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Schlock & Awe: DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS

Schlock & Awe: DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS

There’s never a bad time to watch horror movies, and certainly around Halloween, people try to watch as many as they can in that all-too-brief 31-day span. Maximizing the scares is key, but there’s only so many hours in a day when it’s “acceptable” to watch movies and not something a “deadbeat” would do. Might I suggest, then, portmanteau horror films? Horror films made up of several short, scary vignettes, designed to spice up your single-film experience.

While not the first to do such things, Amicus Productions ushered in their cycle of these piecemeal films with 1965’s brilliantly titled Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.

Amicus Productions was the brainchild of American producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who found they could much more easily get films financed and made in Britain. Starting in the early ’60s with teenie-bopper musicals, they began an attempt to overtake Hammer Films for horror supremacy in the UK. While they never quite got there, Amicus did find their footing in that arena, delivering modern scares and leaving the period thrills to Hammer. Subotsky wrote or co-wrote a great many of these films himself, beginning with a movie to bring together five of his proposed episodes for a horror anthology TV series that never materialized. This became Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.

Directed by acclaimed cinematographer and Hammer staple Freddie Francis (who would go on to do Amicus’ excellent and surreal The Skull), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors began the company’s trend of using a framing story — a reason for disparate characters to be brought together — in order to set up the isolated shorts. In one of the moodier efforts, the framing story finds a group of five men traveling from London to Bradley in a train car as they’re joined by a strange and mystical older man who introduces himself as Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing).

Schreck reveals himself to be a reader of tarot cards and each of the five men (played by actor Neil McCallum, radio host Alan Freeman, song-and-dance man and jazz trumpeter Roy Castle, a very young Donald Sutherland, and the great one himself Christopher Lee) take turns tapping the cards and getting a version of their future read…none of them are very pleasant.

McCallum is first. He plays an architect hired to renovate his family home for the new owner. While there, he knocks down a wall and discovers a cellar he didn’t know existed, in which is the ancient grave of a man who claimed in life that the home was his and McCallum’s family stole it from him. Turns out, sadly, that the dead man was a werewolf and that he plans to rise again to get revenge…and he might not be alone. It’s a good story, and makes great use of quick cutaways in lieu of makeup effects or werewolf props.

Freeman is second, and his story is much less personal. After returning home from a holiday, he, his wife, and daughter discover a strange fast-moving vine has sprouted on their house. Not only does it not stop growing when cut, it forces the sheers away, as if it were sentient. Freeman calls in the efforts of two scientists (one of which is played by the 007 series’ M; Bernard Lee) but the vines get more and more hostile, and homicidal to anyone who tries to stop its progress — easily the silliest story in the bunch.

The third story involves Castle’s jazz band getting a gig in the West Indies and him accidentally stumbling upon a voodoo ceremony. He becomes obsessed with the rhythmic music used in the ritual and he steals it / jazzifies it to play back in London, despite many warnings not to mess with ancient gods. After playing the song in his friend’s club, a sudden wind swells and forces everyone out, and he’s then chased by some unseen force. It seems voodoo really isn’t something to take lightly (go figure). Despite some overt comedy in this short, Francis’ moody directing really makes the tension toward the end of the segment palpable.

Next is Lee’s story, easily the best of the bunch. Throughout the wraparound segments, Lee’s character — art critic Franklyn Marsh — has been beyond snooty and disbelieving of Schreck’s tarot cards. It’s a great character for Lee to play, showing off his range as a fussbudget when he’s usually the sinister villain. In his story, he’s confronted by an artist (Michael Gough) whose work Marsh has always disparaged, seemingly for no reason. Gough then tricks Marsh into saying glowing things about a painting done by a chimpanzee, embarrassing the critic in front of everyone. The artist then shows up everywhere Marsh is giving a lecture or holding court with the purpose of making his life miserable. As revenge, Marsh runs the artist down with his car, unaware that he’s accidentally behanded the man, which leads to his suicide. Marsh is then plagued by the ambulatory severed hand of the man he drove to death.

The final story belongs to Sutherland, an American doctor who moves back to the States with his new French bride in tow. Almost immediately upon return to the small midwestern neighborhood, children begin exhibiting symptoms that for all the world look like the work of a vampire. The town’s elder doctor (Max Adrian) convinces Sutherland the vampire must be his wife, but how can a man of medicine truly believe the woman he loves is a bloodthirsty creature of the night?

While only one and a half of these stories are truly good, Cushing and Lee are fantastic as always, and there’s enough creepiness from director Freddie Francis to make it worth your while. The success of Dr. Terror’s House of Horror let to a whole slew of portmanteau horror films, which became Amicus’ calling card. These included Torture Garden featuring stories written by Psycho author Robert Bloch; The House That Dripped Blood with stories all set in and around a single, haunted-ass house; Asylum which found stories of people who later ended up committed; the EC Comics adaptations Tales from the Crypt (covered in this column) and The Vault of Horror; and finally From Beyond the Grave which saw the return of Cushing as a very Dr. Terror-ish pawn shoppe owner. All of these are ridiculously fun and suitably spooky for your Halloween watching.

The column you’ve just read represents my 200th Schlock & Awe. I started this recurring segment back in April of 2013 and it’s allowed me to write about all the crazy and interesting horror, sci-fi, action, and other genre films that I love. 200 entries into the strange magic of B-cinema. Number 200 will also be the last one I write, at least for a while. It’s been a great and immeasurably fun ride. Thanks to everyone who’s gone on this journey of bonkers with me. And if you’d like to catch up on the other 199 you might have missed, check them out here! Thanks, and I’ll see ya at the movies.

Images: Amicus Productions

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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