(1965) Directed by Freddie Francis; Written by Milton Subotsky; Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Neil McCallum, Bernard Lee, Donald Sutherland, Katy Wild and Roy Castle; Available on DVD.
Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review, which originally appeared here.
“The tarot deck is a picture book of life, an answer to the deepest questions of philosophy and history, and sometimes a means of prediction.” – Dr. Schreck, aka: Dr. Terror (Peter Cushing)
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my blogging partner in crime Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews for: A) nudging me out of blogathon-hosting semi-retirement, and B) suggesting that we include Amicus in this blogathon. Thus, The Great Hammer-AmicusBlogathon was born, with a multi-blogger retrospective of two amazing film production companies. Be sure to check out all the great submissions over the next few days! Today, I’m focusing on a childhood favorite from the Amicus side.
Long before I knew who Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee were, or what an Amicus or Hammer film was, there was Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. Memory is a notoriously unreliable thing, but I can attest that this film was one of the major catalysts that set me on the path to a lifelong love of the horror genre. At least from the muddy recesses of my childhood recollections, it seemed this movie was on heavy rotation during the ‘70s, and I would watch it whenever it was on TV. The scares seem tame by comparison to many modern horror flicks, but I can’t help regressing to my seven-year-old self. It’s a product of a different time when a more genteel form of horror was the thing, favoring atmosphere over gore. I’m not about to settle the debate of Amicus vs. Hammer – both are too close to my heart, and both scratch a different itch. While Hammer pushed the envelope of good taste, with heaving bosoms and Grand Guignol flourishes, Amicus forged ahead with its more mannered approach.
Producer Max J. Rosenberg and writer/Amicus partner Milton Subotsky filmed Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors for less than 100,000 pounds and the desire to beat Hammer Films at its own game. This was their first foray into the horror anthology* format, which would become their trademark. The film was directed by Freddie Francis, who was no stranger to Hammer, having previously directed Paranoiac (1963), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964).
* Fun Fact: According to an interview with Rosenberg, the British horror anthology film Dead of Night (1945) influenced him to create his own portmanteau movie (from Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horrors Films, 1956-1976, by Gary A. Smith).
Five lone travelers board a cramped train compartment and are met by the enigmatic Dr. Schreck (the German word translates as “fright” or “terror”), played by the incomparable Peter Cushing. Dr. Schreck appears quiet and unassuming, but an aura of mystery and darkness surrounds him. He sports a satyr-like beard and prominent eyebrows, suggesting a vaguely Mephistophelian visage. As the passengers settle in for the long evening ride, he reveals (by accident or design?) a deck of tarot cards. The film’s title is explained when he refers to his tarot cards as a “house of horrors,” although Dr. Schreck’s Train of Terrors might have been a more apt title. It’s no surprise that Christopher Lee is the real standout as pompous art critic Franklyn Marsh, who doesn’t have time for what he considers to be nonsense and superstition. He views Dr. Schreck as nothing more than a snake oil salesman, telling bogus fortunes. Perhaps as a means to quell his insecurities, he begrudgingly acquiesces to have his fortune told.
It’s best not to judge Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors by the first and last segments, which are the least effective. The first story seems the most Hammer-like, with its gothic setting, old house and remote location, but its strength is also its weakness. An architect returns to his ancestral home to help the new owner with renovations, uncovering a dark secret about a centuries-old curse. It’s heavy on atmosphere, but the most inconsequential of the bunch. The filmmakers saved the most inconsequential story for last. In “Vampire,” Dr. Bob Carroll (a youthful Donald Sutherland) is an American family doctor who marries a pretty young French woman. They return to the States to start a new life together, but he soon discovers his new bride isn’t quite what she seems. We never see Dr. Carroll’s motivation to take the action that he does, leading to an unsatisfying climax. And even by 1965 standards, the underlying theme of vampires representing fear of outsiders is more than a wee bit stale. Even if the final segment is less than worthy, however, the conclusion to the framing story, with Dr. Schreck and his fellow travelers, brings the film to a satisfying, if inevitable, end.
The second and third tales, “Creeping Vine” and “Disembodied Hand,” which captured my imagination as an impressionable young child, fare much better. In “Creeping Vine,” an intelligent plant strangles everything in its path (you can guess what happens to the family dog). “Disembodied Hand” concerns the aforementioned critic Marsh (Lee), and his acerbic, mean-spirited attack on accomplished artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough). But when the tables are turned on Marsh, we learn he can dish it out, but he can’t take it. Marsh suffers a blow to his ego, pride gets in the way of reason, and in a fit of rage (well, in a customarily reserved British manner) hits Landor with his car. The artist’s severed hand soon seeks revenge. There are some unfortunate dodgy effects (today you could probably find a better fake hand at your local gag shop), but it’s not the point. “Disembodied Hand” is an excellent metaphor for the injurious effects of criticism on the artist, how it’s much easier to tear something down than to create.
Another standout tale is, “Voodoo” a cautionary tale about the consequences of cultural appropriation. During a visit to the West Indies (which looks suspiciously like a soundstage), a jazz musician (Roy Castle) observes a secret voodoo ritual, and decides to write down the sacred music, much to the chagrin of the natives. When he returns to England to perform the music in a nightclub, he suffers dire consequences. The message is simple and simply told, but still worth heeding: sometimes it’s best not to tamper with things you don’t understand.
Your mind could probably go in endless circles about the tarot cards in the film. It’s established by Schreck that his fortunes represent possible futures, but the fifth card, which reveals their ability to change the future, suggests otherwise. The ending demonstrates that the five passengers’ fates were predestined, but if this is true, why the pretense of futures that could never occur? As a kid, I didn’t really think about this, and as an adult, I try not to ponder it too much – it’s too headache-inducing. Is it the best Amicus portmanteau film? Not by a long shot. It’s strictly middle of the pack by Amicus standards (my favorite portmanteau films were Tales from the Crypt and Asylum). It’s easy to fall back into the trap of childhood nostalgia, as parts of it don’t stand the test of time, but that’s selling it short. It’s still a worthy film, good for low-grade scares and a general creepy atmosphere, thanks in part to Mr. Cushing’s performance. It’s a worthy introduction to the world of Amicus horror anthologies, which reminds us of the beauty of the format – if you don’t like one story, another one’s just around the corner. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors may not be Amicus’ “best” from a technical standpoint, but it remains a sentimental favorite; sort of the cinematic equivalent of comfort food that never fails to bring me back to a simpler time and place.