Following so-so returns on their two teen musicals, the duo decided to return to the horror genre (their first being 1960’s The City of the Dead) in a bid to give Hammer (who was doing big business) a run for their money. And it was on the back of the success of this film (their first under the Amicus banner) that would turn them into leading exponents of British cult, sci-fi, fantasy and horror over the next two decades.
Armed with some old scripts written (some say appropriated) back in 1948 and inspired by the 1940s British classics Dead of Night and Train of Events, Subotsky conceived the film, and added a linking story in which five train passengers have their destinies told by the Tarot-wielding (mispronouced as Tah-row) – Dr Sandor Schreck (Peter Cushing).
‘I think there is room for one more in here’
Their stories included a Scottish estate haunted by a werewolf (Ursula Howells); am Education Officer (DJ Alan Freeman) and his family coming under attack from a homicidal vine; a jazz trumpter (Roy Castle) who steals some voodoo music; an art critic (Christopher Lee) being pursued by a severed hand of a snubbed artist (Michael Gough); and a doctor (Donald Sutherland) who suspects his wife (Jennifer Jayne) is a vampire…
The Fear of the Year
With the exception of the supposedly comic voodoo episode (generally known as ‘that Roy Castle one’) and the silly vampire story, this House of Horrors still impresses. Freddie Francis directs with style, the Technicolor/Techniscope cinematography from Alan Hume (The Kiss of the Vampire) is suitably atmospheric, Bill Constable’s production design evokes each stories mood, and Subotsky adds a tongue-in-cheek tone throughout.
By far the two best stories are Werewolf (in which Subotsky is suprisingly inventive with the myth) and Disembodied Hand, long regarded as a fan favourite because of Christopher Lee’s memorable turn as a pompous petulant art critic (some say he was playing a parody of himself). While its obviously ripped off from 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers, it’s gripping (pun itended) to watch Lee being terrified by a mechanical prop (which ended up in a couple of other Amicus films), and you can watch it here (courtesy of Screenbound).
Freddie Francis (who became Amicus’ in-house director) would helm three more omnibuses – Torture Garden (1968), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the non-Amicus Tales that Witnessed Madness (1973) – and each would feature framing stories with varying degrees of success. Given that Peter Cushing’s merchant of Death is so memorable here, it’s always puzzled me why Amicus didn’t use the character again. Cushing, whose role here is little more than a cameo, would be promoted to lead in Amicus next three features: The Skull and the two big-screen Dr Who adventures.
THE SCREENBOUND RELEASE
Following a 4k remastering at Pinewood, this is the best-looking release of the film to date (despite the limitations due to the film’s use of the cheaper Techniscope widescreen process). The limited edition (4000 copies) Steel Book also benefits from the fantastic new artwork from Graham Humphreys and the following special features…
• Audio commentary from director Freddie Francis
• House of Cards: Documentary, directed by Jake West, about the film’s production history, with interviews from likes of Jonathan Rigby and Reece Shearsmith (contains spoilers – but also some neat bits of trivia).
• Sir Christopher Lee – British Legends of Stage & Screen (2012, 60min): From spear carrying in Olivier’s Hamlet to Dracula, Lord of the Rings and his Bafta fellowship award, Lee looks back over his career (this is a must see).
• Gallery Images: From the collection of Stephen Jones (Monsters from Hell).
• Original theatrical trailer.