Two tales are better than one, so why not four or five tales? That’s the kind of attitude that went into Amicus Film’s highly entertaining anthology series of cinematic horror tales. The British film company known as Amicus was a partnership started by Americans Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky in the late 1950s as Vulcan Productions. They first delved into the genre with the excellent witchcraft thriller HORROR HOTEL (CITY OF THE DEAD) in 1960, but it wasn’t until 1965 that they would unearth their signature winning formula. Amicus’ first anthology, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, finally makes its U.S. digital debut courtesy of Olive Films.
For DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS co-producer Subotsky himself wrote the screenplay, which consisted of five short stories and wraparound segments. In response to why he was fond of Portmanteau horror films, he responded, “So you don’t bore an audience. It’s very hard to find a story that can sustain interest for ninety minutes. In the segment film you can tell four or five stories and each story only runs the length that it should – its natural length. You can make a very fast moving show of different kinds of horror stories and audiences seem to like it”.
When Peter Cushing died in 1994, one television newscaster exclaimed that he would best be remembered for the film DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS. Well, maybe he won’t best be remembered for it, but it’s certainly an impressive and important role (Cushing would star in all but one of the Amicus anthologies). As Dr. W. R. Schreck (the last name is the German word for “terror”) he plays host to five train passengers (Christopher Lee, Neil McCallum, Roy Castle, Alan Freeman and future star Donald Sutherland), telling them of their immediate futures using tarot cards. In the first story, an architect (McCallum, Hammer’s THE LOST CONTINENT) about to do alterations on his ancestral home, is haunted by a female werewolf (Ursula Howells, GIRLY) as a result of a family curse. In the second tale, a family man (Freeman) comes home to visit his wife and child, as all are stalked by a mysterious species of plant life that slowly overtakes the outside of the house (Bernard Lee, “M” from the early James Bond films, makes an appearance here). Thirdly, wisecracking jazz musician Biff Bailey (Castle, DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS) performs his take on forbidden voodoo music he overheard during a secret ceremony in the West Indies, with plans to turn it into a hit record, but he soon regrets it. In the fourth story, Lee plays stuffy art critic Franklyn Marsh, who runs over his nemesis, celebrated painter Eric Landor (Michael Gough, KONGA) with his car; his disembodied hand then seeks vengeance. Lastly, Sutherland plays a new doctor in a small town who is convinced that his beautiful new French bride (Jennifer Jayne, HYSTERIA) is really a vampire.
Fifty years after its release, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS can best be described as “spooky” and that’s meant as a compliment in an old-fashioned sense. Back in the day, this was the kind of movie that the kids at school would be talking about the day after it would air (in New York, Channel 11 used to play it in a prime time slot, sometimes on Saturday night’s Chiller Theater program). So if you were watching this on TV as a youth the 1970s, you likely welcomed the uneasy feeling of being frightened out of your wits from the simplistic yet effective array of scares. One of the more frightening images comes in the Roy Castle segment (which had musician Tubby Hayes ghosting the actor’s trumpet playing). After he returns to England, strange things begin to happen as a result of trumpeter Biff’s deadly plagiarism. When he performs the stolen tune, a huge gust of wind overwhelms the dive he’s performing in, which is quickly vacated by the disrupted audience. When he walks alone home in the sleepy streets that night (spotting a hanging poster for a “Certificate X” film entitled, “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors”), we automatically get the feeling that he’s being followed. The last shot in the segment shows an intimidating voodoo witch doctor drifting into Biff’s flat, and then leaving with the sheet music in hand as a large gust of wind follows him out the door.
The “Disembodied Hand” segment is very eerie, and probably the best of the five stories. Gough is quite good and actually underplays it as the tragic Eric Landor, as his crawling hand remains after his death to follow around and torment Franklyn Marsh (another memorable Lee performance) who just can’t seem to destroy the thing (the effect of the crawling hand is still impressive to look at, and the mechanism was again used in Amicus’ 1973 effort AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, as well as in the “Wish You Were Here” segment of their 1972 hit TALES FROM THE CRYPT). Even after it’s tossed into a roaring fire, it’s still at it at, and it eventually causes Franklyn to lose control in an auto wreck, thus making him blind (Landor is an artists who lost his hand to Franklyn’s malice and could no longer paint, so the critic then loses his sight -- poetic justice pure and simple, though brilliantly applied to this short story). As usual, Freddie Francis’ direction is tight and free of silliness, but it does have some welcomed humorous touches. Comic relief comes into play several times. Castle’s character is constantly making cracks about the voodoo he shouldn’t dare mock. Also, Lee’s art critic is shown a piece by an unidentified painter, and when the artist is revealed to be a chimpanzee, he is humiliated in a gallery full of spectators. The last segment (“Vampire”) is a haunting tale that also turns out to be a clever farce. Dr. Bob Carroll (Sutherland) stakes his vampire wife after one of her nightly attacks as advised by his colleague/friend Dr. Blake (Max Adrian, THE DEVILS). When the police arrive, Blake does not play up to be his alibi, so Carroll in turn is accused of murder. Blake then looks at the camera and confesses that the town is too small for two doctors and two vampires. He then transforms into a bat and flies away!
With the 1945 Ealing Studios classic DEAD OF NIGHT (considered to be the greatest horror anthology film by many) as clear inspiration, Subotsky’s theory is partially visible here. The first two segments are not as good as the final three, but on the whole they’re all enjoyable. Cushing’s character of the German-accented Dr. Schreck is what ties the tales together. He foretells the future fates to the five doomed travelers and each story unfolds as what will occur after they exit the train. At the conclusion, we find out that Dr. Schreck is really Death and that all five men are dead. They exit the train and follow him into a world of darkness. The idea of Death as host would also come to play in subsequent Amicus anthologies, with the formula being successful enough for them to continue doing them over the next ten years (ending with 1974’s FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE). Amicus also produced a number of single-plotted scare-fests, but with the multi-storied and boldly-titled horror opuses, they were able to compete with rivals such as Hammer and Tigon by employing the finest actors for short periods of time, as well as avoid the expense of period settings and costumes. Shot at Shepperton Studios, DR. TERROR’S not only used Hammer Films stalwarts Cushing and Lee and Hammer director Francis, but also such Hammer personnel as make-up man Roy Ashton, music conductor Philip Martel, assistant director Bert Batt and second assistant director Hugh Harlow. The score by Elisabeth Lutyens is absolutely wonderful, not only being appropriately creepy, but also highlighting some of the more stirring occurrences in the film with considerable moodiness.
Never before available on DVD in the U.S., Olive Films’ long awaited Blu-ray release of DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS comes just in time for Halloween-time viewing, and it’s also being issued on standard DVD. The film has been licensed from Paramount and is presented here in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD. The transfer is generally excellent, with superb colors which really stand out, especially in showy scenes (like the nightclub bits in the “Voodoo” segments). Detail is most impressive, accurately displaying the careful cinematography of Alan Hume. Contrasts are excellent, fleshtones also impress, and black levels are always deep. The image is consistently sharp, with only a few softer instances (mostly during dissolves), and the source elements used for the transfer are in pristine condition with grain structure maintained well, giving a welcomed filmic appearance. Featured is an excellent English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which has good range: clear dialogue and a fine replication of the eerie music score and upbeat jazz tunes by Tubby Hayes. No subtitle options are offered.
As one would expect with an Olive Films release, there are no extras on the Blu-ray, not even a trailer. The U.K. company Odeon Entertainment is currently offering a region free steelbook Blu-ray edition of the film which features a new “making of” documentary for those who want to seek it out as an alternative to this barebones release. (George R. Reis)
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