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Posts Tagged ‘Hammer’

Hammer looms large in the consciousness whenever British horror is mentioned. However, there’s another studio that might not have been as prolific, or even lasted as long, but produced various memorable movies – particularly a set of eight ‘portmanteau’ films. This three-part article will concentrate on the Amicus company’s formation, those famous multi-storied films, and eventual disintegration. It’s not meant to be an in-depth study, instead it’s more of an introduction to the studio’s work for newcomers, or a refresher for those who haven’t seen any of it’s offerings for a while.

Amicus started out in the mid-1950s as Vanguard Productions, with Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg in charge – they started out as friends and their business partnership was formed with a handshake rather than a formal contract. Subotsky took charge of the creative side of things, and although in the years since he’s been criticised for his writing skills – or lack of them – he must have had something about him, otherwise his films wouldn’t still be loved and enjoyed all these decades later. Rosenberg, meanwhile, took charge of financial affairs, and after making a decent return from a couple of teen pop movies in the US, they decamped to the UK. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about both men is that they were Americans, and yet they somehow managed to tap into what had become primarily a British sensibility: the rebirth of the Gothic tradition.

Maybe they deliberately set out to out-Hammer Hammer after its bosses turned down Subotsky’s idea of remaking Frankenstein, only for them to do it themselves. Certainly in the years afterwards, Subotsky took every opportunity to criticise Hammer, despite receiving payment for his unused screenplay.

Their first horror film was the Christopher Lee starrer City of the Dead. Then, after changing the company’s name to Amicus in 1964, they decided to make their first portmanteau film, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, based on stories Subotsky had written some years earlier for a TV series that never materialised. Subotsky and Rosenberg had the good sense to realise that if they were to capture Hammer’s audience, they needed to sign up its greatest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. But it’s the rest of the cast that is of real note – and extraordinarily useful to players of Six Degrees of Separation. Where else would you find DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, musician Kenny Lynch, esteemed thesps Jeremy Kemp, Bernard Lee and Michael Gough and TV presenter/tap dancer/trumpeter Roy Castle alongside future Hollywood star Donald Sutherland?

The stories themselves are hardly breathtaking, but the performances and charisma of the cast, and some nice touches from director Freddie Francis – who was about to become an Amicus regular – make it all worthwhile. The Lee segment, in which he plays a prissy art critic who’s later made a monkey of before  receiving the ultimate comeuppance, is widely regarded as the best. It’s at least notable for the debut of Amicus’ infamous mechanical disembodied hand. Constructed at a cost of £400, the thrifty Subotsky made sure he and Rosenberg got their money’s worth by re-employing it in several more films.

Personally, I prefer Sutherland’s vampire-themed tale, and have a certain fondness for the opener, an underrated werewolf story that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Castle’s voodoo offering is fine; in fact the only downer is the lacklustre Creeping Vine, starring Freeman. But it’s Cushing who steals the show, playing the mysterious Dr Shreck who holds the entire production together; he clearly loved every minute of saying his often delicious lines, and punctuating key moments by using props in his trademark, fastidious and rather wonderful manner. Made for just over £100,000, Dr Terror was denied a West End opening, but still made a healthy profit after being shown on the ABC cinema circuit. Thankfully, it did well enough to persuade Subotsky and Rosenberg to repeat the format – although it took another two years, until 1967, for The Torture Garden to reach the silver screen…

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