Today: February 24, 2024

Portmanteau Horror Two

By Edward Boff – To make the release of V/H/S, Edward Boff continues his celebration of the Portmanteau Horror. So draw the curtains, switch out the lights and join Ed as he delves into the bloody guts of the studio that became synonymous with the format: Amicus, The Studio That Dripped Blood …

By Edward Boff

To make the release of V/H/S, Edward Boff continues his celebration of the Portmanteau Horror. So draw the curtains, switch out the lights and join Ed as he delves into the bloody guts of the studio that became synonymous with the format: Amicus, The Studio That Dripped Blood …

Amicus was a production company run from a portacabin out
the back of Shepperton Studios and formed by a pair of Americans, Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg. The studio was notable in many ways,
but their lasting legacy has been their horror anthology which took their
inspiration from Ealing’s Dead of Night
(which Subotsky called “The greatest horror film ever”). The format was actually a smart move on
many levels, not least because that it meant that the films could have a very
impressive cast list but, as the actors were only needed to film their segment,
the talent wouldn’t break the bank.
So, along with this cunning business plan a whole slew of titles were
created. Let’s take a look…

Dr. Terror’s
House Of Horrors

The first anthology centred around Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing), a tarot reader who
reads the supernatural (mis)fortunes of his fellow passengers on a train. Neil
McCallum
faces a werewolf, Alan
Freeman
is menaced by a living vine, Roy
Castle
steals music from a voodoo ceremony, Christopher Lee is tormented by a disembodied hand, and Donald Sutherland comes to think the
new missus is a vampire. The most successful story is most certainly Christopher
Lee’s, and the linking narrative works well, with a twist end that you’ll
probably see coming but is well executed (although many other Amicus titles
would end on a variation of it).
It’s far from their best but it’s a fun little film that’s a good place
to start.

Torture
Garden

For this and the next two instalments writing
duties went to American horror author Robert
Bloch
, who wrote the original novel of Psycho. The link has Burgess Meredith as Dr. Diabolo (hmmm, wonder what his big secret
is?), a carnival showman who reveals people’s fates. Michael Bryant discovers
that the secret of his rich uncle’s wealth was a demonic cat. Beverly
Adams
finds out why the Hollywood elite never seem to age. Barbara
Ewing
is threatened by a jealous piano named Euterpe. (?) Finally, Jack Palance and Peter Cushing are rival collectors of Edgar Allan
Poe, and Peter’s got something to top everything. This is definitely one of the weaker of the series, although
the first story has a good sense of dread and the final story has a great
premise with fine acting to back it up.

The House
That Dripped Blood
(Main Picture)
Amicus really starts to get into its stride here,
with this film following various people who have rented a house and all of whom
have suffered a strange fate. Denholm Elliot is a writer haunted by
the murderer he’s created for his latest book in by far the eeriest segment. Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland are both drawn to a waxwork that reminds them of a
love lost to both in the only segment here that’s a bit of a letdown. Christopher Lee is a father who’s
extremely strict with his daughter, barely letting her have any toys, although
he has a very good reason why. Finally, Jon
Pertwee
is a temperamental horror film star, finding himself actually
becoming a vampire, getting some very funny dialogue (such as dismissing
“that new fella” playing Dracula).

Asylum
This has probably one of the best linking stories
Amicus offered and it’s extremely well directed by Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker. At a mental institution, new doctor Robert Powell is told by director Patrick Magee that if he wants the job,
he must work out which of the patients is the insane former director, Dr.
Starr. In the patient’s testimony,
Richard Todd murders his wife,
cutting her into pieces, only for the pieces to not stay dead. Barry
Morse
is a tailor who receives a very strange commission from Peter
Cushing. Charlotte Rampling tries to convince everyone that it was a friend
of hers, Britt Ekland, who was
responsible for her being sent to the asylum, in the film’s weakest section
(you’ll see how this ends a mile away!). Finally, the last story actually
overlaps the linking story, as Herbert
Lom
has been experimenting with animating puppet versions of himself
through force of will. It all ends
with quite a clever solution to the mystery of Dr. Starr, and Amicus’ most
chilling ending.

Tales From The
Crypt

For Amicus’ new source material, they turned to the
legendary EC horror comics of the 1950s, which were of course later revived in
the ‘90s for the TV series. Ralph Richardson is a not-so cadaverous
Crypt-Keeper who passes judgement on the characters here, keeping with EC’s
morality tale format. Joan Collins murders her husband on
Christmas Eve but there is a witness in the form of a murderous Father
Christmas. Ian Hendry decides to abandon his family to start a new life but
ends up doing so in a very different way that intended. Peter Cushing gives a heartbreaking
performance as a nice old man across the street pushed way too far on
Valentine’s Day. Richard Greene and Barbara Murray find an idol that grants wishes but trying to avoid
the mistakes made in The Monkey’s Paw causes even more trouble. Finally, Nigel Patrick is a cruel director at a home for the blind who
pushes the patients into coming up with an inventive revenge for his
callousness. There’s not a duff
story here, making this perhaps Amicus’ second best anthology.

Vault Of
Horror

The second and unfortunately last EC adaptation,
since EC’s head honcho Bill Gaines was apparently unhappy with the end
result. It’s still not half bad,
apart from the linking story seeming more of an after-thought than ever. Daniel
Massey
kills his sister for an inheritance but get’s a very sticky end when
he picks the wrong restaurant for a post-murder meal. Terry-Thomas
marries Glynis Jones but his nagging
and neatness wear on her sanity. Curt Jurgens decides to steal the
secret of an Indian rope trick but the rope has ideas of its own. A faked death scam is interrupted by
medical students Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies. Saving the best till last, Tom Baker is an artist who uses a form
of voodoo to get back at those who cheated him.

From Beyond
The Grave

Often regarded as Amicus’ masterwork, and
deservedly so, the stories here come from British horror writer and editor Roland Chetwynd-Hayes. The link is an antique shop run by
Peter Cushing, giving a very sly performance (on selling a snuff box; “I
hope you enjoy snuffing it.”).
David Warner gets a mirror
that contains a malevolent spirit that forces him to kill. Ian
Bannen
becomes friends with father and daughter Donald and Angela Pleasance,
who have a strange gift for his family.
Ian Carmichael is told by
eccentric medium Margaret Leighton
that he has an elemental on his shoulder.
Finally, Ian Ogilvy gets an
antique door that leads to a spirit realm created by a 17th century warlock. All the stories work, there’s a lot of
creativity to all of them, the actors fit like a glove and it’s very well
directed by newcomer Kevin Connor. It’s definitely the best and, if you
only check out one of these films, make it this one.

The Monster
Club

This tells of writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes (John Carradine) running into a vampire
(Vincent Price), who, in return for
a quick snack, shows him the titular establishment and some stories about its
patrons. This is by far the most uneven of all the anthologies. The first and final stories are
actually pretty good, with real sympathy for the monsters, and the last story
is genuinely chilling (and notably the closest adaptation of Hayes’ original
stories). The middle one though is
a bit silly, with perhaps one of the most ridiculous plot twists ever (you will
not believe the last line of it). It’s a very mixed bag but what works here,
such as every second Price and Carradine are on screen, works well enough to
justify seeing it.

So that’s the tale of Amicus, gone but far from
forgotten. Tributes to it are
everywhere, from TV (The League Of
Gentlemen’s
Christmas Special, Dr.
Terrible’s House of Horrible…
) to stage plays (Ghost Stories, The
Hallow’een Sessions
). With
Hammer rising from the grave, and new interest in the portmanteau format with V/H/S already getting a sequel, maybe
it’s high time for the sub-genre to make a comeback. Until then, check out some of these titles for some nice
slices of classic British chills.

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