Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible Review
When Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible first aired over six weeks in the winter of 2001, the critical and public reaction was rather muted. Of course, the series had its fans and was perhaps destined more towards a cult audience than anything else, yet the general lack of interest seems a little unfair. Retrospectively, it’s hard not to feel that its lead and co-writer Steve Coogan was somewhat to blame. Fans of his were perhaps expecting to continue the run that had included Paul and Pauline Calf, The Day Today and Alan Partridge, and were therefore hoping for something in a similar vein. What we have, however, is a series with the fans of sixties and seventies horror in mind, not those of Partridge. Indeed, prior knowledge of Pauline Calf’s video diary won’t really help you here, though one of Blood on Satan’s Claw, say, or the Doctor Who Tom Baker story The Talons of Weng-Chiang most certainly will.
Being in six parts, Dr. Terrible is thus split into six separate homages. The series is of course chock full of in-jokes and references, but essentially each episode comes down to one particular style. And Now the Fearing, as its title suggests, apes the Amicus anthology typified by And Now the Screaming Starts. Frenzy of Tongs takes us back to turn of the century Limehouse and the world of Sax Rohmer’s “yellow peril” potboilers. Curse of the Blood of the Lizard of Doom isn’t so much in awe of the Hammer Mummy’s Tomb efforts its title apes, but rather the scientific-experiment-gone-wrong terrors of The Creeping Flesh and its ilk. Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust is fairly self-explanatory, though it is not the Euro horror lesbian vampirism of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco in its sights, but rather the more British variety such as Twins of Evil, Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers. Voodoo Feet of Death takes on the various body-part-transplant movies in the vein of Mad Love and The Beast With Five Fingers. And finally, Scream Satan Scream! is firmly ensconced in Tigon territory, specifically that Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw.
It is these various reference points which should be apparent to all or, more to the point, the average Coogan fan. And in this respect, Dr. Terrible can be enjoyed on a fairly moderate level. Yet where the series’ genuine pleasures lie, however - and where it prevents itself from becoming anything more than a cult series – is in its far richer gags, the ones which make the more acute references. Indeed, whilst it is possible to enjoy And Now the Fearing, say, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the horror movie, it does become far more enjoyable if, for example, you recognise that Julia Davis’ impenetrable accent is borrowed from Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland, or that Seventies’ genre stars Oliver Tobias (The Stud) and Sheila Keith (numerous Pete Walker efforts) are making cameos. Likewise, Honor Blackman’s cameo in Lesbian Vampire Lovers… brings to mind her appearance in Hammer’s To the Devil a Daughter; Voodoo Feat of Death recalls the Roy Castle episode from Dr. Terror’s House of Horror (also the source of the series’ title, of course); and an in-depth knowledge of the aforementioned Talons of Weng-Chiang helps immeasurably in enjoying Frenzy of Tongs. Plus we have tiny nods hidden away in each episode for the eagle-eyed: Warwick Davis plays a character named Tigon in Scream Satan Scream!; Lesbian Vampire Lovers… is partially set at the Hammerstein Inn etc. etc.
What we have then is a genuine love for the material being spoofed and not just some idle, ill-informed buffoonery. Interestingly, this has two effects on the series. On the one hand it makes for an incredibly affectionate viewing experience; paradoxically, even the period perfect misogyny, racism and idea that England is the centre of the world elicit a certain charm, as do the intentionally variable special effects and accents. On the other, however, the pleasures of each individual episode are likely to come down to the viewer. Personally speaking, I’ve always found the “yellow peril” subgenre of only moderate interest and as such Frenzy of Tongs strikes me in the same way. And Now the Fearing and Curse of the Blood…, however, proved to be immensely entertaining, but then I’ve always been more greatly drawn towards the likes of The Creeping Flesh and the various anthology tales (yes, even The Monster Club, though for this one to work you really do need to approach as self-parody, a kind of Amicus-meets-The League of Gentlemen).
That said, the level of affection does hold sway and each episode proves to be cracking yarn in its right. The sinister edges can’t be entirely blunted by the comedy (the Chinese pearly kings in Frenzy of Tongs, the hit-and-run in And Now the Fearing), whilst the twist ending to Curse of the Blood… comes as quite a shock – the tales can be that involving. Indeed, it could be said that oftentimes it is only the casting which is different; rather than the impeccable straight-faced playing of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, et al, we instead have the fine comic timing of Coogan, Mark Gatiss, Simon Pegg and others.
In fact, the casting is really quite clever. For had Tyburn, Tigon and the like still been making films in a similar vein today, then surely the roles they would offer for the likes of Tim Piggott-Smith, Mark Benton and Sarah Alexander would be near identical to the ones they play here. After all, it wasn’t impossible for the likes of the DJ Alan Freed or Robin Askwith to appear alongside Lee, Cushing and the rest. More to the point, we also find Piggott-Smith, Benton and Alexander playing the exact same roles that we’d expect to find them playing, so much so there really is no need to mention them here.
Yet Coogan is the star of the series and unmistakably so. There is no attempt on the part of his co-stars to steal his thunder (though Alexander Armstrong does come close in And Now the Fearing) and in most cases they would be futile given the fact that he embodies seven roles along the way. Moreover, his various portrayals are as on the ball as his scripts and there are more pleasures to be had in recognising his Doug McClure-isms during Lesbian Vampire Lovers… or the Patrick Wyngarde foppish-ness to be found in Frenzy of Tongs. And yet for all my opening protestations it is also difficult to ignore the fact that this is still a Steve Coogan comedy show and as such certain elements do sneak through.
For a start, Dr. Terrible can be incredibly daft when it wants to be. From the non-sequitor-ridden segments hosted by Dr. Terrible himself (“…his wife was peeing in a Ming vase”) and eminently quotable dialogue (“sapphical vampiricism, the love that dare not spell its name”) through to the stupid sight gags (the “Fist Inn” in Scream Satan Scream!) and variable innuendo which finds its way into most episodes, the various facets of Coogan’s comic persona are present and correct. Occasionally, this tips the balance too far in the wrong direction (Scream Satan Scream!, for example, but then I’ve always regarded both Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw with the utmost seriousness – even Wilfred Brambell’s cameo in the former), though on the whole it simply offers a cherry on the top of a frequently delicious cake. As Dr. Terrible himself would proffer: “Now that’s truly diabolical.”
Dr. Terrible’s DVD incarnation finds all six episodes situated on a single disc and complemented by a healthy dosage of extras. More importantly, however, it also comes with a decent presentation, though one which is difficult to judge. Clearly, the series has undergone visual correction since the filming process in order to bring out the gaudy colours à la the look of Hammer’s Eastmancolor. As such, everything looks a little smudgy and blotchy in order to bring out the garishness, though such an effect would appear to be wholly intentional. Indeed, if memory serves, this is exactly how the series looked on TV and as such we’re getting a faithful recreation. Moreover, each episode also receives an anamorphic transfer at a ratio of 1.78:1
As for the soundtrack, this matches the original broadcast stereo. Unsurprisingly, it also comes across as continually clean and sharp. The dialogue is handled as well as the screams, whilst the scoring – particularly the wonderful theme music – sounds absolutely fine.
The extras, however, do err towards the disappointing. The commentaries, which should be the most enticing of the bunch, are perhaps the biggest let down. Despite gathering director Matt Lipsey and Coogan’s regular co-writers Graham Duff and Henry Normal, the trio seem somewhat reticent to discuss their efforts. Certainly, the hoped for chatter about the various influences and how they pulled them off never really sees the light of day, rather anecdotes appear and disappear just as quick making for a rather dull, and unenlightening, listen. That is, however, until Mark Gatiss appears for the commentary on Frenzy of Tongs at which point the whole thing comes alive as he enthusiastically mentions its nods to Jon Pertwee and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires whilst also nudging his companions with all the right questions. Sadly, it’s for only one episode out of the six and a genuine shame that didn’t stick around for all of them.
The featurette, a 28-minute piece entitled ‘An Appointment in Dr. Terrible’, is a similar mix of the worthwhile and the not so great. Engaging enough it speaks to Coogan himself (looking strangely identical to the Welsh snooker player Mark Williams) as well as his various collaborators and co-stars. Admittedly, there’s little that is revelatory here and for the most part the likes of Julia Davis just make a few gags to camera. That said, it does spend time on each individual episode and as such is agreeably thorough.
The remaining pieces are either text- or picture-based. Some are serious – as in the collection of production stills or the production notes – whilst others are less so. The poster gallery mocks up fake imagery for each of the episodes (though the level of spot-on parody doesn’t quite match that of the series itself); the magazine article takes us behind the scenes of Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust and asks the question “Ken Russell or Michael Winner: Who’s the biggest genius?”; and the calendar is a perfectly stupid way of whiling away the minutes, but quite agreeably so. All in all, a solid enough collection, though one that won’t be returned too often.