Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965)
For some people, Doctor Terror's House Of Horrors is a pinnacle of the genre, a towering example of horror done in the British style, with film company Amicus firing on all cylinders to produce their greatest celluloid moment. But is it really that good? Okay, so this is the film which launched Amicus on the compendium highway, which spawned outright classics like Asylum, Tales From The Crypt and From Beyond The Grave. Without the unpronounceable duo of Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenburg ripping off the portmanteau format from Dead Of Night for Doctor Terror, British horror would be a grimmer, less colourful place. But just because it was the first(ish) doesn't make it the best. Doctor Terror, despite its astonishing cast and traditional horror elements (werewolf, killer plant, voodoo curse, disembodied hand, and vampire respectively) is a creaky, dull affair. Packing five stories into a short running time should theoretically mean that there's never a chance for the viewer to get bored, but this film seems to go on forever. And it doesn't help that none of the stories have even a vestige of a shock moment. Even the linking device, although well-realised and nicely acted by all concerned, is hardly mind warping stuff. Perhaps in 1965 the audience wasn't expecting Doctor Terror to transform himself into a bony demon and announce that the next station will be HELL, but if they weren't, they were a thick bunch. His name's Doctor Terror! He calls his pack of tarot cards his "house of horrors"! Every time he tells someone their future they end up dying! All the clues are there, if you're prepared to look for them...
But anyway, enough of my annoyance with those cretins from 40-odd years ago. In all fairness, Doctor Terror is a landmark film, with enough gothic touches to make it a bearable watching experience and a cast to (almost literally) die for (Donald Sutherland's arrival in the carriage is always a surprise, no matter how many times I see the film). So let's shuffle the pack and deal out a dose of pointless predictions of people's pre-determined passing-overs...
A disparate group of youngish men file into a railway carriage - radio DJ Alan "Fluff" Freeman (yes, really), ginger Scot Neil McCallum, tap dancing, trumpeting and titting-about buffoon Roy "Record Breakers" Castle (yes, really), Christopher "the best film I ever made was The Wicker Man, they wrote the part specially for me, you know" Lee, and Donald "we got him because he's not really famous yet" Sutherland. It's a tight squeeze and the windows have already fogged up from their exertions, but one more traveller wants to come in. It's Peter Cushing, who makes the best entrance by rubbing away the steam on the window to peer inside before opening the door. The latest arrival announces himself as Doctor Schreck, a name which translates into English as "Terror" ("An unfortunate misnomer," he mumbles in his cod-German accent, "because I am the mildest of men.")
As his companions look on he whips out a pack of Tarot cards ("That's a funny looking deck, man," quips Castle, "how do you play poker with those?") and explains: "Zis deck can forevarn us... four cards predict destiny, the fifth gives information to change it."
Despite Christopher Lee's spectacular snootiness at this news (he's never more poshly disgruntled than he is here, apart from when he gets asked about Dracula on modern chat shows) the others decide they want to know more. And Doctor Schreck deals his cards...
McCallum is Jamie Dawson, an architect called back to his old family home to make some alterations for the new owner. But something is wrong - there appear to be wolves about in the Scottish Highlands, and every time the camera focuses on old family retainer Caleb and his granddaughter Valda, the soundtrack goes all spooky. In the cellar Jamie is surprised to find a coffin which has been walled up behind some new-looking plaster. When he finally gets it open the coffin is empty, but soon Valda is killed and Jamie, the penny dropping, begins to formulate a plan using silver bullets. However, the werewolf might not be the person he thinks it is.
Back on the train, Schreck reveals the fifth card. It is, unsurprisingly, the death card.
He turns to the next man, and the first of the more bizarre casting decisions which pepper this film. Alan "Let's rock!" Freeman is Phil, a man who returns home from a family holiday to discover that a strange living vine has attached itself to his house. Before you can say "triffid" it's killed the dog and reacted violently to a pair of shears. A passing scientist explains that such a plant might have the capacity to take over the world, and it must be destroyed (scientists, eh?) but it might already be too late...
"Oh for heaven's sake!" shouts an angry Lee, back on the train. "What is all this nonsense?"
He might well ask, for the next recipient of Schreck's patented brand of trouser-filling prophecy is Roy Castle, the second bizarre casting choice, who snaps his fingers in between tapping the cards (which does, it has to be said, make him look like a twat). Castle, in case the finger-snapping hadn't given it away, is Biff Bailey, a jazz musician. As the flashback (forward? Whatever) begins, we find out that he and his band are off to Haiti on tour ("On dat sweet note boys, we can get ready to go to de West Indies"). Once there he falls for the charms of the local voodoo beat, despite being warned against it by yet another strange casting choice, Kenny "Blankety Blank" Lynch (because all light entertainers are experts in voodoo). As the foolish musician watches a ceremony and makes a few notes, he is joined by an increasing number of spooky silent natives (in one of the few genuinely unsettling moments in the film). "Do not steal from the god Dambala!" he is told, but he ignores this, heads home and writes a new arrangement. The first time he plays it an enormous wind springs up, and as he staggers down the street (past a poster for this very film - nice touch) he is subjected to an ever-increasing series of shocks before being approached by the great god Dambala himself, who... takes the music off him. To say this segment's end is a bit of a let-down would be putting it mildly, but Bailey himself looks none too happy about these revelations.
Christopher Lee's character is, by now, thoroughly annoyed with this Tarot touting teutonic toe-rag, but decides that the best way to defeat him is to sing his song. "Very well... shuffle your cards, foretell my destiny."
He is a vitriolic art critic by the name of Franklyn Marsh, a thoroughly nasty, mean-spirited horror who tours galleries being followed by a crowd of toadying sychophants, dishing out barbed comments about every work him comes across. His latest target is Eric Landor (Michael Gough), a thoroughly lovely artist who doesn't deserve the pasting he receives. To get his revenge, Landor shows Marsh a new canvas by a young artist he has discovered. "Now this is quite a different matter," booms Marsh. "Quite a different matter indeed!" The critic waxes lyrical about this new find, but Landor unmasks the "artist" as a chimp, then rubs salt into Marsh's ego by turning up at events to remind him of his folly. Eventually, Marsh snaps and runs the unfortunate artist over in his car, destroying his hand.
"An artist?" mumbles a doctor on seeing Landor's injury. "Not any more!"
Distraught, Landor takes his own life, and the unrepentant Marsh is immediately attacked by a rogue hand (the first, but by no means the last, time an Amicus film has featured such an effect - by the time And Now The Screaming Starts used the same prop a decade later it was beginning to look a bit past it). The hand keeps on going, surviving being thrown into a fire and stabbed before a truly terrified Marsh seals it in a box and throws it into the river. He sets off for home in his car ("I had a slight problem, but everything's alright now"), but the hand hasn't finished with him yet, and he crashes. "He'll live," say the medics, "but he'll be blind for the rest of his life. Still, there's lots of things a blind man can do."
This segment is the highlight of the film - Lee looks absolutely scared stiff by his predicament, his acting alone managing to suspend the audience's disbelief at the all-round crapness of the Amicus rubbery hand. And his anguished cry at the end of the story is chilling.
Finally it is the turn of Donald Sutherland to hear of his fate.
He and his sexy French wife, Nicole, have moved into a New England town (New England being a favourite of British film makers, because it means they can set their film in the US but it doesn't matter if everyone's got rubbish American accents) where he is to become the local doctor. But it isn't long before people are turning up drained of blood. Sutherland's colleague, Doctor Blake, speculates that "if this were Medieval times I'd almost say he was a victim of a vampire" (ho ho), but the laughter soon stops when Blake suggests that Sutherland take a sharpened stake to Nicole. Despite very little evidence to back this up (we know that Nicole can turn into a bat, but her husband has seen none of this) Sutherland decides that a staking is the best way forward and actually does it(!) When the police come to cart him away for murder, he pleads with his colleague to back him up, but there's no help forthcoming.
"This town isn't big enough for two doctors," Blake explains to the camera. "Or two vampires!"
The group have by now noticed that the future for each of them is death... that they, in effect, have no future. "Why have you done this?" asks Marsh. "Who are you?"
"Hef you not guessed?" comes the reply, before they all file off the train, silently.
As already mentioned, Doctor Terror shows its age, and most of the stories are deadly dull. The last two have reasonable twists, but they aren't really enough to save the whole from its yawn-inducing first hour. Once upon a time, Doctor Terror was a classic of its type. These days it is more of a curiosity, and a prime example of how badly a film can age.
Last updated: February 22, 2010
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