Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon, 1973

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A lot of effort was put into this movie, it’s easy to see that the people who made it really, really cared about it. Unfortunately, the resulting movie isn’t worth it.

As Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon opens, a reporter travels to Middle-Of-Nowhere, France, to interview the head of an asylum about his radical new techniques in treating the insane. Much weirdness follows during the tour (which takes up more than half the narrative), with the doctor assuring the reporter that he follows the very latest theories of not only Dr. Tarr, but also of another esteemed thinker, Professor Feather.

By the time of the big reveal, the only person who is actually surprised that this is a lunatics-running-the-asylum picture is the reporter. The rest of the story follows him as he tries to escape, while also saving a rather fetching young lady, and to help the now-imprisoned guards and doctors regain control of things.

So it’s not really a horror movie, at least not in the sense that it tries to frighten or thrill the audience. It does have creepy atmosphere going for it, and is exceedingly baroque in what it presents and how, but…

Well, first of all, the story and characters just aren’t interesting. Yeah, the tour offers up plenty of weird stuff, and the loony who’s not really the head of the asylum hams it up something fierce, but there’s nothing going on other than the tour. ((OK, not exactly correct — there are brief scenes out on the grounds of the asylum, but that’s not what I’m getting at. )) There’s no story, per se, no reason the reporter is here, nothing to his character other than to be taken on the tour and act interested or nonplussed.

There’s no subtext, either, except perhaps in the most sledge-hammering, bluntly unsubtle style of allegory, comparing the asylum to 1970s society, and Mexican society in particular (this was produced in Mexico). But if that’s it, and I’m not even going to guess whether it is or not, it is not organic to the story and, in fact, has no bearing on the story at all. Knowing that there was would in no way deepen the experience of the movie, nor add to enjoyment of watching it.

It’s not that interesting, it’s not really any fun at all, and it tries very hard to be weird, without trying at all to have a point.

But, like I said, the people who made this obviously cared about it.

The production design is outstanding. The asylum appears to have been an 1800s-vintage factory that was neglected for a long, long time. It’s rotten and rotting and dirty, giving the entire picture a sense of unease, of being off-kilter.

The camera work, too, is superior, with framing, composition, and the lengths of individual shots showing no small thought or effort or pre-planning. Even though the print that Mill Creek uses is atrocious and cropped, the fact that a lot of thought and care went into the camera work shines through.

But it’s just not owrth watching, except as a pure time-waster.

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