Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part VI): The House That Dripped Blood (1971) dir. Peter Duffell

For 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 third anthology, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: Taking a short hiatus from horror, Amicus Productions returned after filming two sci-fi schlockers (THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE and THE TERRORNAUTS, both 1967) and a trio of "prestige" dramatic works adapted from literature and the stage (THE BIRTHDAY PARTY [1968] and A TOUCH OF LOVE and THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES from 1969) to the haunted grounds that had won them clout amongst fantasy fans. THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) is yet another step up on the shadowy staircase of the company's success and skill, the dawning of the new decade bringing more innovation and verve to the terror portmanteau that they had pioneered with their first two efforts, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964) and TORTURE GARDEN (1967). HOUSE is a film that could have only come from a company that had had experience with horror (as its final segment would so cheekily attest), and I feel that this film is yet a further honing on the blueprint that TORTURE GARDEN (1967) formulated and is, indeed, the very architectural structure that viewers can look to as perhaps the quintessential Amicus picture, bronze finishings and all. 

What particularly surprised me in re-viewing this film was the inventiveness of the wraparound segment. The patented approach to creating a movie with multiple episodes (ones bother to have a uniting frame in the first place) is to stage a sit-down of some kind, a meeting place where the various vignettes are told as a stand-in character for the audience listens to them with varying mixtures of awe and disbelief. This had been the standard since DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), that British chiller that had established so many hallmarks of the anthology, one that continued to be used in such contemporary fare as TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995)--criminals listen to a demented undertaker's grim warnings--to V/H/S (2012)--more criminals break into a home to find strange footage on videotapes. 

Everything is normally so stationary in this regard that it's genuinely unexpected to see the progressive investigation of our intrepid Detective Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) as he tries to solve the mystery of the old Gothic house and its disappearing residents. It's a brilliant twist, clever partly in just how simple a change it is; the stories come gradually, each thread unraveling as Holloway turns over every stone: looking through old files, listening to corroboration from his sergeant, questioning the real estate agent. Instead of just waiting for the inevitable bogey to descend upon him, Holloway actively plunges deeper and deeper into the house's heart of darkness as its goried past plays before him like newsreel footage. The "framing story" here is not just a convenient holder for the other, meatier tales but an involved narrative in of itself.

Another element of the film that is surprising is the absence of heretofore go-to man Freddie Francis at the director's helm, replaced with Peter Duffel, who had dealt mainly in television fare before and after today's film (this was in fact his first theatrical effort). With that in mind, it's impressive how easily Duffell fits within the Amicus mold, shooting the proceedings with all the leering angles, garish lighting, and grand horrific embellishments that Francis had brought to the studio's first five genre efforts. It's a wonder why Subotsky and Rosenberg didn't go on to request his services for future productions, especially given how HOUSE appears to be a favorite amongst fans of Amicus' output.

The actual sanguinary real estate on display here seems to be a fun invention of Bloch's, like a haven for mordant-minded fiends like himself to live out the rest of their shuttered, musty days. The film's opening offers up a loving introduction, a virtual tour of the house set to the bone-clacking musical score. The gloomy hallways, the softly ticking ornate clock, the prominence of such wonderful tomes as Eisner's THE HAUNTED SCREEN and Summers' THE VAMPIRE: HIS KITH AND KIN. It's no wonder that the eerie locale calls to characters who fancy murder and the macabre. In a way I can't blame them, so count me as one more entry on the "Missing Persons" list.

What did your overnight stay in the bloody house yield for you?

NT: Here's a controversial opinion for you: if ASYLUM (1972) didn't exist, I'd find THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD to be the least charming domicile on Amicus's post-DR. TERROR block. It's certainly no atrocious ranch-style affront to cinematic architectural decency, but its brick walls crumble about as easily as the one felled on set by Jon Pertwee's pompous actor in the film's final segment. Last week, we both dropped words of praise over the thematic and tonal unity of Amicus's immediately prior anthology, TORTURE GARDEN, and I can't help but feel that THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD looks like polyvinyl siding in comparison to that sturdy stone structure. Amicus's fourth anthology has severe foundational issues: a through-line connecting the stories that is so vague that a character must turn toward the camera right before the closing credits roll in order to spell it out for us; thankless roles bestowed upon veteran actors; an over-serious tone that three-fourths of the way through sharply devolves into outright farce; and the unforgivable presence of rubber bats hoisted into the air on strings. Hadn't we moved past this?

Above, you note the novelty and influence of the film's investigatory framing structure, and it's on this point that I will eagerly agree, though with reservations. Using the Scotland Yard inspector's investigation of that old leaky house as the method through which these assorted tales are conveyed to the viewing audience is a refreshingly organic frame for the anthology conceit, serving to eliminate the more glaring logistical issues found in the frame stories of Amicus's previous anthologies. Yet, on this viewing of the film, I was astonished to note how much less of the actual running time is devoted to this frame narrative than I remembered. Most episodes are bridged with only a few short lines of dialogue between the inspector and whoever he's interviewing, which makes the investigation feel far too easy and far less engrossing. Perhaps scenes of our inspector digging through the stacks of the local library or the police archives like an antiquarian would be more than is necessary, but the fact remains that even DR. TERROR spent more time developing its frame narrative than this one does. And that's unfortunate, considering its potential.

But I don't mean to dwell entirely on the unsightly cracks in the plaster of this house: there are several things to recommend here. We had to move on from our beloved Freddie eventually (though we do have one last hurrah with Amicus's frequent director in the near future), and I agree that Peter Duffell is a fine temporary replacement. For example, a video interview with Duffell that I watched reveals that Cushing's character's dream sequence in the second segment-- a nightmarish sequence that ranks among the film's best-- sprung fully formed from the director's mind, as it was absent from Bloch's original script. (This video interview also hints that future collaborations between Duffell and Amicus may have been soured by the director's distaste for Subotsky and Rosenberg's meddling in the production, He notes, for one, that he wished for the film to be titled DEATH & THE MAIDEN. The idea was brusquely shot down.) Similarly, the cinematography by Ray Parslow feels consistent with the Amicus house-style as established thus far, with the opening credits' eerie tour of the house's many Gothic features being an especial highlight. Most worthy of our regard, I feel, is Michael Dress's evocative score, which attains an almost avant garde timbre when it resembles the furious knocking of demented woodblocks.

Now let's turn our attentions to the four walls of this structure. In the interest of fairness, you can use your words to hang up some pretty pictures on them before my complaints aim to peel off the wallpaper and reveal the lack of adequate drywall underneath.

GR: Well. Remind me to never go house-shopping with you!

“Method for Murder” might be the most unremarkable tale of the lot to the layman, but I found it to be a softly eerie and pointed look at the creative and artistic mind giving in to its fancies… and its nightmares. Denholm Elliot is an interesting choice for the imaginatively-challenged author who hopes that the stately house will bear dark literary fruit for his next paperback shocker, but Elliot does seems to fit the bill of a popular inkslinger trying to type up his latest, lurid potboiler. The central demon of his novel that he does conjure up—Dominic the Strangler—is an unnerving fiend who, with his scraggly hair, sunken eyes, and ever-grinning overbite, serves as a reminder that the most disturbing of visages are always the ones that are noticeably human. All the CGI ghosts in the world can’t hit the same nerve or as hard as Dominic does even as he peeks at us from a sun-dappled lake.

There’s a playfulness at work here that isn’t quite as overt as the unabashed parody in “The Cloak,” but it underscores the menacing scenes quite nicely, such as how Elliot typically sees Dominic leering at him when near reflective surfaces (windows, mirrors, water), cluing the audience in to the wouldn’t-be-too-surprising notion that our intrepid scribe may be taking his evil character too seriously… and acting out on Dominic’s homicidal tendencies. Especially fun is the scene where Elliot is in the psychiatrist’s office, trying to explain his delusional dilemma. A pair of large, brass hands is prominently displayed, an allusion no doubt to Dominic’s murderous, vice-strong grip. And then, just as Elliot is describing how his personal boogeyman seems to surface from his subconscious at random, there’s the strangler himself, emerging from the shadows and Elliot’s repressed Id to creep up on the doctor and give him a little neck massage. This reading is kind of hampered by the addition of an admittedly unnecessary twist ending; it turns out Elliot’s wife (Joanna Dunham) and her secret, actor lover (Tom Adams) have pulled the old double-cross in order to drive Elliot to madness. But the plan turns out to be too good for its own… good, because Adams has become too involved with his role as Dominic, as evidenced when he gleefully wrings conniving Dunham’s throat. There had been links made earlier in the story as to how actors and writers alike could fall victim to their respective fabrications, but this climax seems a little too rushed, like Bloch was eager to throw a final curveball in the tale simply because that’s “his thing.” It injures an otherwise moody piece that scores extra points for serving up a healthy heaping of Creepy Face.

We class things up a bit (but just a little) with our second story, “Waxworks.” Peter Cushing is back in the saddle here as Philip Grayson, a milquetoast bachelor who occupies his solitary hours by playing records of classical music and going to the theater. His loneliness is best illustrated in the single shot of him observing the gentle streaming of a river, looking like Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” a solitary Gothic soul attempting to find a sense of companionship in nature. Where Cushing does formulate a bond is with the molded figure of a deadly maiden in a dusty wax museum, one who symbolically holds the decapitated head of a man on a silver platter (I haven’t read Bloch’s original story, but I can’t help but think that he whipped out a “He lost his head over her” type line). And that’s exactly what happens to Cushing, and soon his visiting chum Rogers (Joss Ackland) is under the figure’s spell as well. 

The dream sequence you brought up is indeed fantastic. Cushing gets so many of those! This one is comic book-surreal at its best, all drifting mists and lime-green vistas of cheaply-crafted wax figurines. “Waxworks” is similar in theme and tone to the, in my view, markedly better Bloch tale “Everybody Needs a Little Love” that was produced as an episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE. That one presented us with two male pals who became triangulated with the introduction of a store mannequin, but it took a supernatural turn as the mannequin began to show disturbingly humanistic traits. “Waxworks” doesn’t quite have the same doom-laden, uncanny valley touch as “Everybody…” but it’s serviceable in its own right and has just the right pinch of flair. It suffers from a similar fate as “Method for Murder,” as the concluding minutes feel a little too packed than they need to be, namely in the moment when Wolfe Morris as the proprietor lays some expositional hee-haw on Cushing like so many layers of molding wax that amounts to “That figure is really the dead body of my wife who I framed for the murder of my best friend because I loved her too much to let her go.” Bloch could have simply let things lie, although it is of interest that on the film’s IMDb page Russ Jones, editor and writer of Warren magazines like CREEPY and EERIE, is said to have been an uncredited contributor to this very segment. Is this merely an Internet goof, or, if true, does it point to the fact that “Waxworks” went through some last minute doctoring that made it a touch too detailed? Who can say. But nothing does quite say “cool” like a grinning skull with long, flowing locks.

“Sweets to the Sweet” feels like it’s just as long (or short, if you will) as it needs to be, and is actually quite sinister in the dark implications that it makes concerning child abuse. Christopher Lee is pitch-perfect as Mr. Reid, his tall frame and menacing bass making him seem like the great, looming shadow of a villain from a children’s fairy tale. What’s most frightening is that he never does any grand scenery chewing to make him larger than life, but rather seems like a vicious bully caught in the act when his daughter’s nanny Mrs. Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter, who has a great matronly schoolteacher vibe going and who looks stunning in a smart pair of reading glasses) questions him on his parenting, his eyes shifting to the side as he thinks of the physical and emotional scars furrowed deep between him and little Jane (Chloe Franks). Franks is cute as a button as the traumatized tot, her sugary British nature shining through even as she explains to Mrs. Norton how yew trees were used for the practice of evil magic… right before taking off on a cheery skip!

As simple a conceit as it may seem (Bloch’s tale was actually freely adapted into “Daddy Lost His Head” for an issue of E.C.’s THE VAULT OF HORROR), this one is delicately told and has a biting finish as bitter as black apples. Amicus shows their fondness for dolls yet again as little Jane constructs a voodoo replica of her mean old father from candles to inflict a little much-deserved payback on him, even reviving the “insinuated death” motif from THE PSYCHOPATH (1966) when the figure gets a little toss in the roaring fireplace as Lee screams to the heavens off-camera. It’s quite subversive in its own way; these days we’ve become accustomed to the Avenging Child in works of fiction, but here it retains a disturbing potency, the image of an oppressed waifish girl gleefully stabbing an effigy of her dear ol’ daddy chilling in its depiction of perfect innocence sent irretrievably over the edge (though Lee’s final words hint that Jane might have been more than meets the eye). It’s certainly something that Dickens would never have imagined! 

Ahh, and “The Cloak.” This is the tale that may be the most divisive amongst viewers, as its foray into outright lampoonery may be an unwelcome taste on the palate of some. I sense that this may be the case with you (at least in regards to the tonal shift), but I admit freely that I love every minute of it. Strange perhaps considering my previous thoughts on the segments from TORTURE GARDEN (1967) when I assessed that the stories therein were far better off having not been given the dark comedy twist. To specify, what I had meant by that was that it was surprising and welcoming given the content of those stories (namely Balthazar the head-eating cat and Euterpe the living piano) that the creative forces didn’t exploit them for laughs, whereas here the subject is vampires and, more specifically, the making of a vampire film, a topic that Bloch and Duffell use to poke some good-natured fun at their rival Hammer Studios as well as their own aesthetic. Take when the prissy Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) comments on the greatness of the Dracula character before off-handedly clarifying “Bela Lugosi, of course. Not this new fella.” I also really like his dead-pan delivery of “Dear God” upon seeing the actor playing the hunchbacked manservant, in a get-up that looks awfully similar to Dominick’s features!

“The Cloak” may be too high on the camp level when stacked against the other serious-minded suspense yarns, but it’s welcome in my book nonetheless. It’s all silliness and rot in its depiction of a “serious” horror actor balking at the low-budget tripe he’s forced to play in and, in an effort to bring some legitimacy to the production, purchases an antique cloak from an out-of-the-way costume shop that he mysteriously received a business card for. He’s bequeathed a royal number by the spidery Von Hartmann (Geoffrey Bayldon) and, upon trying it on, discovers that it bestows the power of the undead upon him, including two doofy fangs and the ability to float in the air at the stroke of the midnight. “The Cloak” is the most self-consciously silly entry to come through the gates of Shepperton Studios thus far, but I don’t think that it’s an affront to the stories that have come from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. It doesn’t resort to prat falls and painful puns (surprising, given this is Bloch), and when it makes fun it’s doing it at the expense of Amicus and their contemporaries more than anything else with its candid look at the colorful acting personalities and economical production values behind the scenes. When Ingrid Pitt gives us that toothy smile and salutes Paul with “Welcome to the club!” I just want to join her even as she takes to her rubbery bat flight. Primitive? Perhaps. A lesser effort than what the company was capable of? Certainly. Did it make me feel good? Absolutely.

Alright. Now I turn it back to you so that you may wheel the bulldozer in and raze my opinions to the ground.

NT: My bulldozer shall tread lightly. Truthfully, I agree with virtually everything you've written above about the individual segments. While I do think this is overall a weaker crop of installments when compared to last week's charmingly zany ones, none is without some small value or interest. My problems with the film stem from the totality, which-- for me-- never coheres into a satisfying, unified anthology. "The Cloak" is a fine short film on its own; it's a perplexing segment in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. I find it bizarre that, as you've noted, this film is often held up as the quintessential Amicus anthology when it seems to me more transitional, as if Amicus has grown unsure whether it should embrace comedy or retreat into serious horror. It upsets the fine balance that Francis and Bloch brought to TORTURE GARDEN, and which won't return until Francis does with TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

"Method for Murder" is my favorite of the four. In part, this is because I cannot restrain my adoration for the gaslight tale, in any of its sundry forms. And the gaslighting of Denholm Elliot's horror author here is quite the accomplishment, as the villains actually appear to drive him insane. Typically, a gaslighting victim's sanity may fluctuate while he's being tortured, but he'll emerge with his wits intact by the closing of the curtain. Our author is not so fortunate: until his final moment he appears to believe in the reality of Dom the Strangler and the seemingly supernatural power of his creative mind. Pleasantly, this also creates doubts in our minds. Looking back at the events, can we say definitively that all of the appearances of Dominic are actually of the actor Richard and not of some other, sinister force? The ending you found hackneyed I found to be both a moment of delicious ironic justice and a revelation that throws the prior revelations into question. Could it be that Hillyer's creative mind did, in fact, conjure Dominic into some sort of ethereal reality? Perhaps Dr. Andrews (Robert Land) was partially correct, and because this bushy-eyebrowed, Hyde-esque personality of Hillyer's no longer had him to attempt to possess, it simply jumped into the next warm male body it could find. Perhaps. This reading aside, I also appreciate "Method for Murder" because the bits of subtle humor you note work to align it more closely with those segments I adored from TORTURE GARDEN. This is the sort of tale I find Amicus tells best.

In a video interview with producer Max Rosenberg, he admits that all he wanted from the "Waxworks" episode was to see Peter Cushing's head on a plate as the final stinger. For better or worse, that's the pulpy, four-color horror comic image that drives this tale, and it's a shame those involved couldn't come up with more interesting ideas to lead us there. Imagine how dull "Waxworks" would be without the splendid dream sequence, and-- as I mentioned-- that scene was a last minute addition! This tale also suffers as part of the anthology for being the most loosely connected. The horror in this segment (and almost all of the action) does not emanate from the titular house, but a waxworks museum in town. Are we meant to believe that the house's influence spreads so far? Again the frame story seems inadequately defined, and in this case ill-fitting to the story presented. Lastly, this tale also has the unfortunate coincidence of casting Cushing as a lonely widow pining after the memory and image of his deceased wife: Cushing's actual wife died a month before the film was released in 1971, sending his own personal life spiraling into a melancholy shared with his on-screen role. Knowing this information makes the segment painful to watch at times. Poor, dear Peter.

"Sweets to the Sweet" is the clunker. After the audience's expectations are upset by the film's revelation of the presumed abuser as the true victim, the remainder of the plot is a rote, uninspired reiteration of similar tales of the Witchy and Evil Child varieties. Lee's curt gruffness of demeanor may be appropriate for the role, but I can't help but feel it wastes his many talents. I mean, he's constantly upstaged by the adorable Little Jane (Chloe Franks), whose air of playful innocence when committing evil deeds-- even when roasting her father alive-- is a more sophisticated performance than most other child actors could muster. As for other positives, I will also say that the part during which Jane collects her father's electric shaver trimmings in her hand is the grossest image Amicus has yet captured on film stock. So kudos for that.

And, finally, "The Cloak": it is what it is. I love the early meta-humor of the piece and its willingness to give Amicus and itself a gentle ribbing (and Pertwee as the proto-Peter Vincent is aces), but as the segment progresses it loses most of its (um) bite. Tellingly, when this tale and the frame story catch up to one another in the film's final moments not a lick of comedy or satire remains and the fang-bearing is played with nary a toothy smirk. Again, Amicus appears unwilling to decide what it wants to be as a producer of horror films. Ultimately, that's my issue with the film: it's unsure of itself, and so likewise I'm unsure of it.

At times like this the only thing I can be sure of is that Ingrid Pitt was quite the lady. Of that, the film and I are in agreement.

GR: At the end of the day and after our friend A.J. Stoker closes the iron gates to await the next residents, it seems like the one thing that can be agreed upon (barring Ingrid Pitt’s classiness) is that THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is an alchemical mixture that alternatively pleases the tongue while very occasionally upsetting the stomach with its clashing ingredients. Through it all, it’s a film that I’ll probably always eye as it sits on the cobweb-strewn self, tempting myself to indulge in its varying levels of gaudiness and dread like a cursed bottle of spirits. Its tone may be schizophrenic, but one thing it isn’t is boring.

And speaking of split personalities and bubbling concoctions, that puts me in mind of our next feature, one that also has Sir Christopher Lee exercising (and exorcising) the evilness of his personality. Perhaps there we shall find unity even amongst the chaos during his dark night of the soul…

Next week: I, Monster (1971)

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