From Beyond The Grave
1974 / Kevin Connor
Amicus has always been a crueller studio than Hammer. I consumed so much horror in my youth and nothing gave me the unsettling feeling that Amicus did. Hammer Horror has some beautifully subversive, blackly comic moments, but by and large, they follow fairly traditional narrative beats. By the end, evil has been vanquished, (be it Dracula or Frankenstein) and some form of order has been restored.
Amicus films are different. Especially in the portmanteau horror films, there is a gleeful malevolence to the way the erstwhile heroes are treated that lingers with you long after the film has ended. The way this is accomplished is by making the leads the most venal, selfish characters in British horror.
There’s a running theme through all the portmanteau works of characters receiving their just desserts. Often though, this is doled out by a seemingly all-knowing figure in the wrap-around story, be it Ralph Richardson’s Crypt Keeper or Peter Cushing’s Dr Terror. In both of these, the cryptic figure tells his captive audience cautionary tales about what will happen to them if they continue down the path they are headed on. Of course, the rug pull at the end is that it’s already too late, and they are all doomed.
Nowhere is this moral judgement more clear than in Kevin Connor’s From Beyond The Grave (UK, 1974), the last and best of the seven Amicus anthology films. Based on the work of Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, the framing story of From Beyond The Grave isn’t as memorable as Asylum (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1972) which might feature the greatest wraparound story of all the portmanteau films, but one that is satisfyingly macabre nonetheless. Peter Cushing plays the mild-mannered shopkeeper who stocks curiosities in his shop which serve as the basis of each of the horror stories that comprise the film, each of which is kicked off by someone taking advantage of his apparently kindly nature.
Cushing’s roles in Amicus were far more interesting than the more traditional parts he took in Hammer, where he would invariably end up in the Frankenstein or Van Helsing roles. In Amicus films he was almost always a bit player, but one who would nearly always steal the film. His turn in Asylum as a mourning father driven to madness, and his performance as a kindly old man in Tales From The Crypt (UK, Freddie Francis, 1972), prove the most memorable of these films. The antique dealer he plays in From Beyond The Grave is another one of these, a quiet performance that anchors the entire film. He isn’t a malevolent force, as in Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (UK, Freddie Francis, 1965), or Ralph Richardson in Tales From The Crypt. He’s a mournful presence, who sadly watches as his charges make the beds they will lie in. In the scene where Ian Bannen steals the medal, Cushing doesn’t play it as angry, he just mutters “Naughty… shouldn’t have done that.” Almost as if he regrets what is about to befall Bannen. At the same time, Cushing does a brilliant job of making his character uncannily ethereal. The slow zoom on his watchful eye as he sees Ian Carmichael switching the price tags on a snuff box is genuinely eerie, and reminiscent of similar moments in the Dr Phibes films.
The unique selling point of portmanteau horror films is the fact that even if one of the stories is a misfire, there will be another one just around the corner that will likely be better. From Beyond The Grave is that rare thing, a horror anthology with no dud instalments. Each of the four stories has its own unique aesthetic, and each haunting in its own distinct way.
The first story, ‘The Gatecrasher‘, might be my favourite of the lot; an eerie tale that consciously echoes Dead Of Night (UK, Alberto Cavalcanti, etc., 1945) in its use of a supernatural mirror. David Warner plays the customer who dishonestly haggles Cushing down to paying a pittance for a valuable antique mirror. Warner is great at playing this kind of callous insouciance, and his casual suggestion to hold a seance (with the memorable line “It’s seance time!”) is all too plausible. Of course, this doesn’t end well for him as his call to the other side summons a sinister and hungry apparition who demands human sacrifices. The spirit’s chilling claim that “We are legion. We sit in high places and fan discord” could easily have been an inspiration for William Peter Blatty when writing Exorcist III (US, William Peter Blatty, 1990).
‘An Act Of Kindness‘ is the most interesting story in the film, as Ian Bannen’s mild-mannered ex-soldier butts heads with his domineering wife (Diana Dors), and is tempted into stealing an army medal for valour when he encounters another veteran on the street (Donald Pleasence). Taking a special interest in Bannen, Pleasence invites him home to meet his daughter (his real-life daughter, Angela Pleasance) and the two of them slowly offer to rid him of his marital woes. The overwhelming feeling at the end of this one is sadness though. For all his faults, Bannen doesn’t play his character as villainous, just weak. He’s been dominated by his wife for so long, he just wanted to impress someone. The casting of the Pleasences adds an extra dollop of creepiness to this story. The twist comes out of nowhere but the final shock still lands, even if the effect leaves a bit to be desired.
Every portmanteau horror has a duff comedy instalment. This is a truism dating back to the gold standard of anthology horror, Dead Of Night. It seems like The Elemental will be the equivalent here, a fairly light-hearted spoof of Blithe Spirit, complete with a doddery old medium (Margaret Leighton – doing a direct parody of Margaret Rutherford’s Madame Arcaty) who notices a malevolent spirit, or “elemental” on the shoulder of pompous Ian Carmichael. It’s largely played for laughs, but there are a handful of chilling moments that make it impossible to dismiss as just a joke. One creepy scene feels like a darker progression of the “whose hand was I holding?” scene from The Haunting (UK, Robert Wise, 1963), while the demon’s final departure from the cottage is almost Evil Dead-like in its imagery.
‘The Door‘ is the final story and the odd one out of the bunch, with Ian Ogilvy’s friendly writer an instant curative to the petty, venal men who have thus far dominated the film. He’s immediately more sympathetic, appearing earnest and likeable, despite haggling with Cushing for the ornate door he wants for his new house. When he opens the door though, he sees an entirely different house on the other side. It transpires that the door is possessed by the man who built it, Sir Michael Sinclair (Jack Watson), a sadistic occultist who has designs on the souls of Ogilvy and his young wife (Lesley Ann-Down). The climax of this one is particularly memorable, as Ogilvy breaks Sinclair’s spell over his wife by hacking the door to pieces with an axe. With each blow of the axe, the door bleeds, and the apparition of Sinclair is cut into pieces.
All the lead actors do a great job of quickly establishing their character flaws. Warner is instantly callous, living such a hedonistic lifestyle that casually holding a seance is entirely in character; Bannen enters the story cowed and wincing, emasculated and shamed by his uneventful past in the army; and Carmichael is a pompous, self-important toff who refuses to believe in the ravings of the eccentric medium. Whether or not they deserve their fate is up for debate. Bannen’s character in particular seems a sympathetic sort, whose fate is disproportionately cruel – his primary sin seems to be his weakness and indecision. Even when pressed, he can only passively agree to murder his wife, and even then he isn’t convinced it will really happen.
It’s a tricky balancing act – if the characters are too likeable then there is no enjoyment in their downfall, but if they are too cartoonishly evil then there is no drama, and no appealing to the more sadistic side of the audience (something Amicus audiences have in spades). Bannen is the most obvious example of this, but both Carmichael and Warner have moments where they elicit sympathy from the audience, even if they’re not exactly likeable.
The link between the characters’ actions and their eventual fate is made most obvious in the final segment, where Cushing suspects that Ogilvy has stolen money from the till. Connor cuts between Ogilvy’s fight with the evil Sinclair and Cushing counting the money. Only when he finds all the money accounted for does Ogilvy triumph. He’s a good man, so he is permitted to live. Just as moral failings are punished, honesty is rewarded.
From Beyond The Grave is the most memorable of the Amicus portmanteau films for a number of reasons – the striking cinematography, the macabre stories, and the incredibly authentic performances. But what sticks in the memory is the way the moral judgement is brought to bear on its protagonists. It remains the purest distillation of the idea that if you commit a moral transgression, you die. Other Amicus films have some kind of dramatic irony or have some connection between the protagonist and their grisly fate. Here there is only the vaguest link between their moral failings. The eventual transgressions they commit are fairly mild, but condemn them all the same. And what do they do to earn their grisly deaths? They cheat sweet old Peter Cushing out of a few quid.