Scream & Scream Again… And Again… And Again! Severin’s AMICUS Box Set Reviewed

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

In between my childhood fixation on Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation epics and subsequent exposure to the world of Exploitation all’Italiana, one of my most fervent cinematic passions was for the portmanteau Horror flicks (e.g. Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror) that Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg cooked up at Amicus in the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but there was just something irresistible about the cod moralising of the various crypt keepers, sideshow Satans, card-sharping train-to-Hell commuters and lunatics-turned-asylum keepers dispensing poetic justice to cameoing faded stars, up’n’comers and miscellaneous miscast “personalities” for their assorted lecherous, hubristic and acquisitive transgressions…

Amicus didn’t just do portmanteau horrors, of course, nor even deal exclusively in Horror… their lengthy filmography covered everything from the works of Harold Pinter to those of Helen Shapiro and even, along the way, packed in a few rubber-suited dinosaur efforts that you might know Doug McClure from (and on account of which the aforementioned Mr Harryhausen was unlikely to lose any sleep…)

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Milton Subotsky, Paul Annett & Max J. Rosenberg

On Severin’s Amicus Collection BD box set those multi-story constructions are represented by Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum (1972) and you also get the company’s ill-timed foray into Gothic territory, Baker’s And Now The Screaming Starts (1973) plus Paul Annett’s messy but hugely enjoyable The Beast Must Die (1974). Anchor Bay’s previous DVD collection, as well as coming in an attractive coffin-shaped box, added Freddy Francis’s Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) and Peter Duffell’s The House That Dripped Blood (1971) to those titles, but Severin make good those omissions with a bonus “Vault Of Amicus” disc, boasting all manner of treats for the Subotsberg-inclined… on which more later.

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Robert Powell’s search for a Starr takes a discouraging turn…

Written by frequent Amicus collaborator Robert Bloch, Asylum involves young psychiatrist Robert Powell auditioning for a job at an isolated funny farm by attempting to work out which of the inmates is his predecessor Dr Starr (my money’s on the big-nosed, mop-topped dude with the drumsticks), who’s taken an unfortunate turn for the hopelessly insane. As orderly Geoffrey (“Crowman”) Bayldon takes him on a whistle-stop tour of the loony bin we learn how Richard Todd and then Barbara Parkins were chased around a basement by the dismembered remains of Sylvia Sims… how financially strapped tailor Barry Morse attempted to bring back Peter Cushing’s dead son by making up a black magic suit which, when carelessly placed on a mannequin, brought on the stiffest acting since Alan “Fluff” Freeman in Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors… how Charlotte Rampling and her imaginary evil friend (Britt Eland) prefigured the events in Psycho (Bloch penned this one several years before chronicling the murderous antics of Norman Bates)… and how Herbert Lom builds killer homunculi to get his retaliation in first against Patrick Magee, the psychiatrist who intends to lobotomise  him.

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Though a bit of an “Old School” director, Baker piles on the gore and grue with great gusto and the Grand Guignol is perfectly complimented by selections from the most bombastic orchestral works of Modest Mussorgsky. The commentary track (on which moderator Marcus Hearn misattributes a portion of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition to Douglas Gamley) from Baker and camera operator Neil Binney is a little dry and technically fixated,  indeed at times the two old boys are so content sitting back and admiring their handiwork that you can almost hear Hearn  poking them in an attempt to elicit more commentary.

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Freddie Francis’s The Skull, 1965.

Older readers might remember this disc’s bonus featurettes Inside The Fear Factory (including interviews with Baker, Freddie Francis and Max Rosenberg) and Two’s A Company (an onset report featuring Baker, Subotsky, Rampling, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins, art director Tony Curtis and production manager Teresa Bolland) from that Anchor Bay box and even older ones will recall the latter from its broadcast on the BBC in 1972.

In original bonus materials Splatterpunk author (is Splatterpunk still a thing?) David J. Schow gives us the benefit of his considerable Bloch expertise and Milton Subotsky’s widow Fiona (who’s a historian of psychiatry… bet she could have worked out who Dr Starr was!) provides an amusing and touching memoir of the Amicus honcho, in which she relates writing the treatment for Montgomery Tully’s The Terrornauts  (1967) in one night and recalls how Amicus films were so moralistic and conservative, the company often had to beg the BBFC for an ‘X’ to maintain their Horror credibility! Yeah, you get an Asylum trailer, too…

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If RWB seems more animated on the commentary track for And Now The Screaming Starts (as indeed he does) it’s no doubt because he’s in the enlivening presence of Stephanie Beacham, who redefines the term “heaving bosom” in this bodice ripper from beyond the grave. On account of a generational curse rooted in Herbert Lom’s arrogant exertion of droit de seigneur, blushing bride Beacham has hardly arrived at her new husband (Ian Ogilvy)’s) plush ancestral pile (Windsor’s oft-seen-on-screen Oakley Court) before she’s being stalked (and, it is strongly suggested, raped) by a stumpy-wristed ghost, not to mention his (and Subotsberg’s omnipresent) disembodied crawling hand…

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With ANTSS Amicus were staking a clear claim to the period Gothic territory that had recently been vacated by Hammer, without giving too much thought to the possibility that there was a very good reason for their rivals to vacate it (i.e. a radical  change in Horror audiences’ tastes), though the lavish location, period setting and costumes (not least when they are struggling to contain Beacham’s ample charms), as captured by DP Denys Coop, are beautifully presented on this disc, which boasts the best BD trade-off between gain and grain of this collection. Check out also Baker’s early adoption and agile deployment of the Louma crane, a decade (give or take) before Argento went totally bananas with one on Tenebrae.

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In the featurette The Haunting Of Oakley Court, screaming old farts Allan Bryce (editor of Amicus – The Friendly Face Of Fear) and David Flint (co-editor of Fab Press’s Ten Years Of Terror tome) give us a guided tour of that mansion (where Mr and Mrs B spent their wedding night, apparently), taking in the remains of Bray Studios and the Asylum asylum along the way. Denis Meikle gives us the benefit of his thoughts on ANTSS and his audio interview with Peter Cushing. There’s an alternative and very engaging commentary track with Ian Ogilvy plus the expected trailer and a radio slot. Great stuff.

If 1973 was indeed a bad time to movie into Gothic Horror, Subotsberg showed how quickly they’d learned their lesson with the following year’s The Beast Must Die, pretty much the Amicus equivalent of Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 and like Alan Gibson’s film, its contemporary trapping have only made it age all the more awkwardly… which is, of course, a significant part of the ongoing appeal of both pictures to aficionados of such kitschy fare.

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Tom Newcliffe’s search for a werewolf is also about to take a discouraging turn…

Calvin Lockart (above) stars as Tom Newcliffe, equal parts Shaft, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Count Zaroff. Having narrowed down his search for a werewolf to a motley crew of characters (including Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring, Michael frickin’ Gambon and Tom Chadbon as a particularly effete hippy type), he invites them round to his gaff for a weekend of hi-surveillance investigation while he ponders their lycanthropic credentials and waits for the full moon to bring out the hairs on the guilty party’s knuckles. It’s preposterous codswallop, of course but hugely enjoyable, not least for the moment when the film grinds to a halt and the sepulchral tones of Valentine Dyall talk us through a gimmicky climax “freely adapted”from William Castle’s Homicidal, 1961…

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In his bonus interview and feature commentary, debutant feature director Paul Annett (who, perhaps wisely, returned to a solid career in TV directing after TBMD before passing away last year) relays his astonishment at copping a first glimpse of “the werewolf break” during an early public screening of the picture. The other bonus materials on this disc comprise a trailer and Troy Howarth’s video essay And Then There Were Werewolves, which takes the unexpected but entirely appropriate tack of treating Annett’s film as yet another (albeit decidedly oddball) screen adaptation of the Agatha Christie yarn now best referred to as “Ten Little Indians”, pointing out along the way that George Pollock’s 1965 rendering of the same tale (produced by Harry Alan Towers) featured (“for the first time in film history”) a “whodunnit break”.

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This box is rounded out by the appropriately named Vault Of Amicus disc, a veritable cornucopia of collected resources for Subotsberg devotees. Dr Terror’s House Of Trailers comprises over an hour of Amicus coming attractions and TV spots, encompassing the company’s de facto maiden effort, John Llewellyn Moxey’s City Of The Dead / Horror Hotel (1960, above… officially a Vulcan Films production) and taking in such post-split Subotsky slight returns to the portmanteau format as Denis Héroux’s The Uncanny (1977) and Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club (1981), in which the spectacle of B.A. Robertson doing his sub Frank N. Furter routine makes, admittedly, for pretty horrific stuff. Once you’ve enjoyed all of those you can go right back to the beginning and enjoy them all over again with a Kim Newman / David Flint commentary track that combines insight, opinion and humour to good effect.

“All” that remains after that is four hours (!) of audio interview, three-quarters of which are given over to selected highlights from the late Phil Nutman’s 1985 audio interview with Milton Subotsky, followed by approximately 60 minutes of Max Rosenberg’s reminiscences, as elicited by Jonathan Sothcott. Keep your wits about you and you’ll discover a nice Easter egg too, featuring several scuzzy looking but rather jolly TV spots.

Grab this box or its constituent parts over at Severin’s website and tell ’em I sent you…

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Happy Christmas!

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