Six strangers board a train. The strangest of these strangers is the mysterious Dr Schrek (Peter Cushing), who declares that by the use of his tarot cards (or his, ‘House of Horrors’ as he refers to them) he can reveal the possible fate of these men, and whether there is anything they can do to avoid this destiny. In turns curious, amused or outright dismissive of Schrek’s claims, all five men are tempted into tapping the pack of cards three times, and listen avidly as Dr Schrek tells them of the horror that is due to enter their lives…
Amicus Productions was set up in the 1960’s by Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg. Motivated by both a love of the horror genre and easy profit that could be made from producing such fare very cheaply; the studio nonetheless attracted big acting stars at the time to appear in them. Amicus carved out their own niche of the horror market with their anthology series of films, of which they made seven during the 1960’s and 70’s. The first of which was 1965’s Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, a highly entertaining affair that set the precedent for all of Amicus’ portmanteau films that would follow.
In Werewolf architect Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum) receives a request from the woman who bought his former home to visit her there to discuss alterations she wishes to make to the property. The title of this segment gives the game away pretty much by virtue of existing so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Dawson’s fate involves a hairy lycanthrope. Creeping Vine sees Bill Rogers (Allan Freeman) return home from a holiday with his family only to discover an odd looking plant has taken up residence outside his house. It soon becomes apparent that the plant is self-aware, murderous, and growing at an alarming rate. In Voodoo jazz musician Biff Bailey (Roy Castle from Record Breakers fact fans) travels to the West Indies with his band where he watches the locals participate in some sort of voodoo ritual. Despite all sorts of warnings about Voodoo God revenge, he steals the tune and takes it back to London with him; naturally this doesn’t go well for him. In Disembodied Hand, when Franklyn Marsh, a pompous art critic (Christopher Lee) is the butt of a prank played on him by artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough), who he has eviscerated in print once too often, he gets his revenge by running the artist over. After the accident Landor loses his hand and kills himself in despair. At first racked by guilt, Marsh is soon racked by fear as the disembodied hand of the dead artist starts tormenting him. The final story is Vampire, in which newlywed Dr. Bob Carroll (a very young Donald Sutherland) returns to America with his new wife Nicolle (Jennifer Jayne) only to discover there is a vampire on the loose, and it appears his wife is the most likely suspect. Once all their fates have been read, they all demand that Schrek reveal the card that foretells if they can survive these horrors. In each case the card drawn is Death. Schrek informs them that, essentially, a ‘mundane’ death is the only way to avoid a more supernatural death. With that the train arrives at its destination of Bradley. Or does it?
Dr Terror’s House of Horrors won’t be scaring any hardened modern audiences rigid any time soon but it does possess a wonderful atmosphere, ably assisted by the actors playing their parts absolutely straight. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are, as one would expect, the stars of the show. Lee is on fine form as the sceptic and boorish art critic. He also has the best segment in the film. It is testament to Lee’s skills that you really believed that he was deathly afraid of the vaguely ridiculous looking rubber hand that was assaulting him. Cushing and Lee always sparred off each other brilliantly and the scenes with the two of them clashing on the train are nicely energetic. Cushing brings an unsettling malevolence to Schrek (a couple of accent slips aside. Sterling eyebrow work though), made more unnerving by the gentleness of his candour. While Disembodied Hand is the stand out segment, Werewolf and Vampire are also worth a watch. Werewolf suffers from trying to cram too much back-story into too short a time-frame, in which the last few minutes are a garbled rush of exposition and twists. Vampire makes better use of its limited run-time, with a snappy pace that doesn’t get bogged down in any frivolous details about family vengeance and curses.
In anthology films there always tends to be one ‘comedic’ story, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors seems to have two. Both Creeping Vine and Voodoo are immeasurably silly, although Creeping Vine does pip Voodoo as most eye-roll inducing. It’s as if someone read Day of the Triffids in Hungarian and then tried to replicate it with a budget of £6.50. It’s hard work to make killer plants scary and not laughable; this trick is not pulled off here. Voodoo has a scarier concept, but poor execution. Even these two stories have campy entertainment value going for them, despite being the weakest in the film.
The directorial début of noted cinematographer Freddie Francis is tight and the action rattles along at a fair old pace. He makes the best use possible of the limited budget by investing plenty of enthusiasm in the stories, excellent use of visuals and elicits fine performances from the majority of the cast. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is a very enjoyable, lurid romp. It kick-started the Amicus business model and while some may argue they did it better with later films once they had refined the formula somewhat, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors still holds enough charm to be re-watched many times over, long after you know the twists.
Words: Felicity Burton