I’ve been wading through a lot of horror dross recently (for reasons which will become clear later in the year) so thankfully the forthcoming Blu Ray release of the digitally remastered “Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors” gave me a perfect chance to clear my movie palate.
From legendary British Horror Studio Amicus (often unfairly overshadowed by the more strident Hammer Studios), “Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors” is a colourful, classy and richly indulgent slice of sixties horror and it’s never looked better thanks to a terrific digital remastering and Blu Ray’s high definition standard.
Five strangers board a train, joined at the last minute by Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing), an inscrutable fortune teller who, to while away the journey, uses his pack of Tarot cards – his ‘House Of Horrors’ – to tell his fellow passengers fortunes. Thus we are treated to an anthology of horror stories ranging from the gothic to the sci-fi as we encounter werewolves, murderous vegetation, voodoo curses, revenge from beyond the grave and, of course, vampires.
A quintessentially British production, there’s so much to enjoy here from the performances to the superb art direction and production design from Bill Constable. The sets are fantastic, making the most of the largely studio-bound stories. The film boasts an amazing cast with genre legend Christopher Lee joining Cushing, Neil McCallum, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle and, bizarrely, famous radio DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Familiar faces pop up in the individual stories too, with Bond movie veteran Bernard Lee helping to see off an attack of the creeping vines and four-time Batman butler Michael Gough lending snooty art critic Christopher Lee a helping hand. Director Freddie Francis and writer Milton Subotsky keep the movie moving along with energy and invention, creating an elegant and macabre sense of fun.
A product of its time, the five segments vary in quality and success but all of them have bags of charm and wit. The first tale, that of a predatory werewolf is rich in atmosphere as an architect (Neil McCallum) returns to his ancestral home at the request of the new owner who seeks to make alterations to the building while something ancient lurks in a bricked off tomb. The second story, starring a slightly miscast Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman features an ordinary family under siege in their home by a predatory vine. With practical effects which will be familiar to fans of Sixties and Seventies “Doctor Who”, it never quite gels despite a much needed dose of gravitas from Bernard Lee.
Most problematic of the quintet is the third story, a tale of Voodoo magic and cursed music. Making his feature film debut, Roy Castle (a last minute replacement for the originally cast Acker Bilk) gives a somewhat self-conscious performance and ensures the tone of the piece errs on the comedic rather than creepy side. It’s also the segment which has dated the most thanks to the clichéd attitudes of casual racism on show and a truly spectacularly bad attempt at a Caribbean accent by Castle. One bright point, though, is the unusually metatextual touch of a poster for the film “Doctor Terrible’s House Of Horrors” appearing on screen in the background.
Things get firmly back on track with the fourth story, a tale of hubris and revenge featuring Michael Gough as a well-known artist and Christopher Lee as snide and callous art critic. A cruel trick escalates out of control and even when events take a tragic turn, the terror is not over. As well as great performances from both leads in the story, this segment really benefits from some terrific practical effects work, especially in the form of the disembodied hand which plagues the critic’s every waking moment.
The final story is a little rushed and odd, telling of a young doctor (Donald Sutherland) returning to his American home with his new French bride. When a case of severe anaemia presents itself, he begins to suspect a vampire may be to blame, but who could it be? The answer may not surprise you, but the ease with which people are convinced certainly will!
But the film still has treats in store even after its five stories have been told and there’s a delightfully ghoulish sting in the tail as the passengers of the railway compartment reach their final destination.
The Blu Ray release itself also comes with a great documentary looking back on the production itself, filled with observations and amusing anecdotes (such as Bernard ‘M’ Lee being extremely ‘refreshed’ during filming) and is well worth watching, as is the accompanying documentary on Christopher Lee’s legendary career.
“Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors” is an iconic and wonderfully nostalgic slice of classic cinema and the perfect starting point for someone wanting to explore the rich tradition of British Horror of the sixties and seventies.