Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors - 1965

Director:                  Freddie Francis
Writer:                       Milton Subotsky
Original Music:         Elizabeth Lutyens
Cinematography:      Alan Hume
Editing:                     Thelma Connell
Music:                       Tubby Hayes - composer: jazz music
                                  Kenny Lynch - composer: songs

Dr. Terror/Dr. Schreck                                             Peter Cushing

Jim Dawson                                                              Neil McCallum
Mrs. Biddulph                                                           Ursula Howells
Valda                                                                          Katy Wild
Caleb                                                                         Peter Madden

  “Creeping Vine"
Bill Rogers                                                                Alan Freeman
Ann Rogers                                                              Ann Bell
Hopkins                                                                     Bernard Lee
Jerry Drake                                                                Jeremy Kemp
Carol Rogers                                                              Sarah Nicholls

Biff Bailey                                                                  Roy Castle
Sammy Coin                                                             Kenny Lynch
Roy Shine                                                                 Harold Lang
Biff Bailey’s Band                                                     The Tubby Hayes Quintet
Russ Henderson Steel Band                                    as Themselves
Dambala                                                                    Thomas Baptiste

  “Disembodied Hand”
Franklyn Marsh                                                        Christopher Lee
Eric Landor                                                               Michael Gough

Dr. Bob Carroll                                                          Donald Sutherland
Nicolle Carroll                                                           Jennifer Jayne
Dr. Blake                                                                    Max Adrian


“Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” was released by England’s Amicus Productions in 1965.  It is what they call a ‘portmanteau’ film, what we Yanks might call an ‘omnibus’, i.e. several discreet stories surrounded by a linking narrative.  It is the same form as the 1945 film “Dead of Night”, which may be the first modern horror movie made in that style.  This could also be called an anthology, however that term usually refers to a collection of stories that are not necessarily connected by a wrap-around narrative. 

One of the first films made in the omnibus style was from Germany in 1924, "Waxworks" (“Wachsfigurenkabinett”) directed by Paul Leni.  He went on to Hollywood and made four films for Universal Studios, including “The Cat and the Canary” and “The Man Who Laughs” before his premature death in 1929.

Other film genres have utilized this format, e.g. “Tales of Manhattan”, 1942; “The Illustrated Man”, 1969; “Aria”, 1987; and “Night on Earth”, 1991, among others.  Horror films seem particularly suited to this form, however.  Amicus used it for several of its titles in the horror genre:  “Torture Garden, 1967; “The House that Dripped Blood”, 1970;  Tales From the Crypt” and "Asylum", both 1972; and “Vault of Horror”, 1973.   More recent horror films in this style (not produced by Amicus) have been:  “Creepshow”, 1982;  “After Midnight”, 1989; “Campfire Tales”, 1991; and “Trick ‘r Treat”, 2008. 

I caught “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” when it was released originally in theaters here in the US (I was very young, ok?) and bits of it have been cemented in my memory.  Several years ago I found it on AMC (when AMC still showed old movies and could live up to its name, American Movie Classics) and taped it.  So, what I am watching is an old VHS copy, and it’s getting pretty darn worn.  It has not been released on DVD for Region 1.  It is available only for Region 2, so that means, for the time being, we all will have to move to Europe to watch it on DVD.   (Each night I light a candle and pray to the cinemaphile spirits to watch over and protect my old VHS tapes.)

The story begins in England as five strangers board a train and settle into the same compartment.  A sixth man joins them - Dr. Schreck.  ('Schreck' means 'terror' in German.  Remember the aptly named actor 'Max Schreck' who played the title character in Murnau's "Nosferatu"?)  He has an eerily mysterious entrance, but when he sits down appears to be a nice, sweet, mild mannered gentleman.   A nice detail – the men arrive in the train compartment in the order in which their stories are told.

The men are intrigued by the old man who introduces himself as a doctor of metaphysics and produces a tarot deck.  In spite of his warning that they might not like what they hear, four of the men eagerly ask Herr Doktor to read their futures in the tarot.

The fifth man, Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee), resists vehemently. He is very decidedly antagonistic to the doctor, calling him a con man, that the tarot is just a set-up to separate the men from their money, etc. He finally falls for the oldest and most effective dare in the world; equally irresistible in boardrooms and on playgrounds - the Fraidy-Cat Dare. His smug self-satisfied superiority does not protect him from Fate.

Each story has an unhappy ending, natch, and although the final card turned over presents, theoretically at least, a way for the man to escape his fate, the final card is always Death.  Finally, Schreck pulls out five cards which would predict his own future.  He turns over only the final card, also Death.  It seems all six men have the same destiny – Death.  And they are all riding on a train.  Hmmmm…..  The film ends with a nicely underplayed dénouement at a misty railroad station as the men are led away by Dr. Schreck, who turns to reveal that he is indeed Death incarnate.

The five stories are:

The Werewolf.  An architect is commissioned by a wealthy widow to make structural changes in her house, situated on an island off the coast of Scotland.  The house previously had been owned by the architect’s family which had lived there for centuries.  The widow, Mrs. Biddulph, is the only one in the house who seems calm.  The two house staff act very strangely indeed. They must know something! 

While inspecting the basement, he finds the crypt of Cosmo Valdemar, who according to legend, was a werewolf, and was an avowed enemy of his family.  He was killed by one of the architect’s ancestors with a silver sword.  Valdemar placed a curse on the family, that he would return and kill the present owner of the house who would then take Valdemar's place in the crypt.

The architet suspects that Cosmo has returned and is responsible for recent murders.  He melts down the ancient sword to make silver bullets.  The widow then gives him an unpleasant surprise by revealing that the legend actually states that Cosmo will exact his revenge not on the current owner of the house, but on the last descendant of the family.  And, oh by the way, she is Valdemar's wife and has switched the bullets.
She was such a nice first.
This brings me to one of my biggest pet peeves, at least in the horror department.  Namely, does everyone in the world except me know how to melt silver and make bullets? Seriously, it drives me nuts.  These people decide they need silver  bullets, they trot out to the kitchen, melt the silver, pour it into bullet molds – does your kitchen have this stuff? – and the next thing you know they are loading their guns.  It’s crazy.  If I tried something like that I would set fire to the house.  Where do they learn how to do it?  4-H maybe?   Do the Boy Scouts have a Lycanthropy Badge?

Creeping Vine. The second story is of a man and his family who return from vacation to find a strange vine growing beside their house. It defeats attempts to remove or kill it. He goes for help to the government horticultural experts (who also seem to be pretty thick with the defense ministry [?]) who send out one of their own to study the plant. The vine uses deadly tactics to defend itself and quickly grows to surround the house, imprisoning the family.

The expert appears to escape in order to return with help, however as we hear him drive away we see the vine demonstrate intelligence and adaptability which bode ill for humanity.  Spoiler – the family puppy is killed – animal lovers be forewarned.  I can never watch that scene even though the violence is not actually shown.  On the educational side, you also get a short film about the structure of the plant kingdom.  That part  always takes me back to seventh grade biology and I want to start doodling on my notebook.  My favorite bit in this story is seeing the vine cut the telephone wire into the house.  Yes, really.  I told you it was intelligent. 

If this story seems as if it may be the silliest concept – plants developing awareness and animosity – then how about these stories:  “The Birds”, “Day of the Triffids”, and even “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

Voodoo.  The third tale stars Roy Castle as a jazz trumpeter who along with his band is booked at a club in the West Indies.

He unwisely ignores advice about not fooling around with the local customs and spies on a voodoo ceremony. He steals the music, and arranges it in a jazz composition which he and his combo premier back at their club in London.

He finds out that it really, seriously, isn't nice to fool with Voodoo, especially to steal from their gods.

In a funny bit, in his panic he runs past a poster advertising this movie.

I'm never really sure if he actually dies at the end of the episode or just faints.  It looks like he faints, and if that is the case he gets off much easier than the other guys.

One thing that bugs me a little about this episode is the blithely ignorant way that Voodoo is presented.  But there I am being picky again.  Wait a minute….no I’m not. 

On a happier note, here is one of the songs sung by Kenny Lynch.

Disembodied Hand.  In the fourth story, snobby art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee)  enjoys destroying artist’s reputations through his venomous wit.  He particularly enjoys tormenting artist Eric Landor.

The artist manages to beat the critic at his own game, ridiculing him in public.  Marsh is wound as tight as a spool of thread and decides to get even with the artist by running him down with his car.  Landor loses his hand in the accident, and when faced with the loss of his livelihood commits suicide.

Marsh is stalked by the severed hand which crawls into his car, his apartment, and through the window of his office. It thwarts all efforts to destroy it by fire, being staked, and being locked in a box and thrown into a lake.  Marsh receives an appropriately just come-uppance, destroying his career as effectively as he had destroyed the artist’s.

Shots of a real hand are intercut with shots of the fake one, depending on the angle.  Even though it is at times patently unreal, seeing the hand crawling along and waiting for it to attack makes for some nail-biting moments.  Those scenes have no music score, which makes the suspense particularly effective.   
Christopher Lee, ladies and gentlemen!  Give him a hand! 

The Vampire.  Dr. Bob Carroll (Donald Sutherland) returns from the continent to New England  with his French bride.  As they settle into their home, we learn that the wife likes to get up and wander about at night, she gets turned on at the sight of Donald’s bleeding finger, and there is a sudden outbreak of people complaining of weakness and appearing with strange wounds on their necks.  Carroll’s  partner, Dr. Blake, quickly deduces that a vampire is responsible and warns him that it must be his new wife, and to watch her at night.

Dr. Carroll does so, and sees her re-enter their bedroom through the window and return to bed in the middle of the night. He is ready with a wooden stake and quickly becomes a widower.
When the police arrive to arrest him for his wife’s murder, he appeals to Dr. Blake to explain what happened.  He receives no support from his partner, who in an aside to the audience, says that there is no room in the small town for two doctors, or two vampires.  I guess it pays to think these things through a little more carefully. 

This was a very low budget film but most of it does not depend on fancy special effects, thank goodness.  Some of the effects are a little cheesy.  For instance, the disembodied hand is obviously made out of rubber.  Ok, understandable, but at least couldn’t they have done something about the seam running up the side?  Maybe I’m quibbling here.  Wait a minute, no…I’m not.  It’s distracting.  Another example, the creeping vine looks all right but for the fact that you can sense, if not actually see, the string. 

On the plus side, for such a small budget film the sets look very good.  A subtle mood of claustrophobia pervades the entire movie, especially in the Werewolf story and in the rail carriage. In spite of the obvious artificiality of the outdoor scenes, it is not difficult to suspend disbelief.  There is something charmingly unreal and storybook-like about the artifice.   For example, the brief scenes of the architect arriving at the front door of the werewolf widow’s house are dark and enveloped in fog.  Fog of course can cover a multitude of scenic sins, and here it works just as it should.

In the Creeping Vine story, much of it takes place outside in the sunny yard.  Again, this is obviously an indoor set, but it is believable.  It is almost like a theatrical piece.  By that I don’t mean that it looks stagey, as in a camera plopped down in front of a proscenium.   In this movie our attention is directed consistently and exactly where it should be – at the characters and the story.  Good script, good direction and good performances

The Vampire story has a nice scene when Nicolle the vampire stalks Dr. Blake late at night.  He is in his office building where he said he would do some blood tests on the victims to verify if his suspicions are true.  He is shown walking the dark, shadowy, empty hallways and staircases.  We hear his footsteps and then…..another pair of footsteps echoing in the dark... a woman in high heels.  They start, then stop when he stops, then start again when he starts walking.  Even though you know what and who it is, it is pretty creepy. 

Director Freddie Francis makes some other skillful choices for camera angles and movement.  For example, in the Werewolf story he focuses our attention on something in the foreground while the crypt opens in the background.  Later he does just the opposite - he lets us watch the hero standing in the back of the shot when Mrs. Biddulph's hands appear directly in front of the camera showing us the bullets.  Here our attention is focused by slight misdirection.  We are looking at one thing but we know, consciously or not, that something else is going to happen and the tension is lengthened.  This raises the movie out of the bland and ordinary. 

The acting is solid.  You would expect nothing less from pros such as Lee and Cushing, and they are of course the best-known of the ensemble, but the entire cast is uniformly good.  There are several actors you will probably recognize.  Such as…

Michael Gough, who plays artist Eric Landor, may be most familiar to current audiences for appearing as Albert the butler in the first four Batman movies.   He worked with Tim Burton again in the following:  “Sleepy Hollow”, 1999; voice work in 2005’s “Corpse Bride” and 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” (his final film).  He had also appeared in the following horror/thrillers:  “The Legend of Hell House”, 1973; and “Dracula”, 1958 (Hammer Studios, the first version which starred Christopher Lee).  For the Dr. Who geeks, he appeared in several episodes of the TV series from 1966 – 1983.  For mystery geeks like me, he appeared in several episodes of the PBS series, “Mystery”, and in the TV mini-series, “Smiley’s People”.  For over sixty years he had a varied and distinguished career.  Believe me, if you have ever seen a TV show or a movie before, you’ve seen him.

Donald Sutherland has had a long history in TV, film and theater.  Born in Canada, he was living in England and attended London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.  After working on British TV he began making movies in 1964, beginning with “The Castle of the Living Dead”, made in Italy and which starred Christopher Lee.  “Dr Terror” was one of four movies he made which were released in 1965, including the horror film, “Die, Die My Darling”.   

 As Ed Sullivan used to say right before he introduced Topo Gigio (yes, I’m a hundred years old), “And now, for the youngsters…”    Here is a quiz:

Is Donald Sutherland,
a)    the father of Kiefer Sutherland
b)    President Snow in “The Hunger Games”?

Actually, that was a trick question.  He is both.

Mr. Sutherland is of course known for many roles in films such as:  “M*A*S*H”, “Don’t Look Now”, “Klute”, “Felini’s Casanova”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Six Degrees of Separation”, and so many others that I don’t have the space or strength to list them all. 

The Voodoo story showcases Roy Castle, who was an enormously versatile entertainer on TV, film and Broadway.  He was an actor and singer, jazz trumpeter, dancer and holder of several world records (for tap dancing).  He was much better known in his native England than on this side of the Atlantic.  In this movie he is used mostly for his musical and comic talents as some relief from the otherwise unrelenting gloom.

Bernard Lee took some time off from his job as “M” in the James Bond series, from “Dr. No” through “Moonraker”, to play one of the government officials in the Creeping Vine story.  He was the grandfather of actor Jonny Lee Miller

Chances are you won’t recognize Kenny Lynch, who has the role of the young cockney Sammy Coin, a singer in the Voodoo story, however if you are English you may.
Kenny Lynch with the Russ Henderson Steel Band
 He also composed the songs used in that episode.  Born in Stepney, London, England in 1938 Mr. Lynch started in show biz in the 1950’s.  He hit the pop chart the first time in 1960.  In 1963 he was in the British Top Ten twice, with a cover of “Up on the Roof”, and his own song – “You Can Never Make Me Stop Loving You".

Also in 1963, Helen Shapiro, who was England’s number one female pop singer at that time, toured Britain and took along Kenny Lynch as well as an up and coming band called The Beatles. Lennon and McCartney wrote the song “Misery” while on that tour and offered it to Ms. Shapiro who turned it down. Mr. Lynch recorded the tune for the new album he was preparing. 

He remained friends with The Beatles, and appeared on the cover of the album “Band on the Run” by McCartney’s band Wings. 
Kenny Lynch is second from L. behind Paul McCartney.  Cool, huh? 
Kenny Lynch has been a popular entertainer for more than fifty years and is still going strong; he appeared at a jazz festival in England in June, 2012.   Here is a quote from his website: 

He has performed as a singer, songwriter, dancer, and actor, as well as in comedy. He has worked in management and production, helping many newcomers into the business. This black cockney kid has come a long way appearing very frequently on our TV screens he is such an all-round entertainer that people may associate him with many different things. Although today's "alternative" comedy may be thought to tackle taboo subjects, Kenny would doubtless claim that he's done it all years before.  Over the last 5 decades he has been one of the UK's busiest and most popular entertainers and was awarded an OBE in 1971.

I'm spending a little more time talking about Kenny Lynch because, well...I have fallen in love with him.  But alas, the stars have not been in the right place for  us.  Oh well, better to have loved and lost, or something like that.  Seriously, he is terrific.  Besides his great voice he adds a touch of humor when he tries in vain to warn Biff Bailey about the repercussions of spying on the Voodoo rites.

"Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” has been one of my favorite (non-Universal) horror flicks.  It seems an inexplicable oversight that it has not yet been released on DVD for Region 1.  Look for it on-line, it’s worth it.
The producer and writer of this film, Milton Subotsky, said this in an interview:

"Our series of multi-story films came about because I had always thought the British film "Dead of Night" was the greatest horror film ever, and I wanted to do something like it.  For the first one, "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" I wrote five horror stories and connected them with a framework story.  That's always the hard part - linking the stories together.  But I prefer to do short stories instead of one long picture and I hope that people keep wanting to see them so that we can keep making them."
         The Horror People, by John Brosnan, New American Library, 1976.

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