Title: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors
Year of Release: 1965
Director: Freddie Francis
Length: 98 mins
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman, Max Adrian, Ann Bell, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle.
I love a good anthology film. It’s like getting four stories (or in this case, five) for the price of one. This little gem, not to be confused with the unrelated Dr. Terror and his Gallery of Horrors (1967), was the first in a series of horror omnibuses made by the Shepperton Studios-based Amicus Productions between 1965 and 1974. Later, more accomplished efforts included The House that Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the outstanding Vault of Horror (1973). One of the company’s founders, American Milton Subotsky, also wrote the screenplay for Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, among other things, and later in his career went on to work on several Stephen King adaptations, notably Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Sometimes They Come Back (1991).
Five men board a train at a London station and are joined by a mysterious sixth, the enigmatic and, quite frankly, scary as fuck Dr. Schreck (Cushing). The name, he helpfully explains, is German for ‘terror,’ like that’s going to make anyone feel better. Dr. Schreck then whips out a deck of tarot cards, which he calls his ‘house of horrors,’ and proceeds to reveal the destiny of each of the travellers in turn. Again, not creepy at all. By this time, you are beginning to think that this dude is an absolute riot at parties. The preamble provides the backdrop and framework in which to tell five separate stories, all connected by the aforementioned scenario.
Werewolf: The title kinda gives this one away, except it doesn’t really, if you know what I mean. The narrative follows Jim Dawson (McCallum) who returns to his ancestral home on a remote Scottish island where he finds himself embroiled in the culmination of a family curse and a centuries-old feud. This isn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, and the twisty ending is really quite clever.
Creeping Vine: Bill Rogers (Freeman) and his wife (Bell) return from holiday to find a creepy (boom!) vine growing in the garden. Soon, the vine develops a life of its own, along with a killer instinct. This one could almost be lifted straight from a vintage edition of Tales from the Crypt.
Voodoo: Biff Bailey (Castle) is a jobbing musician who accepts a gig in the West Indies where he stumbles across a voodoo ceremony. He memorizes the tune they are playing, and despite being warned, goes back to London and plays it, thereby unwittingly unleashing all manner of fuckery. Plagiarism is not cool, kids. ‘Probably’ based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich who, ironically enough given the subject matter, is uncredited.
Disembodied Hand: This one is, ahem, hands down the grisliest, and probably the best, story of the lot. It follows the misadventures of pompous art critic Franklyn Marsh (Lee) who falls victim to karma after causing a tortured artist to lose his hand.
Vampire: Dr. Bob Carroll (Sutherland) returns to the states with his new French bride. Back home, a spate of killings occurs, which seem to have been carried out by a vampire. Bob’s friend (Adrian), convinces him that his pretty new wife is responsible for the murders and Bob kills her. However, as he is being led away by the police, the friend says to himself that the city isn’t big enough for two doctors, or two vampires, and turns into a bat. The bastard.
As you can see, all the stories have twists, and this tradition is continued within the wraparound story, as in the end it is revealed that all five men were already dead, having copped it when the train they boarded crashed, and Dr. Schreck was actually death himself. Wow, right?
As they did in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and just about every other film they ever appeared in together, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the horror film equivalent of Starsky and Hutch, put in a couple of truly memorable performances. In fact, the entire cast excels. A special mention should also go to the director Freddie Francis, who achieved most of his success as a cinematographer, winning two Academy Awards and working on classics such as The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Cape Fear (1991). All this natural talent, combined with the overall tongue-in-cheek approach and clever, quirky writing, makes Dr. Terror’s House of Horror a worthy addition to any horror collection.
Jazz musician Acker Bilk was originally cast to play the part of Biff Bailey, but he suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Roy Castle, later of Record Breakers fame, in his theatrical movie debut.