In 1945, the legendary Ealing Studios made an unexpected foray in weird cinema. Although best known for their comedies starring such big names of the day such as George Formby and Will Hay, the ‘40s saw them branching out into fresh territory such as thrillers and war movies. However Dead of Night was neither of the above and represents Ealing’s sole foray into the world of horror.
But what a foray it was! A portmanteau movie comprising of five eerie stories wrapped up in a sixth, Dead of Night was a huge success and still features high in many lists of most terrifying films. And although it did not invent the anthology movie format, it was hugely influential, forging a special relationship between the portmanteau film and the horror genre that continues to this very day.
And indeed one of the original audience for Dead of Night Milton Subotsky was so struck by the film’s elegant device of bringing short weird tales to the screen, that in 1948 he began work on a script for a possible TV production in the same vein. However this project was to come to naught, but the concept, and indeed the script, refused to lie down quietly.
Fast forward to the early ‘60s – a variety of tax breaks meant that British cinema was booming and furthermore increasing numbers of American productions were being made on English soil. And this financial fertile milieu gave birth to Amicus Films, a venture set up by Subotsky in partnership with Max J. Rosenberg. Their first two movies were musicals for the teen market, however they were to truly come into their own in 1965 when the aborted TV script inspired by the Dead of Night would become Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and launched a whole host of further horror anthologies from Amicus, and see them become a distinguished competitor with those titans of Brit Horror, Hammer Films.
Like its illustrious forebear Dead of Night, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors features five tales and a framing story. Five men in a railway carriage are joined by one Dr Schreck, played by the legendary Peter Cushing; a seemingly somewhat down-at-heel teller of fortunes. And naturally, he ends up acquiescing to the demands of his somewhat sceptical fellow passengers to demonstrate his powers of prophecy. And so out come a battered deck of Tarot cards, and the fortunes foretold are the stories we see on screen…
Subotsky is on record as crediting Dead of Night as “the greatest horror film ever”, and it would seem he set out to cover as much classic horror ground as possible in his own opus. Hence we have Neil McCallum as an architect uncovering werewolves, Legendary rock DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman menaced by a killer vine, national treasure Roy Castle falling afoul of voodoo, Chris Lee’s snooty art critic tormented by the severed hand of artist (played by another Hammer regular and genre favourite Michael Gough, and a young Donald Sutherland tangling with vampires. And naturally the epilogue reveals that Dr Schreck is not quite what he seems to be…
Undoubtedly securing the services of Hammer’s famous double act helped the nascent Amicus’ cement their horror credentials. But furthermore another regular from Bray was behind the camera – cinematographer turned director Freddie Francis, fresh from The Evil of Frankenstein. And as you’d expect from a man who has won numerous awards for his lens work, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors looks fantastic – a wide palette of rich colours, gorgeously lit sets and interesting shots.
As with all portmanteau films, some tales will appeal more than others depending on your personal tastes. But as we’re getting essentially five stories – six if you count the wraparound tale – in less than one hundred minutes, if a particular segment isn’t doing the business for you another will be along very swiftly. Francis keeps the movie moving at a cracking pace and, unlike many other anthology titles, never lingering too long on one single story. As it is though all the tales presented here are excellent fun, and while my personal favourite may be the Lee/Gough segment, and the Castle and Freeman stories may well be verging on camp, I’d be hard pressed to label any of the terror tales here ‘the duff one’.
Whereas Dead of Night drew on the classic English ghost stories of yesterday, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors has the colour, creativity and dark comedy that is reminiscent of EC horror titles like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. And thanks to the visual flair of Freddie Francis, in many ways this film is actually closer to capturing the feel and look of those seminal comics than the later Amicus adaptations of EC material.
All in all, it’s a heady mix of fun frights; a delicious helping of all our favourite horrors, which is why Dr Terror’s House of Horrors enjoys its reputation as one of the best portmanteau movies produced by Amicus. When I first saw this movie as a child one hot July night in 1980, as the second feature in one of the fabled BBC2 horror double bills, I was absolutely enchanted.
However there is one question that bothered back then and still does today – why was it called a ‘House of Horrors’ when the action unfolds in a railway compartment? Surely it should have been called Dr Terror’s Tales of Horror!
But that aside, you just can’t go wrong with a movie that pits an all-star cast against such a cavalcade of well-loved horror staples. And thankfully unlike many movies seen at an impressionable age, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is still as much ghoulish fun as it was back then.
Review by Jim Moon of Hypnogoria.
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