Completely Forked! Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible

dr terribles house of horrible feature image

Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible

Completely Forked!

dr terribles house of horrible logo

words by Andrew Screen

“Hello. I’m Doctor Terrible, and welcome to my House of Horrible.”

Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible was a series of six half-hour spoof horror stories presented in anthology format complete with an aged host, the eponymous Doctor Terrible, who was evidently modelled on the various horror hosts through the ages. The character has been described as “the bald bastard offspring of Dennis Wheatley, Peter Wyngarde and Roald Dahl.[1]” The series was created by Graham Duff and co-written with Henry Normal and Steve Coogan who, under old-age prosthetics, played the flatulent Doctor Terrible as well as taking a leading role in each episode. Duff would also appear in four supporting roles in the series.

The series pastiches the rich history of Amicus, Tigon and Hammer films of the 60s and 70s as well as television anthology horror series of the period. The series title itself is also a knowing parody of the Amicus portmanteau Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). References to horror films pepper the storylines and clearly reflect Duff’s passion for the genre. After working on Dr. Terrible, Duff created and wrote the long-running BBC 3 comedy Ideal (2005 – 2011), starring Johnny Vegas as cannabis dealer Moz, and later created and wrote the Sky Arts horror/fantasy anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of H.G. Wells (2016).

Henry Normal, owner of the production company Baby Cow with Steve Coogan, recalled how the series came about: “Graham Duff, who lives in Brighton, and who we’d never met before, came in, and he put about three slices of paper on the table, and it said Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible on it, and it just sat there. And Steve picked it up one day, had a read, and started laughing… So there was a phone number on it, we phoned Graham, got him in, went to a café and had a little chat.[2]” The resulting series was filmed at Shepperton Studios over the summer of 2001 under the direction of Matt Lipsey who would go on to win a British Academy Television Award in 2005 for his work on the comedy series Little Britain. Henry Normal later commented on the problem of being an entirely studio-based production “Unfortunately it was quite an expensive programme; it cost about £450,000 an episode because we had to build sets. We built an entire forest indoors. Everything was indoors.[3]

Viewing figures started reasonably well with the first episode harvesting 2.5 million viewers, though ratings gradually slid downhill and ended with just 1.2 million viewers for the final instalment. This spelt the end of the possibility of a second series being commissioned despite Baby Cow devising plans for more episodes.

The series is an enjoyable diversion for fans of British horror films with a myriad number of references and jokes buried within each story. For example, the premiere episode, Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust (12th November 2001), pays tribute to Hammer films such as Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). Coogan appears as the character Captain Hans Brocken (groan!) who, whilst on holiday with his young wife, decides to stay at a gothic castle. Here they meet Countess Kronstein, played by Ronni Ancona and based upon Ingrid Pitt and her appearances in such British horror films as The Vampire Lovers (1970). Kronstein and her acolytes develop an unhealthy interest in Mrs Brocken. The cast also featured Bond girl Honor Blackman, who had appeared in the Hammer horror To the Devil a Daughter (1976), and comedy actor Ben Miller hamming it up with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Frenzy of the Tongs (19th November 2001) spoofed everything from the Hammer film Terror of the Tongs (1961) to the Tom Baker era Doctor Who adventure, The Talons of Weng Chiang (via Jason King). Coogan featured as gentleman adventurer Nathan Blaze who battles the Chinese master criminal Hang Man Chan[4] (Mark Gatiss) who is undoubtedly based on the Sax Rohmer creation Fu Manchu. Guest actor John Thomson’s character name, Sir Donald Tyburn, is derived from the short-lived British horror film company Tyburn Films. 

Some of the action takes place on Talon Street, a nod to Talons of Weng Chiang which featured a giant rat in the sewers below London. In this storyline, the rat is replaced with a giant crab rampaging around the London sewerage system. In the episode’s audio commentary on the DVD release, Gatiss remarks that he decided to play his role as if he and Nathan Blaze were former lovers. He goes on to explain the reasoning behind this decision was due to the fact that the relationship of a hero and villain is basically a romantic one – heroes need a villain in order to express their glory, whilst a villain requires a hero in order to have someone that they can defeat.

Curse of the Blood of the Lizard of Doom (26th November 2001) takes us into mad-scientist territory with Doctor Donald Baxter (Coogan) exploiting the regenerative powers of lizards to treat burn victims, with dire consequences. Graham Crowden’s character name, Professor MacLewton, is a nod to the horror film producer Val Lewton, and the character Nurse MacReedy may be a (misspelt) tribute to Kurt Russell’s character in The Thing (1982).

Now The Fearing (3rd December 2001) spoofed the Amicus portmanteau film The Vault of Horror (1973) with three people in new high rise development Amicus Towers trapped in a lift. To pass the time, they describe their recent nightmares including a killer coffee table and gypsy curses. Amicus Towers is a obviously named after production company Amicus. Sheila Keith, who portrays the old gypsy woman, was a stalwart of 1970s British horror films and her words in the episode are inspired by her dialogue in the film Frightmare (1974). The cast also features 1970s heartthrob Oliver Tobias in the segment that features a killer coffee table taken from the equally ludicrous story featuring a murderous piano in the Amicus portmanteau Torture Garden (1967). The table is collectable because it is a Carreras coffee table – a none-too-subtle name check of Hammer films producer Michael Carreras. Equally, Tobias’ character name, Milton Rosenberg, is derived from the names of the owners of Amicus films, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg.

Voodoo Feet of Death (10th December 2001) spoofed The Hands of Orlac (1924 and 1960) when a famous ballroom dancer (Coogan) loses his feet in an accident with a giant pair of scissors. Following a double foot transplant, he quickly discovers they have a murderous mind of their own. The episode also threw into the mix elements from the Dr Terror’s House of Horrors segment which featured Roy Castle as a musician who steals a secret voodoo song and suffers the consequences. The cast also featured Tom Bell and Tim Piggot-Smith. If you enjoy puns about feet then this is the episode for you! Also, keeps your ears open for the voodoo priest who states, “My name is… unimportant”, followed by a shot of his passport which eagle-eyed viewers might notice the name, Unim Pawtant. He apparently has a brother called Mosim…

Scream Satan Scream! (17th December 2001) Took satirical swipes at Witchfinder General (1968), Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Mark of the Devil (1970). Witchfinder Captain Tobias Slater (Coogan) traverses the country accusing young women of witchcraft and in order to avoid burning at the stake, they must sleep with him. Then he runs across a real coven of witches. Warwick Davis appears as Slater’s mute assistant Tygon (named so after the British horror film production company) whilst the witches are played by Julie T. Wallace and Angela Pleasance, daughter of actor Donald Pleasance, who both appeared in the British horror anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1974).

The series also had issues with its episode order. Now the Fearing was originally intended to be the first episode, but the then controller of BBC 2, Jane Root, insisted on the Lesbian Vampire Killers episode as episode one, which Henry Normal felt led to the series to be misunderstood and unfairly criticised. Normal recently revealed that an entire second series was planned. “We actually wrote a second series. There was some great stuff in that: ‘Cannibal Brothel of Shame’. That was my favourite one! Steve played a hunchback detective. [5]” After Dr Terrible ended Graham Duff continued to work with Baby Cow and also scripted the science fiction comedy series Nebulous for BBC radio which starred Mark Gatiss. The company tried for several years to get a television version of this show made, but it never got off the ground.

Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrors is an enjoyable and affectionate spoof of horror anthologies which is worth seeking out if you have never seen it, especially if you know the source material being spoofed. Though to some viewers, the combination of horror and very silly humour loaded with double entendres may have been too much. Indeed, to quote Dr Terrible at the end of each episode, they may decide, “That was truly diabolical.”

Sources:

[1] “Never Eat Your Own Chin! An Interview with Henry Normal” by Martin Jones, Bedabbled, May 2019, page 44

[2] “Never Eat Your Own Chin! An Interview with Henry Normal” by Martin Jones, Bedabbled, May 2019, page 44

[3] “Never Eat Your Own Chin! An Interview with Henry Normal” by Martin Jones, Bedabbled, May 2019, page 47

[4] Or to give his full title – Hang Man Chan, Sinister Bony-Fingered Menace of the East and Would-be Emperor Of The Free World, and his daughter Woo-Woo.

[5] “Never Eat Your Own Chin! An Interview with Henry Normal” by Martin Jones, Bedabbled, May 2019, page 47

Andrew Screen

Andrew Screen

Writer on things film & TV by night, author of The Book of Beasts, an official guide to the Nigel Kneale series, (coming soon). SEN practitioner by day.

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