Thursday, March 1, 2012

House of the Uncanny


The Protagonist is revealed as Death himself in the climax of

GESTATING from a proposed television series to be hosted by Boris Karloff, DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS - Amicus' first anthology - has dated badly. Despite a title that suggests a haunted house or wax museum setting, the framing device actually takes place in a train. Five men are thrown together - apparently by chance - into a railway carriage where they are joined by Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing), who offers to read their futures as prophesied by a tarot deck, his House of Horrors. Each of the five stories are based on horror archetypes: Werewolf deals with Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum), a young architect uncovering the tomb of Count Valdemar, who has cursed the descendants of the man who killed him; The Creeping Vine is the tale of Bill Rogers (Alan Freeman) and a sentient plant; Voodoo has jazz musician Biff Bailey (Roy Castle) visiting the West Indies and stealing the beat of black magic; Disembodied Hand sees painter Eric Landor (Michael Gough) persecuted by Brian Sewellesque art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee); and Vampire tells of Dr Bob Carroll (Donald Sutherland), attempting to set up a surgery in a small town where there is a blood-sucker on the loose.

Opening with Schreck enquiring "room for one more in here?" - a direct reference to the Hearse Driver segment of Ealing's seminal portmanteau DEAD OF NIGHT - the stories are unintentionally funny and predictable, subscribing to Amicus co-founder and scriptwriter Milton Subotsky's child-like view of horror. Although there are virtually no exterior establishing shots, Francis' staging and Alan Hume's photography manage to convey some atmosphere and suspense, but DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS is notorious for the Voodoo section. A direct steal from Cornell Woolrich's short story Papa Benjamin, everything about the foreign locale is presented as sinister, with White represented as normal while black – with the exception of cockney Kenny Lynch – portrayed as the dangerous other. In contrast, the Disembodied Hand's scenes between Lee and Gough - playing together for the first time since DRACULA - are immensely entertaining, and this story also benefits from Landor's genuinely unnerving severed digits (an Amicus favourite).

"Cats aren't always cute and cuddly!" Felines are pure evil and the true masters of the world, according to Denis Heroux's THE UNCANNY. This Italian A sheet poster is more striking than anything in the film.

By 1977, the anthology format was not so much faltering but on life support. THE UNCANNY is a batty British/Canadian production co-produced by Subotsky. The film begins with writer Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) convinced that cats are taking over, and presents a manuscript to his publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland). This leads to three tales illustrating Gray's claims: the first ("London, 1912") involves Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood), who bequeaths her fortune to her cats only for the felines to wreak vengeance when a maid and son conspire to steal her fortune; the second ("Quebec Province 1975") is a black magic story of an orphaned girl whose cat is bullied by her new family; and the final segment ("Hollywood, 1936") has horror star Valentine De'ath (Donald Pleasence) killing his wife with the help of his mistress Edina (Samantha Eggar), only to be menaced by the dead woman's cat. Bookmarked by two pretentious quotes, its all gloriously idiotic, and ends on a memorable shot of Gray's eerie breath, lying dead after being ravaged by his tormentors.