The horror anthology can be traced back as far as German expressionist cinema, with early classics like Richard Oswald’s Eerie Tales (1919) and Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), but for many viewers it begins with the Ealing Studios’ production of Dead of Night (1945).
This portmanteau of macabre tales made a profound impression on many people, including a young Milton Subotsky. Born in New York in 1921, Subotsky was a film buff from an early age and began producing in the 1950s. He had a particular passion for horror, fantasy and sci-fi and would partner with fellow New Yorker Max J. Rosenberg to form Amicus Productions. Amicus would initially focus on rock and roll pictures, but in 1964 they decided to switch gears and offer up some health competition to England’s reigning “horror factory,” Hammer Film Productions. Subotsky explicitly referenced Dead of Night when he set about to write the studio’s first “official” horror film (bearing in mind, they had produced the well-regarded City of the Dead under the banner of Vulcan Productions), ultimately released as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.
The film would follow a basic formula which Subotsky would repeat again and again: a group of characters are united in a claustrophobic setting, where they have their fortunes told to them by a mysterious character. In this instance, the mysterious “seer” is Dr. Schreck, played by Peter Cushing. Hidden behind bushy eyebrows and a stubbly beard, Cushing is seedier than usual and he plays the role with a nicely understated sense of menace and foreboding. Cushing would become the company’s mascot of sorts and his loyalty to Subotsky would lead him to accept appearances in some films that he might otherwise have done well to have taken a pass on.
The first of the characters to have their fortunes told is Scottish architect Neil McCallum. In McCallum’s story, he goes to his ancestral home, which is now owned by grand dame Usrula Howells. There’s a family curse afoot involving a werewolf and the “surprise” reveal of the creature’s identity shouldn’t come as a surprise to a five year old. The story may be slim and predictable, but director Freddie Francis and cinematographer Alan Hume give it style and atmosphere to burn. Of all the segments, it’s the only one that really captures an atmosphere of dread and as such, it’s a good intro that sets the tone for what is to follow.
The second segment deals with family man Alan Freeman (a popular DJ in his day, making a rare acting appearance) who returns from vacation to discover that a strange vine is slowly enveloping his house. Enlisting the aid of scientists Bernard Lee and Jeremy Kemp, Freeman attempts to destroy the pesky plant, but it would appear to have ideas of its own… Freeman does a credible job and Lee and Kemp do their best to keep a straight face delivering some ridiculous dialogue, but the bargain basement special effects don’t do it any favors.
The next segment involves musician Roy Castle, who steals a tune used in a voodoo ceremony and may or may not live to regret it… This is easily the weakest of the film’s stories and is shamelessly ripped off from an episode of the Boris Karloff TV series Thriller, which featured John Ireland in a not-dissimilar role as a musician who runs afoul of a vengeful voodoo god after incorporating a similar tune into one of his night club routines. Even without the air of plagiarism, the segment is a mess: Castle’s incessant mugging is a constant irritant and the attempts at humor are feeble at best. On the plus side, the segment has some terrific jazz music by the great Tubby Hayes. Indeed, director Francis had hoped to have Hayes score the entire film, but the musician’s problems with cocaine dependency made him unreliable, so Francis asked for the services of the distinguished Elisabeth Lutyens instead.
Up next, Christopher Lee plays a pompous art critic who drives artist Michael Gough to suicide. Gough’s hand (which had been severed in an accident engineered by Lee) returns to exact vengeance. The special effects work is awkward, admittedly, but this segment succeeds due to the heartfelt performances of Lee and Gough. Lee is at his imperious best as the ultra-bitchy critic whose acerbic words destroy the lives of others, while Gough is genuinely touching and restrained as the sympathetic victim.
The film draws to a close as the train carting the characters pulls into the station. Dr. Schreck disappears into thin air and the characters decide to laugh off what they’ve been shown … but it will be Dr. Schreck who has the last laugh.
Amicus would go on to produce some better anthologies than this one, notably The House That Dripped Blood and From Beyond the Grave, but Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors remains one of their seminal works. It’s a fun film on its own terms and it shows Freddie Francis working at the top of his game as a director. Francis’ frustration with being typecast as a horror director (he was no fan of the genre and was very open about this) would later result in some truly hackneyed work, but at this stage in the game he was still doing his best to shore up weak screenplays with plenty of visual fireworks. Subotsky’s screenplay is derivative and unimaginative, but the anthology format proves to be beneficial in that once one weak story is out of the way, there’s always the chance for something better in the next segment.
In the case of Dr. Terror, the good fortunately outweighs the bad. The Werewolf and Crawling Hand segments remain highlights in the Amicus canon and the Vampire story is by no means disposable, either. The fine performances, eerie music score by Lutyens, stylish direction by Francis and expert widescreen color photography from Hume all add up to make this a film worth seeing again and again.
Review: Troy Howarth
Gallery: Marcus Brooks
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