Posts Tagged ‘omnibus’

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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Another portmanteau stuffed with seventies talent drawing
increasingly tired inspiration from
story-lines cross-hatched in the fifties by Bill Gaines and  Al Feldstein in the EC comic of the same
name.  The cast – Daniel Massey, vintage
cad Terry Thomas,  Bond baddie-to-be Curt
Jurgens, Michael Craig and an extremely hirsute (pre Dr Who) Tom Baker – five
apparently respectable gents assemble in the cramped confines of a lift
somewhere in London. They’re going down to an elegantly decorated sub-basement
where over a glass of something our chaps reveal a shared problem, their
recurring dreams.

Siblings Harold (Massey) and Donna (real-life sister Anna)
get into a spat over dads inheritance in the first story, a tale of vampirism
with a culinary edge. There’s enough flock wall paper in the background to
decorate the average seventies restaurant but not enough to paper over the
cracks where the story ought to be. No real meat on the bones in this plot-au-feu. So to the next course via
our chaps waiting patiently in the underground lobby and…

Compulsive organisation is the order of the day in the next
tale as Arthur Critchet (Thomas) obsessed with a place for everything and
everything in its place believes he’s finally brow-beaten clumsy wife Eleanor
(Glynis Johns) to see things his way around the home. He’s wrong of course as
her cack-handed attempts to clean house eventually jar in a most unpleasantly organised way. Jolly neat though!

Its to India next as magician Sebastian (Jurgens) and wife Inez
(Dawn Adams) can’t resist exposing a fake when they see one in the market. When
the fakirs lovely assistant conjures up an illusion Sebastian can’t explain
he’s keen to buy it but she’s not selling at any price.  Will the greedy couples dirty tricks be
enough to get their hands on the magic – or leave them hanging?

The ground is freshly dug rather than solid in the next tale
of an insurance scam that gets ahead of itself for Maitland (Craig) when his
accomplice double crosses him and a couple of medical students Tom (Robin
Nedwell) and Jerry (Geoffrey Davies) taking a break from Doctor in Charge
unexpectedly get what they’re looking for courtesy of a cameo from wheezing
gravedigger Arthur English… gored
blimey guv’ you might say.

Out of touch on the island of Haiti, painter Moore (Tom
Baker) discovers the art world back home is making a killing out of his work
but he’s not seen a penny.  Purchasing
some local voodoo he returns to Blighty and sets about sketching fitting
vengeance on a greedy trio of gallery owner Gaskill (John Witty) collector
Dilitant (Denham Elliot) and critic Breedley (Terence Alexander). Unfortunately
he fails to spot the devil in the detail and paints himself into and ultimately
out of the picture…

If, having dozed off somewhere in the middle, you wake up
suddenly towards the end of this picture, you’ve timed it well because the last
few moments, there to reveal the yawning twist, convey more atmosphere than the
rest of the movie put together. Fans of seventies TV programmes, gaudy wall
paper and kitsch décor, will probably find something to engage the senses
otherwise consider this film less a vivid nightmare than lack-lustre
after-thought and not one of the better examples of the genre.

Review by Dancemakr

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