Dr Terror's House of Horrors Review
The horror anthology film has been a recurring staple of the genre since Ealing’s Dead of Night back in 1945. It’s not hard to see why it’s been popular – as director Freddie Francis has remarked, most horror films are too long and the short format allows for the concentration of scares with a minimum of narrative apparatus. Admittedly, it limits the possibilities for sustained suspense which you find in the greatest horror movies but it does ensure that the clumsy characterisation and poor dialogue which mar so many genre films are kept to a minimum. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, released in 1965, was the next major horror anthology after Ealing’s film although the anthology form had been used on several occasions, such as the films based on stories by W.Somerset Maughan and Ealing’s own Train of Events. It’s not a great film by any means but it is both important – as an influence for a whole sub-genre of British horror – and constantly entertaining.
The film was produced by Amicus Productions, a small company formed by two Americans producers, Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, which had experienced a small success with Richard Lester’s exploitation movie It’s Trad Dad. Subotsky, a huge fan of horror movies, had made a successful excursion into the genre in 1959 with City of the Dead, also known as Horror Hotel. He considered Dead of Night to be the greatest horror film ever made and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was deliberately conceived as being in the same style. It’s certainly not nearly as good but it is very interesting, not least because each of the five stories deals with a classic horror archetype in a remarkably economical manner. As usual, some of the stories are better than others, but the two best episodes here are fine examples of the virtues of this short format.
In the framing story, later a problem for Amicus but still looking quite fresh here, we meet five men who are thrown together (apparently by chance) into a railway carriage. They are joined by the mysterious Dr Schreck (Cushing on fine sinister form) who offers to read their futures as prophesised by his tarot deck – his ‘House of Horrors’. Following the prediction, he claims to be able to tell them how that future can be avoided but the passengers soon discover that fate may not be so easy to cheat.
The first episode deals with Jim Dawson (McCallum), a young architect who is summoned to a remote Scottish island to make modifications to the house of Mrs Biddulph (Howells), a rich widow. While investigating the recesses of the house, he unwittingly uncovers the tomb of Count Valdemar, a werewolf who has cursed the descendants of the man who killed him.
Having efficiently established the claustrophobic train carriage setting, Freddie Francis dives into a relatively expansive mood piece. It’s actually rather effective, playing with some classic horror images and having fun with the hoary old werewolf legend. Wisely, Francis relies more on atmospherics and implied horror than explicit special effects and the werewolf itself is nicely depicted as a dog rather than a guy in a hairy suit. The twist at the end is rather predictable but revealed in one of Francis’ very best shots. Neil McCallum is a rather bland hero but he’s adequate and, unlike some of the other cast, he can at least give a respectable performance. Ursula Howells is a perfect lady of the manner and there’s a lovely doom-laden servant performance from the familiar face of Peter Madden. Alan Hume’s superb cinematography adds a great deal to this episode and the running time of approximately 15 minutes is just enough for the material.
The Creeping Vine
Next up is the unintentionally amusing story of Bill Rogers (Freeman) and his unfortunate experiences with an unwelcome piece of vegetation. Gardening shears don’t do the trick so Rogers contacts what appears to be a government department devoted to dealing with homicidal plants. But as fast as they try to stop the somewhat lumbering menace – it doesn’t so much creep as clump – the plant develops new ways to combat its human enemies.
I don’t want to spoil the deliciously silly surprises which await the viewer of this extraordinary piece of sixties camp but I have to make a few observations of my own. Firstly, the performance of Alan Freeman – already a star DJ when he made this film – isn’t as bad as you might expect although there’s some disappointment when he fails to say “Arright pop pickers ? Not ‘arf !”. He has two expressions – contentment and concern – but it’s hard to see how else he might react to the madly shaking vegetation crawling up the side of his house. Secondly, I have to point out that the special effects, silly as they are, aren’t bad at all. It’s the idea which is at fault here, not the effects. I can’t think of a film which has managed to make killer plants look genuinely scary and the general standard is well represented by this film and by the marvellous 1976 “Doctor Who” story “The Seeds of Doom”. Fortunately, the story is well paced and comes in at just over 10 minutes. Incidental pleasures are provided by the totally ruthless death of a cute doggy and the appearance of the great Bernard Lee.
Ahhh what can I say about this story, one the most unthinkingly racist fifteen minutes in the history of British horror. As Dr Schreck says, it’s an investigation into “the malign power of voodoo!”, not to mention the malign power of the dire Roy Castle. The record breaker with the trumpet plays a jazz musician who makes the mistake of visiting the West Indies and noting down and stealing the dreaded beat of the black men who practice voodoo. Needless to say, his punishment is horrific but not quite as horrific as that which his performance deserves.
As you’d expect, everything about the foreign locale is presented as strange and somehow sinister. White is represented as ‘normal’ while black – with the exception of cockney Kenny Lynch – is represented as the mysterious and dangerous ‘other’. This is, needless to say, simplistic racism at its most typical, but it also looks ludicrous given the fact that Castle, along with “The Tubby Hayes Quartet” are about as unappetising a collection of Englishmen as you’d hope never to meet. Looked at from a distance of forty years, it looks more hopelessly naïve than intentionally offensive and, to be fair, the same charges could be levelled at much bigger productions such as the Bond movie Live and Let Die. A more serious failing is that Castle simply cannot act, a fact which he demonstrated at great length in his other performance for Amicus in Dr Who And The Daleks. What saves the story is an atmospheric finale and a lovely performance from Harold Lang, playing a seedy agent in his own characteristic fashion.
In the best of the five stories, Christopher Lee plays a foul, Brian Sewell-esque art critic named Franklyn Marsh who is humiliated by artist Eric Landor (Gough) after he has delivered some particularly scathing comments on Landor’s paintings. Marsh attempts to kill Landor by running him over in his car but only succeeds in ensuring that the artist loses his hand. Needless to say, it’s not long before the hand is eager to gain revenge.
There are a number of reasons why this is the most effective episode. For one thing, it’s got the marvellous Christopher Lee at his most delectably unpleasant in a role which was something of a change of pace for him. He plays a bastard with great elan and his scenes with the equally accomplished Michael Gough are a joy. It’s worth the price of the disc simply to see these two legends of British horror playing a scene together for the first time since Dracula. Secondly, it’s got a monster which, for all its cheapness, is genuinely unnerving and rather disgusting, even though it’s not hard to see the seam running down its right hand side. Added to which it’s well paced, funny and contains a couple of nice shocks.
Given how good the fourth story is, it’s a shame that the film has to finish with such a clunky episode. Set in an oddly dislocated America, it concerns what happens when Dr Bob Carroll (Sutherland) attempts to set up a surgery in collaboration with the established Dr Blake (Adrian) in a small town. But all is not well; a vampire is on the loose attacking women and children and it seems that the source of the attacks may well be closer to Dr Carroll’s home than he could have expected.
This is all very ho-hum. Donald Sutherland, looking about 12, is as likeable as you’d expect and Max Adrian provides an amusing turn as the all-too avuncular Dr Blake. But it’s predictable and slow moving (even at 12 minutes) and the twist at the end is more childishly glib than effectively ironic. There is, incidentally, no reason for this to be set in America apart from Sutherland’s accent and the setting simply adds an extra level of unreality to an already unbelievable set-up.
Finally, with all the destinies revealed, Dr Schreck reveals the final secret of his House of Horrors; one which will have terrifying consequences for all the passengers.
Although the film is a little inconsistent, it’s far from being the most muddled of the Amicus anthology films. Following the next two – Torture Garden and The House That Dripped Blood both scripted by the noted horror author Robert Bloch - they produced two adaptations of stories from the infamous EC comics, the publications which had scandalised fifties middle class society with their mixture of ironic moralising and explicit gore. Neither of these two films - Tales From The Crypt also directed by Freddie Francis, and the dire Vault of Horror - is impressive, containing a pathetic three good stories out of ten, and it was only with Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum and the exceptional From Beyond The Grave that returned to the standards set by the earlier films. The latter film was the last Amicus anthology – not counting Subotsky’s later independent productions - and it contains the best of all the short stories, a Pinteresque drama set in a stifling suburban hell and starring Ian Bannen and Donald Pleasance. There’s nothing in Dr Terror to match that story but nor does it fall apart like the EC adaptations.
The film looks fabulous throughout thanks to Alan Hume’s atmospheric laden cinematography and the use of the cheap widescreen process Techniscope is generally good. It does give the film a definite cinematic feel, whereas some of the later Amicus films tend to look like episodes of a TV series. Mention should also be made of Elizabeth Luytens’ music score which is somewhat overpowering at times but generally well used. The weak link in the chain, apart from some of the performances, is the screenplay. Milton Subotsky fancied himself as a writer and had done a lot of written work in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, his construction is adequate and he manages to link the stories together rather well. But the dialogue is consistently appalling and makes it very hard to suspend disbelief – a particular problem in the already idiotic creeping vine episode. Amicus began to employ other writers after this movie which may account for the general upturn in quality of their films after 1964. Mind you, watch The Deadly Bees or The Psychopath and you will see that even a talent such as Robert Bloch can trip up sometimes.
Dr Terror’s House of Horrors has aged badly in some respects and occasionally, as in the voodoo episode, it looks rather ludicrous. But it’s also got some strong cast and some very enjoyable moments. The ending, in particular, is as iconic a moment as any in 1960s horror and goes some way to making the rest of the film seem a lot better than it is.
Amicus is the flavour of the month with Anchor Bay. This film, along with The House That Dripped Blood is released in time for Halloween and the two films will form part of the upcoming Amicus Boxset which comes out next month. It’s a rather impressive disc, on the whole, and will certainly delight the numerous fans of British horror.
The film is presented, for the first time since it was seen in cinemas, in its original 2.35:1 Techniscope aspect ratio. This in itself is a cause for celebration. Freddie Francis uses the screen with confidence and the film is hard to watch when shown in fullscreen on television. This transfer is generally excellent. The colours are very striking and there is plenty of detail to the image. Grain is much in evidence but it’s not a major problem and there is not a large amount of artifacting. Nor is there a great deal of print damage. Some minor scratches and a little white popping but not as much as I had expected. Considering the age of the film and the presumably poor quality of the available prints, this is certainly as good as Dr Terror’s House of Horrors has ever looked for home viewing. One reason for this may well be that a German print has been used, complete with the original German title - Die Todeskarten Des Dr. Schreck - and the a directorial credit reading ‘Freddy Francis’.
There are three soundtracks on offer. Instead of sounding like a broken record, I refer you to my review of The Crazies for my views on Anchor Bay’s policy of remixing mono films into various other format.. Suffice to say that the only track I liked on this one was the original mono track. You also get the option of remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks, neither of which I found very impressive. Mono sound blasted through five speakers, albeit phased and routed to varying extents, is not my idea of a good soundtrack. Generally, if you must listen to one of them, the DTS soundtrack is more pleasing than the DD5.1 track, but it’s not much of a contest.
The main extra features offered are two full length commentaries, one by Freddie Francis and the other by Allan Bryce, editor of “The Dark Side” and major Amicus fanboy. The former is a fine commentary track as Francis discusses the movie with journalist Jonathan Southcott. He’s on fine form and just as loveably curmudgeonly as those of us who saw him at the NFT a few years ago will remember (although at least he’s acknowledging the existence of his son again). His memory is, as you’d expect, a little fuzzy but on the who he’s a delight to listen to and very enthusiastic about the process of commentating. The second track is basically Bryce reading a long disquisition on the film with lots of trivia and the various obsessions which you may remember from his time at Video World – you will be delighted to learn that lesbianism gets a not especially relevant mention. I quite enjoyed this track. Once you get used to Bryce’s somewhat irksome voice, he’s got plenty of information to impart and his enthusiasm is infectious.
The other bonus features are fairly standard but nonetheless worth a look. There are excellent, very detailed film notes by Southcott which appear over an atmospheric background of stills. You will also find well written biographies of Freddie Francis, Cushing, Lee and Sutherland. Finally, the photo gallery is a delight, containing lots of stills and extracts from the original press book. There's also an amusingly unblushing plug for Allan Bryce's enjoyable but somewhat superficial book on Amicus.
Yet again, and it's broken record time I'm afraid, Anchor Bay have given us no subtitles. I really do urge them to reconsider this policy as it's a snub to a whole section of the audience who cannot enjoy their often excellent product.
There are 18 chapter stops and simple but nicely animated menus.
Dr Terror's House of Horrors is not a great film but it's un and is certainly essential viewing for horror fans. This DVD presents it very well indeed and is recommended, although any big Amicus fans will probably want to wait until it forms part of the exciting box set which is released next month.