Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Monsterpiece Theater: Cushing and Lee- Amicus Anthologies

by Rustbelt

Quick question: What do The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Dark Side, and Night Gallery all have in common?

Answer: As the title of this article implies, they were all anthology shows! OK, maybe not the best start. But, oh, it’s true. Guest stars. Different worlds. No running plotline. Two had Rod Serling. One had George Romero (as top producer). Every week was a new scare story. It’s a great format. But, alas, it seems anthologies tend to work best on TV.

For good reasons, movies tend to prefer a single, main storyline. With only an hour-and-a-half of running time, it’s hard to squeeze multiple short stories into the format. Because of that, most studios shy away from the style. However, one British studio dared not only dabble in the format; they nearly made it their own. Enter Amicus Studios.
As noted by both myself and Backthrow last week, (I NEVER forget when someone tries to out-geek me!), Amicus was Hammer’s main rival for the horror market in both the British Realm and beyond. Hammer- if you’ll forgive the pun- hit the audiences with clever stories, bright colors, great acting, and plenty of female cleavage. Amicus had most of this, too. However, they decided to counter Hammer’s re-inventing of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein with anthology-style storytelling. And guess what? Several of them featured this month’s stars: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee!

So, let’s take a look at how Amicus’s Paramount tried to take on Hammer’s Universal.

Note: To keep this article to a decent length, I’m going to have to skim these summaries. Don’t worry, though. I’ll provide links to the films where I can find them

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965)

Frame Story: Five men pile into a train car on the London-to-Bradley line. They sit quietly and ignore each other until a sixth man, Dr. Schreck (Cushing) gets on, passes out, and drops his case. After collecting his things, Schreck reveals himself to be a professional on occult practices and an expert Tarot Card reader. At this, all the men except an annoying art critic ask to have their fortunes told.
Part 1- ‘Werewolf’: An architect (Neil McCallum) returns to his ancestral home where the new owner is asking him to make some alterations. Unfortunately, he uncovers the grave of a werewolf allegedly cursed to return and kill the owner of the house. However, he may have overlooked some details- including the details of the legend.

Part 2- ‘Creeping Vine’: A family has just returned from vacation, er, um…I mean, they’ve just returned from holiday, and have found a strange vine growing around their house that can’t be cut down. A science team led by Dr. Hopkins (Bernard Lee, who played James Bond’s boss ‘M’ from Dr. No in 1962 through Moonraker in 1979), discovers that the plant is evolved and has a brain- and has figured out how to defend itself.

Part 3- ‘Voodoo’: While on tour in the West Indies, a trumpet player for a jazz band (Roy Castle) sneaks into a voodoo ceremony, copies the music, and tries to make it his next big hit. Complications ensue.
Part 4- ‘Disembodied Hand’: After years of abuse, an artist (Michael Gough) gets even with a scumbag art critic (Christopher Lee). The critic is a sore loser- and runs over the artist with his car, severing the man’s hand. The artist promptly commits suicide, and his hand decides to regularly ‘visit’ the critic.
Part 5- ‘Vampire’: The first year of marriage proves to be rough when an American doctor (Donald Sutherland) learns his French wife is a bloodsucker. Hold on…isn’t this supposed to be fantasy? Whatever. Anyway, a fellow doctor recognizes what’s going on and tells the younger doc what to do. Only…how will he explain it to the police?

Epilogue: Forgot to mention something, at the end of each reading, Dr. Schreck pulls a fifth ‘get-out-of-jail’ Tarot card, explaining how the readee can avoid his fate. However, each time, he pulls the Tarot equivalent of the Ace of Spades. It seems there’s only one way out and they’re all in the same car on a train…
Thoughts and Background: This was actually the first anthology film to be made by Amicus. The segments are decent enough. Honestly, I thought ‘Werewolf’ was a little confusing. Had to watch that a few times before I got it. Writers got ahead of themselves, I suppose. This film is also lambasted by online snowflakes for the ‘Voodoo’ segment. Apparently, portraying Haitian voodoo worshippers as black and putting the stupid white guy in danger for violating their beliefs is somehow racist. You know, I’ll stop there. This kind of crap is for the political site. And speaking of snowflakes, Donald Sutherland only got £1,000 for appearing in this. Between that and taking a flat amount instead of a percentage for Animal House, his agent sucks. Or maybe he does. You decide.

Technically, the hardest part of this film for director Freddie Francis (yep, him again), was the train car scenes. Francis does a decent enough job of getting as many men in the shots as possible and using close-ups where appropriate. However, cinematography can only do so much. That’s where acting comes in…

WARNING: SPOILERS (warning will remain in effect for the rest of this article)

Cushing (as Dr. Schreck): He really shows how to put on the creepy and foreboding in this one. He also goes against type by growing a full beard and adopting a German accent. (A homage to his character’s actor namesake- Max Schreck?) Throughout the episode he’s equally entertaining and threatening to his fellow passengers in his segments. His bizarre, otherworldly voice also perfectly compliments the lighting Francis brings in at the climax and we learn that Schreck is actually Death himself, apparently amusing himself by scaring the five men before they die and leading them to the Underworld. Alongside his role as Baron Frankenstein, this is widely considered the role that made Cushing a bona fide horror star. And as for stars…
Lee (Franklin Marsh): Lee’s character goes through an emotional roller coaster in this one. He starts off as a super-snob, first berating Schreck’s ‘profession’ and then- in his segment- making Michael Gough’s life miserable. That, of course, turns to rage when he attacks Gough, (who turns in his own wonderfully emotional performance, falling to pieces after the attack and making us eager for Marsh to get his comeuppance). But, finally, Lee shows why he is who he is by pulling off one scene after another full of apprehension and fright. This is hard to pull off, especially when the thing he’s afraid of is a small, animatronic hand likely paid for with rolls of pennies (shillings?). Still, Lee’s reactions make the hand appear threatening enough and register several jump scares. Interestingly, Lee is the one character implied to live at the end of his segment. A reward for a good performance? Well, his character is an art critic and, at the end, he’s in a car crash and blinded for life. So…no.


The House That Dripped Blood (Amicus, 1971)

Frame Story: An incredibly annoyed inspector from Scotland Yard arrives in the countryside to find out what happened to a missing film star. He’s then told that the wayward thespian isn’t the only person to go missing in the house in question.

Part 1- ‘Method for Murder’: A pre-Stephen King-esque horror/mystery writer (Denholm Elliott, a.k.a. Marcus Brody himself) rents the house so he can get over his writer’s block and meet his publisher’s deadline. But getting his book done on time- or finding his way out of his own museum, for that matter- quickly becomes less of an issue when the killer he’s created comes to life and begins stalking him, though no one else can see the maniac.
Part 2- ‘Waxworks’: A retired banker (Cushing) rents the house, and is soon joined by an old friend (Joss Ackland, the bad guy from Lethal Weapon 2) who visits the house- I mean, calls on him. The two jointly and separately visit a wax museum that features a mannequin which resembles a woman they both knew in their youth. Feeling something is very wrong, the former banker tries to keep his friend from going back; but the lure is too strong.
Part 3- ‘Sweets to the Sweet’: John Reid (Christopher Lee) now rents the house and has brought his young daughter, Jane (Chloe Franks), with him. To keep her out of the local schools, he hires a private tutor, Ann (Nyree Dawn Porter), to teach her. Ann is appalled at Lee’s brutal discipline of his daughter and refusal to allow her to have toys. However, after Jane shows some odd behavior, Lee reveals the madness to his methods- his late wife was a witch and he’s afraid that Jane may follow in her footsteps. (Note: The Realtor is now relating this to the inspector.)

Part 4- ‘The Cloak’: Perennial pain-in-the-@$$ horror film star- and subject of the inspector’s visit- Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee, taking a break from being the Third Doctor), is irate at the production values on his latest film. Controlling what he can, he buys a very authentic vampire-ish cloak from a very demonic-ish costume shop. The cloak turns out to be too authentic, as Henderson begins acting and behaving like a vampire for real- even biting his co-star Carla (Ingrid Pitt) during filming!
Epilogue: Moaning and groaning, the inspector ignores the realtor’s advice to wait until morning to inspect the house after the electricity can be turned on. He lights a candle and heads to the basement. There, he’s confronted by Henderson- as a full vampire! (It turns out Henderson was set up; some real vampires liked his horror films so much they made him ‘one of the club.’) The inspector kills Henderson with a broken chair leg, and then meets his own end when Carla wakes up.

Thoughts and Background: There’s not too much available on this film, except that Pertwee was a last-second addition. (Vincent Price was originally asked to play Henderson, but couldn’t because of contractual reasons.) Psycho’s Robert Bloch returns as the screenwriter. This time, all four segments also hold up rather well. It was also nice to see Elliot and Pertwee outside of their more famous roles. To be honest, I only saw some of Pertwee’s Doctor Who work for the first time when I recently saw Rifftrax’s parody of The Five Doctors back in August.
The only truly weak part, IMHO, is the framing story. Each segment is the same: the officer (or realtor) tries to make the inspector believe their story, only to be rebuffed as he acts annoyed. While his fate does redeem the story somewhat, the ending narration is rather lame. Right before the credits, the realtor (appropriately named ‘Stoker,’ a fact Henderson takes note of), says that the house reflects the personality of the whoever lives in it and that, hopefully, it will find a good owner. Uh, if it reflects he deepest demons of whoever lives in it, I don’t think anyone would end up being a decently prospective owner. The whole wraparound story really feels tacked on.

Cushing (Philip Grayson, the ex-banker): Freddie Francis (who did NOT direct this film), once said that Cushing got him out of one problem after another. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cushing did the same for this film. Long portions of his segment are silent. Cushing had to do a lot of non-verbal acting, displaying world-weariness and boredom after renting the house; yearning and longing during a dream sequence in the wax museum; and finally fear and concern as the museum consumes his friend.

Also of note is the subject matter. The theme of this segment is regret. Both Cushing and Ackland’s characters wonder what life would have been like if either had pursued their dream girl when they were young men. It’s a feeling only lonely men of advancing age can feel. (Or so I’m told.) That leaves them vulnerable to the museum’s (the house’s?) power. In the film’s only segment where the actual villain plays only a tiny role, the men’s vulnerability drives the story in a particularly unique way.
Lee (as John Reid): Lee turns in another of his trademark domineering performances. What makes this different, I think, is that so much of his rage is aimed at his little girl. Before we learn the reasons behind his actions, Lee comes off as the father from Hell. I mean, seeing actors unleash rage on their peers is one thing, but a child? It’s very unsettling. Of course, when the truth is revealed about Jane, we get a very good- and quick- reason why she needed to be left in the dark.

Fun fact: In the final segment, Henderson moans over how modern horror movies aren’t as good as the old ones like Dracula, “the one with Bela Lugosi, not this new fellow.” The ‘new fellow,’ is, of course, Lee! Also, the wax museum- which shows off mannequins of famous evil figures- has one of Lee as Dracula that Cushing walks past.

Tales From the Crypt (Amicus, 1972)

Frame Story: Five people wonder through Highgate Cemetery in London. Gradually, they’re drawn to the old underground tombs. Eventually, they end up in a large room with a man dressed in a dark robe- no, not Palatine; the Crypt Keeper. He then begins to discuss their fates.

Part 1- ‘…And All Through the House’: A woman (Joan Collins) kills her husband on Christmas Eve. (Joyous start.) While trying to hide the body, a radio report reveals that a killer dressed as Santa Claus is one the loose- and, it turns out, outside the house.

Part 2- ‘Reflection of Death’: A man (Ian Hendry) drives off with another woman and their car crashes. He eventually makes it back, only to learn that he’s a corpse and has been dead many years. Of course, he then wakes up and finds himself behind the wheel…
Part 3- ‘Poetic Justice’: A father and son pair (David Markham and Robin Phillips) decide they’ve had enough of an old man, Arthur Grimsdyke (Cushing), who keeps too many animals at his home. They think he’s a stain on the community’s reputation and decide to drive him out by having his animals removed, getting him fired from his job, and spreading rumors that he’s a child molester. (Grimsdyke has deeply enjoyed making toys for children and entertaining them.) The coup de grace comes when they send him hateful Valentine cards on Valentine’s Day and he hangs himself. One year later, he pays them a visit, albeit from beyond the grave.
Part 4- ‘Wish You Were Here’: In the umpteenth variation on W.W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw”, a financially-stressed couple find a Chinese statue that grants three wishes and they ask for a fortune. However, as in the short story, it comes in the form of compensation/insurance when a family member dies. (In this case, the husband behind the wheel.) The wife wishes him back the way he was before the crash, but he’s still dead- he had a heart attack and died just before the collision. Finally, she wishes him alive again, not realizing his body was embalmed. (Lots of painful screaming follows.)

Part 5- ‘Blind Alleys’: A man arrives as the new director of a home for blind men. He promptly makes a jerk out of himself, withholding food, warmth, and medical care so he can live a life of luxury. Finally, the men have had enough and use their resources to trap the director and his dog while building a booby-trapped maze for them. The director is then sent into the maze with his madly-starving dog.
Epilogue: The Crypt Keeper finishes and delivers some devastating news: all of them are already dead. Apparently, they suffered memory loss as spectres and he decided to toy with them by recounting their deaths to their faces. He then leads them into Hell for eternal torment.

Thoughts and Background: As you might guess from this summary, I really didn’t think too much of this one. In the previous two movies, the situations were often creative and where there were villains, they remained in the background long enough for the stories to develop. Here, the villains are all straightforward and one-dimensional. I spent four out of the five segments just waiting for the bad guys to get what the deserved. The only interesting story is the fourth one, and that, as mentioned, is based on an existing (and somewhat overused) short story.
And I’d certainly be remiss if I didn’t mention that this film was based on the macabre 1950’s comic book of the same name. (It was published from 1950 through 1955 and has had a few 21st- century revivals.) Most of what’s here is based on stories from the comic. And, yes, HBO’s 1990s TV series ‘Tales From the Crypt’) was also based on the comic. (It was much better than this film.) It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t do more with the material at hand. This one is worth a passing glance, but not much else.
Cushing (as Arthur Grimsdyke): Cushing is really one of the only reasons to watch this movie. As I mentioned last week, following his wife’s death, Cushing began to play some roles where he lived out his grief on screen. In this film, his character is a widower and tries to communicate with his dead wife via a Ouija board. The grief he feels as everything he has left is taken away from him is quite powerful. (He even dedicated this performance to his late wife.) However, I just don’t think it’s enough to save this story as the villains are as bland as can be. Even the ending, with Cushing coming back from the dead and totally kano-ing the evil son by ripping his heart out one year later on Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem fulfilling enough.

Maybe Christopher Lee did the right thing by not starring in this one.


OK, to make up for the lack of enthusiasm for that last film, for all my fellow dudes, he’s a pic of vampire Ingrid Pitt. Enjoy!


Rustbelt said...

Ah, shoot. Error on my part. Cushing's character in HTDB is a retired stockbroker, not a retired banker. My mistake.

ArgentGale said...

Still checking these out, Rustbelt! I just haven't had time to watch the movies yet. I'll have more thoughts when I do!

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