If you’ve ever been tasked with curating a horror movie night for friends and loved ones, you’re aware of how hard it can be to construct the right mix. Like any good compilation, there needs to be ebbs and flows. I once learned it’s not a good idea to put on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead immediately after Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for an audience of people who’d seen neither. It’s even harder when constructing an anthology horror movie, where you usually only have 15 minutes tops to get your point across and maximize scares before moving on to the next one.
The horror anthology film began with the 1945 British movie Dead of Night and the format has gone in and out of favor ever since, sometimes with each segment coming from different creative crews, and sometimes with the same writer-directors throughout. No company made anthology or portmanteau horror their stock and trade quite like Amicus Pictures. Founded by two American expats, Amicus was for a time the sole British contender to Hammer’s throne of horror supremacy, and they did it mainly through a series of seven portmanteau horror films. Let’s take a look at their third outing–1970’s The House That Dripped Blood, out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory–and use it to determine what goes into the “perfect” horror anthology.
The first Amicus horror anthology was 1965’s supremely uneven Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors which featured five segments and a wraparound, and only the wraparound and 1.5 of the segments were any good. After this, they began a fruitful collaboration with short story writer and author of Psycho, Robert Bloch, who would adapt several of his horror shorts for the next three movies, beginning with Torture Garden in 1967. That film lessened the amount of stories to four with a slightly more involved wraparound. This would become the standard for all of Bloch’s portmanteaus.
While Torture Garden had a couple of decent stories–one with Jack Palance and Peter Cushing trying to see which of them is the bigger collector of Edgar Allan Poe was the clear highlight–it wasn’t until The House That Dripped Blood where the films really hit their stride. Despite the lurid title, the movie is fairly tame by most horror standards, but allowed the horror to grow from character and situation.
The wraparound segments are perhaps some of Amicus’ best: a detective (John Bennett) is investigating the disappearance of horror film star Paul Henderson, who is the most recent owner of a house with a mysterious and sinister history. The detective then hears about three earlier tenants of the house from the realtor (John Bryans). This allows for the house to remain the main fixture of each story, and made it much easier for director Peter Duffell to stage.
A good wraparound gimmick is very important for a good horror anthology. Often Amicus would just have the lead characters of each story meet as strangers in a spooky location, hear tales of their own impending doom, and then realize they’ve already died. (DUN DUN DUNNNNN!) This is the case in Dr. Terror and the studio’s two EC Comics adaptations, the excellent Tales from the Crypt and the less good The Vault of Horror. Other examples of horror anthologies with excellent wraparound gimmicks include Trick ‘r Treat with its use of Halloween night in the suburbs, or V/H/S with every story being an accursed snuff video. (The whole of that movie isn’t perfect, but the set-up is stellar.)
And so the vignettes begin in House; the first, “Method for Murder,” finds a suspense author (Denholm Elliot) who moves into the house with his wife (Joanna Dunham) and becomes obsessed with Dominic, the latest homicidal maniac he’s created for a novel. He becomes convinced Dominic is real and stalking him. He sees Dominic everywhere, and his wife, friends, and doctors can’t seem to snap him out of it. But Dominic’s existence is only the tip of a horrific iceberg of murder and betrayal.
As an opening segment, “Method for Murder” isn’t the most compelling, but it does have a nice twist, and few actors could play sweaty and nervous while trying to seem completely with it like Denholm Elliot. For movies with a stronger opening segment, you can look at Tales from the Crypt which begins with the immortal “And All Through the House,” Tales from the Hood with its tale of a black police officer who’s haunted by knowledge of his racist white co-workers beating a civil rights leader to death, or the immortal Creepshow which began with “Father’s Day,” one of the most darkly funny stories in any portmanteau.
House‘s second segment kicks it up a notch. “Waxworks” finds Peter Cushing as a former stockbroker with a penchant for neckerchiefs who moves in to the house and, when out walking, discovers a strange wax museum nearby. He enters to find some macabre scenes but is struck by the similarity of one of the figures of a woman he once knew. He tells his friend (Joss Ackland) to go check it out and he too believes it looks like the woman. As you might expect, there’s a reason for this, and it’s nothing happy. Cushing has the distinction of appearing in all of the Amicus films but one and while it’s not the standout of the movie, it does have some delightfully trippy dream sequences and a pretty punchy ending.
Segment three is easily the best. “Sweets to the Sweet” finds Christopher Lee as a strict and disciplinarian single father of a young daughter. After they move into the house, Lee interviews candidates to be the girl’s nanny and tutor, settling on Ms. Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter). Ann grows increasingly concerned by the way the girl is treated by her cold and severe father and begins to believe he’s abusing her, even forbidding her from having a doll. However things are not as they appear, and once the girl finally gets her doll, the true state of things are revealed.
It’s the best segment in the movie because it allows Lee to stretch his acting chops a bit. He appears at first to be scary and foreboding, but he’s actually a man terrified by his daughter. For other examples of good creepy kid segments, look at Twilight Zone: The Movie, Cat’s Eye, and Trick ‘r Treat.
For the final segment, “The Cloak,” we have the actual story of Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee), the pompous star of a million crappy horror movies. He’s playing a vampire in another low-budget schlock fest and is very over it. He wants some authenticity! He goes to an antique shop and fancies a cloak the proprietor (Geoffrey Bayldon) swears is real, and gives Paul a good deal. After putting on the cloak, the actor sprouts real teeth and begins to fly, even biting his costar (Ingrid Pitt) for real. Evidently, the cloak has the power to turn people into real vampires. Awhoops.
Ending on a comedy segment isn’t always the best for horror, but this one works, especially as it becomes embroiled in the framing story for the epilogue. Pertwee is suitably repugnant as the flashy, vapid diva, and Pitt is at her cackling best. Amicus had comedy segments before and since, and they’re usually among the weaker stories, though here it’s effective. Other portmanteau segments with a humorous tinge can be found in The ABCs of Death, Creepshow, Tales of Terror, and really most of them. Still, it’s bold to end with one, and few do.
The House That Dripped Blood is not a “perfect” anthology horror movie, but it’s definitely among the best. It doesn’t go for all-out terror, but its stories are well drawn with some excellent performances, and it gives you the requisite spooky feeling and features some of horror’s best icons. What more do you need?!
Image: Amicus/Scream Factory