. Maillard, respectively) except to look fetching in and out of their clothing, but both actresses lend a certain amount of gravity to the proceedings. Martin LaSalle lends comic support, which is oftentimes at odds with the serious subject matter, but keeps the air of madness alive during the slower spells. (Be warned: Even at under 90 minutes, this is a leisurely paced venture, sometimes frustratingly so.)

Featured on Roger courtesy of Scout Tafoya’s video series, “The Unloved,” this is an effort at once sleazy and artful, exploitative and contemplative, filled with seemingly gratuitous violence/nudity and yet undeniably sociopolitical just below the surface. It's got rough edges, to be sure, but it's also got passion and heart that comes through as well. While not a film that everyone will love, at the same time, there’s enough here to appreciate and recommend.

Available now on Mill Creek’s Chilling Classics DVD Collection and any number of streaming options.


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