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I, just like many of you, love horror movies, and we all have our own individual reasons for loving them too. My own personal reason is a man by the name of Frederick C. Peerenboom, who might be better known to anyone that lived in the central Ohio area during the ‘70s and ‘80s as Fritz the Nite Owl, the Emmy Award winning host of Nite Owl Theater which ran late Friday nights on WBNS out of Columbus.

The Amicus Collection
Every weekend Fritz would fly down from his home planet of Zontar to show a double feature that usually consisted of a couple older horror or sci-fi B-movies right after the eleven o’clock news, and every Friday night, while wrapped up in a sleeping bag on the couch with a cold drink and big bowl of popcorn nearby, I anxiously awaited his return. From an early age, staying up late and on into the early hours of the morning became a Friday night ritual for me, and if you were to ask the right person they’d probably tell you it warped my formative little mind, though I myself can’t imagine those earlier Friday nights spent any other way.

So what’s all that got to do with Dark Sky’s “The Amicus Collection” you might ask? Well, most of the films in the WBNS library and shown on Nite Owl Theater were from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a large portion of those came from studios such as Hammer Films, American International Pictures, and, last but not least, Amicus Films. There was the occasional Universal Monster or Godzilla thrown in the mix, but most of the flicks I enjoyed on those late nights starred such horror icons as Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and Peter Cushing.

Unfortunately, Nite Owl Theater was taken off the air in the early ‘90s, and with it went my only outlet to the movies that helped to define my youth and make me the twisted man I am today. Occasionally some would show up on VHS, but finding out which ones were released and actually tracking them down was next to impossible. It wasn’t until DVD started to take off a few years ago that I was finally able to own many of those old favorites, and over the past nine years I’ve made it sort of a personal mission to buy as many as I can.

I haven’t always been able to get all the ones that I’ve wanted at any particular time though, and I’ve missed out on quite a few that have come and gone out-of-print over the years. Image Entertainment released The Beast Must Die, And Now the Screaming Starts!, and Asylum in region one a few years ago, but at the time I was only able to get my hands on one of them before they all became unavailable. By now you could probably imagine how happy I was when I read that Dark Sky Films would be re-releasing these films to DVD here in North America and that they would all be remastered and include what read like a nice batch of extras to boot.

It wasn’t until the day they arrived last week that it occurred to me the only way I could possibly review the discs would be to wait for the appropriate time—at the stroke of midnight on Friday evening to be exact—and by preparing the perfect refreshments—stove-popped popcorn (microwaves are for slackers) and a nice, tall glass of ice cold Mountain Dew. As Friday night came and the clock on the wall approached the witching hour, I walked out of the kitchen with my necessities in hand—making sure not to forget the extra butter—and settled in for a few hours of old school horror fun.

The Amicus Collection
The Amicus Collection
The Beast Must Die
12:00 a.m. – Figuring out which of the three fright fests to start out with was a pretty easy choice for me seeing as The Beast Must Die was played in regular rotation on Nite Owl Theater and usually shown at least a couple of times a year. As such it’s the one of the three films I’m most familiar with, and since it had been a couple of years since I had last seen it I looked forward to starting the night off by getting reacquainted with an old friend.

The movie tells the story of wealthy big game hunter Thomas Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart), who has tracked and killed nearly every kind of wild animal imaginable, save one. In order to lure this most elusive of prey out into the open, Tom invites several guests to his palatial estate for the weekend, guests who all have ties to grisly and horrible murders in their past, and one of which Tom is convinced hides the deadly secret that he or she is in fact a werewolf. As Tom slowly comes closer to discovering the true identity of the beastie, his guests are one by one murdered with no chance of escaping the isolated estate.  

With its strange mixture of blaxploitation action and horror with a smidgeon of Agatha Christie thrown in for good measure, The Beast Must Die unfortunately never quite gels together the way it ought to, but it’s an enjoyable romp nonetheless. The role of Thomas Newcliffe was purportedly to be played by Count Yorga himself, Robert Quarry, but was given to Lockhart at the last minute without any changes to the script, which may have been a major contributing factor towards Lockhart coming off as a gigantic ham for all his troubles. The other actors, including Peter Cushing, Michael Gambon, and Blofeld himself, Charles Gray, all fare much better in their respective roles and do their best to look either intelligent, sinister, innocent or all three.

Besides Lockhart’s performance, which depending on your own personal tastes may actually seem appropriate for the material, the film is also guilty of a few other oddities that make it unique to other horror films of the time and other werewolf films in particular. Instead of the standard man-in-suit, the werewolf is played by an actual Alsatian Wolfhound, which most of the time more or less works better than you’d expect. There’s also quite a bit of science behind the origins of the film’s werewolf, and all of it sounds strangely plausible with Peter Cushing spouting off virtually every bit of the necessary dialogue.

The oddest moment of all, however, comes with about fifteen-minutes left in the picture when the audience is given a timeout to figure out the villain just moments before the big reveal. This ‘Werewolf Break’, for all its William Castle schlockiness, is, if nothing else, what most people remember most about the picture some thirty-years later and the one moment that endears many people to the picture to this very day, me included.

The Amicus Collection
The Amicus Collection
And Now the Screaming Starts!
1:45 a.m. – After a quick refill on my life sustaining, caffeine filled elixir, and some sorting out of the soggy pieces of popcorn, I decided that the next of the three I would pop in would be And Now the Screaming Starts!. It had been several years since I’d last seen the picture—at least fifteen—so my recollections of it were a bit hazy to say the least, but I did recall that it was a halfway decent ghost story.

Set in 1795 England, And Now the Screaming Starts tells the tale of newlyweds Charles and Catherine (Ian Ogilvy and Stephanie Beacham), who move into Charles’ ancestral estate, Fengriffen. On their happy wedding night, Catherine is assaulted by what seems to be a malevolent ghost, and as the weeks after the incident go by Catherine is further terrorized by visions of a mutilated woodsman and a severed, right hand. Fearing for the sanity of his bride, Charles calls upon psychiatrist Dr. Pope (Peter Cushing) to save Catherine’s life, but it isn’t long after arriving at Fengriffen that the good doctor realizes he may not be dealing with a simple sickness of the mind after all.

As it turns out, And Now the Screaming Starts! isn’t just a halfway decent ghost story, but is in fact about as good as any of rival studio Hammer Films’ gothic horror pictures, expertly directed by genre veteran Roy Ward Baker and featuring fine performances by lead actors Ogilvy, Beacham, and Cushing, as well as the supporting cast of Patrick Magee as Dr. Whittle and Geoffrey Whitehead as Silas the woodsman. It’s Herbert Lom, however, who steals the show once he appears during a stirring flashback sequence as the menacing Henry Fengriffen. Lom obviously had a great deal of fun playing the part of the villain, and the few minutes he has on screen make up for any shortcomings in the film’s middling second act.

Those of you expecting something a bit faster paced might be disappointed in And Now the Screaming Starts! as the film takes its time building up tension in the possibility that everything may just be in Catherine’s head. Stephanie Beacham does her best to carry the picture through its first forty-five minutes, but it doesn’t really begin to pickup steam until about halfway through when Peter Cushing’s character finally arrives on the scene to take charge of the situation as only Peter Cushing can. Even so, And now the Screaming Starts! is a fun, spooky ride all the same with some gruesome imagery that’s not soon forgotten.

The Amicus Collection
The Amicus Collection
Asylum
3:30 a.m. – It was right around this time that I had an epiphany—I’m not as young as I used to be. In a scene not unlike Boris Karloff lumbering off the operating table in Frankenstein, I sat up from the couch as my bones creaked, my body moaned, and the thought that maybe I should have taken a nap after work ran through my head. Stumbling within the darkened confines of my television room, I slowly made my way towards the DVD shelf and lunged for the last of the three films, Asylum. After placing it ever so gently in the player, I then slowly but surely made my way back to the couch—banging my shin against the coffee table along the way—and pressed play.

Asylum tells the tale of one Dr. Martin, who arrives at the Dunmoor Asylum for The Incurably Insane expecting to be interviewed for a staff position by the asylum’s director, Dr. Starr. Instead, he is greeted by a Dr. Rutherford, who explains to him that Dr. Starr has suffered a breakdown and had to be admitted amongst his own patients. Dr. Rutherford then decides that if Dr. Martin wants the job, he’ll have to interview each of the four patients and figure out whom among them is in fact Dr. Starr. Escorted by Max, the kind orderly, Dr. Martin proceeds to visit each patient and listen to their horrific and sordid tales.

Amicus made several anthology movies in the early ‘70s, such as The House That Dripped Blood and my favourite, Tales From the Crypt, and Asylum is one of the better ones produced by the studio. Roy Ward Baker once again delivers a top notch directing job, and all of the performances are spot on for the material. The standouts among the cast include Charlotte Rampling as a young woman addicted to popping pills and, in a return engagement to my midnight marathon, Herbert Lom as the mental Dr. Byron, who believes that he can transfer his conscience into one of the many dolls he has constructed in his room. The writing credits for the film belong to Robert Bloch, who many might recognize as the writer of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and while the stories that make up the bulk of the movie may not live up to those lofty standards or the aforementioned Tales From the Crypt, Asylum does contain what is probably the best and most interesting wrap around segment of any horror anthology that I can think of off the top of my head.

I have to say I really enjoyed watching Asylum again after all these years, and the only disappointment with the picture is the fact that Peter Cushing appears in just two or three scenes, which is much less than what I had remembered. Regardless of that fact, it seems by sheer coincidence that I had saved the best film for last, which was no doubt a good thing too as anything less and I probably wouldn’t have made it to 5:00 a.m.

The Amicus Collection
Overall, if you’re like me and haven’t seen these films in a few years then you’re in for quite a treat, and if you’re new to this brand of horror then you should definitely give the blood-soaked gore and remakes a break for a few short hours. I certainly had a lot of fun watching each movie, and ultimately the only thing missing from the evening was a few timely visits from Fritz the Nite Owl to lighten the mood every once in while with one of his signature video gimmicks and a few sly remarks on each film, but I guess that on the whole the evening was as close to those nights from long ago as I’m likely to ever get again.

As for the discs themselves, each title in “The Amicus Collection” will be available separately upon release, and if your budget won’t allow you to run out and purchase all three films at once—which I certainly suggest you do—then you should start with Asylum and work your way backwards through my review from there. My only other suggestion would be to pace yourself by watching only one or two of the movies at a time and leave the midnight hour triple features to a professional, which by the next morning was the same advice I wish someone had given me.

Video
According to the press materials for each disc, Dark Sky Films has remastered each picture from its respective 35mm negative and presented each on DVD with anamorphic widescreen transfer, with And Now the Screaming Starts! and Asylum presented at their theatrically exhibited aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and The Beast Must Die at a slightly modified 1.78:1 aspect ratio. After years of watching older genre flicks such as these on DVD I've been witness to some really good transfers and some really bad ones that have all laid a claim to being remastered from the best available elements, so usually I take such claims with a large grain of salt. With that being said, Dark Sky Films' efforts in presenting these films in the best possible manner certainly warrants that these belong among the better transfers, and near the top of the list at that.

Each disc offers a superb transfer and represents the best that each film has ever looked. Colours are vibrant and nicely saturated while the image is sharp and detailed with no apparent edge enhancement, compression artefacts, or other such anomalies. Being that these movies are over thirty-years old, you could safely assume that there would be quite a bit of dust and dirt artefacts and film grain from the source print popping up throughout the course of watching each film, but for the most part you'd be wrong. While you wouldn't mistake these for movies filmed within the past couple of years, the transfers are very clean and largely free of any glaring problems associated with their respective sources. Sure, there is some film grain and an artefact that pops up every now and again, but nothing that distracts from the enjoyment of each film and nothing that shouldn't be expected from pictures of their age made outside the major studio system. The only real flaw I did notice, however, were a couple of small jump cuts during The Beast Must Die, but they weren’t in any way distracting and probably something that most people wouldn’t notice anyway.

The Amicus Collection
A few years ago Image Entertainment released each of these films under their “EuroShock Collection” line of discs, so out of curiosity I popped in my older copy of The Beast Must Die as a comparison to the new, Dark Sky Films disc. Simply put, there was no comparison—not only did the new anamorphic transfer offer the better picture, but it was also apparent within the first thirty-seconds that the print used for the newer disc was far superior and much cleaner than the source of the Image release. Overall, Dark Sky Films has done right by these fright flicks as far as their video presentation is concerned, and owners of Image’s previous discs should especially take note.

Audio
Dark Sky Films has presented each film on DVD with a Dolby 2.0 Mono soundtrack along with optional English subtitles. Dialogue is clear and easily understood and there isn’t any apparent damage to the original source audio that would cause pops and other such anomalies in the DVDs' audio tracks to occur. With these discs having mono audio only you aren’t going to be wowed by the sound, but aside from some slight distortion every now and again on each film the audio is serviceable and does its job quite well.

Extras
Dark Sky Films has gathered quite a few nice extras to spread across the three discs, including feature-length audio commentaries for each film, featurettes, trailers, and more that will make repeated play of each disc a must.

On The Beast Must Die you’ll first find a commentary track with director Paul Annett. It’s a very informative track and moderator Jonathan Sothcott keeps the track from dipping into too many lulls. Annett discusses how he came to work with Amicus on the film, his first feature, what it was like to work with Peter Cushing, and the infamous ‘Werewolf Break’, which was added by the studio shortly before the movie’s release and against the director’s wishes.

You‘ll also find an interview with Annett that runs around twelve-minutes where he describes first meeting both Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, working on the film and the titular beast, and a few other aspects of filming the picture. Like the commentary track, Annett is very forthcoming on the production, but if you’ve already given the commentary track a listen you’ll end up getting a lot of redundant information.

The rest of the disc’s features are rounded out with a trailer for the film as well as ones for the other two films in the collection, biographies on the principal cast and crew, a still gallery that features several posters and lobby cards, and linear notes inside the package’s booklet.

The Amicus Collection
Moving on to the next disc, And the Screaming Starts! contains two commentary tracks—director Roy Ward Baker and star Stephanie Beacham are featured on the first track while actor Ian Ogilvy contributes on the second. Expertly moderated by Marcus Hearn, the first track is the much more revealing and informative of the two as the director and his star actress discuss a great deal about the production and reveal interesting anecdotes about the film’s other stars, Ogilvy and Cushing. The second, moderated by Darren Gross, is an interesting one as well as Ogilvy not only discusses the picture at hand but also talks about working with actors in other films such as Boris Karloff in The Sorcerers and Vincent Price in Witchfinder General as well as the director of those films and friend, the late Michael Reeves. Overall, Ogilvy manages to give a nice overview of the British horror scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the inclusion of the track is a welcome one.

The rest of the disc’s features are rounded out with trailers for the three films, biographies for the principal cast and crew, and a still gallery containing posters and lobby cards, along with linear notes about the film included as part of the disc’s packaging.

The third and final disc, Asylum, also contains an audio commentary, again nicely moderated by Marcus Hearn, featuring director Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney. More than any of the other commentary tracks in the collection, much of the discussion focuses on the technical aspects of the production, but there’s also plenty of amusing stories infused here and there that keep the track lively and fresh.

The disc also houses the featurette, ‘Inside the Fear Factory’, which is basically the story of Amicus Films with co-founder Max J. Rosenberg (who has since passed on), and directors Roy Ward Baker and Freddie Francis interviewed. The piece is chock full of information about the company’s beginnings and eventual downfall as well as tidbits on some of Amicus’ bigger hits. At just under twenty-minutes, the feature isn’t nearly long enough as I got the feeling that there was much more to the Amicus story that went untold, but as is it’s a great addition to the disc and something that shouldn’t be missed. The rest of the features are—if you haven't guessed by now—similar to the other two discs with biographies, trailers, a still gallery, and linear notes included.

Overall, Dark Sky has culled a nice set of extras for fans of the films with some nice information on not only the movies but the studio that produced them as well.

The Amicus Collection
Overall
With the explosion of the home video market created by DVD in the past several years, folks don’t have to wait for the local, late night horror show to catch movies like they used to as they’re increasingly readily available at most any retailer or video store, and I feel that since many of the B-horror features many of us enjoyed growing up can now be watched whenever we want a bit of the charm that these pictures had for many of us has been lost. The anticipation of staying up late for that first flick and fighting off the sleep monster at 2:00 a.m. to catch the second part of a double feature are all things of the past, along with the colorful characters that introduced each movie and made watching even the bad ones an event worth losing a bit of sleep over. It all makes a small part of me sad really, knowing that a time in my life I truly remember as one of the best times can’t be repeated.

On the other hand, there’s no amount of rose-tinted nostalgia that would entice me into watching some moldy, local station print of a movie with cheesy commercials popping up every fifteen-minutes on a thirteen-inch television over enjoying a pristine copy of the same movie on my entertainment center in all its sixty-five inch screen and eight speaker surround sound glory. There’s also no one that says you can't save movies like these for the appropriate time, and Dark Sky Films’ "The Amicus Collection" is the best reason in a long time to set aside a few late night hours and create some all-new nostalgia.


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