The House That Dripped Blood
1971 / Peter Duffell
At the end of The House That Dripped Blood (UK, Peter Duffell, 1971), realtor A. J. Stoker (John Bryans) breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. He ponders whether we have finally understood the secret of the titular house and suggests that perhaps one of us would be a suitable tenant.
It’s a humorous sting in the tail for the portmanteau film (the third such anthology Amicus had produced at that point), though some may wonder why the film didn’t end with the vampiric slaying of Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) a few moments earlier. Surely, for a horror film, that would have been more thematically satisfying.
Yet The House That Dripped Blood is an ironically bloodless, though no less effective picture. Perhaps more than any Amicus anthology, it keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, playing out more like a pantomime at times than a genuine attempt to scare the audience.
So inoffensive was the film on its release in 1971, that the BBFC initially rated it an A (equivalent to a PG rating today), although they changed this to an X certificate after the distributors lobbied them, claiming that Amicus fans would be put off by the family-friendly certification. This was just at the beginning of the BBFC’s most controversial and moralistic period, with films such as Straw Dogs (US, Sam Peckinpah, 1971) and The Needle in Panic Park (US, Jerry Schatzberg, 1971) both being banned outright in the same year, and various films released throughout the 1970s and 1980s found their way onto the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) list of video nasties in 1983.
Even by the standards of British horror at the time, The House That Dripped Blood feels remarkably tame. This was the same year that The Blood on Satan’s Claw (UK, Piers Haggard, 1971) was released, and when Hammer would churn out Countess Dracula (UK, Peter Sasdy, 1971), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1971) and Hands of the Ripper (UK, Peter Sasdy, 1971), which all offered more in terms of blood and sex.
Yet from the beginning, it’s clear that The House That Dripped Blood has no interest in pushing the limits of good taste in the same way that some contemporaries were. In his memoir I am the Doctor: Jon Pertwee’s Final Memoir (Jon Pertwee, David J. Howe, 1996), Jon Pertwee claimed that Peter Duffell had envisioned it as a comedy-horror, and more than half of the film (assuming Pertwee’s starring segment ‘The Cloak’) had been made when an unnamed producer ‘went mad’. ‘We’re supposed to be making a horror picture and you’re here making a comedy! Stop it! Cut it all out.’(1)
‘The Cloak’ is undoubtedly the most comedic of the four tales told in the film (five if you include the interwoven story ‘Framework’, in which Inspector Holloway is told the various tales of woe that have befallen each of the tenants). Pertwee is in particularly hammy form as the veteran horror actor Paul Henderson, who is turned into a vampire by his cloak, and Robert Bloch’s script is full of cheeky nods to various horror cornerstones. At one point Henderson says he prefers Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula, instead of the fellow who plays him now – a dig at co-star Christopher Lee’s performances in the long-running Hammer franchise. Pertwee also claims to have based Henderson on Lee.
These not-so-subtle references are just part of The House That Dripped Blood’s efforts to draw in and entertain, if not exactly scare, the knowledgeable genre fan. Having Bloch adapt his own stories, previously published in the Weird Tales and Unknown anthologies, would appeal to a particular purveyor of genre fiction – those who had grown up reading pulp magazines and followed television serials such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (CBS/NBC, Alfred Hitchcock), Doctor Who (BBC, Sydney Newman) and Star Trek (NBC, Gene Roddenberry).
‘Waxworks’, the second narrative in the film, starring Peter Cushing, represented the second time Bloch had adapted the story for screen. It had previously been used for an episode of the American anthology series Thriller (NBC, Hubbell Robinson), shown in 1962, starring Oskar Homolka and Martin Kosleck and directed by Herschel Daugherty.
Of course, the casting plays a part in this. Pertwee was a year into his definitive role as Doctor Who and would have been well-known to the audience. Cushing and Christopher Lee (who leads the third story ‘Sweets to the Sweet’) would need no introduction at this point following their legendary runs with the Hammer Films studio. Even Denholm Elliott (who stars in the first story ‘Method for Murder’) had been a frequent face in various films and television productions, although the peak of his stardom would a decade later as Dr. Marcus Brody in Raiders of the Lost Ark (US, Steven Spielberg, 1981). Even members of the supporting cast add to this feeling of fan service – notably Ingrid Pitt who was just beginning her run with Hammer at the time.
Having already looked at ‘The Cloak’, we’ll take the rest of the stories in chronological order. The opening short ‘Method for Murder’ might not have the same comedy leanings as ‘The Cloak’, but it amps up the audience participation. Bloch is verging on meta-form with the main character Charles Hillyer (Elliot), a murder-mystery writer who moves into the titular house with his wife Alice.
Hillyer gets a sudden burst of inspiration just a few days after moving into the house and imagines Dominic, a psychopathic strangler who laughs as he murders his victims. Things go awry when Hillyer starts seeing Dominic (Tom Adams) on the grounds of the house. It’s pure pantomime from this point, with Dominic appearing at various points, almost urging the audience to cry out ‘he’s behind you!’
It’s marred by a hockey ending, with some poor makeup (even for the time), but if any story could prepare the audience for this mix of laughs and thrills, ‘Method for Murder’ is the one to do it.
The next two stories subvert expectations. ‘Waxworks’ takes a far more serious tone, with a brilliant, introspective performance from Cushing, in contrast to some of the more ruthless or heroic roles he’d taken for Hammer by this point. The sombre tone means that this one has the least in the way of winks and nods to the audience, although they will no doubt chuckle at the idea of a gaudy wax museum prominently situated in the centre of this quaint village, and little is done to hide the ‘twist’.
There’s more subversion of roles in ‘Sweets to the Sweet’, with Christopher Lee playing a widower John Reid who is purposefully keeping his daughter Jane (Chloe Franks) in solitude, and with good reason as it turns out. There’s something endearing about seeing Lee gradually shrink into the backdrop of this story, from the imposing and stern father to a man bedridden and terrified.
It’s probably the most interesting of the shorts presented in The House That Dripped Blood, and one which is a genuinely unsettling conceit. One that taps into another central theme of the film – although ‘Waxworks’ notably falls outside of this.
The in-jokes and narratives throughout play into variations of the idea that we become what we do.
In ‘Method for Murder’, Hillyer has spent his career creating violent killers and helpless victims, only to become a victim himself. More pointedly, it’s revealed that the Dominic he’s been seeing around the property is his wife’s lover, Richard. In the closing moments, Richard, a failed actor, has become so wrapped up in the role of Dominic that he murders the wife as well.
For Lee’s character in ‘Sweets to the Sweet’, his greatest fear is that his daughter will become a witch like her deceased mother and so he isolates her and forbids her from reading certain books or playing with toys. His efforts are for nought, as her bitterness and curiosity lead to her making a voodoo doll and dispatching her father at the end of the story.
‘The Cloak’ is the most on the nose with this, as it is in nearly all aspects, although the joke would probably have worked better with a more iconic horror actor in the role of Henderson. Our lead character has played vampires for most of his career and insists on a certain level of accuracy in his films. This is what prompts his search for a more appropriate cloak, which leads to him becoming a vampire himself.
While the four main segments of The House That Dripped Blood sometimes vary in their ability to wink at the audience, ‘Framework’, the overarching narrative, is used to put them back into the forefront of the film. Inspector Holloway acts as a surrogate for the viewer, disbelieving the tall tales being told to him by Sergeant Martin (John Malcolm) and later the realtor. You could view the Sargeant as the local – that long-running horror trope, warning the leads not to go there, or not to disturb that.
When we loop back around to the realtor, who appears in every segment of the film, we see that he is not just a guide for the characters but a guide for the audience as well. He is many ways the director of the piece, a comment on the horror industry that was at its peak, providing new terrors for audiences on a regular basis. Despite showing us the calamities that the House can invoke on its occupants, he goads the audience at the end.
‘There is nothing to fear, provided you’re the right sort of person.’
(1) I am the Doctor: Jon Pertwee’s Final Memoir (Jon Pertwee, David J. Howe, 1996) P43-44