Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors
UK (1965) Dir. Freddy Francis
All aboard the 7:55 from London to Bradley, stopping at…well, there is only one stop and it’s one you will never return from. And for once, this has nothing to do with the shoddily run, profit grabbing privatised railways either!
Five men board the aforementioned train in London until a sixth (Pete Cushing) joins them just as the train sets off. The old man’s bag falls off his lap and a pack of tarot cards spills out. Introducing himself as Dr. Shreck, he explains the cards can foretell the future, intriguing everyone – bar one – who gamely ask for their fortunes to be told.
The illustrious cast list would have you believe this is another classic Hammer horror, a common mistake as the horror output from Amicus Productions did indeed share many traits with Hammer, both visually and in their stars. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was their first foray into this genre.
Written by studio founder Milton Subotsky, this compendium of six short spooky stories uses the train journey as a convenient wraparound. To quickly explain the title, “shreck” is the German word for “terror” (making actor Max Shreck’s role in the 1922 classic Nosferatu even creepier), whilst he refers to his tarot cards as his “house of horrors”.
Stepping up first to have his fortune told is architect Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum). In his story, he returns to his old family home on a Scottish isle to perform some renovations for recently widowed new owner, Mrs. Biddulph (Ursula Howells). Jim finds a fake wall behind which is the coffin of Count Cosmo Valdemar, the original owner of the house who died during a conflict with the Dawson family.
Legend has it Valdemar would reclaim his house and seek revenge on the last living members of the Dawson clan. That night, housemaid Valda (Katy Wild) is killed by a werewolf, prompting Jim to prepare to defend himself as its next victim.
Up next is Bill (Alan Freeman), who learns he, his wife (Ann Bell) and daughter (Sarah Nicolls) will return from a holiday to find a strange plant has grown in their back garden. Bill tries to cut it down but it knocks the cutters from his hands. He refers it to scientists Hopkins (Bernard Lee) and Drake (Jeremy Kemp) who discover the plant is sentient and very dangerous.
Musician Biff Bailey (Roy Castle) goes next, his tale involving his jazz group taking a gig in the West Indies. Biff is taken in by the local vibe but is warned by resident singer Sammy Coin (Kenny Lynch) to stay away from the nighttime parties which he believes are voodoo ceremonies. Biff ignores this advice, finds a party, and in being so smitten with the tribal music, writes it down.
Biff is caught and told no white man can steal their sacred music or their God Dambala will seek revenge. Again, Biff ignores the warning and heads back to the UK to debut his new voodoo track but as soon as the band starts playing, weird things occur.
The outspoken cynic of the group is haughty art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee), acquiescing to a reading to keep the peace. In his tale, Marsh’s rubbishing of painter Eric Landor (Michael Gough) backfires when Landor publicly embarrasses him. In revenge, Marsh runs Landor over, crushing his right arm which is amputated. Landor commits suicide, after which Marsh is haunted by a disembodied hand following him everywhere and refusing to die.
Finally, American Dr Bob Carroll (Donald Sutherland) has his turn. Returning from his honeymoon with French bride, Nicolle (Jennifer Jayne), Bob and his colleague Dr Blake (Max Adrian) treat a boy who appears to have bitten by a vampire. Blake suspects Nicolle of being the vampire but Bob refuses to believe it.
With the exception of the Voodoo yarn which is suggested to have been inspired by a short story Papa Benjamin by Cornell Woolrich, everything in this film is the creation of Milton Subotsky, who was keen to emulate the success of a 1945 Ealing horror Dead Of Night which used the same portmanteau format, marking the start of a run for Amicus of horror films in this vein.
As a sign of the times, there is little here that is actually scary or overtly horrific with the exception of the shock ending, yet in 1965, this received an X certificate (equivalent to an 18 today) when a lot of the material was considered too much for some. One can’t fault the quality of the writing as Subotksy delivers six well-crafted short tales, some showing potential for expansion to something longer.
Not everything it’s the target but the blame there has to go to the budget restrictions which hampered the special effects. Made with just £105,000 – which probably wouldn’t even cover the catering bill today – the short cuts are visible on screen, like the virtual non-appearance of the werewolf, the weedy killer plants, and the blatant rubber vampire bat!
Granted, the evil plants do appear mildly threatening in one scene as they creep steadily through a window towards an unsuspecting victim but Triffids they are not, and their cheapness undermines the horror remit of the tale. Most if the budget presumably went on the animatronic hand that tries to kill Marsh, which is actually more effective than it sounds.
Professionals to the end, the cast commit themselves to this hokum in order to get the audience invested, Peter Cushing in particular providing the biggest surprise in playing a dark character for once. I’m not so sure about the casting of legendary DJ Alan “Fluff” Freeman (“All right pop pickers?”), even though he didn’t embarrass himself, one could see he didn’t fit in either.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors might be a product of its time but is good enough to pass as “vintage” watch, whilst illustrating the power of a concise short story to entertain just as well as a singular, overarching tale.