Thursday, October 08, 2015

Tea and Murder: The Amicus Anthologies, Part One

I previously announced that this October would be the year of the vampire, as well as the year of the themed viewings, as I find myself watching (and writing about) vampire films more than I normally do, and also watching a few horror series start to finish (Nightmare on Elm Street, the Universal Dracula sequels) and some films featuring certain horror icons (Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff). There seems to be another theme emerging this year; anthology- or, as the British say, portmanteau- films. First up were the two official Creepshows, followed quickly by my discovery of several Amicus films streaming on Amazon Prime. I was previously familiar with their EC Comics adaptations, Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, and the discovery of more dark, brooding, and grisly stories was cause for some excitement in my home.

Amicus were, for while anyway, contemporaries of Hammer Films, and often an Amicus picture will get credited as a Hammer picture by people who don't look too closely at title cards. It's not too hard to understand the confusion, though, as they were both churning out horror films during the same period, and Amicus would often hire Hammer mainstays Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Ingrid Pitt. Often these actors would come in for a day or two of work, allowing Amicus to slot them in as a lead in one of their many anthology films, where in a regular film they would probably only be able to afford an extended cameo. Beyond the casting and the general genre of 'horror', the differences between the studios become very pronounced. Hammer horror films were famous for their garish technicolor blood and salacious-for-the-time sexuality. Amicus, on the other hand, was more buttoned down, fairly bloodless and sexless, with a much more proper undertone. The protaganists in Amicus films tended to be older- at least middle aged- and more bourgeoisie. The men in Amicus films drank tea and listened to classical music while reading the financial times. The women prepared meals and shopped. The films were steadfastly British, and watching them can feel as comfortable as sitting in a high backed chair before a fire and drinking a cup of Earl Grey.

The favorite starting point for Amicus' portmanteau films is when a newcomer arrives at some locale and begins asking questions of the locals, who in turn tell the stranger(s) stories ranging from outright supernatural to just oddly eerie. Amicus were inspired in this field by the classic film Dead Of Night (1945). Dead of Night was for decades the high water mark in anthology films, and it remains a classic to this day. The template of a group of strangers telling their stories is one Amicus ran with throughout the studio's existence. The Amicus films tend to have four or five short segments, and a framing story that links them all together. Generally the final story in the film will bleed into the events of the framing story, as everything comes together for the grand finale.

Of the two films I watched this week, Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood, my favorite wraparound comes from the latter, in which a Scotland Yard detective investigating the disappearance of a famous actor hears from various locals about the previous tragedies that befell the actor's rented home. The stories are generally not great, but there's a consistency of tone and quality that makes the viewing experience a pleasant one. Of the four stories, I think my favorite might, blasphemously, be the final one, in which we learn what happened to the missing actor. It's silly, and jokey in a way the film hasn't been up to this point, but it's also silly fun to see Jon Pertwee (in the middle of his run as Doctor Who) as a wonderfully vainglorious horror actor meeting some of his greatest fans, who also just happen to be vampires (apparently I have vampires on the brain). My least favorite of the stories, also possibly blasphemously, is the Peter Cushing segment. He's a great actor, and great in this story, but something seems off in the segment. It's either too long or too short. If it had been shorter it might have lent more punch to the suddenly violent ending, but if it had been longer it may have had time to imbue the story's slow pace with the feeling of sadness and loneliness only hinted at in the film.

At the end of the film, the realtor who had sold the house to each of its occupants turns to the audience and asks us if we've guessed the secret of the house. "It reflects the personality of whoever lives in it, and treats him accordingly" he says, before asking if perhaps we would like to live there. It's fun, and explains why in each story the ghoulish elements are so radically different, but it also suggests that the PeterCushing segment, in which he becomes obsessed with a figure in a wax museum that reminds him of a lost love, is a red herring. It is the only story in the film in which the violent, morbid events happen entirely outside of the house, which suggests Peter Cushing would have been the house's ideal tenant. He seems a bit lonely, but otherwise perfectly content in the house, and he would have lived a mostly satisfying life, had he not had the bad luck to run into that crazy wax museum proprietor.

How amazing is this poster? Even if it spoils every segment's endings.

While I prefer the wraparound story in The House That Dripped Blood, the story in Asylum is probably the more traditionally 'grand guignol', with an idealistic young psychiatrist arriving for his new position at the titular asylum. He's told by a wheelchair bound Patrick Magee that the previous head of the asylum went mad a few days prior, and is now a patient with an entirely new personality. He's told that he should interview the patients, and if he can deduce which patient is the doctor, than the man will be qualified for the position. It's a bit ridiculous, right? But it fits the earth-yet-heightened mood of Amicus' horror productions, and feels of a piece with the moody, gothic stories the films take their cues from.

As with The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum was written entirely by Robert Bloch, and based on his stories. Director Roy Ward Baker is able to maintain a pretty steady mood of foreboding, sinister unease through some of the weirdest stories Amicus ever produced. The first story concerns a man who kills his wife, but gets his comeuppance thanks to the fact that his bored suburban housewife has been dabbling in voodoo as some sort of new age affectation. It goes a bit overboard with the creeping disembodied appendages (apparently against Robert Bloch's wishes), but is enjoyably adequate. Things take a turn for the truly bizarre in the second story, as a tailor recounts the story of a bizarre customer (Peter Cushing) who gives him a unique, glowing material and specific instructions on how to tailor a suit that can bring back the dead. It's the final story that elevates the bizarre to the truly insane, however, as the doctor interviews a patient who tells him all about his methods of soul transference, which he uses to control small, fake looking robots with miniature models of his own head. When the robots are destroyed, they are revealed to have organs and blood in them. It's one of the strangest things you're likely to see in a film this year, yet also treated  with the same matter-of-fact straightforward attitude Amicus seems to bring to every production.

Amicus produced, as far as I can tell, 8 portmanteau films in total, of which I've now seen 4, along with several other horror and thriller films. Though they became known primarily for their horror films, Amicus actually began with a pair of musicals before transitioning to horror with the portmanteau films. They continued to vary their output, though usually staying firmly within pychotronic areas. They produced a pair of Doctor Who films in the sixties, and a string of 'prehistoric' films(including a childhood favorite, The Land That Time Forgot) before effectively closing up shop in 1975. They never achieved the success or acclaim of Hammer Films, which they so clearly wanted, but the films have been growing in cult appeal for decades now, prompting a US producer to revive the brand, pretty much in name only, though they did release the 2007 Stuart Gordon film Stuck, which one could conceive as being on the same continuum as those earlier films. For me, though, I'm just looking forward to diving into whichever film I can find next, which means that this post, like so many others this month, is...

To Be Continued...

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