Amicus, And Now the Screaming Starts, Art, British, Christopher Lee, death, Devil, film, Hammer, horror, Horror Express, Ingrid Pitt, movie, Peter Cushing, Plague of Zombies, review, The Devil Rides Out, The Devil's Bride, Vampires, Zombies
The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out, The Horror, and the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…
~ Stephen King
Happy Halloween, darlings!
You know what I could go for right now? Right this minute? Yes, yes, of course it’s a scary movie. But not just any scary movie. I don’t want to see Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula’s fangs. At this point, the thought of a lumbering Mummy or a howling Wolfman is inducing nothing more than a few yawns.
I don’t want anything classic or black and white. And nothing typical. I want unusual. Creepy. Campy. Cult. With a nice balance of blood, fear, suspense and surprise. And lots of glorious colour!
It’s not that I don’t normally like all those old-time monster movies. I do! But this Halloween, I just feel like something else.
It’s a tall order to find what I’m craving. But fortunately, I’m a bit of an amateur expert on films that just so happen to fill this bill. I mean, when I say I DON’T like a horror film? It’s been suggested that it must have been “insufficiently trashy”. And I do have a penchant for certain, er, “questionable” films like “Chopper Chicks in Zombietown“, “Werewolves on Wheels” and “The Confessional“. But pfft. Whatever. What do YOU know, pal? ;)
Anyone who’s read last year’s Halloween posts, “The Art of Fear” and “Dracula: The Hammer Years: Boobs, Blood & Bondage“, knows what an unabashed fan I am of the British masters of horror, Hammer Films.
I’m sure everyone has seen a Hammer film at some time in their life. But I’m willing to bet that some of the films you attribute to Hammer, actually aren’t.
Also producing those deliciously diabolical technicolour thrillers during the 1960s and ’70s was the lesser-known but no less talented Amicus Productions. It’s very easy to mistake the two, as their films were incredibly similar, both in visual stylings and in subject matter. Further adding to movie misattributions? British stars synonymous with horror such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt can be found spooking and scaring in films produced by both companies.
Both Hammer and Amicus put out some killer (pun definitely intended!) content, though. So why isn’t the Amicus name as well-known as Hammer? The most obvious explanation is simply lack of output. Amicus has a very modest filmography. Between 1960 and 1977, Amicus Productions produced only 30 films.* By contrast, Hammer’s productivity was much more prolific, racking up nearly a hundred films in the same 17-year period.
While Amicus began its life in 1960, Hammer had been around since the 1930s. The birth of Hammer in the horror genre was in 1955 with “The Quatermass Xperiment”, an adaptation of a television sci-fi serial. In 1957 came “The Curse of Frankenstein” (the film credited with resurrecting the horror genre), and Hammer consistently turned out what would become some of the best horror films of the ’60s and ’70s.
So for Halloween, I’ve selected 5 of what I consider to be the best mid-century horror films: Two from Hammer, two from Amicus, and one of THE scariest films I’ve ever seen. It’s by neither company, but it’s a great example of a film that LOOKS like a Hammer yet isn’t. And for once, I’m not going to give away the endings. You’ll have to watch each film and see for yourself. Mwahahahahaha!
Tonight is the perfect time to curl up on the couch with a slice of pizza and a blanket. So what if there are droves of snot-nosed, costumed children banging on your door panhandling for candy. Pft. Whatever. You paid for the candy, so you should just eat it yourself. If you ignore them, I’m sure they’ll go away.
So bolt the door, pull down the shades, and turn out the lights. Because now the screaming starts.
… † …
“The Devil Rides Out “
Hammer Films, 1968
Released in the US under the alternate title “The Devil’s Bride”, “The Devil Rides Out” is not only my favourite Hammer film (and arguably their best), it’s also one of my favourite movies, period.
It stars Christopher Lee as the film’s protagonist, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau — a rare “good guy” role for Lee, who we all know much better as the blood-sucking Count Dracula in seven of Hammer’s Dracula films.
Nicholas and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) are concerned about their young friend Simon (Patrick Mower). He’s become distant, and when he misses a meeting with them, they show up at his door. They arrive to a house full of people, and Simon is surprised and not exactly pleased to see them. He claims it’s a meeting of his astronomical society, but things are not all they appear to be. Nicholas is immediately suspicious and discovers that Simon is about to be baptised into a group of devil worshippers.
Simon and his friend Tanith Carlisle are saved by the Duc and Rex, but the evil Satanic cult leader, Mocata (Charles Gray), who preys on their fears and weaknesses, is determined to get them back.
A personal Hammer favourite of Christopher Lee’s, the screenplay was written by TZ veteran Richard Matheson, directed by Terrence Fisher, and is an adaptation of a novel by Dennis Wheatley. The film adopts a much more serious approach to the occult than other similar films of the time, and I love the blatant Christian overtones.
With the help of Nicholas’s niece and her husband, can Simon’s and Tanith’s souls be saved? Will they be lost to the devil forever? Or will they all become victims of Mocata, the Goat of Mendes, and the Angel of Death?
… † …
“The Plague of the Zombies”
Hammer Films, 1966
1966 was a great year. “Dark Shadows” premiered, as did my beloved Adam West “Batman” series, and the original “Star Trek”. My best friend was born, and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” was on the radio.
It was also a great year for films. On January 9, 1966, Hammer Films released two of their best films: “Dracula, Prince of Darkness”, and another favourite of mine, “The Plague of the Zombies”.
This isn’t your typical zombie film as you’ll see as it progresses. And while I’m a big fan, I do wish the script had allowed for a few more frights. But as far as how the zombies look? “The Walking Dead” walkers have nothing on these frightening white-eyed corpses. If there were ever a zombie that could scare me? It’d be one of these guys.
Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) is at his wits end. A mysterious plague is sweeping through his village, leaving a string of dead bodies in its wake. But with the villagers refusing him permission to perform autopsies, he has no idea what’s causing the deaths. Frustrated, he writes to his friend and former teacher, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell — Doctor Watson in Hammer’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”). Sir James and his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare), arrive in the superstitious Cornish town in the midst of a funeral. When the coffin is accidentally dropped, the two catch a shocking glimpse of the corpse inside.
Eager for answers, Sir James and Dr. Tompson promptly set out to rob the grave of the newly-dead man. They get caught by the police, but not before they open the coffin and find it… empty.
Meanwhile, Sylvia, has just witnessed her friend Alice’s (Jacqueline Pearce) murder. She followed Alice to an old tin mine, abandoned after a string of bad luck, accidents, and deaths. The villagers believe it to be haunted. She recognizes the man who kills Alice… it’s the man from the coffin.
Black magic, voodoo dolls in little coffins, human blood, bringing the dead back to life. Someone in the village is practicing witchcraft. But who, and to what end? And what’s really going on at the haunted mine? Perhaps it isn’t quite so abandoned after all.
The film boasts an impressively scary graveyard rising scene. Hands and bodies emerging from mounds of earth, white-eyed, open-mouthed and lumbering around menacingly. I wish there was more of that here, but the film has a good plot, plenty of atmosphere, and as usual, Hammer has some really great visual appeal.
… † …
Benmar Productions and Granada Films, 1972
This is by far one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. It has great pops of surprise woven into the subtly scary atmosphere. Starring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, this is a film that at first glance might scream “Hammer”. But it’s not.
Also known by the title, “Panic in the Trans-Siberian Train”, the two production companies responsible for this cinematic scare-fest are Benmar Productions and Granada Films.
Twilight Zone fans will recognize Terry Savalas (Captain Kazan) from the classic episode “Living Doll”, where his character Erich Streator meets a grisly end at the hands of, yes, a creepy doll.
Aboard the Trans-Siberian train is Professor Alexander Saxton (Lee). He’s returning home from an expedition in the Himalayas. But he’s not alone. He believes he’s found the “Missing Link” — a frozen ape-like caveman creature which he has stowed away in a crate. But something frightening is happening aboard this train of terror. People are being murdered, and all the corpses are discovered bleeding from the eyes — eyes which have turned completely white.
It’s soon discovered that Saxton’s creature has come to life. I don’t need some fancy CGI freak show monster to scare me. Not when we have this terrifying red-eyed, primitive ape-creature running around a spooky train in the night, draining people of all their knowledge and memories.
Oh, and if that’s not scary enough for you? The creature can also transfer its life force into other people, turning THEM into red-eyed, blood-thirsty monsters.
Can Saxton and his colleague Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) stop the creature before it kills everyone on the train and escapes back into the world? This is 90 minutes of frightening suspense, and one of my absolute favourite films.
… † …
“And Now the Screaming Starts”
Amicus Productions, 1973
Now this is a great period piece. It stars my favourite, Peter Cushing (Dr. Pope), and Stephanie Beacham (Catherine Fengriffen) — a fantastic actress who played opposite Cushing and Christopher Lee in the film “Dracula A.D. 1972” as Cushing’s granddaughter, Jessica Van Helsing. She’s also the star of the aforementioned D-grade film “The Confessional”.
The year is 1795, and young Catherine (Beacham) becomes the victim of rape on her wedding night. The perpetrator, however, is no ordinary man. He’s a ghost. And a very creepy one. She’s haunted by this ghostly specter, who has no eyes and is missing a hand. The Addams Family showed us that a disembodied hand running around can be quite fun. But the one in this film is anything but benevolent. As the movie tagline says, “The dead hand that crawls, kills and lives!!!” With three exclamation points, you know they mean business.
When it’s discovered that she’s pregnant, the news brings a kind of widespread dread to the house and any associates of the family. Her husband, Charles Fengriffen, (Ian Ogilvy) is keeping a deep, dark secret from her. A secret that means death for anyone who tries to warn her of it.
Just who is the mysterious woodsman, Silas, who lives on the grounds and comes lurking around the house? A man who sports the very same tell-tale birthmark on his face as the ghost who pursues Catherine. What is his connection to Charles’s grandfather, Henry Fengriffen (Herbert Lom), a debaucherous and cruel man, who seems to be the origin of this family legend? Who is the father of Catherine’s baby, and what will this mysterious curse mean for the Fengriffens?
This is Amicus at its best. The film is suspenseful, not overly gory or graphic, and the story holds your attention remarkably well for its entire 90 minute running time, despite the fact that we don’t learn what the legend is until the film is nearly over.
… † …
“The House That Dripped Blood”
Amicus Productions, 1971
Amicus produced a number of portmanteau films, including the star-studded “The House That Dripped Blood”. This type of film is made up of a number of short stories, all of them tied together by a major overlying plot. The major plot point in this film is a haunted house. Each story segment tells the tale of the different occupants the house has had, and the crimes committed there. Scotland Yard inspector Holloway (John Bennett) and police sergeant Martin (John Malcolm) provide the film’s narrative, discussing the strange happenings of this peculiar house. Eventually they’re joined by the house’s relator, the aptly named Mr. Stoker (John Bryans).
In the first segment, “Method for Murder”, Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott) is a writer of horror. Murder, to be exact. Gruesome, bloody murder. To cure his writer’s block, Charles and his wife Alice (Joanna Dunham) move into a large mansion in the country. Immediately, Charles is inspired to write a new story. The villain is Dominick: an escaped asylum patient whose preferred method of murder is strangling. The more Charles writes, the more real Dominick becomes. Until finally, he begins actually SEEING his character roaming around the house and grounds. And then one night he sees Dominick strangling Alice. He runs to her rescue only to be told that it was he himself who was choking her.
His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrews, tells him that an author’s characters are an extension of his own personality. And he believes that Dominick is simply a way to express negative feelings that Charles has repressed. But everyone, the doctor included, is about to find out how real Dominick truly is. This story has a delightfully diabolical twist at the end that you don’t want to miss.
Peter Cushing stars in the second segment, “Waxworks”, as the house’s newest tenant, reclusive retired stockbroker Philip Grayson. While not married, he does carry a photograph of a beautiful woman he once loved. One day Grayson wanders into “Jacqueline’s House of Horrors” wax museum, and is startled by the resemblance of one of the figures to his lost love. The creepy curator (Wolfe Morris) explains that the figure of Salome was modelled after his wife. He goes on to tell Grayson a gruesome tale: that his wife, like the figure she’s portraying, was a murderess.
When Grayson’s old friend Neville Rogers (Joss Ackland) comes to visit, Neville insists they tour the wax museum. As it so happens, he too was in love with this mystery woman, and is drawn to her likeness. So much so, that he can’t leave town. Grayson rushes to the wax museum to save his friend, but is horrified by what he finds. How are these wax figures so realistic? We’re about to find out.
Christopher Lee plays John Reid in segment 3, “Sweets to the Sweet”. He is a rather cold, disinterested father to Jane (Chloe Franks), his young daughter. At least he seems to be. As soon as they move into the house, John hires a governess for Jane — Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter). Ann soon realizes that Jane is a very lonely girl. No playmates, no toys. She buys Jane a doll, but John immediately takes it away. He insists that it’s for Jane’s own good, and that she’s not all she appears to be. And he’s right.
When Ann discovers Jane has been secretly reading about witchcraft, we all begin to see that she is anything but ordinary. Just what dangerous secret is John keeping about his daughter? The casting for this story is superb. Chloe Franks is the sweetest looking little girl imaginable. Considering there are few things more frightening than evil masquerading as innocence, she’s perfect in the role.
In the fourth and final segment, “The Cloak”, horror movie stars Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) and Carla Lind (the gorgeous Ingrid Pitt) are filming a movie, “Curse of the Bloodsuckers”. Frustrated by his wardrobe’s lack of vampiric authenticity, he buys an old cloak from a curious little costume shop, and the proprietor is only too anxious to be rid of it. Paul soon discovers that the cloak has certain… properties. When he puts it on, his reflection can’t be seen in a mirror. And during a scene, he’s so overcome by the cloak’s influence that he actually bites Carla. Then he grows fangs and levitates!
When Paul reads in the paper that the costume shop has burned down and in the cellar, the police discovered a coffin with a well-preserved yet very old body inside, he deduces that his cloak belonged to an actual vampire. But Carla has a secret of her own. What will happen when Carla takes the cloak and puts it on herself?
This story has a great little tongue-in-cheek poke at Hammer and Lee. While lamenting the cheap-looking set of his movie, Paul quips, “That’s what’s wrong with your present day horror films. There’s no realism. Not like the old ones, no. Great ones: Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera. Dracula. The one with Bela Lugosi, of course, not this new fella.”
Back at the police station, Stoker warns the inspector to stay away from the accursed and once again vacant house, but his curiosity piqued, he goes anyway. What horrors await the inspector? If only the walls of this house could talk. Then again, maybe they can. And maybe, just maybe, he’s not alone…
Just what is the appeal of Horror? In books or on film? Why do we enjoy being scared like this? I suppose we don’t really NEED a reason to like something. Whatever the case, I think deep down we all like the feeling of hairs standing on end. The mystery that comes from the unknown. Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And he was right. The thrill comes not from the scare itself. It comes from knowing there will be a scare, but not knowing when. These films prove that you don’t need a lot of violence and gore to thrill and chill. What you need is something that’s enough of a departure to spark your imagination, but that’s rooted deeply enough in reality to truly scare you.
That’s the recipe for a perfect horror film.
Happy Halloween, darlings. Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .
The shortest horror story: The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.
~ Frederic Brown
*The first Amicus film predates the name “Amicus” itself. Amicus Productions was founded by American Milton Subotsky (with his US based partner, Max J. Rosenberg) and in 1960, Subotsky produced “Horror Hotel” aka “City of the Dead”. This was before he settled on the name Amicus and the film is credited to Vulcan Films.