Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Sunday, 24 February 2013


In 1957, Hammer Films struck box office gold with The Curse of Frankenstein. The concept of reviving the classic horror film characters for a new generation, with the addition of color and then-generous helpings of sex and gore, helped to make the studio a world wide phenomenon. They faced some competition in America, in the form of American International Pictures and their series of widescreen, gaudily colored Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, while in the UK several companies put in bids to compete with their ongoing box office success. The company that would arguably offer the stiffest competition was Amicus Films, which was, oddly enough, owned and operated by two Americans: Max J. Rosenberg (1914-2004) and Milton Subotsky (1921-1991). Amicus would import a number of Hammer’s key creative personnel, including directors like Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker, composers like James Bernard and Don Banks, and of course, actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in an effort to offer the same quality. Yet while Hammer specialized in the Gothic, Amicus would turn their attention to more contemporary subjects - and with the success of their film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), they hit upon a formula that Hammer never sought to replicate: the anthology film.

Without getting into the history of Amicus too deeply, it’s evident that Subotsky and Rosenberg operated in different ways. The former was strictly in it for the money - he had a flair for marketing and making deals, and he was keen to exploit anything that was hot at the moment. The latter, on the other hand, was a passionate film buff - and a genuine fan of horror, science fiction and fantasy, to boot. Rosenberg never really cared much about horror films, but he knew they were good for business - and together with Subotsky, he would bankroll a series of low budget horror titles with glossy production values and name value casts. Subotsky, for his part, disliked the films Hammer was making - though this may have had as much to do with his resentment over Hammer making a version of Frankenstein without utilizing his screenplay; indeed, an irate Subotsky would later claim that Jimmy Sangster’s script copped some elements from his own treatment, which Hammer’s production chief, Anthony Hinds, deemed weak and amateurish. Even so, Hammer was raking in the dough - and Subotsky and Rosenberg were determined to get their share of pie, too, even if the former felt that they could do better by avoiding the graphic sex and violence that garnered Hammer so much notoriety. Rosenberg was keen on lurid titles with plenty of box office potential, but Subotsky wanted to final product to be as classy as possible; conflicting attitudes, it’s true, but for a period of time, the two men were able to work in harmony.

The House That Dripped Blood is an exemplary example of the Amicus product - it’s, of course, an anthology film, it’s saddled with a crass title, and there’s nary a drop of blood to be seen. It is also, in fact, one of the best films they ever produced. While most of the Amicus anthologies suffered from weak screenplays, often penned by Subotsky himself, this was one of several written by genre scribe Robert Bloch. Bloch would express some dissatisfaction with some of the changes made to his material during production, but he helped to provide the film with a solid structure that was lacking in the majority of the Amicus productions. There are no dud segments, and even the linking device functions well. It also boasts the usual high gloss production values one associates with the company, together with the usual roster of fine acting talent.

For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it yet, the film deals with the efforts of a dogged Scotland Yard inspector (John Bennett) to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of horror film star Paul Henderson (Dr. Who’s Jon Pertwee). It would seem that Henderson was last residing in a home with a dodgy reputation, so he approaches the real estate agent (John Bryans) in order to get some background on what has transpired there in the past. He is told of three past tenants, all of whom met with sticky ends: horror novelist Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott), who believes that his “fictional” creation, a strangler named Dominick (Tom Addams), has come to life; retired stock broker Philip Grayson (Peter Cushing), who became smitten with the wax statue of Salome in a local waxworks, and paid dearly for doing so; and John Reid (Christopher Lee), whose outwardly chilly attitude towards his young daughter (Chloe Franks) masks a profound terror of her supernatural abilities. The real estate agent then tells him what he believes happened to Henderson, who disappeared in the midst of making a vampire film at Shepperton Studios. It would seem that Henderson’s desire for “authentic” looking props back fired when he purchased a cloak that has the ability to turn whomever is wearing it into a real vampire. The skeptical inspector balks at this tale, and decides to go poking around at the place on his own; he may well regret this stubborn attitude.

The stories all have sting in the tail endings, but they work much better than usual. Much of this can be attributed to director Peter Duffell, making his feature debut after having made some short subjects and a lot of TV episodes. Duffell stresses mood and atmosphere, and is able to build tension beautifully within the short segments. Any one of these segments would have been hopelessly padded at feature length, but the anthology format serves them all beautifully. The different segments all possess a particular flavor, which helps to vary the mood a bit. The first segment is pure suspense, and works largely because Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark) is so good at conveying a mounting sense of horror and dred. The second is more of a mood piece, and for some viewers it is the weak link; for this reviewer, however, it creates a palpable sense of melancholy that matches the quality of Peter Cushing’s sensitive performance. The third is subtly chilling, as it turns the tables on viewer expectations by casting Christopher Lee in another apparent villain role, only to have him turn out to be a terrified victim. And the fourth is a wonderful slice of camp, as Jon Pertwee relishes his role as a ham horror star; not surprisingly, the part was first offered to Vincent Price, who very much wanted to play it - but American International were firm that he could only do horror films for them, thus putting an added strain on his already tempestuous relationship with the company.

The casting is spot on from top to bottom. The pairing of Lee and Cushing was always good for box office, and while they do not get to share any scenes, they both register very strongly. Cushing was going through a torturous period of grief as his wife, Helen, was succumbing to illness, and this sense of grief and despair permeates his segment. Lee clearly relishes the opportunity to use his typecasting to his advantage, initially appearing as cold and unsympathetic, but ultimately being reduced to abject terror. Elliott, of course, was an old hand at twitchy neurotic types, while Pertwee clearly enjoyed himself as he lampooned the genre. In addition to the four leads, there are also good supporting roles for Ingrid Pitt (as Pertwee’s bosomy co-star), John Bennett (whose numerous credits include unbilled appearances in two Hammer films: The Curse of the Werewolf and Pirates of Blood River), Joss Ackland (another Hammer vet, having appeared in Rasputin: The Mad Monk), and Wolfe Morris (who had featured alongside Cushing in Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman). Other Amicus anthologies arguably featured starrier casts, but as ensembles go, this one is pretty hard to beat.

Technical credits are quite good, as well. In addition to Ray Parslow’s moody cinematography and some handsome art direction by Tony Curtis (not the actor, incidentally), there’s a really superb music score by Michael Dress. It’s a marvelous, nerve jangling soundtrack, aptly (but not obnoxiously) underscoring the humor where appropriate, and helping to ratchet up the tension elsewhere. Sadly, Dress’ promising career was cut short when he died at the age of 39 in 1975; he composed only a handful of scores, including one for the Amicus sci-fi vehicle The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970), but House remains his most popular credit. Amicus would later utilize Douglas Gamely for most of their anthology films, but his very 70s style may seem a little dated nowadays; by contrast, Dress’ music for House remains as ageless as the film itself. A soundtrack CD release is most definitely long overdue.

The House That Dripped Blood is a work of style, wit and good taste - despite the title, which director Peter Duffell pleaded with producer Rosenberg to switch to the less gaudy Death and the Maiden (his reasoning being that each story involved death and a woman, and certainly Peter Cushing is seen listening to Schubert’s symphony of the same name in one scene). The title would later be appropriated by play write Ariel Dorfman for his politically charged revenge play, which would be filmed to tremendous effect by Roman Polanski in 1994. One can understand Duffell’s wish to rechristen the film, but the combination of the lurid and the classy was, after all, the Amicus way - and The House That Dripped Blood remains one of the great “subtle” horror films, and one of their most satisfying concoctions.


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