Dr Terror's House of Horrors Blu-ray Review
Five men. One train carriage. No coincidence.
All aboard the train to oblivion. One-way tickets only!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. Freddie Francis directs with style and economy and his film looks utterly gorgeous and spellbinding. He achieves that fragile balancing-act between horror and comedy, maintaining a sense of dark foreboding throughout. The twist is hardly a shocker, but the payoff remains sublimely brilliant. Frightful fun.
Picture QualityOdeon present this insidiously delightful smorgasbord of the sinister and the supernatural with some considerable panache.
The image is a lustrously expansive 2.35:1. Having undergone restoration at Pinewood – although I have no notes on the sources used – the film’s original 2-perf Techniscope image has been brought to Blu-ray and it looks incredible. With gorgeous fidelity consistently capturing the fabulous lighting and impeccable art direction, inky deep shadows and highly rewarding levels of detail, this is a tremendous effort all-round. There is a natural veneer of grain and even if faces can look waxy (especially Christopher Lee’s) there is actually no evidence of over-zealous DNR having taken place. There are no digital gremlins worth mentioning and age-related damage takes the form of a discoloured vertical line that appears for a very brief spell over towards the left-hand side of the frame. Otherwise, this 1965 film looks gloriously fresh and clean.
I know that Olive released an edition of the film over in the States, but I have not seen their transfer and cannot, therefore, compare the two. But I testify that this one, from Odeon, is extremely strong in the all the right places.
Director Freddie Francis and his cinematographer Alan Hume crafted quite an intensely visual tour de force for this first Amicus anthology. The colour scheme is straight out of Roger Corman, by way of Mario Bava. The image drips with cool blues, radiant reds, eerie greens, vivid yellows. Of particular note is the spectral blue seen through the train window behind Christopher Lee – it looks beautiful. Then there is the garish artwork that a crafty Michael Gough uses to destroy the credibility of his nemesis in Christopher Lee – richly bright, luxuriant and deep. Even the tartan on Katy Wild’s dress in Werewolf looks resplendent and detailed – Ancient Mackenzie, if I’m not mistaken! (I wear a kilt every day and this is, by far, my favourite tartan.)
Skin tones are not realistic, but they are completely consistent with those seen in other genre pictures from this period – all down to the makeup and the lighting. As I said earlier, Lee’s face always looks smoother than anybody else’s, and perhaps a tad yellower too. Don’t know why ... but this is surely accurate to the source. What little blood there is in the film is actually more pinkish in tone than red but, again, this isn’t a fault of the transfer but rather a result of the blood mix that was used by Hammer-regular Roy Ashton. Producer Subotsky didn’t relish the claret as much as the Hammer boys, so I suspect that even though fleetingly seen, his gore is deliberately watered-down.
Clarity and definition are excellent. I hate the term “robust” – it has now taken on a political jargon aspect that, in that context, tends to mean, sadly, nothing at all – but it certainly describes the image seen here. Occasional shots may appear slightly softer than others, but the picture is always colourful, always deep and always highly resolved.
The film’s original 2-perf Techniscope image has been brought to Blu-ray and it looks incredible
The excellent detail on offer does, however, make the seam in the severed hand prop rather too apparent, I’m afraid. Though, if you are true fan, this can only endear the film to you all the more. From clothes to set design, and from tiny puncture wounds on the neck to the intricate brush strokes on modern art canvases, this transfer delivers. But for proof of how exacting and precise it is you need look no further than Peter Cushing’s Schreck visage. Feral and demonic eyebrows and unkempt wispy grey whiskers are marvellously captured with finite precision. His eyes sparkle with mischief and fine lines and wrinkles transform his face into a map of inescapable fate with absolute clarity and distinction. Everybody else is equally well-catered for, of course, but it is just that Cushing’s baleful stare and fascinating appearance are the most bewitching, and totally warrant studious appreciation.
I found the image to be quite three-dimensional too. And for a low-budget, shot-quickly 60’s genre flick this is something of a revelation. Again, the original photography obviously helps, and I am once more reminded of the gothic chillers from Corman and Bava.
The search of a cellar-cum-tomb in Werewolf becomes all the more menacing as a result of this distinct depth, a lupine effigy looming through a hole in a cobwebbed wall . A Creeping Vine that comes reaching through a window behind its intended victim and a Disembodied Hand crawling along the top of a car seat behind an equally unsuspecting target gain considerable visual impact from this impressive sense of dimensionality. And the same goes for the jazz club scenes in Voodoo and the sight of Roy Castle’s impetuous Biff Bailey spying on a ritual ceremony in a quite effectively dressed jungle set – all providing a sense of a depth and spatiality that the majority of British genre films from the time would have flattened out without a care. Even the cramped confines of the train compartment, already something of a bizarre battleground of wits and wills between the mysterious Dr. Schreck and his reluctant travelling companions, becomes wider, deeper and more spacious, allowing the wondrous camera movements and angles ample room to breathe. Shock reveals of hairy fingers and claws and a charred hand, as well as blood smearing a sharp letter opener come through vividly, gaining vigour from the dimensionality.
Contrast is top-notch. Black levels are equally pleasing, and provide some truly wonderful shadows that are not compromised or diluted by grey infiltration, and remain strong. These, again, aid the sense of visual depth and supply no small measure of additional atmosphere. In a film that features many directorial and photographic embellishments, it is pleasing to see that the transfer holds up so well. In fact, there was only one instance where I noticed, during an otherwise sublime tracking shot, some juddering blurring of finite background detail as the camera moved. I have to say that Odeon have done a wonderful job with this.
Odeon present the movie with a surprisingly enjoyable LPCM 2.0 audio track.
With screams, gunshots, lashing vines, pulsating 60’s jazz and pounding voodoo drums, rumbling trains, storms and crashing vehicles, this is a pretty hectic soundtrack.
The audio transfer proves to be no slouch and captures all of this with a very pleasing degree of clarity. Elizabeth Lutyen’s score gets plenty of dynamism to lend it gravitas and suspense. And Roy Castle’s supremely jazzy section benefits from great depth and instrumental clarity. Kenny Lynch waggles his tonsils in a couple of songs and this episode, as a result, is all very catchy and toe-tappingly well reproduced.
Voodoo also employs some wild and spooky wind effects, as well as clattering bins and slamming windows. The disc delivers these effects with gusto. Distant howling can be heard in Werewolf, and there are some fine slithery effects heard in Creeping Vine. I also like the vicious snapping sound when the monstrous plant suddenly yanks the shears from Freeman’s hands and hurls them across the garden.
Dialogue never suffers from drop outs or volume wavering, and is consistently rendered. There are some varied accents on offer. Castle attemptsWest Indian with hilariously naff (and non-PC results), McCallum (a Canadian) twists and turns through a Scottish brogue, Sutherland (another Canadian) maintains his lazy North American drawl, Freeman (an Australian) is just as syrupy as he was on the radio, Lee trots out his brittle aristocracy with sneering aplomb and Cushing ... well, Cushing affects that marvellously imprecise but mysteriously lulling Eastern European lilt that he would take a step too far in Amicus’ terrific werewolf whodunit, The Beast Must Die (Blu-ray soon, please!). The audio is clean and clear and allows you to enjoy all of this amusing variety of lingos without any age-related hiccup.
Even with the film’s vintage and obvious limitations, I had a blast with this track. The film felt alive and buoyant.
ExtrasThis limited edition steelbook looks incredible, with the packaging boasting phenomenal artwork.
We have a documentary that should be very familiar to horror fans already in Christopher Lee – Legend of British Stage and Screen. Notes on the film, itself, from Johnny Mains, in a nicely illustrated booklet (there are a few errors in the text, and Mains can be strangely disparaging about the film he should be promoting) add to the lavish appeal of this release. But the real gems here are the commentary and the 57-minute retrospective from Jake West that looks back very fondly upon the first horror anthology from Amicus.
The commentary track features director Freddie Francis with Jonathan Sothcott asking the questions and prompting the old boy for reminiscences that aren’t always forthcoming. Whilst it is perfectly understandable that Francis who was, by this time, in his late 80’s, will have forgotten much of the production, it does lead for a slightly frustrating experience when his moderator appears to know more about the film, and others in the director/photographer’s canon, than the great man himself. Still, there is much reward in this track, even if Francis does occasionally talk down at the lower class of filmmaking that is low budget horror.
Much better is the hour-long retrospective, entitled House of Cards, which brings in the likes of Jonathan Rigby, Reece Shearsmith, Kevin Lyons and the BFI’s archivist Josephine Botting. All offer terrific thoughts and insight into the film and the style and format that Subotsky and Amicus were endeavouring to create. Rigby is always excellent. I wish he had provided a separate commentary alongside the likes of Alan Jones or, especially, Kim Newman. Botting, too, proves to be erudite, witty and highly knowledgeable. Linked with clips from the film, this is a great feature that can only enhance your pleasure of the movie, itself.
Finally, the disc offers us an image gallery.
Steelbook Blu-ray VerdictDr. 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.
This is one of the most fondly recalled films from out of the Amicus stable and it holds up extremely well today.
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.
Odeon’s limited edition release is an excellent one. The transfer, both video and audio, is fabulous, and the extras are solid and entertaining. This is one of the most fondly recalled films from out of the Amicus stable and it holds up extremely well today. Very highly recommended indeed!
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £16.99
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