❉ Vampires & voodoo ahoy in Amicus’ all-star anthology, back on Blu-Ray.
Of the numerous home-grown film production companies that were keeping the British end up from the post-war boom to the decline & fall of the British film industry in the 1980s, few evoke as much fondness among genre fans as Amicus, the home of producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenburg.
Stylistically, Amicus’ horror output had a recognisable character quite distinct from the mighty house of Hammer – for the most part, Amicus’ favoured format was the portmanteau or anthology film, a collection of discrete, creepy yarns loosely linked together by a connective strand, as pioneered by Ealing Films’ Dead of Night.
As with the 1945 forerunner, the stories that comprised Amicus’ anthologies differed from Hammer’s then-current brand of horror in several immediately identifiable ways, despite utilising key talents from their competitors such as directors Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker. Unlike Hammer’s mittel-European Gothic milieu, Amicus’ anthologies are squarely placed in contemporary England, with less recourse to blood’n’boobs and most importantly, the tone was darkly comic rather than outright sinister (but not without some memorably nasty, deliberately absurd, shock twists) and camply self-aware, invariably ending with the film’s Master of Ceremonies breaking the fourth wall to directly address the viewer in a style much parodied since, such as with Baby Cow’s pastiche series Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible.
By including the audience in the experience, Amicus’ grimly fiendish portmanteau films are acknowledging the timeless tradition that is their ultimate precursor – that of sitting around the fire telling one another ghost stories, which is essentially the format of The Vault Of Horror; along with a good dollop of old-fashioned, moralistic folk and fairy tales, with many a segment resolving itself as its unfortunate protagonist is undone by a hubristic character flaw (such as greed or insatiable curiosity) getting the better of them, and receiving their comeuppance in a satisfying and ghoulishly appropriate “that’ll learn ‘em” fashion.
Another appealing and enduring aspect of Amicus’ films was that each film was packed to the rafters with anyone who was anyone in the British film industry. We encounter in a range of guises horror grand masters such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt, all comfortably on home turf, veteran scene-stealers such as Denholm Elliott, Patrick Magee, Geoffrey Bayldon and Curt Jurgens, theatrical heavyweights like Anna Massey and David Warner, engaging turns from actors as varied as Diana Dors, Donald Pleasence, Glynis Johns, John Bennett, Roy Castle, Jon Pertwee and Terry-Thomas, TV stars of the day such as Ian Ogilvy, Nyree Dawn Porter and Mike Pratt, the occasional bit of wild card casting such as Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman and Burgess Meredith, and pre-fame glimpses of the likes of Tom Baker, Charlotte Rampling and Donald Sutherland.
You know you’re in a safe pair of hands with performers as likeable and reliable as all these, and the joy of the anthology format is much like sketch comedy – if one segment feels a little sub-par, you know something else more likely to take flight is not far around the corner.
Which brings us to two chapters from the Amicus story which are now back in the wild on Blu-Ray from Second Sight Films, after enjoying a limited release as special editions: 1971’s The House That Dripped Blood and 1972’s Asylum, replete with new and previously released extras and reversible sleeve art offering a choice of either the original one-sheet poster design or Graham Humphreys’ artwork.
Today, we’re going to look at the brilliantly titled The House That Dripped Blood. It’s a real gem of a film, arguably the finest of the series, that builds on the strengths of Amicus’ first two efforts in the portmanteau genre – Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and The Torture Garden – with a ‘framework’ linking the individual segments together narratively, and a finely calibrated mixture of thrills’n’chills and tongue-in-cheek humour, with the by-now mandatory ‘comedic’ segment to provide light relief. In this case, the framework is a police investigation into the disappearance of a film star who recently purchased the titular house leading John Bennett’s Det. Insp. Holloway to meet up with the property’s estate agent, one Mr Stoker (see what they did there?) who regales Holloway with the stories behind the house’s previous, unfortunate tenants.
It’s a strong, simple framework that gives the film a real coherency to unite its four stories and a literal sense of place, making maximum use of its location – Yew Tree Lodge and the surrounding backlot of Shepperton Studios. The setting is central to The House That Dripped Blood taking its seat as a 1970s-period horror, with manor houses located in an eternally English leafy autumn becoming something of a leitmotif of British contemporary horror during that decade, as per tawdry bedfellows such as The Virgin Witch, Girly, Vampyres and Satan’s Slave.
Shepperton’s Yew Tree Lodge is literally the star of the film, as director Peter Duffell finds different way of shooting and lighting the house’s interiors to complement each segment’s individual mood, from shadowy and liminal for the setting of Method For Murder, where horror writer Denholm Elliot finds himself haunted by one of his fictional creations, to light and airy in Sweets For The Sweet, as brittle divorcee Christopher Lee seeks to make a new home of the property for him and his shy & withdrawn young daughter Chloe Franks (The Uncanny) alongside the patronage of nanny Nyree Dawn Porter (who returned in From Beyond The Grave).
Light and shade is very much a key note of The House That Dripped Blood – in comparison with the more relentlessly macabre Vault Of Horror and Tales From the Crypt, the film is shot through with black comedy throughout, as you would expect with a script co-written by Psycho creator Robert Bloch. There’s also a lot of what would now be referred to as ‘meta-humour’, from nested in-jokes hidden in the opening titles’ crawl through the house’s bookshelves, to a shot of Christopher Lee reading The Lord of The Rings (Lee was a lifelong fan of Tolkien’s epic, decades before starring in Peter Jackson’s trilogy) and concluding segment The Cloak poking fun at the legacy of horror movies with Jon Pertwee in a role originally written for Vincent Price (“That’s what’s wrong with the present day horror films. There’s no realism. Not like the old ones, the great ones. Frankenstein. Phantom of the Opera. Dracula – the one with Bela Lugosi of course, not this new fellow”) starring alongside bosomy companion Ingrid Pitt.
Keen eyed viewers may also spot a publicity photo from Doctor Who serial Inferno among the memorabilia pinned to Pertwee’s character’s dressing room mirror. There’s even a brief summit meeting between the then-current Time Lord and his childrens’ viewing contemporary from “the other channel”, Catweazel’s Geoffrey ‘shagger’ Bayldon, the best part of a decade before they joined forces as servant and master in Southern TV’s Worzel Gummidge.
Each segment has bags of mood and atmosphere, thanks to the uniformly excellent main cast and the film’s evocative location as much as Bloch’s chamber tales, all of which establish their premise in a leisurely style that allows the viewer to gain enough of an insight into each protagonist’s character to appreciate the sting in the tale that pays off each mini-yarn (although it has to be said that Jon Pertwee’s farcical gurning is as unintentionally bathetic in the climax to The Cloak as it was when grappling with a Nestene tentacle in Spearhead From Space).
Method For Murder is undoubtedly the most macabre, with Denholm Elliott on great form as an intense, neurotic writer and Tom Adams embodying his creation ‘Dominic’ – the denouement of which was lifted outright as part of the snuff movie twist to Inside Number 9’s loving pastiche of 1970s BBC anthology dramas, The Ghost of Christmas – and while Waxworks slightly derails the film’s eponymous setting, its star Peter Cushing gives a dependably top-drawer quality performance as a grieving widow (This was shot a few months before Cushing’s beloved wife Helen passed away, a loss from which the actor never truly recovered). The scene in which he fends off an axe attack from Wolfe Morris’ deranged waxworks owner is a great tribute to his key genre role, that of Dracula’s sparring partner Van Helsing, as he weaves and dodges his attacker with the nimble balleticism and fleet-footed grace of Fred Astaire!
The House That Dripped Blood is a film whose use of setting and lightness of touch when it comes to walking the tricky tightrope of horror and comedy marks it out as a movie that’s incredibly re-watchable and beautiful to look at, with a mood of all its own compared to its bedfellows thanks to its singular location, and Second Sight’s finely-graded remaster enhances that experience tenfold.
With a wealth of old and new special features, it’s the definitive presentation of a cracking Brit horror that’s both sublime and sublimely ridiculous, and something of a touchstone of an era where cravats were the neckwear du jour for the man about town.
❉ ‘The House That Dripped Blood’ released on Standard Edition Blu-ray from Second Sight, 6 January 2020. Check out Second Sight Films’ new website for new release info and for consumers to buy direct at www.secondsightfilms.co.uk . More from Second Sight Films here: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.