Kevin Connor, 1973
Starring: Peter Cushing, Ian Carmichael, Donald Pleasence, David Warner, Angela Pleasence
The very last in Amicus’s series of eight horror anthology films, From Beyond the Grave takes a bit of a different approach and introduces some new talent. While the most frequent writer-director pairing was that of American genre writer Robert Bloch and cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis, this film served as the directorial debut for Kevin Connor, who went on to direct a few more Amicus efforts — like The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and At the Earth’s Core (1976) — as well as a slew of made-for-TV films and even Motel Hell (1980). The film’s four stories were based on tales from British horror author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes. Though pretty much unknown to American audiences, his most famous book is probably The Monster Club, which went onto be a lone post-Amicus anthology film for producer and studio head Milton Subotsky.
Admittedly, I really love this film, partly because it has such an exceptional cast full of some of my favorite British actors from the period, and primarily because it features Peter Cushing in one of my favorite of his roles. He appears in the framing segments, which all take place at an antique shop called Temptations Limited — the kind of place I fantasized about finding old books with sinister magic powers as a kid. Cushing plays the grizzled proprietor, who sort of sits back and observes as a number of unsavory characters attempt to scam him out of valuable — albeit cursed — items. This trope of bad things happening to bad people can be found in nearly all the Amicus portmanteau films, as well as some of the stand-alone plots, but is used particularly delightfully here.
In the first tale, “The Gatecrasher,” a man named Edward buys a very old mirror from the shop at a reduced price, after he insists it is a fake (though he knows it’s quite valuable). It inspires he and his friends to hold a seance one night during a dinner party. Unfortunately for him, the mirror is possessed by a murderous figure who encourages him to kill young women. After a number of deaths, the figure materializes in the flesh and murders Edward, so that Edward can take over guardianship of the mirror. Gleefully macabre, this would probably be a fairly average entry if not for David Warner, who stars. He has that sort of stern, but appealing and almost uniquely British brand of charisma where the look on his face says that he disapproves of you and all your life choices. Ah, David Warner, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one upped in the second tale, “An Act of Kindness,” by the father-daughter duo of Donald and Angela Pleasence, playing a bereft former serviceman and his strange, adult daughter. They come into the frustrated life of Christopher (the delightful Ian Bannen of Gorky Park, Eye of the Needle, The Watcher in the Woods and roughly 800 other films), after he steals a war metal from the antique shop. Christopher hates his job and is relentlessly bullied by his wife (Diana Dors at her most shrewish, which is saying something). He befriends the serviceman and begins an affair with his daughter, Emily, but soon realizes that Emily possesses a diabolical power that will change his life…
If you need one reason to watch From Beyond the Grave outside of Peter Cushing’s glorious presence or David Warner’s somnambulistic yet effective turn as a serial killer, then let it be the two Pleasences together, looking eerily alike and playing so well off each other that I wish they had done not only more films together in general, but particularly more genre films. Angela, generally forgotten alongside her more famous father, has had a steady, productive career, particularly in British crime television (one of my guilty pleasures), though her starring role in Larraz’s Symptoms, made the same year as From Beyond the Grave, is not to be missed.
My least favorite of the bunch is the still enjoyable episode, “The Elemental,” where a businessman (comic actor Ian Carmichael) has a chance encounter with a witch (stage actress Margaret Leighton) on a train, who tells him that an invisible creature called an elemental is attached to him and is dangerous, even homicidal. He doesn’t believe her until the thing tries to murder his wife and he reaches out to her for help. Thanks to the combination of Carmichael and Leighton, this is the most comedic tale — with a really great exorcism sequence — but it has a grisly twist at the end. I actually think that’s part of why I enjoy From Beyond the Grave so much; it’s more consistently macabre than Amicus’s other anthology films, less tongue-in-cheek, and isn’t afraid to be unpleasant or even violent at times.
The final tale, “The Door,” has my favorite premise of the bunch: a writer (Ian Ogilvy of Witchfinder General) buys a beautifully carved door from the antique shop, one that was apparently once the entryway to a totally blue room. His wife (Lesley-Anne Down of Countess Dracula) seems to have a strange psychic connection to the door and soon the writer becomes obsessed with it, learning that it actually a portal to another, far more dangerous dimension. This surprisingly beautifully-shot episode borrows a bit from The Skull, but is a pleasantly Gothic spin one of the horror tropes most beloved to me: the maniacal occultist who has returned to terrorize a susceptible artist/writer.
From Beyond the Grave is available on DVD and it comes highly recommended for anyone who enjoys anthology films — particularly those of you fed up by trite storylines or the insistence on a tongue-in-cheek approach to genre cinema. It also makes me happy that the portmanteau film was able to go out on such a strong note and this film remains a fond farewell to an interesting, entertaining (if somewhat short-lived) trend in British horror cinema.