Dr Terror's House of Horrors
1965 / Freddie Francis
Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (UK, Freddie Francis, 1965) was a game-changer for Amicus Productions. Formed by American expatriates Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg in 1962, the Shepperton Studios-based production company initially set out to capture the teen market with a one-two punch of successive musicals It’s Trad, Dad! (UK, Richard Lester, 1962) starring teen sensation Helen Shapiro and American idols Chubby Checker and Gene Vincent, and Just for Fun (UK, Gordon Flemyng, 1963) starring Bobby Vee, alongside DJ Alan Freeman and singer Kenny Lynch (remember those names, they’ll appear again), it was perhaps another game-changer, the birth of Beatlemania and the Richard Lester-helmed Fab Four’s cinematic vehicle A Hard Day’s Night (UK, Richard Lester, 1964) that stymied Subotsky and Rosenberg’s advancements in this field. Heading back to the drawing board, the two producers recalled their work together on the Christopher Lee-starring The City of the Dead (UK, John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960) and their mutual appreciation of the Ealing horror anthology Dead of Night (UK, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden, 1945) and decided to put their efforts into another genre that held teen appeal – horror.
It was a bold gambit from Subotsky and Rosenberg to make because in the 1960s, British horror began and ended with the mighty Hammer Film Productions, the single greatest horror studio since Universal in the 1930s. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was the first horror film produced by Amicus and, whilst they somewhat cheekily pinched two of Hammer’s greatest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the movie makes it clear that an Amicus horror will differ considerably from one made by Hammer. For a start, Amicus would routinely prefer to set their horrors in the present day, leaving the gothic period to the chaps at Bray. But crucially, Dr Terror‘s House of Horrors would not only be the first Amicus horror, it would also be their first ‘Portmanteau’ horror. Recalling their beloved Dead of Night, this Amicus production would be an anthology consisting of five short horror stories with an overarching plot. It was a canny move on the part of Subotsky (who also wrote the screenplay) and Rosenberg; if audiences grew bored or disliked one story, they didn’t have to wait long for the next one to commence. This winning format continued for the rest of the decade and into the 1970s with films like The House That Dripped Blood (UK, Peter Duffell, 1971) and The Vault of Horror (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1973) punctuated by impressive, starry casts.
We must talk about the particularly starry cast assembled for Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. As a child in the 1980s, the film popped up on my radar precisely because of the somewhat eclectic cast. It’s a given to expect Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to appear in whatever vintage horror the BBC was screening before television shut down for the night, but my interest was piqued to see those two stalwarts of the genre alongside Roy Castle, then a popular face on children’s television thanks to his hosting stint on Record Breakers (BBC TV, 1972-1993), but also a favourite of mine since seeing him star as the hapless companion to Cushing’s time-traveller in Amicus’ Dr Who and the Daleks (UK, Gordon Flemyng, 1965). Not only that but there was also that man again Alan Freeman, the DJ known to all as ‘Fluff’ Freeman and famous for his catchphrases “Alright pop pickers” and “Not ‘arf”, and bona fide Hollywood star Donald Sutherland too. Of course, I didn’t realise at that age that, before Hollywood came calling with M*A*S*H (US, Robert Altman, 1970), Sutherland was just another young actor whose Canadian accent ensured that he could pass for American like Shane Rimmer and Ed Bishop in any number of popular TV dramas like Man in a Suitcase (ITC, 1967-1968), The Saint (ITC, 1962-1969) and The Avengers (ABC, 1961-1969). I recall wilding out about this mix of screen talent and thinking that here, at last, could be a scary movie that didn’t frighten me too much. You see, around this time I had persuaded my parents to let me watch Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula (UK, Terence Fisher, 1960) and was absolutely terrified. But this one had Roy Castle in as well as Peter Cushing, so it must be more like Dr Who and the Daleks I reasoned. Not that Doctor Who (BBC 1963-1989), my favourite TV show, couldn’t be scary – I’d probably not long since endured the sight of Edward Peel’s face melt away in ‘Dragonfire’! I begged my father to set the video to record it and promptly sat through it the following day with the same considerable unease approaching rigid fear I had experienced watching Cushing take on vampires. Clearly, I was a sensitive soul, and it wasn’t until my teenage years that my fondness for vintage horror like this bloomed.
Dr Terror’s House of Horrors stars Peter Cushing as the curious Dr Schreck (it’s German for ‘terror’, we learn, so that’s one part of the title dealt with). Dressed in a black cape and fedora, bushy eyebrows and a beard, the enigmatic effect is topped off by Cushing’s Germanic accent, one he would adopt intermittently throughout his career, including once more for Amicus in The Beast Must Die (UK, Paul Annett, 1974). Boarding a train one evening, he enters a carriage occupied by five other passengers, all unknown to one another. To seemingly pass the time on their long journey, the eccentric German doctor invites each of his fellow travellers to a reading from his deck of tarot cards or, as he likes to call them, his ‘house of horrors’ (and that’s the other part of the title sorted!). Undeterred by the doom-laden description Schreck favours, the five men agree to have their possible futures revealed. One by one, each passenger is shocked to discover that death and destruction look set to await them.
First to hear his fate is Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum) in a segment known as ‘Werewolf’, so no prizes for guessing what this story is about. Dawson is on his way to the Hebrides where he intends to fix up his old family manor and sell it to the newly widowed Deirdre Biddulph (Ursula Howells). During the course of his renovations, Dawson discovers the burial place of the manor’s original owner, Cosmo Valdemar, a wicked Count (I said Count!) who, local legend has it, was a werewolf. When Katy Wild’s young maid is found brutally murdered, Dawson begins to suspect that there may be something in the legend.
The next story is entitled ‘Creeping Vine’, a The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951) and UK, Steve Sekely, Freddie Francis, 1963) affair that sees family man Bill Rogers (Alan Freeman) return home from holiday with his wife Ann (Ann Bell) and little daughter Carol (Phoebe Nicholls)to find a mysterious vine flourishing in the garden. When Bill attempts to cut it down to size, the vine seems to recoil in pain. Stranger still, it even resorts to defending itself. Concerned, Bill takes his findings to Bernard Lee and Jeremy Kemp’s pair of government scientists. Though sceptical initially, the duo soon learn that it pays to take horticultural matters very seriously indeed. Freeman was never going to trouble BAFTA or the Oscars, but he’s certainly photogenic and his deficiencies are covered by the experienced hands around him. For director Freddie Francis this must have seemed a little like déjà vu having only co-helmed the big screen adaptation of Wyndham’s classic two years earlier with Steve Sekely.
‘Voodoo’ is our next chapter, revealing the fate of Roy Castle’s happy-go-lucky jazz musician Biff Bailey. This instalment is essentially ‘the perils of cultural appropriation’ depicting as it does Bailey’s craven desire to make a buck and a name for himself by passing off music he heard at a secret voodoo ceremony in the Caribbean as his own back in London. Despite the misgivings of friend and fellow musician Sammy (Kenny Lynch, making his second appearance in an Amicus movie), Biff proceeds to play the music, oblivious to the occult power the tune actually holds. ‘Voodoo’ is the lighter of the film’s segments playing to Castle’s strength not only as a comedian but also as a noted jazz musician in his own right. It’s this lightness of touch that makes Castle’s Biff, for all his selfish antics and stupid decisions, a sympathetic character. Indeed, almost all of the doomed passengers are wholly sympathetic figures. I say almost all…
A sceptical note has been loudly and repeatedly raised during the journey up until this point, and that note belongs to Christopher Lee’s conceited and pompous art critic Franklyn Marsh who is forced to put his money where his mouth is in the next story which, like ‘Creeping Vine’, is a segment reminiscent of another established chiller, The Beast with Five Fingers (US, Robert Florey, 1946). ‘Disembodied Hand’ sees Lee’s Marsh direct his haughty contempt at Michael Gough’s artist, Eric Landor. After yet another in-public drubbing, Landor decides to play a prank on Marsh that leaves the sniffy critic with egg on his face. Unbeknownst to Landor however, Marsh has a violent temper and he runs the artist down in the street with his car. The attack isn’t fatal, but Landor’s hand must be amputated and, with that, his career as an artist is cruelly concluded. Finding a life without art too much to bear, the unfortunate artist decides to kill himself, but his hand lives on to exact revenge upon Marsh. It probably goes without saying that, when it comes to acting chops, Lee is head and shoulders above the rest of his unfortunate party here. He’s just so good at playing a pompous arse who demands quality that meets his personal high watermark, perhaps because (whisper it) he could be a bit of a pompous arse who demanded such quality himself.
The last man in the carriage is an American doctor, Bob Carroll (Sutherland). Undeterred by the fates revealed to the rest of the party, he insists that Dr Schreck deals the cards once more and discovers that his French fiancée Nicolle (Jennifer Jayne) is possibly a vampire. ‘Vampire’ tells the story of a spate of blood-sucking attacks in the small town where Bob practices medicine. Daring to believe the impossible, Bob turns to his colleague Dr Blake (Max Adrian) for help and he soon points the finger of suspicion at Nicolle. But is he right to do so? Sutherland may have gone on to be a big Hollywood star, but you wouldn’t necessarily guess it from here. It’s not that it’s a bad performance, far from it, it’s just that, beyond a certain transatlantic loucheness, it doesn’t really stand out from what everyone else is doing. In an alternate reality, I suspect he remained an ‘American’ for hire like Shane Rimmer in countless films and TV to follow.
What I love about Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is that Amicus hit the ground running with a genre and format they would soon become well known for. Each segment is well-handled and entertaining, leaning into the light and shade that makes a good fireside ghost story. And that’s effectively what we have here, five lively, playful ghost stories made just to entertain folk. But there’s also a sting in the tail too, as Dr Schreck reveals his true identity to his fellow travellers as the train pulls into their final destination. And with that, we are out after a brisk, vigorous and surprisingly rich-looking ninety-eight minutes. There are no longueurs in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, there isn’t time, and there’s not really a weak link here either. Off the back of this, Amicus must have known they’d got a winning hand, one they’d return to time and time again. Well, you know what they say, ‘if it ain’t broke…’