Greetings, fright film fanatics! I trust this post finds you all well and still happily haunted by our last deep dive into the dark and delectable world of horror. Today, we have another special treat in store. Our topic? The legendary Amicus Productions and their seven horror anthology films that, in no uncertain terms, altered the trajectory of horror cinema forever.
But first, let’s travel back in time, to the fog-laden streets of 1960s London. Nestled amid the buzz and the emerging Beatlemania, amidst the cultural whirlwind of The Who and The Rolling Stones, a different kind of revolution was happening. Amicus Studios, founded by American expats Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, had set themselves a mission: to take audiences on a spine-chilling journey into the world of the macabre. And boy, did they succeed.
A Brief History of Amicus
Amicus Productions was formed in the wake of the success of Hammer Studios. They sought to make a mark in the then-vibrant British horror scene. Capitalizing on a British government incentive for homegrown cinema, the duo of Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg achieved significant success and left a remarkable legacy in the realm of horror films. Their inspiration to do anthology horror films came primarily from the 1945 Ealing portmanteau* chiller, Dead of Night.
*Note: A “portmanteau chiller” or “portmanteau horror” is a type of film that is characterized by combining several shorter stories into one feature-length film. The term “portmanteau” originates from the French word for “suitcase,” referring metaphorically to a “container” of smaller items. It eventually evolved to encompass the term for an anthology film.
Despite producing a diverse range of films, from musicals to Doctor Who adventures, Subotsky and Rosenberg’s signature style emerged in these anthology horror films, often featuring guest stars from Hammer Studios like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Amicus further distinguished itself from Hammer by setting its films in contemporary times, contrasting with the period pieces of its rival. Based in Shepperton Studios (known as a ‘studio without walls’) Amicus was also innovative in their approach to business, managing to attract big names while maintaining minimal costs, largely thanks to their anthology format. Rosenberg, with a knack for business and marketing, paired well with Subotsky’s enthusiasm for screenwriting, leading to the creation of some truly memorable and unique films.
Despite facing competition from more modern American and Italian horror imports in the mid-seventies, Amicus held its own with its charming, distinctly British style. They later dabbled in adventurous sci-fi monster films but eventually disbanded in the late seventies. However, the legacy they left behind continues to captivate audiences, offering an intriguing exploration of British horror cinema.
Over the years, Amicus produced seven of these horror anthology films which became their claim to fame: “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” (1965), “Torture Garden” (1967), “The House That Dripped Blood” (1970), “Asylum” (1972), “Tales from the Crypt” (1972), “Vault of Horror” (1973), and “From Beyond the Grave” (1974). These films weren’t just commercial successes; they marked a seismic shift in how horror was presented to audiences, pioneering a genre of their own. Their format invited variety, unpredictability, and a delicious sense of dread that left you anticipating the next narrative twist or terrifying turn. It was an irresistible blend that captivated audiences then and still does so today.
But perhaps one of the most endearing aspects of these films was their democratic approach to fear. With a different story every twenty minutes or so, there was something for every flavor of fear. Gothic nightmares? Check. Sinister tales of the supernatural? Absolutely. Psychological horror? In spades.
So, with the history lesson out of the way, it’s time to turn down the lights, because in the shadowy corridors of Amicus Studios, the darker we keep it, the better. As the title of this post suggests, we’ll rank the films from least favorite to ultimate best. So let the terror commence!
7. Beyond the Grave
Directed by the talented Kevin Connor and based on the brilliant short stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, “From Beyond the Grave” is unique among its siblings for a number of reasons. It brings to life a quartet of supernatural tales, each one sold to us by an antiquities shopkeeper played by none other than the incomparable Peter Cushing. The film weaves a narrative thread of morality, consequence, and chilling supernatural comeuppance. It’s a warning that every item in the curious antique shop has a story, and every story has a price – often a terrifying one.
Our journey begins with “The Gate Crasher,” where David Warner, a discerning customer, learns the dangerous consequences of tampering with a haunted mirror. His doom is not only a masterclass in atmospheric tension but also a stark reminder: Don’t mess with spirits from the other side, my friends!
In the next story, “An Act of Kindness,” we watch as a kind-hearted office worker gets entangled with an old soldier’s medal and learns that not all good deeds go unpunished. This one gives us a tantalizing mix of the sinister and the sad, proving that Amicus Studios weren’t afraid to throw a little emotion into their pot of horror.
“The Elemental,” our third tale, brings us back to classic Amicus territory. It’s a ghost story with an unforeseen twist that will leave you checking over your shoulder. But remember, it’s not just any ghost; it’s a murderous elemental, a creature from the depths of supernatural folklore. This one is not for the faint-hearted!
Last but not least, “The Door” drags us into a world of architectural terror. What could be more terrifying than a doorway to another, unspeakable dimension, right in your own home? The closing segment leaves us questioning our reality, echoing the sentiments of H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
What makes “From Beyond the Grave” stand out is not just the storytelling, the chilling scenarios, or the top-notch acting – though those are all certainly praiseworthy. Rather, it’s the way the film creates an eerie atmosphere of dread that seeps into every scene. It’s a shining testament to the Amicus legacy and the enduring power of its anthology films that this is my least favorite choice since it is by no means bad. It is just the film that I rewatch less often than the others on the list.
6. Torture Garden
This second anthology effort by Amicus Studios, under the deft hand of director Freddie Francis, delves deep into the realms of the sinister and the surreal.
The title alone, “Torture Garden,” sends shivers of anticipation down the spine, does it not? A twisted menagerie of chilling tales, each one more bizarre and enthralling than the last. And it all unfolds under the ominous gaze of Dr. Diabolo, played with delightful malevolence by Burgess Meredith. The funhouse setting, complete with its torturous garden of nightmares, is both a macabre playground and a cautionary canvas.
The film presents us with four tales, each told to a visitor to Dr. Diabolo’s sideshow, where the price of admission is a mere five pounds, and the cost of their deepest, darkest secrets. The tales whisk us away from Hollywood to England and back again, presenting a panorama of tales as varied as they are horrifying.
The first tale, “Enoch,” gives us a hungry cat, a murderous nephew, and an ominous promise of wealth – a petrifying testament to the age-old adage that greed is indeed a destructive force. The supernatural feline, in this case, is an unforgettable horror entity, reminding us of the unpredictable nature of Amicus’ storytelling.
“Over Hollywood” introduces us to a Hollywood starlet with an unquenchable thirst for fame and a dangerous secret that threatens to overshadow her ambitions. This tale is a perfect blend of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the ghoulish, making it a standout in this collection.
In the third segment, “Mr. Steinway,” a concert pianist finds himself caught in a deadly love triangle with his beloved piano, Euterpe. Love, jealousy, and murderous intent are all woven together in a symphony of suspense. It’s an enchanting tale, filled with eerie music and underpinned by an uncanny dread.
Finally, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” based on the short story by Robert Bloch, takes us into the realm of obsession. What starts as a tale of two devoted fans of Edgar Allan Poe turns into a horrifying discovery of a unique “collection.” This is a delightfully morbid tale that leaves a lingering chill, especially for fans of the legendary Poe.
“Torture Garden” epitomizes what Amicus was so good at – variety, unpredictability, and a no-holds-barred approach to the anthology format. Every story is a unique hothouse flower of fear, blooming in the Torture Garden’s morbid soil. Though not one of my absolute favorites, I find that revisiting this film every few years brings a fresh perspective, and I never cease to enjoy it.
5. The Vault of Horror
Helmed by director Roy Ward Baker and drawing and based on the work of comic book creators Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines from EC Comics, this film delivers a quintet of chilling stories guaranteed to quicken your pulse and send delicious shivers down your spine.
Five unsuspecting gentlemen find themselves in the confines of an uncanny vault, sharing their most ghastly nightmares. The setting is an ominous elevator, seemingly acting of its own accord, descending into a place of terror. This claustrophobic setting gives an immediate sense of foreboding, setting the tone for the tales to come.
“Midnight Mess” kicks off the proceedings. A sibling rivalry turns bloody in this one, offering a grisly spin on the vampire lore. It’s a grisly tale with a wickedly delicious twist that will keep you on your toes, reminding us that in the world of Amicus, nothing is as it seems.
“The Neat Job” follows next, a darkly humorous tale of an obsessive-compulsive husband and his beleaguered wife. Its descent into a nightmarish frenzy of organization gone awry makes it a highlight of this anthology, expertly weaving black comedy and horror into a terrifying tapestry of domestic dread.
“Drawn and Quartered” draws us into the vengeful world of an artist with a newly acquired power. Revenge, as this tale posits, can indeed be a work of art. This tale weaves a perfect blend of supernatural revenge and moral reflection, with an ending that truly paints a terrifying picture.
Next comes “This Trick’ll Kill You,” a chilling reminder that tampering with the unknown can have deadly consequences. A magician’s quest for a unique trick in the exotic streets of India takes a horrifying turn in this tale, offering a blend of cultural mystique and the supernatural.
The anthology concludes with “Bargain in Death,” a darkly humorous tale of life insurance fraud that quickly turns into a macabre farce of horror. It’s a fitting end to the anthology, reminding us of Amicus’ penchant for blending horror and humor in equal measure.
What makes “The Vault of Horror” effective is its delicious blend of horror, black comedy, and morality tales. It holds up a mirror to our darkest fears and desires, reminding us that the repercussions of our actions can be terrifyingly real. And since it is based on material from my beloved EC Comics, it should certainly be high up on my list of favorites.
4. The House That Dripped Blood
This brilliantly constructed anthology film, skillfully directed by Peter Duffell and spun from the masterful web of Robert Bloch’s stories, boasts a chilling name that conjures up an array of ghastly images. However, fear not: the house in question may drip with terror rather than gore, but the effect is equally bone-chilling.
“The House That Dripped Blood” offers four distinct tales, each one tied to the same eerie, ever-so-welcoming English country house. This unassuming abode serves as the nexus of the anthology, a character in its own right, full of dread and dark secrets.
The first tale, “Method for Murder,” treats us to the story of a horror writer whose deranged character comes frightfully to life. It’s a chilling reminder of how our creations can sometimes turn on us. This segment is pure psychological horror, a playground of the mind that becomes a battleground of reality versus fiction.
Following this, we have “Waxworks,” a haunting tale of two friends ensnared by a wax figure’s hypnotic allure. It’s a nod to the classic tale of fatal attraction and the perils of obsessive love – a chilling exploration of the thin line between fascination and horror.
The third tale, “Sweets to the Sweet,” takes a seemingly innocent father-daughter relationship and turns it into a nightmare of chilling proportions. This tale, tinged with the supernatural, stands as a potent reminder of the power of repressed resentment and the stark terror of unchecked power in the hands of the seemingly innocent.
The final tale, “The Cloak,” takes a devilish turn into the world of vampire lore, where an actor’s quest for authenticity leads to unforeseen consequences. This segment, infused with black humor and a wink to classic vampire tales, is a fitting end to the anthology, leaving audiences with a shiver of fear and a smirk of amusement.
What makes “The House That Dripped Blood” so uniquely engaging is the ever-present titular house, silently bearing witness to the unfolding horror, as if the walls themselves were soaked with the unspeakable fear of its past inhabitants. It is a must-watch for any ardent horror fan, a classic in the anthology genre, and a testament to the creative genius of Amicus.
3. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors
Directed by the venerable Freddie Francis and scripted by the equally esteemed Milton Subotsky, “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” introduced the formula that would become Amicus’ trademark – a collection of bone-chilling tales tied together by a framing narrative, all interspersed with a perfect blend of horror and macabre humor. It was also the first Amicus movie I saw, so it holds a special place in my putrefying little heart.
Dr. Schreck (deliciously played by Peter Cushing), a cryptic, seemingly harmless tarot card reader, is our tour guide through this house of horrors. His name, appropriately enough, translates to “terror” in German. Seated in a train compartment, he offers to tell the fortunes of his five fellow passengers – but these are no ordinary fortunes. They’re glimpses into a world of werewolves, killer plants, vengeful spirits, murderous dummies, and blood-sucking vampires. Each story is a testament to the ingenious storytelling that was to become the hallmark of Amicus Studios.
The first tale, “Werewolf,” introduces us to an architect who returns to his ancestral home, only to unearth a family secret of the hair-raising kind. It’s a classic werewolf story, imbued with gothic grandeur and a dash of tragic destiny.
Then comes “Creeping Vine,” a sci-fi horror tale with a carnivorous plant at its center. It’s a splendid mix of the bizarre and the everyday, the sort of tale that makes you look twice at your houseplants!
“Voodoo” follows, where a musician learns the hard way that it’s best not to meddle with powers beyond comprehension. It’s a swingin’ tale of supernatural payback that adds a touch of rhythm to the horrors at hand.
The fourth story, “Disembodied Hand,” showcases Christopher Lee as a snobbish art critic who crosses paths with a vengeful artist. This tale, a mix of psychological horror and body horror, serves as a chilling reminder of karma’s long reach.
Finally, “Vampire” brings the anthology to a close, with a tale that redefines vampire lore in a distinctly domestic setting. It’s a clever twist on the genre, reminding us that horror can reside in the places we least expect. It also stars a very young Donald Sutherland, and he delivers a nuanced and compelling performance, even this early in his career.
“Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” is more than just a film; it’s the start of a legacy. It introduced the world to the charm of Amicus Studios’ anthologies, where horror and suspense come wrapped in an array of inventive narratives, each story a new exploration of our deepest fears. Though the following two films are my ultimate favorites, this first Amicus anthology film will always have sentimental appeal to me.
2. Tales From The Crypt
“Tales from the Crypt” is a movie that reigns supreme in the pantheon of horror anthology films. Adapted from the legendary EC Comics and directed by the master of mood, Freddie Francis, this anthology is a sinister smorgasbord of shock and terror that delights and unnerves in equal measure.
Imagine, if you will, a group of strangers taking a tour of some ancient catacombs. These tourists, each hiding secrets darker than the tomb they explore, find themselves lost and stumbling upon an enigmatic crypt keeper, played with captivating eeriness by Sir Ralph Richardson. As they sit, trapped and anxious, the crypt keeper weaves a ghastly web of stories, each one revealing the malevolent fate awaiting them.
In the first tale, “…And All Through the House,” we bear witness to a domestic nightmare on Christmas Eve. The story infuses the cheer of the season with a horrifying jolt as a woman’s wicked plot against her husband intertwines with the threat of a murderous Santa on the loose. It’s a thrilling combination of holiday spirit and horrifying suspense that will make you think twice about stirring on Christmas night.
The second story, “Reflection of Death,” offers a grim portrayal of the aftermath of betrayal, as seen through the eyes of a man involved in a fatal car accident. A haunting exploration of guilt and consequences, this story serves as a chilling reminder that the sins of the past have a horrifying way of catching up with us.
“Poetic Justice” pulls at our heartstrings, even as it sends chills down our spine. This tale of revenge from beyond the grave sees a kindly old man, played by the legendary Peter Cushing, hounded to death by snobbish neighbors, only to have his posthumous vengeance. It’s a gripping tale of torment and retribution, beautifully illustrating the horror that can lurk beneath the veneer of everyday life.
In “Wish You Were Here,” we are reminded of the age-old adage, “be careful what you wish for,” as a desperate couple grapples with the consequences of wishes gone awry. It’s a devilish twist on the classic Faustian bargain, revealing the dangerous allure of greed and the terrifying price of desire.
The anthology concludes with “Blind Alleys,” where we learn that sometimes, the most chilling horrors are not supernatural, but rather, the cruelties we inflict upon each other. In this tale, the inmates of a home for the blind orchestrate a grisly comeuppance for their cruelly negligent overseer.
“Tales from the Crypt” is, in essence, a chilling morality play, unveiling the horror that ensues when humanity’s darker impulses go unchecked. It’s a macabre masterstroke from Amicus Studios, proving that sometimes, the most chilling tales are those that hold up a mirror to our own human nature. And, the fact that all of them are transposed almost exactly they way the comics conceived them, never ceases to entertain and enthrall me.
Robert Bloch, the same genius who gave us “Psycho,” penned this anthology’s spellbinding stories. They are a collection of tales so deeply human, yet profoundly unsettling, that they blur the line between sanity and madness. Under Roy Ward Baker’s direction, this delicate dance of the human psyche comes to life in a way only Amicus could master.
Here we are, on the grounds of a remote psychiatric institution, where a young doctor, Martin, is applying for a job. The asylum’s head, Dr. Rutherford, presents him with an unusual challenge: identify the former head of the asylum, who has now descended into madness and resides among the patients. Martin must hear the stories of four patients, each one more bizarre, more chilling than the last, and deduce who among them was once in charge.
In “Frozen Fear,” we meet a woman who plans to kill her husband with the help of her lover. But things take a sinister turn when the dismembered remains of her voodoo-practicing husband start seeking vengeance. It’s a tale of love, betrayal, and retribution that will send chills down your spine and make you reconsider the meaning of “parting ways.”
The second story, “The Weird Tailor,” showcases an impoverished tailor commissioned to create an unusual suit made from a fabric that appears to have a life of its own. The twist at the end is enough to make even the most hardened horror fans shudder. It’s a stark reminder that desperate times can lead to desperate measures, and these measures can, in turn, have unimaginable consequences.
In “Lucy Comes to Stay,” we explore the world of Lucy, a mischievous spirit who convinces her friend Barbara to escape from her caretakers. It’s a haunting tale of friendship and freedom that, like a ghostly apparition, is not as it first appears.
The final story, “Mannikins of Horror,” introduces us to Dr. Byron, a patient who creates small humanoid figures with living minds. He is convinced these figures can enact his will, leading to a thrilling conclusion that is sure to leave you questioning the boundaries of the mind.
“Asylum” is a sterling example of Amicus Studios’ strength in conveying engaging, character-driven narratives within the horror genre. Each tale is a glimpse into the human mind’s fragility, where fear, guilt, and desperation can lead to terrifying realities. Small wonder that this is my favorite of the bunch.
And there you have it – an immersive journey into the eerie, beguiling world of Amicus Studios’ horror anthology films. From the harrowing corridors of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors to the chilling stories of Robert Bloch, we’ve navigated through tales of terror and tantalizing suspense, each one a masterstroke. Indeed, it was hard for me to play favorites!
Now, it’s your turn. I invite you to share your own thoughts and experiences with Amicus Studios’ horror anthology films. Which story made your skin crawl? Which character lingered in your nightmares? Were there any moments that made you gasp in horror or chuckle with morbid delight? Comment below and enrich our macabre little community with your unique insights.
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Until we meet again in The Longbox of Darkness’ spiderweb-infested corners, keep the horrors close, and your love for the shadows ever present. And remember, in the realm of horror, there is always room for one more scream…
The Longbox of Darkness recommends checking out the following DVD and Blu-Ray collections that showcase The Best of Amicus. All worthy purchases indeed!
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