AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES (1965-1974), PART ONE

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With Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) Amicus Productions (spearheaded by Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who previously produced for Hammer and was a cousin to Doris Wishman) established itself as a vital competitor to Hammer Studios. Rather than imitating Hammer’s modernization of Gothic classics, Amicus developed its niche in the omnibus film. It was successful enough to be in full-fledged production for a decade, establishing a reputation as the go-to studio for horror anthologies. This, their introductory portmanteau film, clearly influenced by EC Comics, sets a pattern of to-be-expected unevenness. Still, Amicus installs themselves as a horror studio to be reckoned with, sparing no expense in procuring Hammer’s top actors: Peter Cushing (who would  star in all but one of the Amicus anthologies) and Christopher Lee. For its wraparound segment, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors opens to the duo (among other passengers) on a train. Dr. Schreck[1] (Cushing, saddled with a terrible German accent and glued on brows) pulls out a deck of tarot cards. “Pick a card, any card, and tape it three times,” Schreck tells his fellow passengers. Each participant will hear of a fate that may await them. Among the passengers is Christopher Lee who will, of course, factor into one of the five narratives.

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In “Werewolf,” Neil McCallum is an architect renovating an old dark house, which turns out to be cursed. The title monster is featured in this pedestrian tale of ancestral revenge with a “twist.”

With Alan Freeman  (better known as the U.K D.J. for “Pick of the Pops”) served up as a snack for a venus fly trap,”The Creeping Vine,” thankfully doesn’t take itself so seriously. It is refreshingly lightheaded hokum.

“Voodoo” is the worst of the lot; badly dated in its stereotypes, with Kenny Lynch belting out a stolen voodoo tune.

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“Disembodied Hand,” has elitist art critic Franklin Marsh (Lee) driving artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough) to suicide. Landor’s severed hand returns to exact revenge on the mean critic. It’s in the spirit of The Beast with Five Fingers, among others, and chock-full of two-dimensional caricatures of both artists and critics. It holds no surprises, but with Lee and Gough engaged in a bit of whistling-while-they-work fun, it’s easily the best episode.

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“Vampire” feature a young Donald Sutherland who discovers he is married to… a vampire! It barely raises a pulse.

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Seen today, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is more camp than horror, and its appeal is one of genre nostalgia. Still, the phenomenal box office success of Dr. Terror green-lighted a second portmanteau film in 1967, entitled Torture Garden (directed by Freddie Francis and written by Robert Bloch). It contains no torture nor any garden. Burgess Meredith (in a preposterous  disguise, reminding us of the Penguin) is Old Nick himself, going by the pseudonym of Dr. Diablo and moonlighting as a carnival barker who promises a tortuous exhibit that can reveal the future. “You’ll shake, you’ll shiver, but it’s all good fun,” Diablo hammily tells his patrons. Unfortunately, only one of the four tales lives up to that promise.

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“Enoch,” is the opening narrative. Michael Bryant’s inheritance money (from an uncle who took his time dying) is going to be spoiled by a mean ol’ puddy tat with a lot of doubloons.

“Over Hollywood” has Beverly Adams discovering the fountain of youth in Hollywood with robotic consequences.

“Mr. Steinway” might be seen as a poor precursor to Stephen King’s “Christine,” replacing a killer car with a killer piano. It’s as absurd as it sounds.

The first three segments are sloppily written and executed with little enthusiasm; each progressively worse, but the final segment single-handedly salvages the anthology.

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“The Man Who Collected Poe” finds Jack Palance (playing against type) as an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed geek who may have found his soulmate in fellow fanatic Peter Cushing. However, somebody’s got something—or someone—hidden in the basement and … somebody’s got the fever, which leads to a fiery finale. Cushing and Palance clearly enjoyed playing opposite one another and their chemistry, along with clever writing, making one wish the previous segments had been as enjoyable.

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1970’s The House That Dripped Blood (directed by Peter Duffell and written by Robert Bloch) is a considerable improvement over its predecessors. Duffell lacks the visual astuteness of Freddie Francis, but he has superior stories to work with and a top notch cast. The connecting theme is the titular house, which has a bit of baggage left over from all who have resided there.

In “Method For Murder,” Denholm Elliott is a horror author who writes a character that becomes a tad too three-dimensional, much to his wife’s peril.

“Waxworks” stars Cushing as an uptight retired stockbroker and lifelong bachelor who visits a wax museum, only to see a figure of a woman whom he once was in love with. Obsession and unrequited love naturally go hand-in-hand, or head-on-plate.

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In “Sweets to the Sweet,” Nyree Dawn Porter is hired to tutor a young, motherless child  (Chloe Franks) who is unloved by her cold-hearted father, Christopher Lee. Without giving too much away, let’s just say the underlying theme is one few filmmakers would dare tackle today.

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“The Cloak” is the most famous of the four episodes, remembered fondly for its absurd humor. It stars John Pertwee (best known for his portrayal of Dr. Who) as an actor who mantles the cloak of a purported actual vampire. Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt bares her fangs and, of course, a bit more.

All four episodes feature strong acting, which is a rarity in contemporary horror and should be a model for genre filmmakers. Elliot’s restrained performance in “Method For Murder” is admirable enough to forgive the predictable “twist.” The stylish “Waxworks” features an equally stylish performance from Cushing, although narratively it is the thinnest episode. “Sweets to the Sweet” is psychologically intense with three powerhouse performances, making it the strongest entry. Although John Pertwee is a bit on-the-sleeve in “The Cloak,” his performance suits the tone; but, he’s no match for Pitt.

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1970 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: EQUINOX, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, AND TROG

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The 1970s were probably the most prolific decade in production of exploitation and horror films. The decade started off with Gordon Hessler’s mediocre Cry of the Banshee, co-starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg. Daniel Haller’s adaptation of The Dunwich Horror was also surprisingly uneven, despite its well-received source material. Hammer Studios was still in full throttle, although its output increasingly met with mixed reviews and decreasing box office. Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula was considered by many to be the last decent Hammer take on the infamous Count. Roy Ward Baker’s The Scars of Dracula was universally panned by critics. Scars‘ star Christopher Lee then made a stab at the character for a different studio in Jess Franco’s [1] Count Dracula, which co-starred  Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. Noticeably shot on a lower budget, Franco’s Draculawas deemed a faithful adaptation of the novel, but a noble misfire. Franco and Lee also teamed up for The Bloody Judge, which was a second-rate rehash of Michael Reeves’ final film, Witchfinder General.

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Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil, starring Herbert Lom and Udo Kier, was another offshoot of the late Mr. Reeves’ swan song, with the addition of graphic torture, and it’s reputation as one of the most revolting grindhouse films ever made still holds strong nearly a half century later. Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw was the third Witchfinder General copycat in one year. It disappeared quickly (rightfully so). At the opposite end of the spectrum is the camp-fest fundamentalist Christian exploitation Cross and the Switchblade, which aptly cast the whitest white man who ever lived—Pat Boone—as Hoosier Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson, going to the ghetto to convert gang member Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada). It was such a hit with the fundie circuit that they even produced a cross-promotional comic book that was littered throughout church pews to take home and keep “if you got saved.”

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The primary influence on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), the microbudget horror Equinox has a substantial cult following, enough to receive the Criterion Collection treatment. Equinox is a holy grail for lovers of  backyard filmmaking, and is almost as famous for its making of narrative. The story began with three teenagers, David Allen, Dennis Muren, and Mark McGee, who got together and made a monster movie. Discovering the likes of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen through the pages of Forrest J. Ackerman’s influential “Famous Monsters Of Filmland,” aspiring stop-animation animator Allen placed a personal ad in a 1962 issue of FM, inviting lovers of King Kong to correspond. Muren, whose monster memorabilia collection had been featured in an earlier article of the magazine, was the first to respond, followed by McGee. Shortly after that initial introduction, the three were meeting regularly for screenings and discussions of creature features and experimenting with 16 MM shorts. In 1965 Muren received money from his grandfather to make Equinox.

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Influenced primarily by Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957), the film also pays homage to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The cast includes Muren’s grandfather as a hermit who is trampled on by Allen’s stop-motion demon, the Taurus. Ackerman has a voice cameo via a tape recorder playing in the hospital. Pulp fantasy author Fritz Leiber (once an apprentice to H.P. Lovecraft) plays Professor Waterman, who is in possession of a medieval book, which contains a gateway to another dimension called the Equinox. The movie begins on a picnic when David (Edward Connell) and Susan (Barbara Hewitt) discover Waterman’s book and unintentionally summon forth a demon.

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There are two versions of Equinox. In the original, the narrative is ambiguous and really just an excuse to unleash stop-motion monsters (courtesy Allen and Jim Danforth). In the second version, Jack Woods, credited as a co-director with McGee and Muren, over-explains everything to the point of tedium. Although neither cut is a long-lost masterpiece, the original, pre-tampering version is definitely superior. But it’s the winning extras in the Criterion Collection disc that are the highlight, spinning a narrative of fan love for the genre, paid homage by commentary from the surviving principals.

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Equinox has some “American dream” success stories: Muren went on to become an Oscar-winning visual effects artist for Industrial Light and Magic, and worked on Willy Wonka And The Chocolate FactoryFlesh Gordon, the original Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the television series “Battlestar Galactica,” E.T.The AbyssGhostbusters IITerminator 2, Jurassic Park,  A.I., HulkWar of the Worlds, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among many others. David Allen also had a successful career, working on Flesh GordonThe HowlingQThe Hunger, Young Sherlock HolmesGhostbusters II, Willow, Puppetmaster, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids, before dying prematurely in 1999. McGee had a career in B-movies, and Woods went on to work in sound.

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