Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964) Blu-ray Review

Amicus Productions were a British film production company founded by a pair of American producers and screenwriters, Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg. Rosenberg was based in New York, while Subotsky was closer to production and located himself in Britain. The films were made at Shepperton Studios on a low budget and although the reputation of the company is through horror films and as the only real rival to Hammer’s horror films, that is not how they started out. Prior to the studio’s first film under the banner of Amicus there was an atmospheric black and white horror film starring Christopher Lee called The City of the Dead made in 1960. Unlike the more distinctly British Amicus horrors, this story of witches was set in a lost Massachusetts town and was also filmed at Shepperton Studios. Subotsky and Rosenberg’s first films under the Amicus banner were both aimed at the teenage market, including the Trad Jazz musical, It’s Trad Dad which starred a host of well known then popular British Trad Jazz artistes. The company’s first foray into horror would be the film reviewed here, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is released on both DVD and Blup-ray through Fabulous Films in as good a version as you will find. Filmed at Shepperton Studios in the Summer of 1964, this first Amicus horror set the tone for many of their future films in that it was a multi-story portmanteau film, setting it apart from the more gothic Hammer horror films, which of course were equally very British. There was already a precedent from Ealing Studios with their 1949 proto-disaster portmanteau film (significantly with a train theme), Train of Events, as well as Ealing’s only horror film, Dead of Night (1945) with some genuinely creepy tales. This would be the first of seven such portmanteau films by Amicus and though it may not the very best, it is nonetheless the most memorable and is held dearly in the hearts of classic horror fans.

The germanation of the idea comes from co-producer and writer Subotsky bringing with him several short stories he had written some fifteen years previously; indeed there is even a crawling hand story clearly influenced by The Beast With Five Fingers (1946) a story about a dead concert pianist whose disembodied hand comes back for revenge which Subostsky most likely saw. The framing story sees five men share a train carriage when a sixth person, played by a bewhiskered and brim hatted man with a Gladstone bag who goes by the name of Dr. Schreck (the German for ‘terror’ and the name of Max Schreck, the actor wo played the original Nosferatu) played by Peter Cushing. While on the journey, Dr. Schreck gives tarot card readings to each of his fellow passengers which foreshadows their fate. What the films gives that Hammer doesn’t is several monsters in one film. The first story opens with Canadian actor Neil McCallum playing an architect who travels to Scotland to renovate a family mansion. There he meets the new owner (played by one of the few strong female charactars in the film, Ursula Howells) with a curse of werewolves haunting the manor house. The second story is about a creeping vine that terrorises a family in their house, including well known DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman in one of his few film appearances. This is one of the thinest of the stories, though is still good fun, but Freeman clearly shows that acting was not his thing.

The next story stars Roy Castle, best known as a jazz trumpeter and presenting the children’s TV show, ‘Record Breakers’. Castle had replaced Trad Jazz clarinet player Acker Bilk who sadly had a heart attack shortly before filming began. Castle also doesn’t show strong acting chops, but does add some light humour to the proceedings. He talks with some teen hip language which stands him out from his fellow passengers in which he plays a club jazz musician who is invited to the Caribbean to play. While there he surreptitiously witnesses a voodoo ceremony. He takes the rhythm he heard back to London and writes a jazz piece around the rhythms, incurring upon himself some unseen horror. This the runs into arguably the best story in the film, ‘The Crawling Hand’ in which a rather pompus bespectacled Christopher Lee plays an art critic who is very cutting and targets an abstract artist played by Michael Gough who feels the wrath of his criticism. Gough, not overacting as much here as he has in other films of the period, humiliates Lee’s art critic in front of others and is subsequently run over. He survives, but loses a hand. The disembodied hand comes to life and torments Lee, eventually causing him to crash and lose his sight. This is a wonderful performance by Lee, by far the best in the film and shows genuine terror and believability at the mechanised hand that in lesser hands would have incurred much laughter. But instead it adds genuine frisson. The mechanised hand would make future appearances in two other Amicus films: And Now the Screaming Starts (1973) and Tales From the Crypt (1972). The final story is a vampire tale in which a young Donald Sutherland plays a rather credulous newly wed to a French girl (Jenniffer Jayne).

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors concludes with a reveal, but though it leaves a few questions hanging in the air, it is ultimately a classic interesting horror film and one that is a good deal of fun. Of course it is aided by a strong cast, not least of all the coup of having both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee heading the cast. Made in Techniscope, a cheaper process than other widescreen processes, the result does leave some grain on the film which means this print on the Fabulous Films discs is as good as it’ll get and is shown in the original 2.35:1 format. Directed by Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, a director already with a reputation for horror films having made several for Hammer would go on to make a second horror film for Amicus, The Skull straight after Dr Terror’s, it is little surprising that Francis is able to bring his skill as a cinematographer to the film, especially shooting in the tight train compartment built on a set and the use of green gels used several times throughout the film.

The package is replete with some great extras, including newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys with fold out Humphrey’s artwork within as well as a documentary by such British horror film experts that include Jonathan Rigby, Kevin Lyons, BFI’s Jo Botting and ‘League of Gentlemen’s’ Reece Shearesmith. In addition there are lengthy archive interviews with actors Kenny Lynch, Jeremy Kemp and Ann Bell, as well as a slide show of stills and lobby cards as well as a booklet. A worthy addition to any classic horror fans collection and even worth having to replace your old DVDs.

Chris Hick

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