Saturday, May 1, 2010

Full of Secrets

THE SKULL (1965)

"Welcome to the Club!"; Ingrid Pitt plays leading lady Carla in The Cloak segment of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD.

TORTURE GARDEN and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD are two of seven horror anthologies produced by Amicus, and both have tales adapted from his own stories by Robert Block. A low-budget operation which was the most serious rival to Hammer during the 1960s and early 1970s, Amicus were officially a British company founded in 1961 by two Americans, creative force Milton Subotsky and financier Max J. Rosenberg. Amicus may mean friend in Latin, but by the time the company was dissolved in 1975, the relationship between the two producers was far from amicable. The biggest irony is that Subotsky and Rosenberg were indirectly responsible for Hammer making their breakthrough THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957, ushering in a generation of Technicolor horrors; Subotsky had written a script for a colour Frankenstein, which was bought by James Carreras and allegedly re-written by Jimmy Sangster.

A prime reason for Amicus to be lodged as a British company can be traced to the advantages of the Eady Levy, a government incentive passed in the 1950s to stimulate film production by which producers were paid a subsidy on percentage of box office. Not only is there conjecture of how British the company actually was, there is also the notion that Amicus didn't really make horror films per se; their softer outlook seems to tie in more with Subotsky's love of fantasy. The distinct Amicus character lays in Subotsky himself, who possessed a child-like innocence at odds with the cynicism of the film industry. Although the company milked the British connection in terms of actors, directors and technicians, their reliance on American material (such as the controversial EC Comics for TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR) and use of contemporary settings distanced the product from homegrown Gothique.

Directed by Peter Duffell, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD benefits from strong performances by Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Denholm Elliott.

Yet TORTURE GARDEN and particularly THE SKULL provide such a footing. TORTURE GARDEN is the name of a sideshow where Dr Diablo (Burgess Meredith) invites patrons backstage for further excitement. As each customer stares into the shears of fate held by Atropos (Clytie Jessop) - a fortune-telling mannequin - they become hypnotised and glimpse their ultimate fate. Four stories are revealed: the first, Enoch, sees a nephew (Michael Bryant) demanding to know where his uncle's stash of gold coins are hidden; the second, Terror Over Hollywood, has a struggling actress stymieing her roommate's date to meet a prominent Hollywood producer; the third, Mr Steinway, is about a killer piano; and in The Man Who Collected Poe, Jack Palance and Peter Cushing play competing Edgar Allan Poe fanatics.

Directed by Freddie Francis, TORTURE GARDEN is a turgid affair. Bloch had proposed that the film be called HORRORSCOPE, an effective moniker more apt than the redundant one chosen: Torture Garden comes from the decadent novel by French anarchist Octave Mirabeau published in 1898, a fact that irritated Bloch up until his death. The middle two stories are simply embarrassing: not only are we subjected to the most laughable Hollywood nightclub set, it is difficult to see how any filmmaker could successfully bring to screen a story where a woman is murdered by a piano. However Enoch is atmospheric, and The Man Who Collected Poe is a mini-masterpiece; the final revelation that Poe himself (Hedger Wallace) is lovingly preserved in a cobwebbed vault underneath Cushing's private museum presents Amicus with its most lasting Gothic image.

"Look deeply into the Shears of Fate!" A promotional gimmick for the film was to give away sachets of "fright seeds" so audiences could go home and plant their own TORTURE GARDEN.

Despite its lurid title, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is relatively anaemic. Following the disappearance of its current occupant - horror film star Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) - Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) discovers that the three previous owners of a house in the Home Counties have all come to unpleasant ends. The first story - Method For Murder - sees horror writer Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott) move into the house with his young wife to finish his latest novel. He is very proud of his creation - a psychotic strangler named Dominick - but becomes increasingly unnerved as he begins to see the killer making appearances in his everyday life. The second - Waxworks - has Philip Grayson (Peter Cushing) haunted by memories of the woman whom he loved and lost many years before. Sweets To The Sweet tells of stiff-backed disciplinarian John Reid (Christopher Lee), a father who is terrified that his small daughter Jane (Chloƫ Franks) may have inherited her dead mother's unsavoury hobbies, and in the final tale - the light-hearted The Cloak - Henderson arrives at the house as he prepares to appear in his latest film opus. Irritated at the low production values, the self-important actor declines the moth-eaten garment he is offered for his costume and insists on obtaining one of his own. Visiting an obscure costumier, he acquires a much more convincing item.

The four tales have differing tones that make the film entertaining but hackneyed. Elliott gives a bravura performance in the opening segment, and the unpredictable introductions of the grinning Dominick are genuinely unsettling. Waxworks is an overtly thin entry raised by Cushing's controlled evocation of loss and jealousy, Sweets to the Sweet is an effective family drama, and The Cloak is more amusing in outline than on screen.

For THE SKULL, director Freddie Francis and cameraman John Wilcox filmed the POV shots with a large prop cranium mounted in front of the lens, a trick Francis would repeat for THE CREEPING FLESH.

Based on Bloch's The Skull of the Marquis de Sade (published in the September 1945 issue of Weird Tales), THE SKULL is the crowning achievement of Amicus and the most accomplished of the many horror films directed by cinematographer Francis, as well as being the finest of the Cushing/Lee team-ups since their Hammer breakthroughs. The lengthy pre-credits sequence is set in the early 19th century, where a French phrenologist (Maurice Good) steals the head of the Marquis de Sade from his grave, intending to study its formation to prove that de Sade was not insane but rather possessed by an evil spirit. Jumping forward to modern day, against the advice of fellow collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee), occult writer Christopher Maitland (Cushing) adds the skull of de Sade to his collection, acquiring the item from seedy supplier Marco (Patrick Wymark). It is also ironic that with this film it was Amicus - rather than the risible Hammer attempts DRACULA, A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA - that succeeded in transposing Gothic horror to the present.

An exceptionally downbeat movie, THE SKULL portrays Maitland, Marco and Phillips living suffocating lives; neither Maitland or Phillips are practising students of the black arts, more armchair occultists cocooned in their own dark academia. Unusually - especially for the straight-laced Amicus - THE SKULL experiments with form: the third act is virtually silent, there is a surreal nightmare sequence, and shots are shown from the Skull's subjective point of view (actions viewed through hollow sockets, with inner bone aglow with an unnatural green hue). This fluid nature was imposed on Francis by trying to provide a feature-length film from a meagre Subotsky script only 53 pages in length, but the result is a marvel of production design and ingenuity.