Tag Amicus

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.

 

Torture Garden (1967)

Torture Garden (1967)

Do You Dare See What Dr. Diabolo Sees?

A special sideshow torture exhibit has the power, according to the showman Dr Diablo, to warn people of the evil in their futures. Five sceptical punters decide to try it and find out what the future holds for them, each one hiding greed or violence within themselves.

 

Another one of Amicus’ horror anthologies from back in the heyday of British horror, Torture Garden is probably one of the weakest on the bunch. As usual there are a number of smaller stories with a themed plot to link them all together and there are too many poor individual entries to make it work. The linking story isn’t too bad though. Here it’s the fortune-telling mannequin in Dr Diablo’s sideshow but as per usual, the story comes full circle towards the end to put a little spin on what you think has happened. You can see it a mile away (Diablo is another name for what?) but at least Burgess Meredith has some fun in the role of the showman. You can just imagine him quacking and saying that he was going to destroy Batman when he has a Penguin-like suit on. Fortunately for the film he doesn’t.

The first story, Enoch, about a witch’s cat who feeds on people’s heads starts off silly but actually works, especially towards the end when no one will believe that a cat would do it. Making good use of dingy basements, creaky barns and with a dark streak a mile long, the story never fails to convince you that this is a nasty kitty. I mean feeding on heads is classic horror material, even if it is by a cat! Just when you think the whole episode is over and Michael Bryant’s character has been locked up and sent away for his psychological problems, along comes a nice twist ending which rounds it all off nicely. The film goes downhill pretty quickly after this entry though.

The second story called Terror Over Hollywood is rubbish and possibly the worst segment Amicus ever did. It’s about a wannabe actress who will do anything to get into the movies and make a career in Hollywood, including sabotaging a friend’s dinner date with a producer. She then enters in Hollywood’s inner circle and uncovers a shocking secret about how the biggest stars have managed to retain their youthful looks throughout the years. This episode is pathetic. It wouldn’t scare a three year old. It’s a nice idea but not for a horror film. The sets look cheap and I don’t think anyone would be so gullible as to believe that this story is taking place in America.

Mr Steinway, the next story, is about a protective piano which is inhabited by the spirit of it’s pianist’s deceased mother and refuses to let anyone come between him and his natural talent. So when an admirer falls in love with him, the piano takes it upon itself to stop it. If you think it sounds bad then wait until you see the piano ‘moving’ around towards the end, attempting to push an unlucky young woman out of a window whilst playing the funeral march! The material doesn’t warrant as much time as the story is given and the silliness of a killer piano is prolonged when it should never have been filmed in the first place. Freddie Francis gives us some close-ups of the piano, with its keys bearing like teeth ready to chomp down on a victim. But there’s no sense of tongue-in-cheek and the seriousness of this segment is what kills it.

The final story, The Man Who Collected Poe, is arguably the best but mainly because of it’s strong casting. Jack Palance is great as the nerdy and eccentric collector of all things Edgar Allan Poe and is fascinated by his work and his dabbles into the occult. He meets Peter Cushing’s collector who has the world’s greatest collection of Poe items including many unpublished works. Upon further examination, it seems that Poe has been writing from beyond the grave. Or is he really dead? It may be a little confusing at times but the two principle actors in the segment really give it their all. This last story also leads perfectly into the final part of the wraparound story and brings the film full circle.

 

Torture Garden comes off as a pale follow-up to the decent Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. The two middle stories really drag on and it’s only the final one which really manages to capture the imagination and the essence of what the link story was trying to achieve in the first place. Cats feeding on heads. Robot actors. Killer pianos. Not exactly things to get worked up over are they?

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beast Must Die, The (1974)

The Beast Must Die (1974)

One of these eight people will turn into a werewolf. Can you guess who it is when we stop the film for the WEREWOLF BREAK? See it … solve it … but don’t tell!

Tom Newcliffe is a millionaire game hunter who has hunted almost everything on the planet and now wants to hunt the ultimate prey – a werewolf. He invites six guests to his huge country estate, all with previous links to cannibalism of some kind, and has rigged up a high-tech security and surveillance system to keep track of everyone. With the full moon approaching, someone is going to turn into a werewolf. But who?

 

Amicus, the British horror rivals to Hammer, were clearly never in the same league as their more successful counterparts but at least they kept churning out horror when the other studio was struggling. Apart from their copious amount of anthology films, Amicus at least tried to make their horror films modern and keep up with modern trends as opposed to Hammer just throwing out the old period setting time after time. Clearly inspired by the success of Murder on the Orient Express, The Beast Must Die is a curious attempt to mix a whodunit with a werewolf film. The result is a mixed bag where the final product is clearly well short of how the film was perceived.

The problem is that the film is dreadfully dull and uneventful with lots of talking about werewolves and their whole mythology but not a lot of actual werewolf action. The script is the major problem for this. There’s clearly a great idea up for grabs here (and I’d love to see this remade with a little more effort put in) but the writers just don’t know what to do with it barring the odd gimmick. The ‘suspects’ are introduced early on in proceedings and we’re given some background details about why each of them could possibly be a werewolf. But then after this initial reveal, there’s very little in the way of character development. We’re hardly given any more clues as to who the werewolf is and there is one guy who is given so much screen time that it’s so obvious he isn’t the werewolf.

The film opens with a voice stating the nature of what is going to happen and tells you in advance to look for clues carefully. But they obviously forgot the clues! In a murder mystery, each of the characters is usually given a strong alibi not to be the murderer but also a strong reason to be suspected of being the murderer. Here the characters are just all suspects with little evidence to support being a suspect or innocent. Towards the end, there is a pause in the film and the voice comes on again asking the viewer who they think the werewolf is. It quickly runs down the suspects and a little clock comes on giving you thirty seconds to decide who it is. It’s pretty much pot luck as to who you think the werewolf is and I didn’t get it right first time around. It’s a nifty little idea but because it’s been handled so poorly, it will most likely mean a toilet break for most viewers.

The film then moves on to the finale which is really reminiscent of the blood test scene from The Thing as each suspect takes it in turns to put a silver bullet in their mouth (remember silver kills werewolves). Unfortunately the scene is nowhere near as effective or tense as it should be. But because we haven’t really gotten to know any of the characters in great detail there’s little attachment to any of them so you don’t really care if one of them is the werewolf or not.

The actual werewolf is a rather poorly made-up dog which looks really unconvincing, especially when it licks it’s mouth and wags its tails at it’s victims as if it wants to play instead of ripping them apart. You don’t even see the person transform into the werewolf. But this is a film which puts the werewolf factor in second place behind being a mystery flick. The cast is a quality ensemble but not enough of them are given anything worthwhile to do. Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and Michael Gambon are all totally wasted. They were all capable of putting in great performances yet they can’t seem to get going here with poorly written supporting roles.

The best performance comes from Calvin Lockhart as Tom Newcliffe who may come off as a bit cheesy now but at least he gets stuck into his role. This was made in an era of blaxploitation which is probably the reason why Lockhart was offered the lead role. There are a few silly nods to blaxploitation with Lockhart’s jive talking but thankfully the film doesn’t turn into Shaft with werewolves. It just means that the whole piece looks rather dated now.

 

The Beast Must Die isn’t a bad film and is definitely worth one watch to see who the werewolf is. But I can’t overlook the criminal waste of some truly top notch acting talent and the unique idea, which would have worked so well in the hands of a better writer.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House That Dripped Blood, The (1971)

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

Vampires! Voodoo! Vixens! Victims!

A Scotland Yard investigator looks into the disappearance of a famous film actor and his search leads him to a mysterious house which has a history of bad deeds. The landlord tells him four stories about the house: a writer once encountered a character from his horror novel there, a man renting the house become obsessed with a wax figure which reminds him of a woman from his past, a little girl became involved in witchcraft and then the film actor himself bought a cloak which allegedly turned him into a vampire.

 

I love the notion of these old fashioned horror anthologies. Write a couple of short horror stories, hire a top notch British cast, throw in some minor blood and scares and mix it up with a dash of old school style and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for success. They’re almost tagged with ‘there’s something here for everyone’ with their array of horror themes and stories: you’ve got werewolves, vampires, ghosts, monsters, slashers, demonic children, haunted houses, grave robbing, black magic, witches….obviously not all in the same film. But these anthology films are like I used to go into my local sweet shop and ask for a ten pence mix – you get a little of everything for your money. Almost every horror anthology created has strong stories and weaker ones. The beauty of these films is that you don’t really get enough time to dwell on the poor ones.

The House That Dripped Blood is another of Amicus’ horror anthologies but this one doesn’t quite have the finishing touch to it like Asylum or Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. It’s probably because the wrap around story is pretty weak. The house was supposed to link the four stories together but it does so pretty unconvincingly – the house has little, if anything, to do with any of the stories – in fact one is set away from the house. It doesn’t drip blood like the title suggests either! In fact there’s not a drop of it in sight and the horror comes from the atmosphere and mood that is nicely built throughout.

The first story, Method for Murder, about the writer dreaming up his horror novel strangler, only for the character to come to life, isn’t too bad. The story does a decent job of keeping you in the dark. You don’t know whether the writer is just cracking up or whether somehow the strangler has come to life. Reliable actor Denholm Elliot is the backbone for this story and it ends on quite a nice double twist.

The second story, Waxworks, about (oddly enough) the waxworks is arguably the weakest story out of the bunch even though it stars Peter Cushing. He’s much better when he’s dishing out the pain and evil to others, not when he is on the receiving end of it! He makes a pretty wimpy hero to say the least and the ending to the segment is given away on the front cover. There’s always something menacing about wax museums and wax models though and this segment makes sure to play on that menace.

Sweets to the Sweet, the third story, stars Christopher Lee as an overbearing father who hires a nanny to look after his daughter. But all the nanny does is to build the little girl’s confidence up so that she soon dabbles in black magic to get her own back. Quite a nasty little story, this one has the big bonus of Lee starring but also the ‘angelic’ Chloe Franks who moves between innocent and evil with ease. Kids make unnerving villains and she is no exception. Much like the story with Cushing in, it’s nice to see Lee as a ‘normal’ character for a change and good use is made of our initial perception of what his character would be.

The final story, The Cloak, is the one which takes us full circle as it charts the story of the film actor of whom the investigator was looking for in the first place. This story is regrettably played for laughs and stars Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt, both of whom ham it up immensely (Pitt completely self-parodies her Hammer roles here). Pertwee stars as the horror actor who buys a cloak to make his role as Dracula more authentic but finds out that the cloak is real and turns him into a vampire. Pertwee does get a few digs in at Hammer too with some of his lines but his comedic presence isn’t really welcome, especially after the previous story built the atmosphere up quite nicely. This story would have worked better had it been played straight instead of jokingly. Having it round off the film is a bad decision as any sort of atmosphere built-up through the serious stories is given the back burner treatment.

 

The Horror That Dripped Blood is once again another solid, if unremarkable, horror anthology. It’s got a great cast as always and there’s something for every horror fan with different sub-genres being tackled. Unfortunately it just lacks the extra scare factor to take it as far as it needed to go. It’s chilling as opposed to thrilling and there’s a real lack of true scares with black humour the order of the day.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Vault of Horror, The (1963)

The Vault of Horror (1973)

Below the Crypt lies Death’s waiting-room – The . . . Vault of Horror

An elevator in an office building takes five men down to a sub-basement level which they never knew existed. When they get out, they find themselves trapped inside a strange room. Whilst waiting for the elevator to return, they tell each other of their strange dreams. One dreams about killing his sister but then stumbles into a restaurant full of vampires. Another man dreams about his wife murdering him after he annoys her with his obsession of having things tidy. Another man is a magician and dreams that he goes on holiday to look for new tricks to use in his show and finds a new rope trick which an Indian girl won’t sell to him, so he kills her and steals it. The fourth man uses a drug to fake his death in order to claim his insurance and gets his friend to help him out. The last man is an artist living in Haiti who finds out that his paintings, whom critics said were worthless, have actually sold for a large amount of money so he uses voodoo to extract his revenge.

 

Why change a relatively successful formula? That seemed to be Amicus’ motto with yet another horror anthology featuring a wealth of talent both in front of and behind the camera. The Vault of Horror features a stellar cast with Tom Baker, Terry-Thomas, Curt Jürgens, Edward Judd and Denholm Elliot starring to name but a few. Yet again using stories from EC Comics, Amicus have crafted practically a carbon copy of the likes of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum, only with lesser results this time. In fact so much so that E.C Comics wouldn’t let the studio use their macabre comic book for a third outing (with Tales from the Crypt being the previous E.C. Comic-inspired Amicus anthology). The linking story is weak and if you’ve seen one of the earlier anthologies, you’ll easily spot what the final ‘twist’ will be. It lacks any punch simply because the audience is expecting a twist and it’s the only logical solution to why the men are all trapped downstairs.

The first story, Midnight Mess, about the vampire restaurant is pretty standard fare which is dependable enough to kick off the film. The finale is a little predictable but still fun when the vampires hang a guy upside up, stick a spigot in his jugular vein and drain him of blood.  There is also neat trick involving a mirror which plays upon the vampire mythology.

The Neat Job, the second story about the tidy husband is pretty boring simply for the fact it’s not really anything horrific – it doesn’t deal with vampires or werewolves or even voodoo or revenge, just a housewife going crazy. Thus it takes some time to build up the character we can empathize with when the wife does snap. Terry-Thomas plays it straight but gets annoying quickly and it’s a pity he doesn’t get killed earlier because his obsession is really painful to sit and listen to, especially when he starts moaning. The finale has a decent twist ending full of black humour and has the E.C. comic trademark stamped all over it.

The third story, This Trick’ll Kill You, is also as pedestrian as the other two as it lacks any real character build up and doesn’t try to do anything original as Curt Jürgens travels to India and stumbles upon a new rope trick. It’s the most racist of the stories with Indians being labelled as con artists, peasants and basic scum. Jürgens is at his ruthless best when he’s playing a villainous character and it takes a while for him to turn into a murderer. But the special effects for the rope trick are quite convincing, even if the story ends far too predictably once more.

Bargain in Death, the fourth story, is possibly the most underrated segment, simply because it partly deals with being buried alive – surely one of the most horrific thoughts anyone could have. But the logistics of the insurance scam are all over the shop and it’s hard to see how it’d work. I don’t know why Edward Judd bothers to ‘star’ here as he says about six words and the addition of the two medical students looking for a corpse wasn’t really necessary either. However, it does end on a nice note of ‘you get what you deserve’ with the grave digger getting the final say on matters.

The final story, Drawn and Quartered, is easily the best – not because it’s any good but just because it’s better than the rest of them. Tom Baker shows us some trademark solid acting (before he went on to ham it up as Doctor Who) as the bitter artist who is told by the witch doctor that he can damage his paintings however he wants and whatever happens to them will happen to the person in real life. You can see the resemblance to The Picture of Dorian Gray here. It’s an excellent plot and probably could have been stretched out a little more – it’s kind of like a pre-cursor to Final Destination. But as with the rest of the stories, it’s got a twist ending which isn’t good for the main character as he paints a self-portrait. You can only imagine where that one heads.

 

Too formulaic for it’s own good, too predictable to be interesting to watch and too hammy to be taken seriously, The Vault of Horror isn’t one of Amicus’ better anthologies. It’s flat, uninspired and a bit dull at times despite there being some good ideas and some truly awesome moments of wretched black humour.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆