Five men. One train carriage. No coincidence.
Amicus, the champions of the horror anthology, made quite an impact with this, the first of their ghoulish portmanteaus, and set the template for what would become a successful and long-running series. Five complete strangers board a train but find their journey takes a bizarre and uncanny twist when a sixth passenger joins their compartment, the mysterious Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing), who then begins to tell their fortunes with the aid of a pack of Tarot cards, his so-called “House of Horrors”.
In turn, the travellers hear of the weird and deadly fate that possibly awaits them, each one tainted by the supernatural and wreathed with menace, eerie vignettes that help pass the time. Neil McCallum encounters werewolfry on a remote Scottish island. DJ Alan “Fluff” Freeman learns of a horticultural pest that will plague his household. Trumpet-wielding Roy Castle discovers that stealing a voodoo rhythm will have deeply dark consequences. Christopher Lee’s pompous art critic is forced to rethink his arrogant stance when he becomes haunted and harassed by the latest victim of his snobbery. And a young Donald Sutherland may have vampiric cause for concern regarding his desire for marriage to a beautiful French damsel.
Dr. Terror’s is possibly my own personal favourite portmanteau horror picture, and certainly my most beloved from the Amicus stable. It gets the blend of chills and fun just right and it serves up a terrific gamut of classic dark flavours. We have werewolves and vampires, vengeful supernatural hands, voodoo and a rampaging triffid to contend with upon this train-ride to oblivion. And boosting this fulsome broth of the macabre is a cast of both genre royalty and charismatic newcomers, stylish photography and economically inspired direction, all coming together to craft a redoubtable anthology that creeps and giggles along with the viewer.
Some mock DJ Alan Freeman’s wooden performance, and the rascally hyper-activity of Roy Castle, but I have no problem at all with them. The latter, especially, I find very effective as the rhythm-pinching jazz maestro who incurs the wrath of an embittered voodoo god, perfectly capturing the spirited sense of spectral tribal retribution in this calypso-tinged nightmare.
Francis directs with the style you would expect from an Oscar-winning cinematographer, ensuring that Alan Hume’s camera savours every single frame, and that we, in turn, can delight in the incredible Bava-nudging lighting scheme and Hammer-rivalling set design. Critics seem united in the belief that Amicus honcho Milton Subotsky would perfect this formula over the following productions and peaking with Tales From The Crypt and Asylum, but I genuinely think that Dr. Terror’s is the most consistently entertaining.
Even the weaker instalments of Creeping Vine and Vampire contain moments of exquisite inventiveness that totally justify their inclusion and their praise. Little Sarah (now Phoebe) Nicholls breaks my heart every time she laments the death of her dog, Rusty, in Creeping Vine, delivering a surprisingly powerful mini-performance that steals the show from the likes of Bernard Lee and Jeremy Kemp, who, it should be noted, must get some extra kudos for playing dead on-camera with a wild expression of terror on his face for seemingly ages. And even if Donald Sutherland gets the rather limp role of an easily-manipulated husband to an exotic French bloodsucker in Vampire , this is more than appeased with the flourish that Max Adrian brings to the role of his all-too “knowledgeable” colleague. It’s theatrical, to be sure, but it fits the mood perfectly.
The other stories are superior, of course. Snobbish art-critic Christopher Lee’s psychological warfare with Michael Gough’s determinedly wrathful painter may draw influence from The Beast With Five Fingers, but Disembodied Hand reveals a haunted and terrified side to Lee’s usually so regal and arrogant demeanour. It is clear just how much both he and the awesome Gough are enjoying themselves, too. Castle’s foolish theft from Haiti brings colour and excitement to the collection and even when he delivers a completely wrong West Indian accent (he actually does a very good Indian one by mistake) and ignores all the advice from friends and the eerie evidence that something foul is pursuing him, you still warm to him and his self-inflicted predicament.
And yet, for me, the most impressive tale is actually the first, in which Neil McCallum’s architect returns to his ancestral home on a Hebridean island and enters a gothic world of lycanthropy from beyond the grave. Brilliantly filmed and directed with serious suspense, this has all the mystery and menace you could want from a twenty-minute escapade on the dark and hairy side of ghastly folklore. Plus, it has the sexy Ursula Howells (aptly named, of course) as the elegant widow who now resides in the isolated mansion, and the supremely countenanced and disturbingly decorative Peter Madden as the faithful groundsman forever gawping out of the gloom.
But these episodes would all be mere whispers in the wind were it not for Peter Cushing’s perfectly pitched portrayal of the five men’s unwanted travelling companion, Dr. Schreck. Toying with an accent, himself, Cushing revels in his ominous characterisation. Polite and cordial he may be ... but those eyes and that peculiarly methodical mannerism hint at a powerful otherworldliness that neatly reverse the threat level that normally exists between him and his friend, Christopher Lee.
This is one of the most fondly recalled films from the Amicus stable and it holds up extremely well today.
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