Packed with great casts and uncannily generic storylines, these 2 restored horror anthologies together deliver 10 blasts of tawdry, 70s stockbroker belt gothic.
Between 1965 and 1974, one British film production company, Amicus, run from Shepperton Studios, created a series of “portmanteau” horror films that the older ones among us will know from late night TV.
In each film, 4 or 5 stories are held together by a framing narrative.
Amicus was actually run by 2 Americans, with the higher profile work done by screenwriter Milton Subotsky. It was Subotsky who pinched the feel – and some of the stars – from Hammer films and the connected, episodic format and gore-free look of 1945’s horror classic Dead of Night.
He blended this approach with stories from US horror pulp fiction magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Weird Tales and EC Comics. He sometimes got a relatively big name, Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), to beef up the writing.
The results are wonderfully unique and instantly recognisable. Many horror fans hold these anthology films up as genre treasures, both because and despite of their air of comfy disquiet.
I use the term “stockbroker belt gothic” and the phrase “comfy disquiet” because the 5 films from the 70s, especially, highlight the pretensions and anxieties of the British middle classes of that era in an almost (but not quite!) satirical fashion.
The main characters in these films tend to be disgruntled, middle-aged husbands, boozed-up and bitchy wives, retired stockbrokers in mourning, failed artists from moneyed families, aging actors, hack writers filled with self-loathing etc.
Their inner turmoil is represented by the modernist Rococo of their gewgaws and surroundings – screams of bright colour and plastic surface that yell Help Me!
In fact, I’ll guarantee that you gasp with delight at all the tacky period furnishings on display as much as you do at any more properly ‘horror film’ elements.
Asylum is the most thematically tight of the series. The framing narrative sees a young psychiatrist (Powell) turning up for a job interview at an asylum in a big old house.
The head doctor (Magee) tells Powell’s character that the interviewing doctor has gone mad and is now one of the patients. If the interviewee can listen to the stories of the 4 most dangerous inmates and decide which patient used to be a psychiatrist, he’ll get the job.
Story highlights include Richard Todd as a boozy husband plotting to kill his voodoo-dabbling wife (Sylvia Syms) by chopping her up, wrapping her bits in brown paper and storing them safely in the freezer.
There’s a very young looking Charlotte Rampling (26 at the time), as a disturbed woman kept in her suburban family home by her brother, with only her imaginary friend (Ekland) to keep her company.
My only issue with Asylum is that the clinical framing narrative is too strong. It invades the stories themselves.
This means that the stories feel less like refreshing ‘breakouts’ from the framing story and more like supporting elements as the framing story plods to its final twist. The film becomes a bit of an insistent monotone.
There are several good extras, including a 1972 on-set BBC report featuring interviews with cast and crew, that gives insight into the Amicus ways of working; and a short interview based documentary on the Amicus back story.
In the House that Dripped Blood, a police inspector investigates the mysterious disappearance of the inhabitant of a large rental property. He speaks to the estate agent, who tells him the stories of the 4 previous renters – who have also disappeared.
Story highlights include Jon Pertwee as a pompous horror actor (Pertwee based his performance on Christopher Lee) who wants to go ‘Method’ with his latest vampire role. He finds that Ingrid Pitt is more than willing to help. It’s very funny indeed and includes lots of in-jokes, as when Pertwee’s character says “Dracula? I like Lugosi. Not too keen on that modern chap that plays him”. The final image of Ingrid Pitt is rightly iconic.
Christopher Lee plays the stern father of a very creepy little girl (Chloe Franks is superb) who is forbidden dolls for a very good reason. Nyree Dawn Porter is the sympathetic governess who clashes with Lee’s character. With overtones of Turn of the Screw, this story is as literary and classy as Amicus gets.
There is also the pleasure of Denholm Elliott’s fretting turn as a writer haunted by one of his own characters and Peter Cushing getting lost in a lurid waxworks show.
If you are going to buy only one of these 2 films, I’d go for The House that Dripped Blood, because I think it is more fun. In a lovely finale, the estate agent addresses the audience directly with the dull clumsiness of a 70s public information film. Unmissable!
Both Asylum and The House that Dripped Blood are out on Blu-ray on 6 January 2020.