Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part I): Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964) dir. Freddie Francis

For the next sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's first horror anthology, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORROR'S (1965). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: I think Amicus Productions has long been saddled with the reputation of being the lesser Hammer, but that feels like a poor assessment of the company's unique charm. While Amicus probably owes much of its existence to the success of Hammer's films in the early 1960s, it's insufficient to call the Amicus horror films nothing more complex than cheap imitations of Hammer's patented English Gothics. The rampant cross-pollination of acting and directing talent between the two production companies during their peak periods hints to me that there was no great animosity between them; rather, it seems to reveal that all involved felt that the two companies were producing distinct product that was less in competition with than developing alongside one another. With that in mind-- and I'm not sure if you'll agree with this-- I'd feel better calling Amicus the American Hammer. Yes, I'd like to call this English production company American because, well, they were making decidedly American films. Cheaper, faster, and looser, with more raunch, blood, jokes, and moralistic twists: how could a set of films possibly be more American? The majority of them are even sliced down into collections of bite-sized pieces, all the better for American drive-in attention spans. (Not to mention that a good number of those are composed of direct adaptations of EC Horror Comics, those staples of any contemporaneous American boy's reading diet.) In comparison, the Hammer films (at least those up until the early '70s) feel as prim and literate as a Jane Austen adaptation. Color me not one bit surprised to discover that Amicus's founders, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, were two New York City gents who relocated to England to set up their company. Their homegrown sensibilities followed them across the Atlantic and merged with the English, Hammer-influenced horror aesthetic they were striving to emulate, producing a body of hybrid cinematic beasts that (at least I feel) is totally distinct from that of the more well-known English fright factory.

I think you can spot this very American quality of Amicus's films from the start. "The Start" in this case meaning their first DEAD OF NIGHT-inspired horror anthology, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), written by Subotsky himself and directed by Hammer regular Freddie Francis (credited on my copy as "Freddy," of course, because that's the American way). As made clear by the shockingly creative story titles in this volume ("Vampire," "Werewolf," "Disembodied Hand," etc.), it seems likely that old Subotsky simply plucked a handful of stock horror tropes from the air and started writin' himself a movie. That feels like a pretty American sensibility to me: give 'em everything they want, don't bother to make it too "arty," and screw whether or not it makes sense in context. Consequently, the film has a certain disjointed "we'll try anything once" attitude that's hard not to admire, even if it doesn't do much for the film's cohesiveness. There are some things to like here (most of them beginning with the words "Peter Cushing"), but DR. TERROR is a rather inauspicious beginning to the best run of anthology films in the genre. To me, it feels a bit like what Subotsky's script does to English horror cinema inadvertently mirrors the situation presented in the "Voodoo" segment at the film's center: an outsider invades a foreign land, flees with its cultural production, and then tricks it out for display in his homeland to an audience desiring an "exotic flavor." The rearranged composition, while loose and jazzy and not without its entertaining qualities, nonetheless lacks the original's (voodoo) spirit. What say you?

GR: For starters, your assessment is an astute one. I grew up watching the Amicus pictures and in many ways they shaped the way I processed the horror genre. That "picking of tropes" that you mentioned is how I thought anthologies of this nature were supposed to be made. You gotta have your vampire story, your werewolf story, your... creeping vine story? The Amicus films were one of the first times I was exposed to horror's nearly limitless set pieces. The number of ideas boggled me. It's fair to say too that the company's output had more of an American-ness about it. There's still a tangible British quality to their movies, but it's of a (then) contemporary flavor, a little more with the free love, a little jazzier like you say. Hammer was of the archly Gothic, getting their inspiration from Stoker and Le Fanu; Amicus was definitely the pulpier of the two, their tales culled from the thin, smudged paper that had been the home to Robert Bloch and R. Chetwynd-Hayes as well as those garishly gruesome fables from Entertaining Comics. You would go to the theater to see Hammer. Amicus was definitely for the drive in-crowd. Could one imagine Hammer ever producing a story about a jealous, sentient piano? Hardly. Some might say that this is indicative of Amicus' lower sensibilities. I say that it's proof that they were willing to have some fun, no matter how silly it might have made them look. This might all sound like it's been building up to knock them, but I think there's a good reason why when people think of "horror anthology films" the first ones that come to mind are the ones from the studio that dripped blood.

How appropriate that the first feature I ever recall watching was Amicus's first experiment in terror, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965). It uses as its template the "teller of fortunes" motif that would crop up again and again in the other portmanteau films (TORTURE GARDEN [1966], TALES FROM THE CRYPT [1972]). Here the purveyor of the grim future is Peter Cushing, looking something like a Nazi war criminal in his pointed beard and dark-brimmed hat. Milton Subotsky surely had an interesting conceit here: five trainbound travelers stuck with a strange little man who claims to know what fate has in store for them (though it's kind of odd that Cushing's Schreck would refer to his own deck of Tarot cards as a "house of horrors"). Speaking of which, I couldn't help but wonder if this movie was floating around in Stephen King's mind while he was writing DANSE MACABRE. Many of the stories themselves seem rather tame in comparison to vignettes from later pictures, but I think there's a charming, cozy quality to some of them (I have a soft spot particularly for "Werewolf" with its creaky mansion setting and entombed lycanthropes); others are just pretty flat but not without their own clever touches. For instance, I was surprised how menacing the vine strangulation was in the second story--the lack of music is key there--and how the voodoo practitioners slowly surround our "hero" in the "Voodoo" tale in between cuts. Also having a lot of fun here is Christopher Lee as the uppity art critic. He made a great priss! And as familiar as the "shock ending" has become within these types of films, seeing that grinning skull as the music crescendos at the end admittedly scared the ever-loving hell out of me when I watched this for the first time in third grade.

NT: Your point about how horror anthologies should be grab-bags of horror tropes is well-taken. The implication inherent in a well-wrought horror anthology film is that the diegetic world on screen is large and complex enough to contain not one but multiple horrific elements and situations (if not all of them), and that's enough to spin one's mind dizzy with all of the monster-mashing possibilities. I think many of Amicus's subsequent anthology films create just such hideously overpopulated worlds. But DR. TERROR's world is a bit less successfully imagined. After all, this is a world that (if Dr. Schreck's tarot cards are to be believed) is about to be plagued by a plant apocalypse. Where's the logical space for the existence of an entombed werewolf ghost in a world like that? As a winking vampire might have addressed the camera if he'd thought of it, "This town ain't big enough for a vampire and a triffid." The real problem might be tonal: as the film travels from a stately Gothic to a cold scientific thriller, from a lighthearted musical interlude to a wryly ironic morality fable, we never understand what's being presented to us as taking place in one recognizable world, but rather many different worlds with their own distinct tenors, aesthetics, and outcomes. Maybe that's the point of Dr. Schreck's house of horrors anyway, as if he desires to tease us and his victims with those wildly divergent tales of stock cinematic terror before loosing the trapdoor beneath us all and sending us spiraling down into a bleaker, unified vision of hell. Now that I've typed it out, that sounds like a pretty great concept. It's a shame it doesn't translate half as well to the screen.

Unsurprisingly, the wraparound is the film's highlight. (The presence of Cushing here certainly doesn't hurt: his reading of the line "Have you not guessed?" before his big reveal is the most chilling the man has ever been.) Yet, some brief comments on the individual segments are in order: 1) I have fond feelings for "Werewolf," too, for both its being the only Scottish Gothic I can immediately call to mind and for featuring a werewolf named Waldemar a few years before Naschy started doing his thing in LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO (1968). 2) "Creeping Vine" certainly delivers some fine plant strangulations (bye, puppy), but the overall film's unwillingness to stretch well-worn horror concepts beyond the obvious is most apparent here. 3) Though its digs at cultural appropriation are appreciated, "Voodoo" might be a little too blase about its characters' cheerful racial belittling. Quote: Drink rum! Git love in de sun! 4) "Disembodied Hand" is the harbinger of anthologies to come and is certainly the best of the lot. Lee's snooty performance is a fun one, but I prefer how the ever-sly Michael Gough bounces off him with a slithery menace (and he's not even the villain of the piece!) 5) "Vampire" is this anthology's equivalent of a bat on a string.

GR: I hadn't considered the idea that in an anthology film, particularly one wherein the stories are supposed portents of the future, the different threads of reality would have the potential to kind of "run into each other" at one point or another. As you said, does the whole werewolf rising from his grave business occur before, during, or after the human race's enslavement by our new weed overlords? Of course, accepting that these things would take place on the same timeline is perhaps not asking too much more out of us than to believe that these supernatural occurrences would even happen in the first place, so why not go along for the whole, creepy ride?

I've always compared anthologies and collections of terror tales to buffets, and DR. TERROR fits the bill of a true sampler perhaps more than any other from Amicus and from without. There's no real unity at work in these stories as there would be in ASYLUM, for instance; they're just a handful of appetizers grabbed without discretion for the sole purpose of appeasement. Which is funny considering that the very nature of an anthology is to bring us multiple stories concerning almost entirely different subjects, and yet other portmanteau horrors manage to feel of a single piece and overriding mood despite their disparate elements. DR. TERROR, for all its dime-store and spookshouse thrills, doesn't quite have that sense of composure.

Oh, and I love that line by Cushing at the end. Not even because he's playing it sinister--he is just a little--but because he says it with this almost pitying tone, like these poor dumb fools just don't understand what's happening to them and he finds it a little tragic. If you ask me, that makes it all the more horrifying.

I did note the impressive moniker of the ancestral werewolf in the first segment, but I guess I must have misheard it because I thought they said Valdemar, as in a reference to Poe. So, either way, neat right?

I don't know why, but I keep feeling the need to defend "Creeping Vine" although it certainly is the stalest of the lot. Maybe it's because I feel like there's some actual thought that was put into it, be it however slight or half-baked, and a keen eye towards crafting a menacing presence from the most innocuous of subjects. I mean, that slithering weed was easily ten times more impressive than any of the undead hijinks in the "Vampire" yarn. There was not a single fang to be seen in that thing. And it literally does have a rubber bat on a string! Also, just how does our bloodsucking physician manage to ward off Donald Sutherland's wife by inadvertently making the sign of the cross with his arms without, I don't know, bursting into flames himself? Talk about your wasted opportunities, that.

Michael Gough is rather quietly off in his performance, isn't he? He never swears vengeance on Lee or anything like that, but that doesn't necessarily mean he wouldn't, if you catch my meaning. "Disembodied Hand" probably has the best stinger-ending of the bunch, a single line of dialogue that hits the gut harder than any visions of writhing appendages (as impressive as those admittedly are). It's in little moments like that that Subotsky's writing talents and the inspirations of his writing come to the fore. They may be modest, but they are there, like a skull peering out through the darkness of night.

NT: You know what, you're probably right about the whole Waldemar/Valdemar confusion in "Werewolf." It's not as if we see jolly Count Cosmo's name inscribed on anything, but Valdemar seems the more logical spelling because of both the Poe connection you've pointed out and the fact that the red-headed red herring maid is named Valda. (Alas, I was hoping beyond hope for her to snarl "They call me Valda...MAR!" before turning into a wolf.) I think what I was doing was imagining an alternate dimension wherein Scottish folk vocalize their words with Germanic pronunciation. I hope to visit that dimension one day. At any rate, I'd still reckon that Naschy was aware of if not directly inspired by the Count's perfectly wolfish surname.

I understand where your affection for "Creeping Vine" comes from. The segment does give the material its best, and I find the results to be fitfully effective because of this effort. (I agree with your earlier pronouncement that the absence of an overwrought musical score produces much of its success.) Nevertheless, the sight of what I would assume is a production assistant slowly outstretching a chintzy, roughly vine-shaped pole towards an actor's shoulder across multiple cuts can only inspire a snickering sort of menace in me.

But I suppose that's all part of the fun, eh? DR. TERROR is pure, unfiltered pulp: a chaotic first draft of the Amicus anthology formula that would be perfected soon after by the likes of the more narrative-conscious Robert Bloch and eventually Subotsky himself (once he began to employ helpful blueprints from EC Comics). But blundering rough drafts are the foundations of expert revisions, so the missteps here seem more forgivable while the glimmers of terrors to come leave me appreciating how much they managed to get right at the time of this first hearty howl at the full moon. All Hail Our New Weed Overlords.

Next week: THE SKULL (1965)

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