Everyone Has a Story To Tell: Amicus Horror Anthologies

This week’s post was originally slated to be a review of Michael Mann’s 2015 hacker thriller Blackhat, but as I sipped my coffee this morning I realized that despite my sometimes hard-to-defend love of Michael Mannn’s work, my feelings towards Blackhat can be largely summed up in a few key points:

  • It’s mostly ok, I guess.
  • The audio mixing is the worst I’ve ever seen in a feature film of this scale. Several times I rewound the film just to make sure I wasn’t having some kind of auditory hallucination. The levels are all over the place, there’s horrible ADR, in one scene the room noise even suddenly cut out for a few minutes.
  • Chris Hemsworth really, REALLY needs to work in his American accent

And while I could probably stretch these points across a whole blog post, that sounds about as boring to read as it would be to write. So instead, I’ve decided to devote this post to my other viewing activity for this week: a newfound obsession with 60s and 70s Amicus Productions horror anthologies!

Not quite as well known as their contemporaries at Hammer Studios, British production company Amicus Productions spent much of the 60s ad 70s pumping out fun, pulpy, lurid horror anthology flicks, either in the style of or direct adaptations of horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. I watched three Amicus classics this week, and I’ll probably find and devour more in the weeks to come, so let’s spend this post taking a look at what I saw this week.

AsylumAsylum (1972)

This is the first of the three I watched, after borrowing it from a friend. The film takes place, naturally, in an asylum, where the new doctor on staff interviews the patients as part of a bizarre test to secure his new job. One by one, he hears each patient’s story of how they wound up here, tales that invariably involve murder and mayhem.

The stories mostly have a supernatural bent to them, the first focusing on a dismembered corpse of a woman murdered by her husband reanimating in order to take revenge on hubby and his mistress. This one feels like the most archetypal of the bunch. Evil is committed, and that evil then smacked down by a sinister supernatural hammer of judgment. The image of severed body parts wrapped in brown paper and string coming to life and crawling around is pulled off fairly well, thought it was probably a more evocative image back in the days when cuts of meat from the butcher shop would be brought home in similar fashion. It’s simple and effective and starts things off well.

We then move on to my favorite, the story of a tailor commissioned to make a strange suit by an even stranger…uh…stranger, played by none other than the grandest of Moffs, Peter Cushing. There’s a lot of neat ideas at play in this one, some great visuals and a whole lot of Gothic charm that elevates in well beyond the other stories.

Next up is by far the low point, an honestly boring tale starring Charlotte Rampling as a drug addict brought home from hospital care. There aren’t any interesting ideas or visuals at play, you see the twist coming a country mile away, and I found myself stiflingly bored all through this particular section. It’s a shame since I normally like Rampling, her troublesome comments about the recent Oscars issue notwithstanding. Every anthology movie has a low point, and for Asylum it’s definitely this one.

And then we get to the last one. Oh, this last one. This insane, misguided, gloriously goofy last one. Taking place within the framing story, this last tales sees our young protagonist interview one last patient, a man who believes that he can construct tiny synthetic humans, complete with miniature organs, and then impose his personality upon them, transferring his consciousness into them. Why on God’s green Earth he would want to do that I couldn’t say, because they look like this:

Asylum doll

Our young doctor then returns to see the overseer of the asylum, not knowing that a tiny, INCREDIBLY slow moving doll is following him, one that [Spoiler Alert] stabs the overseers to death with a scalpel in the most unconvincing way possible. I’m sure that in the writer’s mind, this story was some kind of proto-Puppet Master shocker, but even in the context of a pulpy horror anthology, this is the most hilariously ludicrous thing you’ve ever seen, and I absolutely adore it for that. A lot of the hilarity comes from just how doofy-looking the doll itself is, clearly a simple, remote controlled or maybe even wind-up children’s toy hastily spray painted silver with a sculpted head popped on. Watching it sloooooowly walk down hallways while the music blares ominously like the wrath of God were about to descend upon its hapless victim, well…..it’s really damn funny.

If you’re in the right mood, the ending of Asylum is pretty spectacular, if only because it can be fun to see something that takes itself relatively seriously go off the rails harder than Steven Tyler when he checked into rehab.

Overall, Asylum is a lot of fun, with the batshit insane ending mostly making up for the dull-as-dishwater story with Rampling.

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)Dr Terrors House of Horrors

Now THAT’S a goddamn title. You know you’re in for a fun time with a title as goofy as that. I half expected Vincent Price to be involved with a moniker like that, but no. Instead, we get a cast including Christopher Lee, another appearance by Cushing, a startlingly young Donald Sutherland and Hammer regular Peter Madden.

The framing story this time is that of a group of men on a train ride, entertained by an old man named Doctor Schreck (which means terror, for non-German speakers) who uses Tarot cards to tell their fortunes, all of which involve encounters with the supernatural.

I won’t go into the stories individually this time, since none of them stand out in the way that some did in Asylum. Also, in one of the major problems that arises fairly quickly, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, unlike some of the other anthologies I watched this week, has a bit of a problem telling satisfactory short stories. While Asylum and our next feature, Vault of Horror, tell relatively self-contained, complete little yarns, in this one half of them feel rushed or incomplete, chafing against the time constraints.

One of them, the story of a killer garden plant, doesn’t even have a proper ending, it just sorta stops at one point. The opening story, a werewolf tale, feels like it has way too much story for what little time it has to tell it. The others are mostly good, the vampire story with Sutherland is probably the highlight. But still, Dr Terror of all the three anthologies I looked at seems to have the most trouble working within the format.

And also, and we’re getting into huge spoiler territory here, the entire framing story just flat-out doesn’t make sense. As Cushing’s Dr Schreck tells each man his future, he draws one last card to reveal their ultimate fate: the Death card, for all of them. But then, after the last story has been told, Schreck suddenly vanishes and the train comes to a stop in a spooky-looking sound stage – I mean spectral plane, where we learn that Schreck was Death himself all along, the train the men were on crashed killing all on board, and they’re all dead as dead can be.

Sooooo….wait a minute then. Were the stories Schreck told them true? They can’t be now, since they’re all dead. So was he just making them up to amuse himself? It can’t be that each story has already happened, since Lee’s ends up with him losing his eyes, and Sutherland’s sees him carted off to the looney bin (maybe the one from Asylum). Trying to make sense of it in your head more often leaves you with a headache. While the “they’re all dead” ending is a popular one in these kinds of movies, Dr Terror tries to put a spin on it, but ends up tripping over that spin and faceplanting rather badly.

Overall, Dr Terror’s House of Horror is the weakest Amicus anthology I watched. The stories aren’t all satisfying, the framing story makes zero sense when you think about it, and (this being the oldest one), the effects often wind up more hokey than effective. Which could be your bag, hokey effects can be a lot of fun.

Vault of HorrorVault of Horror (1973)

After beginning with the most dramatically scored awkward elevator ride in the history of film, Vault of Horror sees several men (including Doctor Who’s Tom Baker) stuck in tastefully decorated basement and recounting the recurring dreams they’ve each been having, dreams which each end with them all kinds o’ dead. You’ve probably already figured out what the twist at the end is, in which case congratulations oh mighty admiral of the obvious.

While Dr Terror’s House of Horror and Asylum each got a way to an extent from the “evil committed, evil punished” story structure you often see in these, Vault of Horror revels in it, jumping headfirst into stories of thieves, murderers and assorted bastardry punished in poetically ironic ways.

We have a man who tracks down his missing sister only to come face-to-face with vampires, a new wife chafing under her anal-retentive husband’s need for neatness, a magician looking for a new trick while traveling India with his wife, an insurance scam that ends up with the scammer buried alive, and finally a cheated painter getting his revenge with the help of some voodoo magic.

Vault of Horror is the most consistent of the three anthologies I watched, lacking the dead spot from Asylum and with a MUCH better grasp of short form storytelling than Dr Terror. It’s warmly draped in the cliches of the genre, which means that yes, you’ll see the ending coming a mile off, but you’ll still have fun.

The stories are all adapted from old issues of the Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror comics, and each one feels fun and pulpy and gleeful in its deployment of acid beakers to the face, severed hands, organs neatly jarred and necks literally tapped.

If I have any complaint it’s the complete and total lack of Cushing. The Cush-factor on this one is a rock-bottom ZERO.

If you can give any of the three I watched a miss, it’s Dr Terror. Asylum is fun, notably for that batty last story, and Vault of Horror is as rock-solid and fun a horror anthology as its direct predecessor, Tales from the Crypt.


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