Twisted Terror: From Beyond The Grave Review
By 1973, Amicus were at the height of their popularity. Both Tales From The Crypt and Asylumhad been commercial successes; the latter even got some decent reviews. It wasn’t long before things begin to go sour with the dire Vault of Horror which was as cheap as its predecessors but, this time, looked it. But before that came Amicus’ finest hour, an anthology film called From Beyond The Grave which has a wonderful cast, a literate script and one episode which is so good that it deserves to have a life outside its immediate context.
This time, the setting is an old antiques shop which would appear, judging by the geography established during the credits, to be near Highgate Cemetery. The shop is called “Temptations Limited” and is run by Peter Cushing, sporting a thoroughly convincing Yorkshire accent. Every item in the shop carries a sinister secret, designed to punish the purchaser for their sins – and there are, of course, no shortage of sinful customers who commit the ultimate crime of trying to con cuddly old Peter out of money.
The first episode, from the story The Gate Crasher is weaker than the others both in terms of story and imagery. It concerns a haunted mirror that contains a trapped soul who can only be freed through a repeated sacrifice of blood. It’s suggested visually that this might be Jack the Ripper; that’s never confirmed in the dialogue but the period dress supports such a reading. David Warner, sporting perhaps the worst hairstyle this side of an episode of “Top Gear”, manages to release the demon during an impromptu séance; this was a time when no middle-class gathering in a horror film was complete without some bint suggesting that it was time for a bit of table-tapping. Needless to say, it’s not long before the ‘Mirror Demon’, as he is billed, has forced our hapless hero into killing off anybody he can get his hands on, including everybody’s favourite 1970s bit-part cockney, Tommy Godfrey.
This is certainly entertaining and there are memorable moments involving David Warner covered in blood and slumped in a corner. But it’s all very clichéd – much dry-ice sprayed about to indicate the demon awakening – and the climactic ‘twist’ might be better described a foregone conclusion. Compared with the other episodes, the visuals are unimaginative and the realisation of the Mirror Demon is laughable – largely due to the casting of Marcel Steiner who is best known as the only man to ever be thrown out of the Playboy Club for his offensive use of nudity. After a promising start, Steiner looks ridiculous and when he finally materialises, he’s obviously – and badly - dubbed. The low point, however, has to be the prick in the denim jacket whose rendition of the line “It’s séance time” is one of the campest things I’ve ever heard. Hovering over the whole story is the shadow of Robert Hamer’s episode The Haunted Mirror from Ealing’s Dead of Night which was a far more potent and suggestive exploration of the possibilities of such a prop.
Still weak but slightly better is the final episode entitled The Door in which Ian Ogilvy buys a very strange door which, somewhat bizarrely, he uses as the entrance to a stationery cupboard. Not that there’s much stationery in there, but that’s another matter. And why does he need such a big cupboard for it? Anyway, that’s beside the point. It transpires that this door was made by Sir Michael Sinclair (Watson), a decadent Restoration aristocrat who used it to “trap the souls of those yet to be born.” When the door glows blue, it reveals a very strange room from which the unwary might never return.
The story itself is nothing to write home about; indeed, very little happens and it’s based around one single perilous situation. But the image of the room is a very memorable one. It’s a lovely piece of production design, especially when a sickly yellow sun looms up across the windows. The make-up on Sinclair is also exceptional; he looks every inch the blood-crazed thrill-seeker we have heard about and is actually more effective before he opens his mouth and we hear Jack Watson’s familiar Sergeant-Majorly tones. It’s also slightly unfortunate that the final conflagration is so obviously low-budget. As for the ending, it’s disappointingly bland but as that’s integral to the whole construction, and indeed the whole message, of the film, it’s fair to let it pass.
Neither of these two stories are particularly bad and, in comparison to the likes of Reflection of Fear or the execrable Voodoo episode in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, they are rather good. But what makes From Beyond The Grave the very best Amicus adaptation are the middle stories, both of which are minor classics, albeit for different reasons.
The third episode, The Elemental, is certainly the silliest of the lot but it’s done with lunatic conviction and, as such, works a treat. A number of the Amicus mini-films are unintentionally amusing – I’m thinking of John Standing’s murderous piano and the homicidal brown paper packages in Asylum - but this tale sets out to be comic and succeeds. It helps a lot that Ian Carmichael, playing the lead, is such an entertaining presence. He’s the only one of the characters who fully deserves his fate, or at least that’s how I always feel; conning Mr. Cushing out of thirty-five pounds by switching snuff-box price labels and then haggling down another pound with a deliciously supercilious manner that fully justifies Cushing’s parting words, “I hope you enjoy snuffing it…”
For much of the tale, Carmichael plays straight man to Madam Orloff (Leighton), a slightly deranged clairvoyant who puts her umbrella through his Evening Standard to inform him that he has an elemental on his shoulder – “An invisible, bodiless creature… that sucks the very juices of the soul!” When this elemental begins to make his life unbearable, Carmichael brings in Madam Orloff to try and get rid of it. Sadly, she only manages to make things worse. Margaret Leighton, one of the most distinguished British stage actresses of her time, has an absolute ball in the role. Introducing herself as “Madam Orloff, clairvoyant extraordinaire, messages from beyond a speciality”, she dominates the screen with huge glasses, flailing hair and a dress sense which might have been vaguely influenced by Isadora Duncan. The exorcism sequence is one of the highlights of the film and can perhaps be seen as an unintentional but entirely apt and, incidentally, classically British response to the po-faced religious nonsense of The Exorcist.
The Elemental is an absolute delight right up to the witty twist ending – a bit of timely female liberation. But the real jewel of the film is the second episode, An Act of Kindness, a thoroughly disconcerting piece of black comedy starring Ian Bannen and Donald Pleasance. Bannen, one of my favourite actors, plays Lowe, a sad little victim of suburban drabness whose pathetic efforts to impress a street peddler, played by Pleasance, lead him to steal a DSO medal from the antique shop and thus seal his fate. The story turns on witchcraft as practiced behind lace curtains by the peddler’s daughter – Pleasance’s own daughter, Angela.
What makes this episode stand out, however, isn’t the horror or the twist ending, well constructed as it is. It’s the brilliant evocation of place and character. Lowe’s pathetic little life consists of coming home and getting squawked at by his blousy wife (Diana Dors) and sniggered at by his (badly dubbed) son. Dors is a revelation as a malicious fishwife whose every utterance is designed to put her family in their places. It’s very hard not to sympathise with Lowe when he enters the Pleasance household and finds himself respected and, so he believes, sexually desired. This house is equally well observed with Pleasance putting his Pinter experience to good use. The dialogue has a lot of Pinteresque black comedy about it, with every single line spoken by Pleasance a meaningless platitude. It’s one of Donald Pleasance’s funniest performances, all the more so for being underplayed. As for his daughter, she’s genuinely terrifying – particularly while singing that sinister little song when she goes to the living room dresser. The whole episode is so wittily played and directed that it could stand on its own as a short film.
At the end of the film, everything is neatly wrapped up with an amusing coda which indicates that our friendly little antique shop proprietor is a lot more than he seems. It’s a lovely capper to Cushing’s performance as he begins to close the door and then suddenly remembers to add that “a big novelty surprise goes with every purchase…”
One of the most popular Amicus anthologies, From Beyond The Grave is the last to receive a DVD release. It’s included in the Warner box set, “Twisted Terror”, but is also available to buy on its own.
This Region 1 DVD – also encoded for regions 2,3 and 4 – isn’t at all bad, though one longs for more extra features on these titles. The image is framed at 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a bad transfer but there is some noticeable print damage in places; scratches are in evidence along with some white popping. There’s no serious artifacting present, grain is relatively mild and there’s a reasonable amount of detail, although the overall image strikes me as rather soft. Colours are not all they could be but they are at least accurate. The mono soundtrack is absolutely acceptable and completely average in every way.
The only extra feature is a theatrical trailer. The film has optional subtitles.
From Beyond The Grave is my favourite Amicus film and it’s great to have it on DVD even in a relatively bare-bones edition. All that now remains is to get a DVD of Tales That Witness Madness which, though not an Amicus film, is very much in the same spirit and was directed by Freddie Francis. It also features Joan Collins being attacked by a tree which is something you don’t see everyday. Sadly.