Tag Amicus

Asylum (1972)

Asylum (1972)

You have nothing to lose but your mind.

In order to meet a requirement for employment, a young psychiatrist interviews four inmates of a mental asylum. He hears their stories about the revenge of a murdered wife, a tailor who makes a unique suit, a woman who questions her own sanity and a man who builds tiny robots with lifelike human heads. The psychiatrist must then decide which inmate is the former head doctor in order to secure his job.

 

Think British horror and Hammer will most likely be the first name on your lips, and rightfully so. The studio dominated the late 50s and 60s with its succession of period Gothic horrors featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, various mummies, werewolves and more. However, you would find a solid case to argue for Amicus, a rival British studio which, after the success of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964, churned out a further seven horror anthology films of varying levels of quality. Asylum was made mid-way through this schedule and acts as a critical high point where the creativity and originality had just about peaked and the films hadn’t got too formulaic for their own good.

The best thing about these anthology films is that they would feature a number of smaller stand-alone horror stories which usually ran for about ten to fifteen minutes and were linked together by a framing story. The stories were usually well-paced, snappy affairs which meant that if you didn’t like it then you’d only have to wait a few minutes before the next one began. It’s a something for all approach that worked well across their anthology films. For each weak segment, there was always a strong segment to rebound with. Asylum is no stranger to this way of working. Everyone will find something different to enjoy and the four different stories will each appeal to a certain horror lover.

The framing story for Asylum is probably the most interesting of the Amicus anthologies and does a nice job of linking together the individual stories. Writer Robert Bloch (who had previously penned The House That Dripped Blood, not to mention writing the novel Psycho) creates a mysterious tale in which the audience are being tested as much as the young psychiatrist. It also helps that Amicus’ film stock always looked dull and devoid of colour, certainly compared to their lavish Technicolour Hammer counterparts. The gloomy look adds to the creepiness and bleak nature of the asylum.

The first story isn’t particularly exciting about a husband who kills his wife because she won’t give him a divorce. It’s not great although it does feature a highly memorable image – that of a woman’s severed head, wrapped in brown paper, coming back to life and beginning to breathe through the paper. It’s quite an unnerving effect as the body parts squirm and making the paper rustle. However, no reason is given for the woman’s body parts coming back to life and this somewhat sours the whole episode.

The second story is also pretty low key as an impoverished tailor is paid a visit by a mysterious stranger who gives him an even more mysterious material from which to make a suit for his son. Barry Morse gives a sympathetic performance as the tailor and Peter Cushing adds a touch of class as the stranger with a lot to hide. The material glows quite weirdly and the set up to the finale is quite nice, if somewhat predictable. Cushing isn’t in it enough to make much of an impression so it’s a good job that Morse is able to hold his own.

The third story is arguably my least favourite but potentially the best developed of the four as a young woman is released from a mental home to stay with her brother. However she keeps having visions of her friend ‘Lucy’ who tells her to run away. Charlotte Rampling gives a good performance as someone who is delusional but Britt Ekland is her usual self: looks good but doesn’t cut it in the acting chops. The twist in this film is highly predictable right from the start even for the least seasoned horror veterans.

The final story doesn’t last too long and is basically a set up for the finale as Herbert Lom’s doctor creates little robots with lifelike human heads and says he can bring them to life by the power of thought. The robot looks really freaky with their little human heads but the segment isn’t really meant to be as long as the others. It leads right into the finale when we find out just who is the doctor and it’s quite a twist ending. It’s a chilling ending which comes out of nowhere and rounds the film off nicely. It will make you smile, laugh and shiver at the same time, which is precisely the sort of black humoured-horror that Amicus was aiming for.

 

As far as anthologies go, Asylum is a great way to spend eighty-eight minutes. The production is professional enough, the atmosphere suitably creepy for the setting, there are some big names to hold the cast together and there’s a little bit of gore too. It’s a great example of the anthology format being used in the right way.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Dr Who and his accomplices arrive on Earth in 2150 to find that the population has been enslaved by the evil Daleks who are using humans to mine the Earth’s core. Can Dr Who and the human resistance groups stop the Daleks before Earth is destroyed?

 

Doctor Who is a British institution. First broadcast back in 1963, the series has become one of the longest-running and most popular science fiction programmes not only in the UK but across the world. Though it has seen its fair share of ups and downs, Doctor Who has become part of popular culture for its imaginative stories and creative low budget special effects, bringing to life a variety of aliens, planets and situations that science fiction literature has come to recognise as some of the most iconic images in the genre.  One such iconic image is that of the Dalek, a mutant alien race who live inside rather unique pepper pot-shaped tank-like machines and are bent on universal conquest and domination. First seen in the Doctor Who‘s second serial, The Daleks, they quickly his most famous and deadly enemies, causing a generation of children to hide behind their sofas whenever they came on.

A pair of non-canon Doctor Who films were made by Amicus Productions in the 60s to capitalise on the phenomenal success of the TV series, with bigger budgets and production values that the TV episodes could only dream of. Both starred legendary actor Peter Cushing as The Doctor and both featured the Daleks – this was the height of a phenomena in the UK known as Dalekmania. The first film, Dr Who and the Daleks, based itself around the story for The Daleks. The second of the films, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., sees the producers return to the TV series once more, this time basing their script around the more iconic serial of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It was the first of the TV serials to utilise location shooting and the sight of the Daleks powering across a devastated London and emerging from the Thames have become engrained in UK TV history.

The better of the two big screen Doctor Who adventures, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. sees the campy and garish nature of the previous film being ramped up a couple of notches. It’s definitely a product of the swinging 60s and unquestionably both looks and sounds dated. Visually, the film was head and shoulders above the TV series for the time. You can only imagine how much more vibrant and innovative the skilled artists at the BBC would have been able to make the series had they had this sort of budget. But not only that, this film manages to hold its own really well against any other 60s science fiction films. The production team have really gone to town on this one, delivering a futuristic vision of a destroyed London on a low budget in stunning, colourful detail. The effects work is a mixed bag – some decent model work, some not so good. Shots of Dalek spaceships flying over London look good but then the miniature sets don’t look all that good either.

Director Gordon Flemyng was back on board and, seeing where the faults lay in the first film, manages a better all-round pace, cramming in plenty of action set pieces and lots more Dalek action, as well as holding back on some of the sillier escapades. It’s still kitsch as anything and the Daleks will never really convince you of their evil intentions due to their absurd design (I always preferred the Cybermen anyway). They get way more screen time than they really should. After all, the TV series scrimped and saved on them because they were just too costly to make and so you only ever saw a few Daleks on screen at once. The bright and gaudy look of the Daleks in the film here is a bit of a surprise, turning them into fashion hazards from an era of hippies. They come off looking like they’ve lost a battle with a couple of toddlers and a few cans of paint. But they’re in the film a lot and there are some entertaining battles between them and the human resistance to keep things ticking over.

Peter Cushing makes for an interesting selection as the Doctor. Just like in the previous film, the character is not written as a mysterious alien but rather a kindly man who has managed to build a time machine (as you do). Cushing plays him as a doddery old gent, very grandfatherly and without any hint of malice or hidden intentions. It’s an eccentric performance which shows the great range that Cushing had and would have been good to see Cushing actually get the chance to play him on a regular basis in the TV series. Strangely, despite his iconic status as a veteran British actor who regularly played villains or scientists, Cushing never appeared in the TV series.

Bernard Cribbins takes over from Roy Castle who was unavailable to return and, though there’s an ill-advised and overlong sequence of him trying to be one of the robo-men, he stops the character from becoming too bumbling and farcical. Cribbins would go on to appear in the TV series in 2007 – a massive gap of forty-one years!

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is cheap and cheerful, silly and fun. Made for kids who were fascinated with the Daleks back in the 60s, the film does what it sets out to do. If you grew up on a diet of barnstorming sci-fi films like Aliens, this may be a bit too childish and quaint for your tastes. But fans of the series will find plenty to enjoy.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)

The dead hand that crawls KILLS and LIVES!!!

Newly weds Charles and Catherine Fengriffin move into the family estate to start their new life together. But shortly after arriving, Catherine is disturbed by ghastly visions of man whose eyes have been gouged out and is also tormented by a disembodied hand. However no one else in the house has seen these things and Charles begins to suspect that Catherine is going insane. When she becomes pregnant, Charles enlists the help of psychiatrist Dr Pope to get to the bottom of these apparent hallucinations. What becomes evident is Catherine is now the victim of a horrible curse which had been bestowed upon the Fengriffins thanks to the actions of Charles’ grandfather.

 

Known more for their anthologies back in the 60s and 70s, British company Amicus finally tried their hand at period horror in an attempt to muscle in on their rivals, Hammer, with And Now the Screaming Starts. Ironically enough, Hammer had begun to move away from that tried-and-tested formula by bringing the likes of Dracula into the present day with Dracula A.D. 1972. So Amicus’ decision to do something that had been done to death over the years was a bit bewildering. So much so when you see how average And Now the Screaming Starts actually is. Far from being a classic period Gothic horror, it just went to prove Hammer’s decision to move on to different material was a good one.

Director Roy Ward Baker directed a few British horrors around this time and he approaches And Now the Screaming Starts as if he’s making some sort of low budget ghost train ride for a theme park. Portraits rattle against the walls. Windows blow open. Candles extinguish. There’s thunder and lightning. And that’s just the start of it – its hardly subtle horror, rather in your face scares. Baker relies on repeating the same scares over and over again for the first half of the film, with the eerie eye-less man leering through windows, a fake severed hand appearing and disappearing whenever someone mentions the curse and constant zoom-ins on one of the oil paintings which results in loud, sinister music being played. The effects aren’t convincing the first time around but they’re overworked like mad here as if Baker didn’t know how else to scare people. Despite his efforts, the film rarely conveys any sense of dread and as a result, the pace of the film slows to a crawl. You’re waiting for something to jump-start the film into life.

Thankfully the arrival of Peter Cushing half-way through the film is this required jump-start – not because he’s on the screen (though it makes a big difference to have him around) but because the story finally starts to advance and the characters begin to unravel the curse that is hanging over the Fengriffins. This leads to a nasty flashback and then the film moves swiftly on to its finale, peppered with a few twists and turns along the way. There are still a couple of the tacky scare sequences like there were in the opening half but at least the film is moving with purpose by this point and they don’t feel like they’re simply there to pad out the running time. Now they appear with meaning and relevance to the story. In fact the last forty minutes or so is pretty good. Though the direction of the story is predictable and the twists themselves are hardly nerve-shattering, And Now the Screaming Starts provides decent entertainment.

Stephanie Beacham stars as Catherine and she’s got a massive set of lungs on her (in both the euphemism sense and the proper sense!). Obviously with a title like And Now the Screaming Starts, there were going to be moments in the film where she was required to scream and boy, does she ever scream. Possibly one of the most ear-piecing and genuinely frightening screams I’ve heard, her character’s shock and fright is easily transmitted to the viewer. It helps matters greatly that she’s beautiful – like seriously stunning, one of English’s finest roses. The role requires her to scream a lot and wear low-cut dresses and she does both with equal aplomb.

Ian Ogilvy doesn’t do have much to do as Charles Fengriffin so it’s left to the old timers Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom to deliver. Cushing only enters the film past the half way point and even though he’s his usual brilliant self, the role is virtually useless to the story and the actions that his character makes could easily have been written for Charles himself. Lom’s part is meatier, starring in a flashback scene as Charle’s debaucherous grandfather and showing us the reason that the curse was put onto the Fengriffins. Lom hams it up in his brief role and is arguably the best bit of the film. This sequence alone features rape and a nasty hand chopping to boot!

 

And Now the Screaming Starts is totally worthless. It could easily match up against some of Hammer’s lesser efforts with ease. It’s just that the terrible first half of the film torpedoes any sort of momentum the film needed to give the rousing second half any hope of winning the viewer over. I got the impression that it would have worked better as a shorter film in one of their specialist anthologies.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

People That Time Forgot, The (1977)

The People That Time Forgot (1977)

FIRST ‘The Land That Time Forgot’. THEN ‘At The Earth’s Core’. NOW a fantastic incredible world of savage mystery…

After finding an SOS message in a bottle, Major Ben McBride organises a mission to the Antarctic to search for his friend, Bowen Tyler, who has been missing in the area for two years. But in order to find him, the search party must brave Caprona, the hostile prehistoric land populated by dinosaurs and cavemen.

 

Amicus seemed to hit a winning, if somewhat shallow, formula in the late 70s with a string of loose adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs books starting with The Land That Time Forgot in 1975 and following on with At the Earth’s Core in 1976. Starring Doug McClure and featuring a load of plastic dinosaur on miniature sets, the films were modest hits and to a young, impressionable child like me, they were the best thing since sweets. The imagination and scope of the films extended far, far beyond their meagre budgets and so what you ended up with are films with wear their hearts on their sleeve and try their hardest but at inevitably let down by the stodgy special effects.

Following on from The Land That Time Forgot, this sequel does a reasonable job of continuing the story of Bowen Tyler and how he survived in Caprona. It’s good to see Doug McClure back in the role to add continuity to the series. McClure starred in all four of these Amicus fantasy films and takes the films by the scruff of the neck. Nothing phases him and he emits cool whilst kicking caveman ass. McClure’s characters always had an uncanny knack of instantly understanding and communicating with primitive cavemen before falling in love with scantily-clad cave girls. McClure doesn’t turn up until half-way into proceedings, such is the nature of the rescue mission plot, but when he does, he immediately bosses the film.

There’s a solid cast of familiar actors in supporting roles too. Thorley Walters does another of his ‘bumbling brainy person’ roles he used to do all of the time for Hammer, Shane Rimmer is there as the token American whilst Patrick Wayne must have been hoping that his attempts to become a dashing hero would have more success with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger because he makes for a bland lead. Also of note must be Dana Gillespie’s cleavage as the cave girl Ajor. If all cavewomen were as hot as she is (and Raquel Welch was in One Million Years BC) then it must have been a grand time to be a man alive on the planet. The characters are decent enough, if somewhat one-dimensional, and they all do the necessary jobs of either explaining the plot or provide the physical attributes to keep the plot flowing.

But for all of the talking that the characters do, it’s the dinosaurs which are the real attraction here and the special effects look just as cheap as they ever did. Combinations of stop motion, model work and men-in-suits are tried with various degrees of success. But no attempt has been made to make the dinosaurs even resemble actual dinosaurs. The clay, plastic, cardboard and pipe cleaner monsters aren’t scary in the slightest. The pterodactyl at the start clearly has no movement apart from an opening and closing jaw and in a later scene there is a hippo-like monster which explodes and is clearly just an immobile prop. There are lots of miniature sets too for these model monsters to stomp around on and there’s a few toy planes and ships flying and sailing around for good measure. This is 1977, the year of Star Wars, for goodness sake, not 1933! For all of the scope and imagination that the film tries to convey (and the cinematography for this ‘lost world’ is nothing short of amazing), it’s let down by the shoddy special effects.

 

The People That Time Forgot is a decent sequel and good cheesy fun with plenty of plot holes, special effects disasters and ridiculous dialogue. For the kids (or the adults who saw this as a kid), this one is pretty harmless and entertaining. It’s got a perfectly timeless quality to it which creates a mild sense of awe and wonder that many a modern blockbuster lacks.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

I, Monster (1971)

I, Monster (1971)

The most violent creature ever made by man!

Dr. Marlowe has been experimenting with drugs that release inner inhibitions. However the inner inhibitions which they release are murderous and lustful and he turns into his alter ego, the grotesque Edward Blake. His friend, Dr Utterson, is worried as Marlowe increasingly becomes more monstrous with each experiment and is finding it harder and harder to keep Blake under control.

 

I, Monster is an Amicus adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, only for some reason the studio has decided to change the names of the title character – which is weird considering the film is actually credited as being “Based upon the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson” so it’s not like they were trying to do a cheeky cash-in. Given that the novel is easily one of the most filmed literary works of all time, it was maybe a deliberate attempt to avoid it being tagged with the rest. Despite this, within the opening few minutes it’s easy to see that this is Stevenson’s classic in all but name.

The stand-alone horror films that Amicus made always seemed to me to lack flair and excitement. The majority of them crawl along at a snails pace, offering little in the way of thrills to get the blood racing. The stories were a bit more sophisticated than the Hammer films but, without the panache, they just drift along in lifeless fashion and I, Monster is no exception. The plot covers plenty of Freudian psychoanalytical techno-babble and certainly presents itself as a more intelligent and thought-provoking horror film than its rivals, avoiding the cheap thrills and spills of the Hammer films. But amidst all of the talking and discussions is a dearth of anything remotely gripping. I, Monster makes, in my opinion, the biggest mistake that a film can make – it’s dreadfully dull. This could be down to inexperienced young director Stephen Weeks, only twenty-two at the time, who fails to direct with any style.

The film was intended to be released in an early form of 3-D and the gimmick is pretty useless here because it was abandoned during mid-filming. There are numerous annoying camera shots of Christopher Lee walking behind the twisted glassware in his laboratory and holding things up to the camera. It’s hardly in your face 3-D pandering but some shots are a little more obscure and unusual than the audience will be used to. I just wonder whether too much time, effort and money went into this short-lived 3-D experiment because the final running time is a weak seventy-five minutes. Did money run out during production? An extra ten minutes of footage to beef up characters or add in something to pack a punch wouldn’t have gone amiss. No further evidence is needed than the poor finale, seemingly rushed and with little effort.

However the cast is still excellent. Cushing isn’t given much to do despite second top billing but still brings his usual qualities to the role when he’s on-screen. As Marlowe/Blake, Lee is superb though and does a great job of portraying both of his split personalities though he’s rather uptight and stuffy in his ‘good’ persona role. His physical transformations happen off-screen but the end result is simply Lee wearing a pair of plastic teeth, a crooked nose and ruffling his hair up a bit. It’s how he handles his different on-screen personas that make the contrast between Marlowe and Blake so stark. At least he gets to snarl and bring some of his Dracula menace to this more sadistic side of his personality. Lee clearly enjoys playing the villain and chews up the scenery likewise. The only drawback is Marlowe starts testing the serum out almost straight away, not giving the audience any chance to get to know the character. Coupled with his pompous and aloof attitude, he doesn’t make for a very sympathetic character to begin with.

 

The basics are there and I’ve read countless reviews which state that its one of the most faithful adaptations of the novel but I, Monster is dull, plodding and a real slog to get through. Its hardly a total failure but not an interesting one at that.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

At the Earth’s Core (1976)

At the Earth's Core (1976)

They’re in it DEEP now!

A Victorian scientist and his rich American engineer and financial backer test out a new machine called the Iron Mole which can drill into the Earth’s crust. They hope to find untapped resources beneath the Earth’s surface but what they find instead is a cavernous world of gigantic monsters, primitive human slaves and winged monsters that rule over this kingdom.

 

At the Earth’s Core never really convinces anyone of its good intentions to bring life to the Edgar Rice Burroughs story. Instead we get bombarded with horrible giant plastic monsters, men in rubber suits and cheap explosions on miniature sets. The second Burroughs adaptation brought to life by Amicus Studios, it’s clear that the budget was even lower for this than it was for The Land That Time Forgot. But who really cares? This is perfect Saturday afternoon entertainment for kids (and adults who watched it as kids!) as its fun, stupid, has not-so-scary monsters, the plot isn’t overly complicated and there’s lot of silly action. It’s a fine nostalgia trip for anyone who grew up on this type of film.

The plot is based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story but that’s probably about as close to the source material as you’re going to get here. The opening scenes in which the Iron Mole is constructed and then heads into the Earth do define the Victorian fantasy pulp era to a tee but then as soon as they get out of the machine and into this acid-tripped world, the film goes off into uber-cheese mode. They then spend the rest of the film going from one scrape to another, getting captured, escaping, being captured again, being attacked by ridiculous-looking monsters and then maybe getting captured again. It’s all in good fun though and it’s harmless and juvenile fun. I don’t know how much actors would have cost to hire in those days but I bet the budget was blown on the trio of Peter Cushing, Doug McClure and Caroline Munro . They are all decent genre actors and were definitely above the material presented to them here.

Peter Cushing is on top form as usual and his presence alone lifts this film from its gloom. His performance is slightly twisted from his usual cool, calm and reasonable man of science. He’s more eccentric this time as if he were playing Dr Who again and the performance does get a bit irritating at times in a ‘granddad who won’t shut up’ kind of way. His fish-out-of-water scientist character is a little goofy but it’s good to see him play against type for a change.

Doug McClure is his usual gung-ho self in this type of film where he just fights and beats up anything that stands in his way. He makes a decent action hero though – he’s a believable ‘everyman’ like Bruce Willis was in Die Hard – someone caught up in the wrong situation. McClure usually has an annoying habit of understanding the native people in these films almost instantly, despite the fact they speak different languages. But here the natives speak well-preserved English and communication is not really much of a problem. It’s clear to see where these two characters will fit into the film – McClure will be the one busting skulls and going from sticky situation to sticky situation whilst buying time for Cushing to figure it all out scientifically. Caroline Munro is the princess, bearing some amazing oil-soaked cleavage but little else (although when you look as good as this, I don’t see the reason to have any other purpose in a film).

It’s a pity that the budget didn’t stretch far enough to do the job of creating this fantasy world. The sets look pretty cheap and you can tell they’re on a soundstage with some poor matte work. In addition to the blatantly obvious rear projection, the film feels claustrophobic as Kevin Connor clearly didn’t want to open up his shots simply because it was a small stage!  The colours are slightly hallucinogenic at times – but it does give you the impression that this is a completely different world and the red/purple sky eerily reminds you that they are in the centre of the Earth as there is no sun. Maybe someone was smoking a little too much weed when they designed the colour scheme.

The dinosaurs do look extremely pathetic too – it’s as if the Japanese had leftover kaiju suits from the Godzilla and Gamera series and Amicus found them in a bin somewhere. The rhino monsters are arguably the worst giant monsters I’ve ever seen on film and their fight scene is ridiculous. But it’s all in good fun though and the film doesn’t really try to do anything too demanding with its budget constraints. These special effects sequences are not made with much in the way of skill or creativity but at least they’re not dull as the creatures get well fed or do some fighting of some kind.

 

There’s no denying that At the Earth’s Core is a bad film in every sense but its fun and innocent and manages to charm and keep you entertained for more than it should. A camp, guilty pleasure in every definition.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Monster Club, The (1981)

The Monster Club (1981)

A tongue-in-cheek trilogy of terror!

After an encounter with a mysterious old gentleman who turns out to be a vampire, a writer of horror stories is invited to a ‘monster club’ in order to give him some new writing material. Here he is told three gruesome stories: a ‘shadmock’ who has the ability to kill people by whistling falls in love with a woman who wants to rob him; a famous vampire who has fled his previous life as a Count is now a family man with wife and children; and a movie director on a location scout comes across a village inhabited by real ghouls.

 

Milton Subotsky had produced many horror anthologies during his time with Amicus in the 60s and 70s (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum, Torture Garden, The Vault of Horror, etc) and I’ve pretty much watched them all. So it’s nice to finally get the chance to see this rare swan song of his. The basic formula of the anthology film that he had been wheeling out for years sees a group of short stories linked together by an overall wrap around story, usually with some sort of twist at the end. Throw in a bunch of famous genre actors and you’ve got the classic anthology film. Well maybe not so because, although there was always one decent story, there were always a couple of stinkers thrown in too.

The Monster Club is no exception to the rule. Here we have veteran actors Vincent Price and John Carradine doing the main bits in the wrap around story. And to be honest, it’s actually a decent enough set up for the film. You know right from the start when Price’s vampire character apologies for “helping himself” to Carradine’s neck and blood that the film is going to be light-hearted, even goofy at times. Having an underground club where monsters congregate could have been a gold mine for some decent stories. But instead the club turns out to be some corny nightclub where loads of people dance around in fancy dress masks (OK I know there’s supposed to be actual monsters but the masks look horrible) and listen to crappy 80s bands all night long (who all play their full songs for the benefit of the camera). Poor Vincent Price and John Carradine have to pretend that they’re enjoying themselves here amongst the youths. They do add a touch of class to the proceedings though and their performances aren’t in question. It’s just that I’d envisioned the monster club to be classier and, well more monster-ish. You know, werewolves playing chess with each other, vampires smoking in dinner jackets, zombies serving cocktails, etc. Something more like a social club as opposed to a nightclub.

As for the stories themselves, well they’re not great in all honesty. I would have thought the writers could have come up with something better than the three on display here. Given that it was a monster club, why did they randomly make up some silly monsters to base two of the skits around? Why create the whole ‘monster genealogy’ chart that tells you what you get when a ghoul mates with a werewolf? These lesser creations lack the impact of a well-known monster so it’s no coincidence that the best story on display is the one about the vampire.

The first one about the ‘shadmock’ starts off stupidly, continues to disappoint and then ends on a real low note. It’s just such a pointless story. The pale-skinned hermit who lives in the mansion could have been any monster at all so there was no need to turn him into a stupid whistling beast! He’s a weirdo who feeds his pigeons and…well, that’s all he seems to do in life. The ending to the segment is a bit heartbreaking as the guy clearly thinks he had fallen in love but had to dispose of his wife-to-be because she was going to rob him. Welcome to the real world, pal. Ever heard of those scheming Russian brides who come over and clean you out?

The second story about the vampire is the best because of the silly way the subject matter is presented. It seems that a famous Count from Eastern Europe (never mentioned by name but we can assume its Dracula) has fled to the UK to start a family. He lives with a human wife and they have a little boy. He sleeps during the day and then “goes to work at night” whilst avoiding men carrying violin cases. It seems that these men are the ‘V-Squad’ – a team of vampire hunters led by Donald Pleasance who have been hunting him for years and finally get a chance to kill him when they befriend the little boy and follow him home. There’s a decent effort to put a new spin on the vampire story, simply by having him as caring family man. Pleasance gets little to do including a staking but even in his small role, he still adds some much needed credibility to the segment. Britt Ekland is also here in a throwaway role as the wife.

The third story is basically a zombie film with ghouls as the film director is desperate to find a spooky village to film his new horror movie. He finds a seemingly-deserted town which turns out to be inhabited by some creepy-looking townsfolk who want to have him as their tea. The segment is basically an extended chase scene after about five minutes in but it’s got a superb atmosphere. Clearly filmed on a stage instead of outside, the village seems to have a mystical fog that hovers just above the houses thus giving the whole place an eerie unnatural light. There’s also a decent, if somewhat predictable twist at the end.

 

The Monster Club was one of the dying breaths of the Anglo-Horror cycle and it shows. Running like a silly Halloween party, it’s got some decent ideas and performances but is bogged down by its childishness, obsession with playing as much 80s music as possible to fill the running time and generally poor writing. Good enough to watch but nowhere near the genius of the earlier anthologies.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

Terror to delight worshippers of the Macabre.

When customers buy antiques from an old antique shop they get more than they bargained for. A man buys a mirror to find it haunted by a being who forces him to commit acts of murder in order to live again. A tired husband takes an old war medal and eventually meets up with a mysterious ex-serviceman and his daughter who help him kill his wife. Another man meets a stranger on a train who tells him he has a spirit on his shoulder and, after he attempts to strangle his own wife, he enlists the help of the woman to exorcise it. Finally another man buys a large antique door which opens back into the era of Charles I.

 

Whilst Hammer was bashing out constant sequels to their biggest franchises, their main British rivals Amicus opted to go for a different route, filming a succession of horror anthologies throughout the 60s and 70s. Connected through a specific theme, each film contained a few short stories with a twist ending which were then linked together by some wraparound story which basically served to bookend each segment. Amicus were able to parade a ‘who’s who’ of British stage and cinema during their time, borrowing established genre stars from Hammer, notable stage actors who were happy to star in a twenty minute segment for sizeable sums of money as well as up-and-coming American actors looking to break into the business. The ‘something for everyone’ approach worked well for Amicus as the majority of the films featured at least one decent segment and each film always featured some big names. The only problem with these anthologies was that due to their high number, it’s quite hard to remember which film is which.

From Beyond the Grave is as guilty of this as the rest. It nails the ghostly atmospheric vibe that it should have and contains a genuine sense of eeriness at what is around the corner. It’s creepy, never scary. It’s not shocking but you’ll be amused at the black humour and dark tone on display. Due to the nature of the type of film it is and necessity for there to be twists at the end of each story, you genuinely get the sense that you have no idea what is going to happen. Sometimes it’s predictable but for every twist you guess right, there’ll be another instant when you’re on the floor after the rug has been pulled out from under you. In all due respect, this part of the film works as well as it ever did in these anthologies. But the stories don’t stand out very well from the other seven Amicus anthologies.

Ironically it’s the wraparound story which is the most memorable part of the film as Peter Cushing sports a dodgy accent as the owner of the antiques store. Cushing scuttles backwards and forwards in his dusty, dingy little store and seems to be having a fun time goading his customers into purchasing items or, in many cases, allowing them to try and obtain the antiques through deceitful means (which then backfires on them big time in their individual stories).

The first story, entitled The Gatecrasher, is the best, probably because it has the best actor in the film in it apart from Cushing in the form of David Warner. The possessed mirror is actually pulled off pretty well and you do get the feeling that the spirit is actually living inside thanks to some good camera trickery. The murders here are also pretty brutal for 1973 as Warner completely goes to town on his victims. It ends a little predictably but still a lot better than the others. Whoever chose Warner’s wardrobe needed shooting though!

The second story, An Act of Kindness, goes more for the mysterious as Donald Pleasance and his extremely weird real-life daughter Angela give off-beat performances as a father and daughter who are a little too eager to get into the life of Ian Bannen’s character. I didn’t know where this segment was heading and there is a nice twist at the end but it’s the completely fruity performances of the Pleasances that make this one a little better than it should be. It’s also given a lot more time to develop than the first story which felt a little rushed.

The third one, The Elemental, is almost played for laughs (there’s always one that does this unfortunately), especially during the completely over-the-top exorcism scenes in which nothing in the room is sacred – everything is completely wrecked. It’s a generic exorcism story though and there’s nothing flash here. In fact it probably would have worked better without the comedy aspect.

The final story, aptly named The Door, is also pretty weak as the door opens back into the time of Charles I. I felt a little cheated by this point in the film because having seen this segment, I realised that three of the different stories were practically the same – some being from another realm is trying to get into ours via some means. Having already seen the first story and to a lesser extent the third one, I was not in the mood for one more. Therefore I’m probably being a little too harsh on this story but I didn’t enjoy it at all. It does feature the best cinematography and sets of the film, something which is unusual for the usually tight-pursed Amicus.

 

From Beyond the Grave is a little lacklustre at times and not the best of Amicus’ anthologies but British horror fans like me will appreciate some of the talent in front of and behind the camera. The stories are harmless fun and although it may not be perfect, you can give me it over modern rubbish like Urban Legend any day.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Skull, The (1965)

The Skull (1965)

When the Skull strikes you’ll Scream!

Dr Maitland collects curios and artefacts of the occult from across the globe to help him with his research. On one night, his disreputable source offers him the chance of a lifetime – to own the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Previous owners of the skull had suffered unpleasant fates but Maitland dismisses the rumours as nonsense designed to make the sale more lucrative and essential. He eventually gives in and takes possession of the skull. Slowly but surely, he begins to lose his mind as he is possessed by an evil force which threatens to destroy him and those around him.

 

British studio Amicus are better known for their anthology horror films but they did make a handful of stand alone horror films and attempted to differentiate themselves from Hammer back in the day by not setting them in Hammer’s traditional period settings. Instead, a lot of the Amicus films were set in contemporary time, mainly so that the viewer would hopefully be able to associate themselves more with what was going on. Although some of the anthologies were good, Amicus were never able to capture the essence of what the Hammer films were so good at. Indeed, a lot of these Amicus productions seem slow, plodding and with very little to talk about on screen.

Their stand alone efforts seem like some of the short anthology stories were dragged out into feature length films – clearly something like The Skull could have been trimmed down into a fifteen minute segment for Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or one of their other anthologies. This is the main problem with The Skull – the story just isn’t really interesting enough to captivate the audience and hold their interest. Little else happens in the film barring what is in the description on the DVD cover. At 83 minutes, even that seems stretched out and padded out with filler material. Apparently the final script only ran for around about 53 pages which was nowhere near enough for a feature length film so lots of extra scenes were added to pad out the running time – and it blatantly shows.

The skull itself doesn’t look intimidating and attempts are made to give it a bit of character including POV shots from the skull. It even floats around from time to time, looking like a cheap prop from a school Halloween production. An idea would have been to give the film the illusion that the skull isn’t actually doing anything and it’s all a figment of Maitland’s imagination that he has been possessed. I wish they’d have stuck with this more psychological approach instead of relying on silly floating skulls! The script never really explains too much about the skull and why it has been possessed by the Marquis de Sade and why it comes to possess others. There are times when the film borders on genius – the is-it-a-dream-or-isn’t-it finale in which Maitland is escorted by two police offers to see a judge who then forces him to play Russian roulette – but one wonders whether these moments were stumbled upon by mistake given how droll and bland the rest of the film is.

As much a load of rubbish as The Skull is, at least it’s one of the rare occasions in which Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred in speaking roles opposite each other. Cushing is simply a marvel to watch. This is his film as you slowly watch him unravel into a man completely possessed by an evil force. His performance and insanity towards the end of the film is just intense. The nightmarish finale really gives Cushing the chance to show off a more explosive, uncontrolled side to him that I can’t recall him using too many times since the BBC’s version of Nineteen Eighty-Four went out in 1954. Lee isn’t in the film a lot and is credited as a ‘guest star’ but manages to boom and bluster his way through most of his scenes with his usual authority and gusto. The scenes in which the two men share screen time are great, if somewhat underwhelming. There’s a whole load of other old school British actors involved here including Peter Woodthorpe, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green, Michael Gough and Patrick Wymark, particularly memorable as Maitland’s shady associate, Marco.

 

The Skull is exactly the sort of film that I have come to associate with Amicus – decent but not memorable in the slightest. It’s good in small doses but there just isn’t enough to stretch out for a full length feature. A criminal waste of the excellent talent in front of the camera.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

Acclaimed as “THE FEAR OF THE YEAR”

Five strangers board a train and are joined by a mysterious fortune teller who offers to read their Tarot cards. Each man has a different story to tell including an architect who returns to his ancestral home to find a werewolf out for revenge, a doctor who finds out his wife is a vampire, a huge plant which traps the occupants of a house inside, a musician who gets involved in voodoo and an art critic who is tormented by the severed hand of a famous artist.

 

As with many of my other reviews for Amicus films, I always start off with the point that they tried to rival Hammer as far as British horror went but never really managed to compete consistently with them. However they did find their niche in the genre, in particular the horror anthology. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is their best one and it’s probably coincidental that it was their first one too. Inspired by the black humour-filled E.C. comics of the 50s, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was to set off Amicus’ long-standing obsession with making horror anthologies. It was a successful formula as long as most of the stories in them were entertaining. You were always going to get some clunkers but with the array of acting talent that Amicus managed to get to appear in small roles, it was a price worth paying.Peter Cushing stars as Dr Schreck, the sinister fortune teller who forms the wrap around story for this one. He draws you to the screen the moment he arrives because you don’t know his true motives. He seems friendly enough but why are all of his predictions so nasty? He reads each of the characters their fortune which in turn becomes the separate stories. Then right at the end there’s a devilish twist as the doc reveals his true motives.

The first story is your basic werewolf story where some people are killed by a werewolf but no one knows who the werewolf is until the twist ending. Like many other werewolf stories, it’s pretty flat and there’s little to get excited about. You don’t actually see anyone in make-up, simply a mean-looking dog which growls at the camera. Running in at around fifteen minutes, the story isn’t too long and drawn out and is harmless enough, if a little predictable. Thankfully it’s got the best atmosphere of the film and the entire segment is played straight which at least adds a little credibility.The second story owes a lot to Day of the Triffids (to which director Freddie Francis directed extra footage) in which a plant begins to grow and develop a taste for killing. It seems a little absurd at times and does drift off towards being pure camp and that’s because the idea isn’t explained very well. The story doesn’t run for too long which is probably a good thing as the ‘special effects’ get a little silly – it’s simply a plant of the end of a piece of wire being wriggled around in front of the camera! Come on, you didn’t expect technical wizardry did you? Bernard Lee, more famous known as ‘M’ from the James Bond films, makes an appearance here.

The third story once again fails to excite as Donald Sutherland believes that his wife is a vampire. It follows the same vampire storyline that most of the other genre films have done and, like the werewolf one, is pretty dull and lifeless as a result. The only saving grace is the final twist to the tale which is laughable but you’ve got to feel sorry for Sutherland’s character for being so gullible and dumb all along.The fourth one is to do with voodoo and has the presence of Roy Castle for some comic relief but he just ends up irritating the hell out of the viewer as a musician who heads to the West Indies and mistakenly copies the notes from a voodoo dance with dire consequences. Castle can’t act and his comedy routine, not to mention an obligatory musical number, in this segment is really out of place with the material. What could have been the most serious of the segments turns into a bit of a variety show mess.

The fifth story is the best by far and stars Christopher Lee (coincidence? I think not!) as a rather bitter art critic who unfairly criticises the work of an artist and humiliates him in public, only for the artist to embarrass him back with a prank. So Lee gets bitter and runs him over, causing the artist to lose his hand. But the hand won’t go away and keeps haunting Lee’s character. Lee is at his best here, playing the obnoxious, sneering critic with a sharp tongue. He oozes charisma yet again and his suitably oily performance is matched by Michael Gough, another veteran of the British horror genre at the time. The effects for the severed hand are convincing enough (this is not just one of the crew putting his hand up from behind a cushion!) and there are a few moments of shocks to compliment it nicely.

 

Dr Terror’s House of Horrorshas dated quite a bit by now and as a result, it’s not going to keep you up at night. But with some great performances by THE best actors this genre has to offer as well as one or two unnerving moments, you can do no harm by having your fortune read by the doc.