I love the sub genre of anthology/portmanteau films. I like the fact they have several smaller stories contained into one film, often wrapped up in a connecting story in itself. So if you don’t like one story, there will be another one along in a few minutes to enjoy.
Its a classic storytelling format that has seemingly and sadly fallen out of favour in recent years.
When you think of great anthology horror films, most people think of Creepshow…and rightly so to.
Creepshow is an amazing film, written by Stephen King, directed by George A. Romero and special effects by Tom Savini. That is pretty much horror royalty of the 70s/80s right there. For me, Creepshow is the cream of the crop of the horror anthology sub genre. But I don’t want to talk about Creepshow here. This retrospective is all about Amicus Productions.
Amicus were a British film production company, based at Shepperton Studios, England. Though technically a British company, it was actually founded by Americans; producer/screenwriter Milton Subotsky and producer Max Rosenberg.
Amicus relased many films from 1962 to 1977. The films they produced covered a variety of genres including; sci-fi, espionage, drama and musicals.
But it was their horror films they became known for and managed to even be a notable rival to the awesome Hammer Film Productions who were THE film studio for horror films back in the 60s/70s with their versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and so on.
Amicus even managed to attract some of the biggest stars of the time including; Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Magee, Terry Thomas, Burgess Meredith and Sir Ralph Richardson. They also featured a lot of then unknown actors like; Donald Sutherland, Robert Powell, Tom Baker and Joan Collins among many others. Watching classic Amicus horror anthology films now is like walking around a museum of classic British and American actors, it can be quite surprising to watch these films now and see the star power (past, present and future) they really had.
Amicus used the classic EC horror comic series for some of the stories in their anthology films, but they also had the help of famed horror/thriller writer Robert Bloch, you may know him as the writer of the amazing book; Psycho. They would also often use some humour and a touch of the macabre to great effect in their films.
For this retrospective, I am going to take a look at my favourites of the Amicus produced horror anthology films and each of the stories in those films until the studio finally went under. As well as take a look at what happened to Amicus afterwards with a few other horror anthology films Amicus founder Milton Subotsky continued to make after the company went bust.
These films and the stories within the films are famed for having twists, stings and surprises. If you don’t want anything spoiled then stop reading now and go watch these films as I’ll be covering each film and the stories including important plot points but I’ll try to avoid any major spoilers. Yet I do have to pre warn, possible spoilers ahead.
With a total of ten films and each film with multiple stories contained within them…there’s a lot to cover in this retrospective, I had better get started.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors: Released in 1965 and sporting a cast including; Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland and Roy Castle. Directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky.
This film starts with five strangers boarding a train and sharing a carriage. They are then joined by a sixth man, Doctor Schreck (Peter Cushing) who reveals he can read Tarot cards and offers to tell the five strangers their futures…
Werewolf: The first story of this film features Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum) an architect who travels to Scotland and his former home to make alterations requested by the new owner, Mrs. Biddulph (Ursula Howells). Jim finds a secret room in the cellar which reveals the coffin of Count Cosmo Valdemar, who was the original owner the house 200 years ago. It is revealed that Valdemar was killed in a conflict with the Dawson family centuries ago and they stole the house from him and Valdemar swore revenge since then and wishes to reclaim his house. Jim learns that Valdemar is emerging at night and takes the form of a werewolf to seek his revenge.
An interesting take on the werewolf mythos with some creepy atmosphere and tense scenes. Great way to start the anthology but not the best story in this film.
Creeping Vine: Bill Rogers (Alan Freeman) along with his wife (Ann Bell) and their daughter (Sarah Nicholls) return from a family holiday to find a fast growing vine has begun to sprout in their garden. Whenever Bill tries to cut the vine down, it reacts violently. Deciding to go to The Ministry of Defence for help, it turns out the vine has become intelligent and has learned to react to anyone or thing that threatens it. The vine slowly kills off anyone that dares to interfere as it continues to grow and grow.
This one is a bit of a silly tale and doesn’t really offer much in the way of scares or surprises. But there is a nice mini botany lesson thrown in though.
Voodoo: Biff Bailey (Roy Castle) plays a jazz musician who accepts a job playing in the West Indies. Once there he steals a tune from a local religious voodoo ceremony. Now back in London, when Biff plays the tune he stole there are some serious and disturbing consequences as he is pursued by an unknown force.
This one is the comic relief of the anthology and is played for laughs so it more lighter in tone than the other stories and as a result there is not really much here to find scary, but it does provide a few laughs and some great jazz music.
Disembodied Hand: The fourth tale has Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee) playing well known art critic. He is a man self absorbed and enjoys putting people down with his wit. Artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough) gets on the receiving end of one of Franklyn’s overtly aggressive tirades, yet he gets even with the critic by humiliating him publicly. Franklyn is not the kind of person that takes humiliation well and drives over Eric with his car, resulting in him losing a hand. Unable to paint any more, Eric commits suicide and Franklyn Marsh is haunted by the disembodied hand.
Without giving too much away, this one packs quite an ending and for me the best story in the film. With a brilliant and smarmy performance by the great Christopher Lee who ends up getting what he deserves.
Vampire: The last story of the film where Dr. Bob Carroll (Donald Sutherland) returns home to America with his new French bride, Nicolle (Jennifer Jayne). Bob discovers the existence of a vampire and learns that the vampire is indeed his new wife. After seeking advice from fellow doctor and friend, Dr. Blake (Max Adrian). Bob agrees to kill his vampire wife. The police arrive and this is where twist of this tale is revealed.
Pretty good tale this one with a then unknown Donald Sutherland. Giving us an interesting vampire story that is not as back and white as it first seems. It moody and well shot with some great cinematography.
The film concludes with another twist.
Doctor Schreck informs the men that the only way to avoid these terrible futures is to die before they actually happen. The train comes to a stop and the men discover they are already dead having died in a train crash earlier while Doctor Schreck reveals himself to be none other then Death incarnate.
Overall, this one is a decent anthology if a little uneven. But for Amicus’ first foray into the sub genre, its good enough. But it did set the tone and style Amicus were going for and shape the films that were to come after it.
Torture Garden: This one came out in 1967 with Freddie Francis directing and written by Robert Bloch. starring; Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, Beverly Adams and Peter Cushing.
This one begins with a group of people visiting a fairground. Here they come across an unusual sideshow, Torture Garden being run by Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith). Dr. Diabolo shows the five strangers a simple horror themed attraction, the electric chair, which is all rather underwhelming. He then offers to show five people an unimaginable horror in exchange for some extra cash. Here, the five get to see their futures via an effigy of the female Greek deity of fate and destiny, Atropos who holds a pair of shears.
Enoch: In this first tale of the picture, a greedy and selfish playboy Colin Williams (Michael Bryant) finds himself in some financial trouble. He takes advantage of his dying Uncle Rodger (Maurice Denham) by bribing him with medicine for information of where his uncle’s money is. Uncle Rodger dies before he can give any information on his supposed fortune. Colin stays the night in his late uncle’s home alone and begins searching for his uncle’s cash. He eventually finds a mysterious cellar door and begins to investigate, digging around in the cellar he finds a cat that changes his life.
This tale has that Amicus style they became famous for with some impressively atmospheric scenes and a very creepy cat with some strange influence.
Terror Over Hollywood: Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams) is a young and eager Hollywood starlet struggling to become known. Sharing an apartment with another actress, Carla purposely sabotages her room mate’s date with a known Hollywood producer and takes her place instead. At dinner, Carla gets to meet people that can make her famous as she starts to sell herself in order to become a known actress. She eventually lands a part in a movie but her backstabbing ways end up coming back to haunt her as she learns her cast and crew in the film are not quite what they seem.
A nice little story about betrayal and greed. Not what I would call scary at all but still a story with a nice unexpected reveal.
Mr. Steinway: Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) is a young and beautiful musical journalist who interviews famous classical musician Leo Winston (John Standing). During the interview, Leo offers to show Dorothy his pride and joy, Euterpe a rather impressive grand piano named after the Greek muse of music. Dorothy and Leo slowly become close and eventually become lovers. Due to their relationship, Winston struggles to maintain his concentration as his manager and friend Maxine Chambers (Ursula Howells) begins to notice. Leo’s career starts to wane as friction between Dorothy and Maxine gets worse. Maybe Leo is not the talent behind his music after all?
A nice tale, but doesn’t really offer any surprises or scares as its made quite clear exactly what is going on quite early on.
The Man Who Collected Poe: A collector of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) meets a fellow Poe collector, Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing). Ronald finds Lancelot is in possession of a very rare Edgar Allan Poe first edition and tries to buy it. However, Lancelot is not interested in selling but he does invite Ronald to his home to see his full collection of Poe’s books and other collectables. Their shared interest kindles a friendship and Lancelot offers to show Ronald his most favourite and prized Poe treasures. Lancelot takes Ronald down to his cellar where he keeps the most rare and impressive of his collection, including original Poe manuscripts of unpublished stories. Ronald discovers that these unreleased stories were written in 1966 meaning Edgar Allan Poe could not have written them at all. So this means that Lancelot and his collection is fake…doesn’t it?
Great performances from both Jack Palance and Peter Cushing and brilliantly shot with a creepy and story as the truth behind Lancelot Canning’s impressive Poe collection is revealed. For me, the best of the stories in this one.
This film ends with that typical Amicus twist.
If you have been paying attention, then you’d notice there were five people entering Dr. Diabolo’s Torture Garden, but only four stories. The fifth stranger (Michael Ripper) goes crazy before he can be shown his future and uses the shears of Atropos to kill Dr. Diabolo in front of the others. This causes panic and the others run away. It is revealed that the fifth stranger was in fact working with Dr. Diabolo and the whole thing was a con to gain some extra money as Dr. Diabolo is really unhurt still very much alive. The two congratulate each other for their acting, yet Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) shows he did not actually run off like the others and says he is interested in making a deal with Dr. Diabolo to work with him as Dr. Diabolo reveals himself to actually be The Devil in a double bluff ending.
An improvement over their first effort with some good stories. Torture Garden is a fun romp with a few good twists and turns along the way coupled with great performances from Peter Cushing and Burgess Meredith. The 70s are next as Amicus welcome in a new decade of anthology horror.
The House That Dripped Blood: Directed by Peter Duffell, written by Robert Bloch and Russ Jones. released in 1971 and starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Nyree Dawn Porter, Denholm Elliott, and Jon Pertwee.
Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) from Scotland Yard is called to a house to investigate the disappearance of its newest tenant, film star Paul Henderson. During the investigation, Inspector Holloway discovers more of the house’s history and talks to an estate agent (John Bryans) who tells Holloway about some of its previous tenants.
Method For Murder: Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott) a writer of horror stories, moves into the house with his wife Alice Hillyer (Joanna Dunham). While staying in the house, Charles starts to have visions of Dominic (Tom Adams), the main character from the book he is writing. Dominic is written as a psychopathic murderer and the visions Charles has begin to get more intense and scary the more he writes the book. The visions eventually start to turn him insane and drive him to seek a psychiatrist for help. But is Dominic real or is Charles just losing the plot?
Really creepy and tense with a brilliant performance from Denholm Elliott. This story really hits home what Amicus were great at and why they became so good at this genre of film and stories with intriguing twists.
Waxworks: Philip Grayson (Peter Cushing) a lonely widower visits a macabre horror themed waxwork museum run by a mysterious proprietor (Wolfe Morris). While looking at the various wax models, Philip recognises one of the figures as a his wife who died. Philip’s friend, Neville Rogers (Joss Ackland) turns up at the house for a surprise visit. Philip takes Neville to the wax museum where Neville notices the wax work of what appears to be Philip’s dead wife. Neville leaves the next day while Philip goes back to the wax museum once more, here he finds Neville staring at the enigmatic wax work. They both agree never to go back to the museum and part ways but Neville eventually tells Philip he just can not leave and feels he needs to go back to the wax work museum again. Philip rushes to the museum and discovers a disturbing sight just in time for the proprietor to explain what has been going on.
Not really much in the way of surprises in this tale, if you have seen any horror film set in a wax museum then you’ll know what to expect here. But its still quite an effective story none the less and Peter Cushing is his normal masterful self.
Sweets to the Sweet: John Reid (Christopher Lee) moved into the house with his overtly shy daughter Jane (Chloe Franks). John is a single parent after his wife died and needs somebody to take care of his daughter while he is away working. He hires Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter) an ex school teacher to home school and care for Jane. Ann and Jane don’t really hit it off as Jane does not trust Ann at all and is scared of fire but she slowly opens up to An and even eventually even overcomes her fear or fire. John has always made sure Jane lead a sheltered life, no toys no friends and she is never allowed to leave the house. Jane’s confidence grows and grows with the help of Ann and we learn that Jane is not quite as sweet and innocent as she seems to be. She’s a little too much like her mother…which is not necessarily a good thing at all.
Its the angelic Chloe Franks that makes this story work. A nice little tale that is well shot and acted throughout.
The Cloak: We finally learn what happened to the missing actor, Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) that started this whole film. Paul moves into the house while working on a new vampire film being shot near by. Paul is an arrogant actor who demands perfection and is upset at his costume for his new film, so he goes out and buys a cloak from a peculiar shopkeeper; Theo von Hartmann (Geoffrey Bayldon) to use as his film character’s costume instead. Whenever Paul wears the cloak, he feels a strange chill and begins to notice strange occurrences like not having a reflection when he looks in a mirror. It seems this cloak is a little more than just a simple costume piece, as Paul’s co-star Carla Lynde (Ingrid Pitt) soon discovers.
Good little vampire story that has a few laughs along the way, there are even a few tongue in cheek jokes at the expense of Amicus’ rivals, Hammer Films and in particular Christopher Lee. More funny than scary, but still a good story worth watching.
The epilogue for this film ends with a nice sting.
Inspector Holloway demands to go to the house itself as he does not believe the stories he has just been told about the previous tenants. While there, he discovers a locked room in the cellar which he forces open. In the room he finds that Paul Henderson hasn’t really been ‘missing’ after all.
One of Amicus’ better anthology films as the stories get more interesting and feel much more even as a piece of storytelling.
That will do for part I but there are still many more films and stories to cover yet. Part II sees some of the best films Amicus produced in the horror anthology sub genre.