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Back in the early sixties American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg wanted a slice of the box office profits that were being generated by the horror output of Hammer Films. Relocating to Britain and setting up Amicus, Subotsky & Rosenberg took a handful of scripts that Subotsky had written for a proposed TV series and fashioned a script that incorporated all the short stories into an anthology, a format that had been employed with tremendous success on the seminal Dead of Night in the forties. Exploiting the very favourable tax breaks on offer here in the UK, this was to be the first in their long line of increasingly “friendly” horror films, that initial step towards Subotsky’s dream of a horror movie for the whole family.

Is Fluff going to find out what fate the cards deal him? Not 'arf!
A major stepping-stone towards that particular vision was Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, which spins a series of horrific tales through a mysterious deck of playing cards (the titular “house of horrors“), as five passengers on a train have their grim fortunes predicted by the mysterious Dr Shreck. This is no game where the players risk losing the shirts off their backs, with the outcome demanding a much higher price. Although each “victim” sports a different attitude to their host’s powers of the occult, all are equally compelled to know what fate has in store, just what horrors await them, and can their destinies be changed? Somehow, it seems that their meeting in the same carriage was no coincidence…

There is a mixture of the tried and trusted and the up-and-coming in the cast - Cushing and Lee are their usual excellent selves; many site Lee’s performance as a venomous art critic as a possible career best, and any movie that allows Bernard Lee to find his way out of M’s office and make him the hero is worthy of attention.

Werewolf: First up, we have an interesting bit of lycanthropy with a twist on the classic tale. Something terrifying is stirring in the basement of an old, dark house. Canadian actor Neil MacCallum plays Jim Dawson, an  architect who returns to his ancestral home on a Scottish island to do some renovation for it’s current owner, Mrs Biddulph (Ursula Howells). Convinced that an ancient family curse is out to get him, and that Cosmo Valdemar, who was killed by one of his antecedents, is not only more alive than his grave would suggest, but is also sprouting hair hand changing his personality faster than a Bi-Polar Disorder sufferer with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Given all this knowledge, along with that fact that he is in Scotland after dark, he arms up with silver bullets and proceeds to take matters into his own hands.  

Out of all of the stories in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, this segment is far and away the most rich in atmosphere, with the use of highland mists and moody lighting lending themselves to enliven what could have been a fairly routine affair, imbuing it with a subtext that keeps you riveted right up until the twist-ending. There are enough hoary old tropes and staples of the genre thrown at to misdirect the viewer during the course of the running time, including at least a couple of potential suspects, both of whom are in the frame for a bit of nocturnal throat-ripping.

With this film essentially being studio-bound, director Freddie Francis makes the most of the limitations that filming in the studio brings and manages to make Shepperton Studios and interesting and atmospheric substitute for the Outer Hebrides - you are constantly aware that it’s not being filmed on location but - like Tobe Hooper’s Death Trap, which would follow about a decade later - these limitations work the the film’s advantage by creating a claustrophobic “bottled” atmosphere that works to the advantage of the story.  A key sequence employing such subtexts sees MacCallum breaking through a plasterboard wall, a theme so that obsessed Dario Argento that he employed it a number of times (especially in his giallo masterpiece Deep Red), essentially the most visual interpretation of breaking though a wall of lies/silence to uncover the truths of the past.

This story isn’t the strongest overall, but it is probably the richest in terms of atmosphere and tension, with all of the cast providing strong performances, even if McCallum’s Scottish accent is a little dodgy at times. Speaking of McCallum, it was sad that he died suddenly just over a decade later at the relatively early age of 47.

Amicus' walls needed a crowbar to get through them - Hammer's eventually just needed prod with a sharp fingernail...
Creeping Vine: This is the unlikely tale of a family entrenched in a siege in their home against a deadly foe - plant life! Not just your everyday Triffid, these human/vegetable hybrids use their creeping, vine-like tendrils to accomplish surprisingly delicate tasks to reach their prey.

Our desperate band are running a poor second, and anyone want to bet against the both the scientist and the family dog being high up on the kill list? In any case, it’s Alan “Fluff” Freeman in his only dramatic role battling against something much more lethal than an overdose of prescription drugs, as our chloroplast-thirsty foes want to swallow him whole, not ‘arf! One striking image that stays with you is the first tip-off that the plants are more savvy than your average petunia, as one casually turns its head when Fluff walks past. Very cool and strangely unnerving, setting up a rather daft but ultimately enjoyable segment.

The first murderous act from this botanical aberration is when a little girl sees her dog, Rusty, strangled by the titular plant bits – the problem with this canine is that although the doggie is real enough, the barking is made by something with two legs in a recording studio and the results could most politely be described as 'surreal' and distract from the scene.

Despite some of the shortcomings of this entry in anthology, there a couple of solid character actors on hand to bolster the credibility a little, both of whom spent their careers playing authority figures; Jeremy Kemp plays a scientist who expresses deep concern at Fluff’s homicidal plants and comes along to his pad to study them. Maybe they might  have more success sending in Clint Eastwood to parlay with them…

Bernard Lee, fresh from the set of Goldfinger, plays a character not too dissimilar from his 'M' role, sporting a pipe and musing quietly “a plant like this... could take over the world.”, which is a line that even an actor of Lee's calibre struggles to pull off convincingly.

Voodoo: Yes, that motif much beloved by terror film of old provides the basis for a cracking little tale as Roy Castle takes centre stage in the third segment, playing a trumpet-playing entertainer (not much of a stretch, we hear you cry!) who travels to Haiti and overhears a catchy native tune. Ignoring the dire warning given to him by Kenny Lynch about stealing the sacred composition from the great god Damballah (ironically Lynch  was the man who once ruined the sacred theme to Ghostbusters), Roy heads back to the smoky jazz clubs of London where, unsurprisingly, he tempts fate by incorporating that hip voodoo beat into his latest tune. When debuted in front of a packed club, all hell breaks loose as he finds out that that the voodoo gods hold more power over their music than an entire battery of entertainment lawyers.

It has to be said that this segment contains one of the most unfortunate moments in cinema - in a nightclub, Roy Castle is seen weighing up whether to buy a packet of fags from the cigarette girl, deciding that “I think I'm old enough to smoke”. Still, it might not have been the very liberal plundering from Voodoo rights that pissed off the natives; our theory is that Roy Castle’s dreadful attempt at a West Indies accent was enough for him to earn their wrath. Someone should have told him that if you are going to insult an entire race, then you should at least do it in their own tones. Or was India declared a colony of the West Indies and we didn’t realise it? It seems churlish to lay into that one particular line, and we’ll say no more about it, as the rest is rich source of fun.  

There are musical numbers, winning performances and a thoroughly unique vibe to it, proving that you can do a voodoo story without resorting to sticking pins in dolls. The club scenes are swinging, with Castle proving just how good he was as a musician appearing as part of the only filmed footage of the Tubby Hayes Quintet. Nice! Also among the numerous high-points is the surreal sight of Castle walking down a street and passing a poster on the wall for this very movie, but with the names of some of the characters emblazoned upon it, instead of the actors’ monikers. Best of all is a fusion of concept, execution and subtext when Castle is secretly jotting down the notes to the sacred music. As the camera cuts between him and the Voodoo rites playing out before him, on each cut-away, there is an increasing number of tribesmen standing behind him, ready to pounce. Only after numerous back and forths and a small army of natives surrounding him does the penny drop that he is in serious trouble! Some might argue that this depicts the fears of white Britons being increasingly outnumbered by West Indians whilst they are not looking, reflecting the attitudes in the mid-sixties.  Brilliantly conceived, and arguably the first time ever that music is killing home-copying…

Charges of racism have been levelled against this particular segment, but this just seems to be based on modern sensibilities rather than anything intended by the film-makers. Many say that the film seems to have the standpoint that white equals “good” and black means “evil“, and even worse that it’s OK to be black as long as you are a chirpy Cockney. This is crap, as the whole thing embodies EC comics, where voodoo was often used as a malevolent force, usually when it has been defiled in some way. Here, Castle trespasses on a private religious ceremony, unwittingly blasphemes them, is warned not to do so, but goes and does it anyway, mocking said religion as he goes. The dick deserved all he got. Speaking of divisive, Castle as an actor creates the Marmite effect, where a hell of a lot absolutely hate him, slating him as an actor and detesting his comedic bumbling. We are in the other camp, where he really can add some much needed colour to a piece, and possessed more charm than the average performer. Said qualities bring a lovely lightness of touch to this tale of voodoo, and have it tie for the top spot in this this horrific portmanteau.

An omen? Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch sharing the screen together - eighties' television didn't know what was going to hit it...

Disembodied Hand: Our ante-penultimate slice of terror takes an old chestnut of a premise and turns it into what could be arguably of the best of the bunch. The ever-reliable Michael Gough stars as Eric Landor, an artist who bears the brunt of a public acidic tongue-lashing from snobby art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee).

Landor successfully pre-empts this eventuality and after slagging off all of his work in a manner that only Christopher Lee with his pomposity throttle fully open can do, Landor begs Marsh for his opinion on a new, exciting artist. After babbling excitedly about the artistic potential of this artist, Gough reveals that the person responsible for painting the picture is not only hairier than the average Beatle at the time, but also has a penchant for bananas.

Now utterly humiliated before front of a group of influential art-lovers, a furious Marsh plots revenge. One hit and run later, Landor is in hospital minus one hand, and Marsh soon finds himself fighting for his sanity in a less-than-even-handed battle for survival.  Given the nature of Gough’s marriage to a certain sixties-era Doctor Who actress, it could have been gone either way as to whether the disembodied hand would go and kill Franklyn Marsh or seek out Anneke Wills to punch in the face…

Special praise must go to director Freddie Francis for coaxing out one of Lee’s most engaging performances as a man in fear for his life, a most welcome departure from him playing immortal, aristocratic monsters or the most aloof of stiff-upper-lip types. Francis was once asked if it was difficult to get the usually stoic Christopher Lee to depart from his strong, silent mode in order to emote up to level required by Francis for this story, to which the director matter-of-factly replies “No, he loved it”.  This confirms what we had always suspected: Lee was always interested in doing broader things, particularly comedy, as his game turn in Gremlins 2 showcased (and you really should try and catch his Sylvester the cat impersonation, it is truly surreal). Lee’s Marsh is a pompous, egomaniacal monster, is so obsessed with his thirst for art, that he has an almost sociopathic streak in him. The quest for artistic enlightenment is such that any thought for the feelings of the artist is cruelly tossed aside in favour of grandstanding to an audience and inflating his own ego at the same time. Brian Sewell, anyone?

Although he only commands a few minutes of screen time, Michael Gough proves he is every bit as charming and charismatic as Peter Cushing, effortlessly puncturing the pomposity of Lee’s art critic in a very public manner makes for riveting viewing. Gough’s Landor just seems to have an almost Zen-like serenity as Marsh’s insults seem to slide off him and he has a smile on his face as this happens. Gough also manages to elicit sympathy, as he suffers a life-changing injury at the - ahem - hands of Franklyn Marsh; you cannot help but feel the pain as Landor takes his life with his own - or should that be one remaining - hand. It’s a fairly safe bet that Oliver Stone must have seen this, as his 1980 movie, The Hand, covers the same material, compacting a bloated 20 minute story into a slender hour and a half.  When Michael Caine loses his hand in the Stone movie, it comes off as funny rather than tragic, but Gough’s accident is a real jolt.  Having said that, we must have something buried deep in our psyches that makes us laugh whenever Caine loses a digit or two. Or five. At the climax of Mona Lisa, where he loses a toe courtesy of a gun-wielding Bob Hoskins, hilarity naturally ensued.

This particular segment is quite possibly the best of the bunch, as it mixes great performances, suspense, pathos and has a satisfyingly poetic coda that gives the audience what it has been waiting for over an hour - to see the pompous Marsh finally get his comeuppance.

Lee and Gough contemplate what might be in store if a little American kid with spiky hair and a permanent catarrh problem comes up to them...
Vampire: Back in the day, the UK was a good proving ground for up-and-coming actors from the far-end of the Atlantic, choosing to study at RADA and other institutions before heading back to make the big bucks. Canny producers were quick to spot talent, quickly snapping up many future stars so as to add a touch of class to average quality UK productions, and  Milton Subotsky was no slouch in this department, bagging a young Donald Sutherland to star in one of the most atmospheric stories of the bunch. Newly arriving in a quiet suburb of New England, Sutherland and his French bride find that something other than creeping industrialisation is sucking the life out of the village. Unlucky children are suffering blood-loss, along with curious puncture wounds to the neck. And what are those awfully big birds seen flying around the place recently? Could there really be a vampire in their close-knit community? But just who could it be..?

The dull life in suburbia provides the perfect contrast for this look at displacement, where the adjustment from ones’ homeland to pastures new will always draw the watchful, judgemental eyes of the small-minded residents, and none more so when the work of a potential vampire turns up just when a stranger comes to the village. Sutherland sets up in business with a fellow doctor and both notice that the blood supply of the place is going down, with attacks focusing on the weak, the young and the blood laboratory upstairs - only someone with access to both knowledge of and a key to the place could possibly know of its existence. It’s difficult to go into detail, as it would blow the reveal at the end, but lets just say that even Sutherland begins to have his doubts when his new wife takes more than a little interest at the blood oozing from his rare steak!

Sutherland gives an early look at his mildly-goofy persona which would serve him well though the run of his career, and is expectedly charming as a man who really doesn’t want to believe a conclusion which is staring him in the face. Jennifer Jayne is excellent as the mysterious French beauty whose true motives are as mysterious as the underground resistance. Though thoroughly British, she couldn’t comes across more authentically Tricolour if they were to dress her up as a packet of Gitanes. Max Adrian also impresses as a fellow doctor wonder just what the bloody Hell is going on their little town, as well as just why young kiddies are looking rather pale of late.  Modern-day vampires were still quite the novelty when this particular tale was spun, and it gives you the feeling that this was something different when watching, even to this day. It’s effective, has a few tricks up its sleeve, and at under 15 minutes in length, really doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Alan Hume’s gorgeous compositions harkens back to the days when the cinemas where still battling against the onslaught of TV, and the super-wide Panavision/TechniScope/EastmanScope/HammerScope, etc were wheeled-out as the big-guns in cinema’s big push.  Everything had to be big, with every inch of the frame used to tell the story.  Although this was par for the course in the fifties and sixties, such a storytelling tool died-off during the seventies as studios realised that, ironically, such compositions made for a harder sale to TV stations, and the 2.40:1 ratio kept everything either more central or to the one side of the frame. No such compromises are present here, as the whole image is used, with creeping dangers worming their way in from the side of the screen, leaving the viewers to spot their unsuspecting attack for themselves. Even dialogue scenes are improved with the wider image, as appropriate distance can be put between characters so they can have a civilised conversation without being crammed so close together it makes every “how do you do?” seem like a declaration of love. Seeing this in a cinema must have had audiences swinging their heads back and forth like a Wimbledon match. Only John Carpenter seems to keep the flame burning on this preferable style of cinema.

Don't look now, but Donald's got the point...

Video


So, how do these wonderful compositions hold up in high-definition?  The answer would have to be 'pretty bloody well'. The 2.40:1 image stands heads and shoulders over any lousy, grainy copy you might have seen on TV, or found on video in the early eighties. Colour is very stable, doing a fine job of conveying what was originally intended, which was a lurid colour pallet and this has been faithfully reproduced during the Pinewood restoration, which took matched the colours from the initial release prints signed off by director Freddie Francis and the print is free from serious imperfections.

It should be pointed out that the Anchor Bay DVD release had the opening credits in German and the end credits derived from an nth-generation VHS copy - this was presumably because the best master for that copy at the time was a German one. We are pleased to inform you dear readers that this copy has the original opening and end titles in wonderful quality.

Audio


Presented in 2.0 PCM mono, the soundtrack is serviceable enough, with perfectly discernible dialogue and a pleasing amount of punch to the soundtrack, particularly during the Voodoo segment, in which the combined results of The Tubby Hayes Quintet and Kenny Lynch sound particularly good.

Bernard Lee realises that he can't get to the pub for a couple of hours...

Extras


Audio Commentary: This track has been ported over from the Anchor Bay DVD release from about a decade ago and features director Freddie Francis in conversation with Jonathan Sothcott. Francis passed away in 2007 and here he has to be coaxed into remembering specifics about the film, and many of his answers are just confirmations to the loaded questions said to him, but there is plenty to take pleasure in hearing from Francis first hand.

Francis describes Peter Cushing as “an absolute joy” and go to great lengths to say how professional the man was. Francis comes across as a professional person with reasonably fond memories of making the film and this audio commentary is a good way to get to know more about the person whose name has been emblazoned upon countless title sequences and posters over the decades.

House of Cards: This is an hour-long documentary from the good folks at Nucleus Films which takes and in-depth look at the film and the influences that brought about this initial film from Amicus. Helmed by noted British feature-film director Jake West, this is almost certainly the definitive look at Dr Terror's House of Horrors.

One of the great authorities on British horror films of the fifties and sixties, Jonathan Rigby is on-hand to provide great insight into the genesis of each story (which Milton Subotsky apparently took “inspiration” from several films that were on release within two or three years of writing this completely “original” horror film) and delivers his fascinating observations in a wonderful baritone voice that gives Christopher Lee a run for his money.

Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen is also on-hand to espouse his love of Amicus and anthology (he has recently been involved with his own anthology series, Number 9, several stories of which have a horror slant to them). Sheersmith gets to do an amusing impersonation of Bernard Lee. Speaking of the original – and best – M in the Bond series, Rigby lets slip that Bernard Lee was rather worse the wear for booze during the filming of his scene, to the point that he had to be filmed sitting down for a great deal of his time on the film.

Talking head documentaries are a tricky thing to make entertaining, even more so when all of the interviewees have no direct connection to the film (most of the people associated with it are now deceased), but director West manages to make the thing breezy and amusing, with Rigby in particular being a highlight, with his dry wit and compelling little titbits of information about the production (such as the disembodied hand that haunts Christopher Lee would be seen again in And Now The Screaming Starts and Tales From the Crypt the following decade, as Subotsky wanted to recoup the cost of making the thing's always good to see a bit-part graduate to supporting character.

Christopher Lee's death is mentioned, with Rigby paying tribute to the horror legend and going to great length to disprove the preconceptions that many have about him as a person.

Jake West has crafted an hugely enjoyable and informative documentary, with engaging participants and loaded with plenty of clips, not only from Dr Terror's House of Horrors, but from various films that are cited as inspirations for Francis' film. We dare you not to watch this with a smile on your face.

Michael Gough's disembodied hand prepares for a battle of Willls...
Christopher Lee – Legend of Stage and Screen: This 47 minute look at the life and career of the actor so inextricably linked with that of Dracula appears to be part of a television series from 2012. Lee himself is interviewed at length and speaks of his early life, including his time during the Second World War.

Lee comes across as a fairly genial – if vaguely aloof – individual and displays his famous ability to recall moments in his life with great humour, with his story about how he managed to infiltrate one of Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare adaptations by blagging his way into the wardrobe department being a highlight.

Lee's operatic baritone singing voice is mentioned, with Lee enthusing about his association with heavy metal, but we will always connect Lee singing with the Australian film, The Return of Captain Invincible.

The thorny subject of Dracula is touched upon, with Lee mentioning about him refusing to deliver any dialogue in Dracula: Prince of Darkness and saying that the physical depiction was incorrect, but he grudgingly acknowledges that the role change his career and the word 'typecast' is bandied around quite freely. He even trots out his often-employed anecdote about being told that James Careras emotionally blackmailing Lee into doing subsequent Dracula sequels by telling Lee to think about “the people you will put out of work if you don't do it”.

Lee also mentions about how he suggested that Hammer produce a big-screen adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, which saw Lee playing the good guy for a change.  Lee speaks of how CGI could make the demonic apparitions in the film even more terrifying – he obviously didn't see the much-criticised CGI-enhanced Blu-ray version...

Lee's films The Wicker Man, The Three Musketeers, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars Episode II are touched upon, with the former being cited as favourite film in his vast cinematic cannon, however no mention is made of the ludicrous wig he had to wear whilst essaying the role of Lord Summerisle.

The documentary concludes with Lee talking about his personal life – his wife, his daughter and the  honours that have been bestowed upon him later in life, including his knighthood and the his personal reaction to his standing ovation when he received his Fellowship at the BAFTAs.

With the actor's demise earlier this year, this documentary is bittersweet, sad that one of the most recognisable faces in the history of British cinema as passed on, but it also allows the main to fondly recall his admirable body of work, a vast array of films that will ensure that the man will be continue to be enjoyed for many years to come.

Gallery Images: This is a seven minute moving set of images from Dr Terror's House of Horrors, complete with portrait shots, publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photographs and posters, all set to incidental music from the film, whilst imitating a slide-show. Whilst one should applaud the innovate manner in which the images are presented, it might be a bit too fancy for some purists who just want to look at the photographs without any faffing around.

Trailer: Clocking in at around a minute, this allows potential viewers to know exactly what they are letting themselves in for as each story is detailed in the short running time of this trailer. On the plus side, there are some great lurid vintage captions that blaze across the screen throughout.

Ah, the image that was seen on a thousand paperbacks and posters!

Overall


Amicus’ cinematic anthologies have encompassed some strange sights: Terry Thomas getting a claw-hammer through the head, Joan Collins being offed by a nutter in a Santa suit, an overacting Poe-obsessed Jack Palance.  But none have the ability to take you right back to being an eight year old on a stormy Saturday night, with only a duvet to keep both kinds of chills out. If, as Clive Barker once said, Suspiria was exactly how you thought a horror movie was before you were old enough to see them, then Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is just like you imagined a monster movie to be.

* Note that the images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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