Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.
You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland, Alan Freeman, Roy Castle, Neil McCallum
Director: Freddie Francis
After a trial run with Vulcan films and the classic City Of The Dead, the American duo of Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg founded the soon to be legendary Amicus Films, a U.K. based production house that would go on to make some of the finest horror films of the era outside of Hammer themselves and it all started right here.
Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors sets out the Amicus stall right from the off, establishing what would become a familiar formula over the years, bringing together a first-rate ensemble cast of well-known names for a portmanteau-style horror film.
It was the simplest of ideas, but one that would go on to pay dividends time and time again.
Five strangers find themselves together on a cramped railway carriage when they are joined by the mysterious Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing), a slight, bearded man with a thick accent and a pack of tarot cards. Initially sceptical, one by one, the men have their futures read, only to discover that each of them might just be doomed…
What a great idea the portmanteau horror film is. Five stories and a delightfully creepy framing sequence gives you essentially six small stories, so even if they don’t all hit with you, another will be along in a few minutes. Not only that, the format meant that Amicus could afford to hire proper names for each segment, as they only had to pay each one for a few days work.
The opening Werewolf story is a fine start, with Neil McCallum making for a fine square-jawed hero who rapidly gets in over his head. What’s good about this is that he quickly susses out that there’s a 200 year-old werewolf out for revenge and knows what to do with it, but even that level of wherewithal just isn’t enough..
Real-life Radio 1 pop picker Alan Freeman’s nature-gone-wrong segment Creeping Vine is probably the weak link in this particular chain, but even it’s enjoyable fluff. Watching poorly animated fauna take on a life of its own and start attacking things is never not fun, is it?
Roy Castle makes his first but not last appearance in an Amicus film in Voodoo as Biff Bailey, a swinging London jazz musician who stumbles across an Obeah ceremony and unwisely steals their music for his own ends, even after being warned by the high priest. The voodoo scenes here are wonderfully vivid, a riot of colour and percussion where you can all but feel the heat rising from the intensifying ritual, while Castle is both likeable and shifty at once. Great stuff.
Christopher Lee’s pompous art critic Franklyn Marsh’s character was already established fairly well in the linking scenes, but his own segment, The Disembodied Hand really let’s him stretch it out. After being made a fool of and then practically stalked by a local artist (Michael Gough no less), Marsh tries to kill him in a hit and run, but succeeds only in severing his hand, which continues it’s owners campaign of harassment. Lee is, as always, wonderful here. Pompous and aloof yes, but once the tables are turned, he’s more than adept at conveying Marsh’s social anxiety too. Plus it’s about a hand crawling about and attacking Christopher Lee. What’s not to love?
The final story is one of the best, with Donald Sutherland realising his lovely new wife might just be a vampire and he’s the only one who can deal with it, at least according to his colleague Dr Blake (Max Adrian). Sutherland is at the start of his career here, but he looks and feels like a star already and positively shines as the young Doctor in trouble.
Considering the stories are so short, the twists aren’t massively telegraphed which adds to their impact, but the real beauty of Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors is the rollicking speed with which it hurtled through it’s stories. It’s set-up, exploration and punchline, back to Cushing being all menacing then its right back into another fast-paced nightmare. Even if you’re bored by one of them, another is on the way and it’ll be quite different. Director Freddie Francis deserves a lot of credit here, as not only does he keep things moving at a rollicking pace, each segment looks and feels quite different from the last.
Special mention must be given here to the great man himself, Mr Peter Cushing. His Dr Shreck carried a kindly demeanour with an undercurrent of steely malice that only an actor of Cushing’s considerable talents could carry so elegantly. It’s a small role, but as ever, Peter brings it to full life.
Alongside Hammer, Amicus would go on to be the main players in British horror for a few years, and Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors saw them get it right first time.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy