Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)



A few young men board a train for certain destinations, encountering a passenger (Peter Cushing) who fancies himself a “teller of the cards”, a tarot deck found spilled out of his bag during a brief nap in a car, and with their permission (they must tap on the top of the deck three times) Cushing foretells a possible fate awaiting them; these fates make up the stories in this Amicus anthology. Cushing, with bushy eyebrows and rough beard, looks like a ogre, but his inoffensive and polite voice counteracts his sinister appearance. 

***


The first tale has an architect commissioned to an island to revisit his ancestral home sold to a now-deceased archeologist with a widow who lives there with a groundskeeper and maidservant. Supposed legend was a dispute over the property, with the architect’s family perhaps getting rid of the opposition to the claim. A coffin is found with a possible werewolf inside. But is what is inside the coffin the architect needs to worry about? Rather disappointing opening tale just doesn’t do enough with the werewolf to satisfy to my liking, and the possibilities with the hidden room in the basement doesn’t get enough time to utilize the premise of “ancestral curses”. Sometimes anthologies feature stories just perfect for the fifteen/twenty minutes given to them. I think with this one, it needed more time to build upon its historical significance to the architect and the current owner.

The second tale is a doozy: a vine growing on the wall of a father’s house develops intelligence and a will to preserve itself threatening him and his family! The vine seems afraid of fire but will that fear remain? A vine killing a dog and a grown man (an authority in plant species), soon growing at an alarming rate to the point where it is strangling the outer exterior of the entire house just looks preposterous. Thankfully it’s over rather quickly as not to overstay its welcome to embarrass itself any longer than necessary. Done completely straight instead of tongue-in-cheek might charm an audience more accepting of it than I was.

As each “premonition” is introduced, Cushing’s “Dr. Shreck” seems to pressure the other men to participate, as Lee continues to offer his art critic disapproval (“It’s just nonsense!” Lee chimes in…). When Cushing pulls a fourth card at the urging of those who listened to their premonition, always it seems to be the “death card”.

Third tale has a happy-go-lucky musician of jazz band booked to the West Indies to perform, soon encountering voodoo. So the musician hears of voodoo and experiences a live celebration in dance and sound, primed to take from them some of the music and incorporate it into his own band’s routine. Despite warnings from the chief among these celebrators that the musician should not steal from their god, Dembala, he doesn’t heed to them, returning home without a care in the world. Sure enough, he has a music number using from the voodoo sound he heard in the West Indies with the expected supernatural results befalling him. A lot of wind with doors and windows blowing up and shut. Voodoo tribe representative arrives to snatch away the music piece penned by the musician, leaving him fainted on his apartment floor. That’ll teach him to steal.

My favorite of the tales has Lee as an incorrigible, snobbish art critic with the kind of opinion many seem to hold with great importance. He offers his opinions with plenty of grandiose elitism. It is like a poisoned pen, except his is with harsh words. What makes this so much fun is the artist Lee rips into at an art showing: Michael Gough. Gough gets him, too. While a company of onlookers follow Lee as he denounces Gough’s work, a “new artist” has a painting to supposedly be featured at the gallery for which the art critic is asked to offer his “astute opinion”…as Lee finishes praising the painting for all its qualities, Gough and his assistant reveal the artist, a monkey! A good laugh for all at Lee’s expense is quite gratifying. And Gough gets in his head. Every time Lee is around to speak to an audience, Gough is there to torment him with his lone snafu that made his opinion questionable. So desperate to rattle off Gough, Lee runs him over! In doing so, Gough loses his hand and the pain of not being able to paint causes him to eat a bullet. But the hand…disembodied and dangerous to Lee! Lee can’t get rid of it…but it might just get rid of him! Gough, for once, garners some sympathy while Lee is perfectly hissable.


Donald Sutherland certainly seems to stand out in this British cast as the final man to receive his possible fortune. He’s a young doctor who brought home a French wife, working in a small practice with mentor, Dr. Blake (Max Adrian). What Sutherland doesn’t realize is that his wife is a vampire and one of her victims is a boy unfortunately leaving his window open at night. Adrian influences Sutherland to put a stake through her, but what Donald doesn’t realize is that there just might be more than one bloodsucker living in his little town! Sutherland’s appearance in an Amicus horror anthology will certainly garner interest from his fans and those curious to see him so young in his career. In about five years he’d be one of the most successful American actors working in such films as M*A*S*H and Klute. Here his character is a worthy patsy for a vampire to use to get rid of a rival. It is a clever twist that leaves poor Sutherland looking like a mad fool, carried away in cuffs as the police take him for a loon.













The disembodied hand special effect is rather ineffective in today’s climate of spoiled audiences getting their computer graphics. This has been done a few times, once more by Amicus with “…And Now the Screaming Starts!” For the most part, this works because I think there’s plenty of room provided to imagine this all in Lee’s mind. As if the hand is a manifestation of a guilty conscience he can’t rid himself of.
 

I got a good kick out of Cushing’s part in the film. Being an unapologetic Cushing fanboy, seeing him made up to look like a gruff and grim purveyor of doom would later be a type of model for his antique shop owner in “From Beyond the Grave”. Lee scoffing at him over and over, only to be convinced that Cushing might just have a gift is most amusing. Neil McCallum (as the architect), Alan Freeman (as the father facing the vine; Bernard Lee of James Bond fame is a “plant specialist”), and Roy Castle (as the musician thieving voodoo sound) make up the remaining cast, all taken aback by Cushing’s premonitions and how the cards read bad towards them.






As expected, the anthology format for Amicus followed a number of characters introduced to potential scenarios that often meant misfortune for them. Typically they meet a framework character (twice Cushing) that introduces them to what they might or will face (or have already faced). Most of the time it never ends well for them. This early Amicus effort is no different. 

Werewolf: **
Creeping Vine: *½
Voodoo: **½
Disembodied Hand: ***
Vampire: **½
Framework: ***½




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