Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XII): From Beyond the Grave (1974) dir. Ken Connor

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 FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: Having plundered the collected works of American frighteners Robert Bloch and Entertaining Comics to varying degrees of success, Amicus turned to the short stories of one of their fellow countrymen, Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, to supply the sundry beasts and bloody bits for their next portmanteau feature, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974). Chetwynd-Hayes was a literary brother to Bloch in many ways, mainly in the manner in which he utilized stock genre tropes and seasoned them with black humor, though Chetwynd-Hayes lacked some of the sharpness in prose that Bloch demonstrated with his snap endings and biting dialogue, be it however laden with bad puns. Chetwynd-Hayes’ fiction was a bit jollier in comparison, but his stories were an ideal fit for Shepperton Studios, always eager as they were to leaven their grisly subjects with little winks and pokes at the audience.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is especially notable for its expert art direction and inventive design. The film is filled with neat little camera transitions, a delicious color palette, and sumptuous sets. The screen becomes awash in hues of blue when the supernatural is present, showing us ghostly vistas of fog and skeletal trees as well as decadently decorated parlors of Gothic furniture festooned with dust and cobwebs. Even the most innocuous of decisions—letting a blood drop fall from a ceiling to fill the camera lens with red—add a significant amount of visual wit to the proceedings. The overall technical skill of FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is somewhat surprising when you take into account that this was director Kevin Connor’s very first film at the helm. Having worked previously as an editor and sound editor on a handful of features, it’s evident that Connor brought his expertise and that of cinematographer Alan Hume (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI), art director Bert Davey (THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, SUPERMAN III, ALIENS) and set decorator Simon Wakefield (BATMAN BEGINS, CASINO ROYALE, MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND) to the project to give us a very pretty-looking picture.

Sadly, the style seems to outweigh the substance here. As wonderfully macabre as all the knick knacks are, the stories themselves are not quite as memorable as one would hope. Whereas Bloch had his share of ingenious little plots—you could easily name them off as “That one with the head-eating cat” or “The one where those body parts came back to life” and have someone instantly recognize which one you’re talking about—Chetwynd-Hayes’ offerings run a little on the dry side and, had it not been for the engaging and fun tech work, might be completely forgettable. There’s at least one entry here that stands firmly on its own two legs as a singular horror fable while the others fall on the wayside. Two of them are practically interchangeable! But we’ll get to that in the bit.

The film’s wraparound segment involves a curiosity shop called Temptations Ltd. owned by the Proprietor (Peter Cushing), a quiet little man whose shop is packed to the brim with grim antiquities that would make any genre fan’s heart skip a beat. This uniting framework is used once more to promote the moral justice of the Amicus universe, though here the punishments seem quite disproportionate to the crimes of our characters. Instead of the murderers and sadists that we’ve seen before, the victims of otherworldly justice in FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE are basically just a bunch of folks who are trying to skimp on paying the Proprietor the proper price for his artifacts. Whether it’s switching tags on the items or boorishly haggling for a lower rate, these folks find out that even if you’re nothing but a cheat in Amicusland, you’re screwed. It’s even wryly remarked that the film’s final customer, a young lad low on funds, still has to go through the hellish wringer before Cushing sees that he did in fact pay him the total and correct amount for his purchase. No one’s safe!

Speaking of which, I suggest that you step away from that iron maiden you’re eyeing there to give us your side of the story before ol’ man Cushing kicks us out for loitering.

NT: For me, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is the dark horse among the Amicus anthologies.
When we began preparing for these dialogues, I was surprised to realize that FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE existed. I’d previously seen every one of Amicus’s anthologies, and yet somehow this one had managed to elude my memory. Of course I fondly reminisced about the one in which Peter Cushing ran a curiosity shop, but, I thought, wasn’t that in THE VAULT OF HORROR? It was only while watching FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE—the production company’s (sorta) penultimate portmanteau—for the second time that faint recollections of the individual episodes began to flicker across my consciousness like the blue flame of a spooky séance candle. In my experience, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE began to resemble an Amicus-patented Vengeful Corpse: dead and long forgotten in my ignorance, the film was resurrected by a second viewing and crept its way inexorably into my den, eager as it was to unleash its delectable morbidity upon me once again.

In truth, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE might be my favorite Amicus film we’ve done thus far (though TORTURE GARDEN runs a close second). Why, then, had I almost completely forgotten about the film and all of the small, ghoulish treasures contained within? It’s difficult to say.

It’s not the fault of director Kevin Connor (MOTEL HELL) or the assembled cast and crew. As you’ve duly pointed out, this is an attractive film full of technical flourishes that set it apart from the usually quite static (if still attractive and appropriately atmospheric) Amicus visual style. The acting is on par with what we’re accustomed to in these bite-sized sketches of wicked souls, and we even a get few new welcome faces added to the roster who put in distinctive performances of their own (Donald and Angela Pleasence, David Warner). The score is effective, the sets are impeccable, and the production’s (most likely) miniscule budget was wrung dry. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE feels invigorated by its fresh but experienced creative talent behind the camera, unlike our last entry, THE VAULT OF HORROR, which gave the impression that Amicus was exhausted with (or perhaps had exhausted) the anthology format.

You’ve pointed towards the writing as a possible culprit for the film’s unmemorable status, but I’m not sure that I can agree. These four segments feel no more featherweight than any other segment we’ve seen in an Amicus portmanteau and— as you also note—they certainly express a similarly wry wit interspersing the bloodshed. The film’s longer than average running time might lead us call them quieter, more slow-burning tales in comparison to what we’re used to from Bloch and EC Comics by-way-of Milton Subotsky. Yet, I can’t think of a finale in the Amicus oeuvre more explosive than the one we witness in the final tale, “The Door.” Hell, even “The Elemental” jumps farther over the top than we’re accustomed to with its climactic living room windstorm. All four tales are recognizably Amicus material, and (I’d argue) they’re stronger than the majority of their peers.

So what is it about these tales, then, that prevents them from sticking? My best guess relates back to your remark about how two of these tales are essentially interchangeable (I’m guessing you’re referring to the first and the fourth). FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE presents a coherence that’s foreign to us anthology connoisseurs. Rather than being disparate tales plucked at random from an author’s collected works and crammed (however clumsily) into the confines of a frame narrative (looking at you, HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD), these four tales are all of a piece. Each focuses around witchcraft, the occult, and the ancient supernatural evil that lurks in the cracks of the world (and within the cracks of various mundane antiques). These tales work together, revising each other’s basic themes and story content. This grouping of tales isn’t designed to be as attention-grabbing as we might expect (we’re not barreling swiftly from a story about a head-munching cat to a story about a murderous piano, after all), and thus they do tend to blend together in our minds. This is made especially apparent when, as you’ve said, two of the episodes only significantly differ in the identity of the haunted object and in the story’s final outcome. Even the film’s curious anthology format (which finds the film moving sequentially in time from the events of the frame narrative to the events of each tale without utilizing the conceits of flashbacks or visions of potential futures) encourages us to view the film as a cohesive unit, as a single chronological story rather than subdivided bits of horror fantasy. When we think of Amicus anthologies, we think of their wild variety of horror elements, their abandonment of consistent tone, and their tendency towards a disregard for internal coherence. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE possesses none of these attributes, and I can only imagine this is what left it underrated in my estimation until now.

Now, I’m going to go gaze into the beyond (courtesy of this nifty haunted mirror) while you give your further thoughts on these specific curiosities.

GR: As a matter of fact, I do agree with you in regards to the high amount of sturm und dang on display in FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, as it truly is the most ferocious Amicus picture we’ve yet seen when it comes to scenery-destroying action. So why then, as you admit, does it leave such a foggy impression in the mind? Let’s see if we can find out.

“The Gate Crasher” is the first of our crackly tales, telling of the young Edward Charlton (David Warner) who purchases a gilded, antique mirror from Cushing’s store to enliven the atmosphere of his flat. It’s a great conversation starter, as it so proves when his friends are inspired by the spooky looking-glass to hold a séance. Afterward Edward is haunted by a Rasputin-like figure from the mirror-world who demands that Edward feed him blood. Because what else do ghosts do? Connor and company certainly start with their best foot forward here, as “The Gate Crasher” is the vignette in which they really let loose with those little flourishes I mentioned earlier. The séance scene is particularly notable, the blue flame of the candle dancing high like an angered wraith as the camera pans around the little table to each of the participants’ leery faces. When Warner is transported to the mirror-world in a dream, the primary color scheme and close camera angles recall the memorable, off-the-cuff night terror that Cushing himself suffered in the “Waxworks” episode of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970).

Even at its abbreviated length, “The Gate Crasher” comes close to feeling a little overlong, the narrative supported solely on our protagonist’s seemingly endless supply of plasma to his new, reflective friend. The bit with Warner knifing a prostitute is a cute little wink pointing towards his future turn as Jack the Ripper in TIME AFTER TIME (1979), though it is curious how, in his hypnotized state, Warner doesn’t bother cleaning up the sticky mess in his apartment yet makes it a point to dress in his pajamas before going to bed! The story becomes an intriguing parable of a man descending into the pit of addiction, as we see Charlton’s once handsome lodgings go to shambles and his healthy pallor transformed into a waxy, sickly countenance. The Face, as it is credited, is like a demonic monkey on Charlton’s back that constantly demands more hits of the juice it loves so much; as it so tellingly intones to him at one point, “You must feed me.” Charlton eventually becomes lost himself, a restless specter ready to plague the next foolish mortal to fall under the mirror’s hold. And if that’s too self-consciously high falutin’ for you, check out that bit when the Face, finally released from his prison, orders Charlton to take his own life with the instructions of “Grip my shoulders. Now thrust forward.” That naughty monkey!

The following story, “An Act of Kindness,” is probably the film’s high mark for a number of reasons. For one, it probably has the strongest sense of character and purpose of the lot, not to mention being the one that is perhaps the most cleverly and tightly plotted. I don’t say this merely because “An Act of Kindness” has a twist ending but because for the whole of its running time you are never entirely sure where it’s going to end up. It has a canny unpredictability that’s gripping to watch. Ian Bannen portrays Christopher Lowe, a by-all-means average man who tries to become just a little more than that in the eyes of a streetside ragman, Jim Underwood (Donald Pleasence). He does this by obtaining an honorary military medal from Temptations Ltd. and Pleasance duly offers Bannen his home and heart, not to mention the hospitality of his daughter Emily (Angela Pleasence). Not only are the Underwoods remarkably kind, they also know just how to alleviate Bannen of his nasty wife and apathetic child with a little brand of their own magic.

Or is that really the case? “An Act of Kindness” is a sneaky little number, and its general atmosphere (barring the wickedly cruel finale) seems like an anomaly compared to the wild and woolly haints and ghouls that inhabit the other stories. The second vignette derives its chills from more quietly shuddersome moments, like when the veiled and white-faced Emily stalks over Diana Dors as she sleeps, a gleaming knife in her hand. Angela Pleasence is wonderful here, even outshining her father a bit as the waifish girl whose toothy smile can inspire warmth and cold-blooded terror equally. “An Act of Kindness” feels more substantial for its tragic arc of events as well; when we see Bannen, we see the insignificant worker ant who only wishes to have some kind of importance to his fellow humans, so much so that he’s willing to lie about who he really is. He sees his own life as having so little merit that he must build up an alternate, more heroic personality just to receive some kind of warmth. He’s not trying to scam Cushing out of one of his antiquities just for the sake of material possession like the others. He needs the medal to become important. It’s this that makes his ultimate fate seem harsh. He was merely a stooge, a means to an end. Just as he was in life.

“The Elemental” makes it evident from its opening prologue that this segment is going to be the oft-dreaded (but generally not too terrible) “funny” one. Think “Golf Story” from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) or “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” from CREEPSHOW (1982). Cushing indulges in a little humor himself when he tells customer Reginald Warren (Ian Carmichael) upon making his purchase “I hope you enjoy snuffing it.” Because Warren has bought a snuff box, you see. Apparently the little case is bedeviled, as Warren finds out when he is pestered by a spiritualist named Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton, channeling Aunt Bedelia) on the train ride home. The woman claims that Warren has an elemental perched on his shoulder, a mischievous demon that proceeds to make his life a living hell. Fairly stumped by his supernatural quandary, Warren calls on Orloff to help him exterminate the pest.

Most of this story’s humor stems from Leighton’s fruity turn as the cat-lady-as-exorcist Orloff. Her wavering, eccentric tone is matched by her brassy expletives such as when she commands the elemental to “Get out, ya bastard!” Leighton has quite a few lines that tickle the ribs due to the earnestness with which she delivers them, like when she describes the demon feeding off its victims’ energy (“Sucking up the fluids like a babe at his mother’s breast”) or the evil’s magnetism to Warren’s wife Susan (“She’ll attract them like flies to a dung heap!”). A disquieting moment occurs in the middle of the program when Warren’s familiar coyishly tickles Susan in bed only to start strangling her. The scene is rather unsettling in its own small way, though the sight of Nyree Dawn Porter struggling with her invisible attacker and her race to the bathroom as she retches at the poltergeist’s awful stench will certainly provoke some laughter. The exorcism finale is a pretty crackerjack set piece, as Orloff bellows her commands as pillows burst in an eruption of goose-feathers and a ghostly wind nearly tears the house right out of the ground. Its played-for-cereal ending is just a tad ludicrous though, as we see the now-possessed Porter strike down her hubby with a poker (déjà vu…) only to break down the front door with superhero flair as she exits into the night. “The Elemental” has such an odd mixture of terror and triviality that the moments when it plays for laughs feel more and more off-kilter and weird the more you think about them. This is perhaps epitomized no more succinctly than in another “context is everything” chestnut that Orloff offers on par with the Face’s orders from “The Gate Crasher”: “His main objective is to get inside you.”

Our final selection for the evening is pretty much simplicity personified in both title and content. It’s a weird fairy tale called “The Door” in which happy couple William and Rosemary Seaton (Ian Ogilvy and Lesley Ann-Down) acquire an ornate, Gothic stone door from Cushing’s shop to use it as the entryway to a pantry (!) in their home. When Rosemary fancifully imagines the door opening to a more dramatic space, William discovers that it does just that, as his meagre shelves are replaced with a sapphire-hued parlor of the previous century. Not only that, but it is the room of the dreaded Sir Michael Sinclair (Jack Watson), a depraved aristocrat who spent his sordid life immersing himself in the study of evil. And you can bet your ascot that Sir Michael is not resting easily now that the portal to his realm has been opened.

You were correct in your guesstimation that my earlier comment about the interchangeable stories was referring to “The Gate Crasher” and “The Door,” seeing as how they both deal with two different kinds of gateways that grant access to vampiric men of the past who terrorize the modern worlds of their young protagonists. They act as interesting companion pieces though, as the former shows our hero giving in to the power of darkness where the character from the latter tale hacks it to pieces with a battle axe. As pale as it might be as a reworking of the Bluebeard tale, “The Door” certainly grabs one’s attention with more adept technical skill and bombast. Light and darkness are used to good effect when William reads Sinclair’s journal, the implications of his sacrilegious acts made by the dancing shadow of a crucifix on the wall, and Sinclair’s own entrance is quite creepy as we initially see him only as a raggedly-breathing shadow before he is revealed for the bewigged bogey that he is. Once in the light, Sinclair becomes a regular cackling villain when he sweeps the fainted Rosemary off her feet, snickering to William as the lad tries to stop him “Two souls are better than one!” Enthusiasts of performers such as Tod Slaughter will surely get a kick out of that. And the segment ends on a real blood-and-thunder note as William lays waste to the evil door, the carvings oozing plasma and causing Sinclair to collapse like a heap of sticks. I especially liked how William’s blows on the door’s hinges apparently caused Sinclair’s spine to break in two! A small amount of cleverness and a rarely-seen happy ending make “The Door” stand out, but amongst its fellows it may seem like it’s retreading ground we’ve literally just seen. But, to be fair, typing all my thoughts out has actually made this story rise in my estimation. What’s up with that? Maybe I just have a thing for bloodsuckers in curly period wigs.

Okay, I think somebody better bash my head with a poker before I babble on any more than I have. Even this little sprite on my shoulder is pissed off at me now.

NT: If only that little gremlin had stopped you sooner: For the most part, you’ve summed up my exact feelings about each of these witchy tales. I could stare long and hard into the blue candle flame and try to drudge up some further interpretations from the beyond, but why bother? Amicus anthology tales are slight by design. All I shall offer are a few stray observations about these tales before moving on to place the final nail in this flick’s coffin.

I find “The Gate Crasher” to be a rather wonderful witch’s brew of horror subgenres. Part psycho-slasher (David Warner’s murder of prostitutes brings us into seedier territory than we’re used to); part ghost story (a séance and a haunted mirror, even if this mirror doesn’t give the ones from THE BOOGEYMAN (1980) or OCULUS (2014) much competition); part LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) master/slave dynamic (yes, to Warner the ghost mirror commands, “Feed me!”); and part Lovercraftian tale of cosmic coercion (we learn that the mirror leads to a shadowy beyond of immortality and ultimate power, and that those who occupy this nether realm “are Legion.” The implication may be Satanic, but the details seem to point towards a horror far grander). I think the problematic homosexual undertones you’ve picked up on are on point: sure, the mirror man tries out the blood of women, but it’s ultimately the blood of Warner and his effeminate, cat-toting downstairs neighbor that return him to a corporeal state. Warner himself seems to be dealing with similar feelings of sexual confusion (recall, he’s unwilling to get all pointed and thrusty with his presumed galpal, Pamela). We can only hope that one day the masses become a little more understanding of other people’s lifestyles, enabling Warner and his extra-dimensional pals to come out of the ghost mirror.

“An Act of Kindness” is certainly the film’s best tale, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. The segment captures in its characterization of Christopher Lowe (Ian Bannen) a depth, subtlety, and pathos rarely angled for in these roughly twenty minute long Amicus short films. But, yes, every scene is enlivened by the waifish, ghostly presence of Angela Pleasence. Her filmography is sparse, but those who have witnessed her in films like this and Jose Ramon Larraz’s SYMPTOMS (1974) aren’t soon to forget her. Her unsettling, improvised, nearly tuneless rendition of a creepy lullaby (which includes the charming and reassuring line, “eaten by worms in the cold wet earth”) while doing absent-minded chores around the house is going to rear up in one of my nightmares someday, I just know it.

When considered among to the other (quote unquote) funny episodes of prior Amicus anthologies (I’m thinking “Voodoo” from DR. TERROR or “Bargain in Death” from VAULT OF HORROR),  “The Elemental” is assuredly a cut or two above. I believe I chuckled a few times, thanks to the insuppressible Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton), so that’s something. For me, the ultimate success of this segment rests upon its POLTERGEIST-y climax, all sound, fury, and living room windstorms. The image of a possessed Susan (Nyree Dawn Porter) bursting out through the front door like She-Hulk in the final shot will never cease to strike a spark of amusement in me. Or perhaps that’s just the elemental perched on my shoulder pulling at my cheeks?

And despite its niggling impression of “been-there-done-that-literally-half-an-hour-ago,” I quite love “The Door.” Allow me to count the reasons: 1.) the absurdity of a grandiose antique door being installed on the hinges of a stationary pantry, 2.) said stationary pantry (who has ever even heard of such a superfluous thing?) doubling as a time travel portal, 3.) the sheer brutality of the drawn out final conflict in which the door and its demon get the butt of an ax handed to them, and 4.) the revised ending in which one of our victims is allowed to escape through good behavior, producing the cleverest sting in the tail we’ve had yet.

Again, if you average them out, I’d have no hesitation placing FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE near the very top of the Amicus canon. It’s lively, creative, provocative, well-acted, well-shot: a real devil of an anthology. I still wonder, then, why it so quickly faded from my memory. If I were to disregard the influence of its supremely unmemorable title, I might hazard that part of the reason is portmanteau fatigue. When I first viewed the Amicus anthologies several years ago, I tackled them all in short succession. By the time I arrived at this, their seventh anthology, I suppose I’d had enough of anthologies altogether. During our Shepperton Screams series, I’ve again made short order of them due to our schedule, and, believe me, I’ve felt the effects of this bombardment. I think there’s only so much anthologizing a poor elemental soul can take. Let’s agree to move on to redder pastures, shall we? Let’s see that if it’s at this late point in Amicus’s brief life that the screaming truly starts…

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