And Your Card Is… Death! The History Of Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors

The birth of Amicus horror – a stumbling but charming multi-story fright film with an eccentric cast and rather familiar narratives.

Leaving aside City of the Dead (which was produced by ‘Vulcan Films’, a flag of convenience company name), Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is where the Amicus Films story starts. It might not be the first actual Amicus film, but it is the first horror film to bear that name… and horror and fantasy is very much where Amicus made their reputation as a second string Hammer, always chasing the tail of their more famous rival as Amicus main man Milton Subotsky continually bitched and moaned about that company’s success. More significantly, the film sets out what would eventually become something of a house style for the company over the next decade – the portmanteau film, offering several stories for the price of one.

There are a lot of advantages to the portmanteau film for the frugal filmmaker. With a series of short stories, you can hire big-name actors for a day or two, paying them a pittance of the cost of actually hiring them for a full feature but still getting their name on the marquee – Amicus’ movies would be increasingly star-heavy, sometimes (as with this film) with gimmicky casting that you probably couldn’t get away with in a single-narrative feature. It also meant that there was no need to come up with a 90-minute story and for Subotsky, that was appealing – he was a better producer than he was a writer and his screenplays were often short and confused when he tried to complete a single story movie – it’s one of the things that brought down his original Frankenstein screenplay that he’d submitted to Hammer, which was rejected only for the company to then make their own Curse of Frankenstein, which made a fortune and set the company up as Britain’s premiere horror studio. No wonder Subotsky was bitter.

Max J. Rosenberg (L) and Milton Subotsky (R)

Subotsky – with business partner and money man Max J. Rosenberg – launched Amicus not with this film, as the horror movie books of the 1970s would have you believe, but with a pair of half-baked youth films – 1962’s It’s Trad, Dad was an attempt to cash in on a craze that was already dying, the trad jazz movement about to be kicked into touch by bands like the Beatles while Just for Kicks (1963) was a fluffy pop musical that has some historical interest thanks to appearances by the likes of The Spotnicks and The Tornadoes but which had an equally short shelf life to its predecessor. Perhaps realising that pandering to the fickle tastes of teenagers was not the way forward, Subotsky took a different direction.

In truth, Amicus and Hammer were rather different in style beyond the portmanteau. Hammer specialised in the gothic period piece while Amicus films were – with the odd exception – very much set in the modern day. The portmanteau approach aside, it took the company a while to find a style – at a different time, people might not have even seen Amicus as a horror studio at all, and certainly not a rival to Hammer, as they tried everything from spy thrillers to Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (directed by William Friedkin!) during the 1960s – of their fourteen films released in that decade, only five were horror movies (with another science fiction films including the two Dr Who movies that were produced under a different company name anyway) before settling on horror in the early 1970s when they positively churned movies out for a few years – eleven films in four years, all horror movies of one sort or another. Subotsky was a fan of the genre, but a rather odd one – he disapproved of graphic violence and nudity and wanted to make horror films that kids could enjoy, perhaps missing the point that the kids wanted plenty of blood, guts and bare breasts in their movies and – as The Monster Club woefully showed – had little time for films that were aimed at or condescended to them. Rosenberg – with whom Subotsky split in less than amicable fashion in 1976 after having their biggest hits with a pair of Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy films – seemed a lot more pragmatic and commercially minded (his post-Amicus productions include The Incredible Melting Man and Bloody Birthday), but he wasn’t in charge of creative.

At The Earth’s Core – the last gasp of Amicus.

Inspired by the 1945 portmanteau film Dead of Night and lifting its title from an obscure 1940s movie, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors immediately sets out what would become the house style for Amicus. The Amicus films didn’t follow the approach of many anthology films in having each story helmed by a different director – instead, each film had one writer and one director, which at least gave it a sense of continuity; there would be no sudden lurches in style and format during an Amicus film and I wish that producers of portmanteau films today would take that approach instead of clumsily bolting together short films or putting together vanity projects for their chums.

In the Amicus films, the linking story is as important as the actual tales of terror. In Dr Terror…, much like the best of the films that followed, a group of strangers are thrown together – in this case in the compartment of a train (when trains got rid of compartments, they immediately became less interesting for storytelling purposes) – who then tell/are told strange, eerie stories as they seek to pass the time, only for them – and us – to discover at the end that they are already dead. It’s a format that was later used in both Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and it’s a neat (if rather contrived) way of rounding events up – these stories are supposedly how the protagonists met their fate, and they are reliving them in some sort of purgatory.

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, as a prototype, doesn’t quite get the formula right. In later Amicus stories, the stories are very much morality plays – bad things tend to happen to bad people. In the aforementioned films, adapted from the EC Comics of the same name, each character is something of a bad egg – arguably not always bad enough to deserve a horrific death, but still something of a rotter who gets their comeuppance. Similarly, in From Beyond the Grave, the only people to escape a nasty death are the young couple who turn out not to have robbed shopkeeper Peter Cushing (though rather unfairly, they are still put through days of hell). Karma is indeed a bitch in these films. But in this movie, the issue is somewhat fudged. Aside from Christopher Lee’s Franklyn Marsh, everyone here seems to be a decent sort who hardly deserves the horrors he encounters (you might argue that Roy Castle’s Biff Bailey is a music thief, but the jazz number he performs in a nightclub that has allegedly been ripped off from the beats of a voodoo ritual sounds nothing like the original piece). Yet death awaits them all, in the surprisingly specific tarot readings of Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing, who is rather wasted here but nevertheless does a good job of making his mysterious character seem suitably creepy).

The primary joy of films like this is that, in theory at least, none of the stories will be long enough to ever become dull; if you don’t like this one, there will be another along in a few minutes. In the case of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, this is only partly true. The film’s major weakness is the screenplay by Subotsky, a man who had more confidence in his own writing ability than was deserved. His subsequent portmanteau films would adapt the works of Robert Bloch, EC Comics and R Chetwynd Hayes, all of whom knew how to craft a good short story, but Subotsky has little of their abilities. Instead, he mostly lifts ideas from older movies (the original screenplay for this film was written in 1948, and most of the tales seem to give a nod in the direction of horror films made around that time). This is fine, except that in a number of cases, he seems to have little more than that basic idea, and struggles to develop any sense of story or, more importantly, an ending – a couple of the stories (Creeping Vine and Voodoo) simply fizzle out, ending with a whimper rather than a bang. By all accounts, director Freddie Francis radically overhauled the screenplay in order to make some sense of it, but it is still by far the weakest element of the film.

Certainly, Francis – a legendary cinematographer but generally a workmanlike director who was only ever as good as the screenplay he was working with – seems to put in more effort than usual here, doing his best to build a sense of atmosphere in place of a coherent plot. The opening moments, where the group of strangers gather together and – through a potentially awkward contrivance – discover Dr Schreck’s tarot cards, are impressively done, allowing each character to develop a degree of personality before we’ve even seen their stories. Each tale is preceded by one volunteer agreeing to have their fortune read (and by much huffing and puffing by Marsh, the snobbish sceptic), tapping the deck three times and then watching their future unfold. Or, more accurately, their possible future, which can only be escaped by the final card… which is always Death. In fact – and this is only a spoiler if you haven’t seen any horror films with a twist in the tail – Dr Schreck is himself Death, come to collect the souls of the five men killed in a train crash.

The first story, Werewolf (Subotsky wasn’t good at thinking up spoiler-free titles and everything here – not shown on-screen, admittedly – is as basic as they come) sees Neil McCallum as a Scottish architect returning to the family home, now owned by ‘rich and beautiful’ widow Mrs Biddulph (Ursula Howells), in order to carry out structural repairs. In the cellar, he unearths the coffin of Count Cosmo Valdemar, who has placed a curse on the owner of the house. Cue lots of moping, red herrings and a twist that makes no sense, given the behaviour of the characters in the rest of the story. It’s a bit of a plodding start and we don’t get an on-screen werewolf, which is as much a disappointment now as it was when I first saw this film as a child. This story might have been better placed later in the film, allowing things to open with a more immediately dramatic tale and this, of course, is the curse of the linking narrative – it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to re-order the films without calling the cast back for reshoots on sets that no longer exist – and that would be beyond the financial means of a company like Amicus.

In Creeping Vine, Bill Rogers (DJ Alan Freeman in a bit of that stunt casting I mentioned earlier) and his family are terrorised by… well, by a creeping vine, which has intelligence and seems impossible to cut down as it spreads around their home. Bernard Lee and Jeremy Kemp turn up as men from the Ministry, and the story is pretty effective until it suddenly runs out of steam. Freeman is not an actor but more or less holds his own by not being given all that much to do, and presumably, Subotsky thought that his name on the poster would pull in the teenagers – who would then be disappointed to see their pop picker DJ hero playing a stiff, middle-class and middle-aged character. Not ‘arf!

Voodoo is the light relief story, with Roy Castle (filling in for Acker Bilk) as a jazz musician who gets more than he bargained for after stumbling upon a voodoo ceremony in the West Indies and digging the crazy jungle rhythms. The story reflects Subotsky’s odd fixation with Trad Jazz and is fairly throwaway – though in an early example of a meta moment, Castle at one point runs into a film poster for Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, with character names from the other stories listed as stars. Castle is again gimmicky casting – he was better known as a musician than an actor and his presence here will split opinions thanks to a breathlessly and thoroughly unconvincingly hep-cat character that even someone much cooler might have struggled with. Castle released a tie-in novelty single – Dr Terror’s House of Horrors/Voodoo Girl, which was not a hit but is now a collector’s item.

Disembodied Hand is a fairly shameless imitation of The Beast with Five Fingers, but is saved by Lee’s performance – solid as always – as snobby art critic Franklyn Marsh, who is publicly humiliated by an artist whose career he has tried to ruin with dismissive reviews. To get revenge, Marsh runs the artist (Michael Gough) over, causing his hand to be amputated – driving the distraught artist to then kill himself. Soon, Marsh is being haunted by the severed hand, leading to a suitably cynical conclusion. It’s probably the best story in the film, though seems oddly placed in the running order – given Marsh’s continual dismissal of the Tarot, you’d expect him to be the final person to submit to a reading. This is the first appearance of the mechanical crawling hand that Subotsky would get his money’s worth from, using it in a few other films including …And Now the Screaming Starts over the years.

In fact, there is one story left. Vampire sees a young Donald Sutherland – then building a career in the UK and Europe in low-budget horror movies and TV guest slots before getting his big break in The Dirty Dozen – as Bob Carroll, a doctor who returns home to his small American town with a sexy French wife, Nicolle (Jennifer Jayne).  Soon, the town – or at least one small boy with a mother who can’t maintain an American accent – seems to be under attack from a vampire, and all the evidence points to Nicolle. The other local doctor, Blake (Max Adrian) encourages Carroll to kill the vampire… but it turns out that he has motives of his own, leading to an ironic and humorous ending that shows that Subotsky did have a touch of the EC Comics in him. Jennifer Jayne would later become a screenwriter under the name Jay Fairbanks, and wrote her own portmanteau film, Tales That Witness Madness, in 1973 – this film is so close to the Amicus style and format that many have mistaken it for a Subotsky production.

In the end, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors feels like something of a test run for a format that Amicus would more or less perfect in later years – it doesn’t quite get it right but still manages to be entertaining enough in its own way. Remarkably, given their brevity, the stories tend to be both rushed and plodding at times – sagging in the middle but then rushing towards a weak climax – and the fact that none of the main characters actually die in the stories being told (death is their way out of these situations, which seems a bit rough) is somewhat odd. It’s to the credit of Francis that he films the movie in a way where this lack of retribution doesn’t feel all that noticeable. And the director keeps things moving along nicely, coaxing passable performances from the less likely members of the cast and stopping the film from ever becoming boring, even if the stories themselves don’t really satisfy. It’s disposable stuff, certainly – but it’s a very enjoyable time waster for the moments when you don’t need anything more substantial. I doubt very much that it is anyone’s favourite movie – or even anyone’s favourite Amicus portmanteau movie –  but you’d have to be a particularly miserable type to actually dislike the film and it feels like a classic bit of comfort viewing, the sort of thing that you can easily settle down with when it appears on TV or as an easy option when looking for something to watch after a hard day when more substantial films feel like a bit much.

DAVID FLINT

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