Saturday, October 8, 2011

Smörgåsbord of the Macabre: The Amicus Horror Anthologies

If it looks like a Hammer film, then it must be a Hammer film, right?  Not if it came from Amicus.  The films of Amicus have frequently been confused with Hammer, exploring similar gothic themes, and even employing some of the same actors, including such Hammer stalwarts as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt.  During Amicus’ two-decade run in the 1960s and 1970s, producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg created a number of unique films that challenged and sometimes surpassed their better-known rival, Hammer.

It would be a mistake to write Amicus off as a Hammer clone, however.  One of the ways that Amicus distinguished itself was in the portmanteau or anthology style horror film, consisting of several stories bound together by a framing story.  One common theme that can be distilled among the anthologies is that the stories themselves are essentially morality tales, communicating the message that actions have their consequences.  Although many of the stories follow the same general arc, it’s how they’re told that differs. 

As with virtually all anthology-type movies, the amalgamation of tales is a bit of a mixed bag, but there are some genuine chills to be found here.  These films are prime examples of how they don’t make ‘em like they used to.  The emphasis is on mood and atmosphere, not cheap explicit thrills.  This might disappoint some modern audiences, but there’s something to be said for leaving certain sordid aspects to one’s imagination instead of going for the gross-out.  So, without further introduction, here they are, the Amicus horror anthologies of the 60s and 70s, ranked in order of preference:



1. Asylum (1972) This is my favorite of the Amicus anthologies, thanks to the strong Robert Bloch writing and crisp pacing.  The framing story is more than just a flimsy plot device to introduce the other tales, but practically stands on its own merits.  We learn that one of the doctors at a psychiatric hospital has gone insane, and is now residing as a patient.  A new applicant has been tasked by the hospital’s director to identify which one of the current patients is that former doctor.  While the stories behind each of the four resident patients are revealed, we’re left guessing along with the applicant.  In the first segment, “Frozen Terror,” a man kills his wife so he can go off with his lover.  Another strong entry is “The Weird Tailor,” in which a poor tailor (Barry Morse) is commissioned by Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing) to create a suit from some very unusual fabric.  While the last couple of stories are not quite up to the standards of the first two, they’re still engaging, and everything eventually leads up to a satisfying conclusion to a solid anthology.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.


2. Tales from the Crypt  (1972) This is another excellent anthology.  Five visitors to a mausoleum end up in a secret secluded vault lorded over by the Crypt Keeper, played with reserve by Sir Ralph Richardson.  Richardson adds a touch of class to the proceedings as he introduces each individual to his or her respective fate.  In the first story, “All Through the House,” Joan Collins plays a woman who murders her husband for insurance money, and is subsequently pursued by a crazed killer dressed as Santa (This segment was remade later by Robert Zemeckis for HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series).  In the segment “Wish You Were Here,” a clever variation on “The Monkey’s Paw,” the message is “be careful what you wish for,” as businessman (Richard Greene) learns in an especially morbid way.  The filmmakers save the best for last.  In “Blind Alleys,” a sadistic manager of a home for the blind receives his just desserts from his victims.
     
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

  
3. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) I previously disclosed my affection for this film, describing what was likely my first childhood immersion into the world of Amicus.  While this minor classic may not be their “best” from a technical standpoint, it remains a sentimental favorite; sort of the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.  Some highlights are the segments titled “Creeping Vine,” “Disembodied Hand,” (with Christopher Lee and Michael Gough as critic and artist, respectively), and the unimaginatively titled “Voodoo,” in which Roy Castle plays a jazz musician looking for a new sound.  He stumbles on a secret voodoo ritual, and incurs the wrath of unseen forces when he decides to duplicate the music.  The inimitable Peter Cushing stars as Dr. Terror, who introduces his fellow train passengers to the awful fates that await them. 

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming.

  
4. The House That Dripped Blood (1971) The framing sequences differ from most of the other Amicus anthologies due to the fact that there isn’t a central figure serving as a guide to the stories.  A no-nonsense big-city police inspector is tasked with finding the answers about a missing actor who moved to a small town.  During the course of the inspector’s interviews with local law enforcement and a real estate agent, he discovers the stories behind an old house and its unfortunate former occupants.  These individual tales will eventually lead him to the truth he covets.  One of the standout stories is “Waxworks,” concerning a recent retiree (Peter Cushing) and his fixation with a creepy wax figure.  The best segment, titled “Sweets to the Sweet,” stars Christopher Lee as the father of a problem child.  He initially seems withdrawn and cruel to his young daughter, but we gradually discover the secret behind his callous behavior.  The final story, “The Cloak,” starring Ingrid Pitt and Jon Pertwee is a bit of a letdown, with a comic tone that seems a little incongruous with the other stories.  Overall, it’s well worth your time, if you can track a print down!

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD (Out of print)


5. From Beyond the Grave (1974) The last of the Amicus anthology films (not counting The Monster Club, which isn’t featured here) is another solid entry.  Peter Cushing plays the mysterious proprietor of Temptations Limited, an antique shop with a twist.  People wander into his store to purchase the various curios, only to discover that each item has a steeper price than what is represented on the price tag.   David Warner stars in the first segment “The Gate Crasher,” which features a demonic mirror.  Donald Pleasence and his real-life daughter Angela Pleasence appear in “An Act of Kindness,” about a father and daughter who come to the aid of a man stuck in a loveless marriage.  In “The Elemental,” a man purchases a snuffbox, and learns that he’s brought home an unexpected bonus -- an invisible demon.  “The Door” provides a fun, if somewhat slight, concluding chapter.  Once the stories have played out and the shop door closes we can only remain sure about one thing.  Everything is more than it seems. 

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.


6. Vault of Horror (1973) The sequel to Tales From The Crypt doesn’t quite measure up to the first film, but it’s still good for a few low-key thrills.  There’s no Crypt Keeper here, just five men in an office building who wind up in a strange basement room that has no exit.  They’re left to review what has led to their banishment.  The first segment, titled “Midnight Mess,” is also the weakest, with vampires sipping obvious tomato juice.  “The Neat Job” is a fun story about an obsessive-compulsive middle-aged man and his compliant wife who can only be pushed so far.  The best story, “Drawn and Quartered,” is the last one, starring Tom Baker as an artist (with a passing resemblance to Bob Ross) who seeks out his revenge against those who wronged him (Denholm Elliott and Terence Alexander), with the help of a voodoo curse.   Vault of Horror is slightly more miss than hit, but there’s still more than enough enjoyable bits to merit a mild recommendation.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD. 


7. Torture Garden (1967) With direction by Freddie Francis (who helmed several Hammer and Amicus films) and screenplay by Robert Bloch, you might rightfully ask, “What could go wrong?”  A more apt title would have been Boredom Garden, or perhaps Tales of Mild Distraction.  Burgess Meredith stars as the enigmatic host Dr. Diabolo, who oversees a carnival house of horrors.  Sadly, the framing story with Dr. Diabolo is more interesting than the segments.  Three of the four segments, in which four individuals learn about their possible fates, are fairly weak.  In the first story, “Enoch,” a selfish man learns the secret to his uncle’s wealth, only to unleash a terrible curse upon himself.  It starts well enough, but wears out its welcome.  It goes on a little too long, and the conclusion doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The next two segments, “Terror Over Hollywood” and “Mr. Steinway” (involving a killer piano), are more ridiculous than horrifying.  Only the last segment, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” with Jack Palance and Peter Cushing, is worth watching.  It’s too bad the rest of the film didn’t measure up.  For Amicus completists only. 

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD.

2 comments:

  1. Loved this post (as well as your terrific opening line). Amicus gets very little recognition (especially as opposed to Hammer). But you're right, its anthologies were well-one and enjoyable. I have a soft spot for THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, perhaps because it was the first I saw at a movie theatre. Or it could be because of Ingrid Pitt (I don't mind the tone of "The Cloak" and it's fun to see a Doctor Who).

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  2. Thanks for the kind words! It's nice to know someone's still reading my older posts, too! For years, I thought Dr. Terror's House of Horrors was a Hammer film. Surprise, surprise...

    It must have been a thrill (pun unintended) to watch
    the Amicus films in the theatre. Alas, my only exposure to them was on TV in the 70s.

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