Monday, 26 May 2014

TROY HOWARTH'S 'THE AMICUS FILMS OF PETER CUSHING' : 'WANDERING HANDS AND MANNEQUINS'


For their next collaboration, Cushing and Amicus would once again revisit the anthology format.  Asylum was a jigsaw puzzle of a confection written by Robert Bloch.  Like The House That Dripped Blood, it was structured as a mystery, with the linking segment helping to build the film to a final, shocking reveal.  The four segments were of higher-than-usual caliber: “Frozen Fear” tells of a husband (Richard Todd) who chops his wife (Sylvia Sims) into little pieces and is understandably perplexed when the pieces (neatly wrapped in brown paper) come back to life.


 “The Weird Tailor” tells of a mysterious gentleman (Peter Cushing) who hires a tailor (Barry Morse) to make him a most unusual suit; “When Lucy Comes to Stay” tells of a young woman (Charlotte Rampling) whose friendship with Lucy (Britt Ekland) leads to disastrous consequences; and “Mannikins of Horror” tells of an inventor (Herbert Lom) who creates mechanical homunculi.  The film is capped-off by the surprise reveal of the deranged doctor whom the protagonist (Robert Powell) has been searching for.


Bloch’s inventive screenplay ensures that every piece of the puzzle fits together to create a satisfying whole.  Roy Ward Baker, directing his first film for the company, handles the material with style and flair.  Baker, whose past credits included A Night to Remember and Quatermass and the Pit, never seemed much at home in the horror genre, but Asylum proved to be a notable exception.  Clearly inspired by the witty and suspenseful material, he pulls out all the stops and delivers one of his best films.  The cinematography by Denys Coop is appropriately atmospheric, while Douglas Gamley’s score makes inspired use of barnstorming classical music to set the right Gothic tone.


The stories are very effective on the whole, with “The Weird Tailor” emerging as the weakest of the bunch. Even so, it benefits greatly from the fine performances from Cushing and (especially) Barry Morse.  Cushing’s portrayal of the guilt-ridden “Mr. Smith” again allows him to channel his sense of real-life loss into the role he was playing, but his screen time is limited.  There are also fine performances from Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Robert Powell, Richard Todd and Charlotte Rampling. The film proved to be another hit for Amicus, and they were only too anxious to continue their association with Cushing; happily, the feeling was mutual.


David Case’s novel “Fengriffen” was a Gothic mystery in the mold of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”It caught the eye of Milton Subotsky, a voracious reader, who optioned it for a film adaptation.  Surprisingly, he didn’t elect to pen the screenplay himself. Instead, he entrusted the writing to TV veteran Roger Marshall.  Once the script was in place, Subotsky and Rosenberg assembled a top notch cast and a skilled crew, headed by director Roy Ward Baker. The end result proved more problematic than Baker’s previous sojourn into the world of Amicus horror.


The story tells of a young couple (Ian Ogilvy and Stephanie Beacham) who return to the groom’s ancestral home to start a new life together. On the night of their wedding, the bride is attacked and raped by an unseen presence. She believes the supernatural is at work, but the husband is skeptical. Eventually, the sage Dr. Pope (Peter Cushing, of course) is called in to investigate.


The cast does the best it can under the circumstances, but veteran actors like Cushing, Herbert Lom and Patrick Magee have too little to do.  Cushing plays Dr. Pope like a variation on Sherlock Holmes.  He doesn’t enter into the story until fairly late, however, and he is given little to do beyond fiddling with his props.  Lom makes a strong impression as the debauched nobleman who brings a curse upon his family, but his screen time is limited, while Magee is completely wasted as the family doctor who lives in fear of the curse.  Ian Ogilvy, who had risen to genre stardom as the juvenile lead in Michael Reeves’ three horror films (The She Beast, 1965; The Sorcerers, 1967; Witchfinder General, 1968) is very good as the distraught husband, while Stephanie Beacham (who had recently played Cushing’s granddaughter in Dracula AD 1972) is inclined to overact as the hysterical wife.


And Now The Screaming Starts! comes off like something of an Amicus copy of a Hammer film: the period setting and emphasis on shock effects would not have been out of place in one of their films, the use of Oakley Court for the exteriors is very much a Hammer touch, and the single narrative sets the film apart from Amicus’ usual fare.  If nothing else, it served to show up just how difficult it was for Hammer to do this kind of material as successfully as they did.  Slow, plodding and predictable in the extreme, And Now The Screaming Starts is one of the less successful collaborations between Cushing and Amicus. 


Written By Troy Howarth
Edired and Images By Marcus Brooks


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