Freddie Francis, 1965
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Max Adrian, Peter Madden, Donald Sutherland
On a train departing London, five men in a carriage are joined by an unwelcome additional traveler, a man who introduces himself as Dr. Schreck and offers to read their fortunes with his Tarot cards. Each reading is presented as a separate story, beginning with “Werewolf,” where an architect working on an isolated country home attempts to save a widow from a lycanthropic beast. In “Creeping Vine,” a relentlessly growing plant terrorizes a small family, and in “Voodoo” a musician borrows a song he hears while visiting the West Indies, unaware of its power. “Disembodied Hand” follows a rude art critic who ruins the life of a struggling painter, while “Vampire” is focused on a newly married man who realizes that his adorable French wife might be a vampire.
Amicus Productions’ first anthology film — inspired by the early British horror classic Dead of Night (1945) — ushered in a wave of fun, campy horror films that were among my favorites growing up. Much like The Addams Family and Halloween specials, they generally celebrate horror tropes and spooky themes rather than eliciting any actual terror and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is firmly in that camp. While Hammer had its dream team of director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, and stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Amicus had its version of the same: writer/producer and Amicus head Milton Subotsky, director Freddie Francis, and star Peter Cushing, the latter of whom was in all but one of the studio’s anthology films.
Amicus certainly had a corner on the portmanteau market, at least as far as genre cinema was concerned, and the success of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors allowed them to follow it up with titles like Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Asylum (1972), Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). A number of its characteristics would become staples. First and foremost, the film is fun and colorful with an overtly tongue-in-cheek approach that involves a twist in nearly every story and a comical ending. Secondly, there’s the use of a framing device — in this case a spooky “doctor” reads Tarot cards for reluctant train passengers — which begins and ends the film. Overall, this is actually the most entertaining part of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, simply because Peter Cushing is so delightful in the title role. It’s obvious that he was having a great time with the part.
The third element is the use of horror tropes — seemingly as many as they could fit into one film — and this features monsters like werewolves and vampires, a killer plant that develops its own alien intelligence, a revenge plot that features a disembodied hand, and a white man’s foolish misuse of voodoo. The fourth characteristic is that there are cameos from recognizable actors, in this case from two genre stars and one mainstream actor. Christopher Lee and Michael Gough face off in what is definitely the best story in the anthology, “Disembodied Hand,” where Lee is wonderfully over the top as the world’s most disdainful art critic.
In the final segment, “Vampire,” a young Donald Sutherland is an innocent newlywed and small-town doctor who doesn’t want to believe his wife is a vampire, but Ken Russell’s regular Max Adrian (The Devils, The Boy Friend) gets the best of him. SPOILERS: It was Adrian’s character, a Van Helsing-like doctor, who helped Sutherland realize his wife is the vampire. But then Adrian tuns Sutherland over to the police, because he didn’t want the competition from another doctor or from another vampire. Finally, the last staple of this subgenre worth mentioning is the use of a conclusion with a twist. (SPOILERS, kind of) In this case, the twist is one used the most frequently in these anthology films, where all the characters come to find out that they’re really dead and have been taking a train to the underworld.
Anyone who dislikes tongue-in-cheek humor or camp with their horror will want to avoid this film (and probably all of Amicus’s anthologies), but it comes recommended to everyone else. It’s at least worth watching for the Christopher Lee and Michael Gough sequence, and I’m honestly not sure who would take home the award for bitchiest scenery chewing. Pick it up on Blu-ray, though keep in mind you’ll need a UK or all-region player for this release.