Having put their own stamp on the Portmanteau Horror format with the Freddie Francis brace Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967), Amicus honchos Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg attempted to diversify their portfolio with, among others, juvenile Sci-Fi epics (They Came From Beyond Space and The Terrornauts, both 1967) and dramas that were psychologically (The Mind Of Mr. Soames, 1969) or socially (A Touch Of Love, the same year) significant… before returning to tried-and-tested multi-story chills with The House That Dripped Blood (1970), on which Subotsberg saved money by shooting in an around a lodge on the Shepperton Studio grounds and by entrusting the project to moderately talented TV director Peter Duffell. Previous collections having been MCd by Death himself (Dr. Terror) and Old Nick (Torture Garden), writer Robert Bloch came up with an embodiment of real evil to link the vignettes in this one… an estate agent!!! Actually John Bryans (as “A.J. Stoker”… geddit?) isn’t particularly scary and his role in the narrative wraparound is further weakened by the intrusions of a clueless cop (John Bennett) investigating four cases of foul play and mysterious disappearance at the titular abode.
In Bloch’s first tale Joanna Dunham plots to send horror author husband Denholm Elliott insane by disguising her toy-boy paramour as one of the writer’s own murderous creations… unfortunately this guy turns out to be a bit of a method actor; romantic rivals Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland develop a mutual obsession with a wax work of Salome… to the extent that they both end up losing their heads over her; Christopher Lee plays a widower whose tyrannical treatment of his cute daughter turns out to be justified, albeit ineffective (at this point Lee was meditating a retirement from horror roles and the plentiful sight and script digs at him throughout THTDB might well have influenced his decision); and in the final, comedic episode, Jon Pertwee essays the role of a lovey darling horror actor (desperately trying to out-ham Ingrid Pitt) who buys a vampire’s cloak which turns out to be all-too authentic.
The House That Dripped Blood cleaned up at the box office for Amicus, largely no doubt to a lurid marketing campaign based on that title (Duffle had wanted the film to be called “Death And The Maiden”!) The Peertwee section is right up there with Michael Armstrong’s Eskimo Nell as a humorous critique of low budget genre filmmaking but the varying tones of the episodes never really cohere and the all-important wraparound story plods before petering out in anticlimactic fashion. Subotsberg unceremoniously shuffled Duffle (with a minimum of kerfuffle) back to (in Pertwee’s phrase) “the dreary confines of television” TV land, while future entries in the cycle were entrusted to safer directorial hands…
… e.g. Roy Ward Baker (above left, with Subotsky) on Asylum (1972). Here young psychiatrist Robert Powell auditions 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. Orderly Geoffrey (“Crowman”) Bayldon treats him to a guided tour of the loony bin, where he meets the inmates and Bloch’s terrifying tales unfold. Barbara Parkins (that’s Parkins, poster guys!) tells of how she egged her lover Richard Todd on to the axe murder of his wife Sylvia Sims, whose dismembered body parts he wraps in brown paper and deposits in the freezer. Having ganged up on and disposed of Todd (a ludicrous but highly entertaining spectacle), the wrapped up remains turn their vengeful attentions on Barbara, who manages to chop half her face off while putting down the unruly limbs. The evidence for this is disappointingly rendered by Hammer make-up nabob Roy Ashton through the simple expedient of drawing some lines on her face with red marker pen!
Next up, financially strapped tailor Barry Morse attempts to bring back Peter Cushing’s dead son by making up a black magic suit which, when carelessly placed on a mannequin, brings on the stiffest acting since Fluff Freeman in Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors; Then (allegedly) recovering basket case Charlotte Rampling has an evil friend (Britt Eland) who turns out to be a figment of her imagination; finally, Herbert Lom builds murderous homunculi to get his retaliation in first against Patrick Magee, the psychiatrist who intends to lobotomise him. Powell drastically misses his guess re the ID of the mad medic and is strangled by the real Dr Starr, amid an outbreak of spectacular overacting. Another candidate for the job arrives as the credits roll, another cyclical suggestion of the seminal Dead Of Night (1945).
Rampling’s episode is the only real weak link in Asylum… viewers can see the “twist” coming a mile off but, compounding the insult, never get to sees Ms Ekland dancing around in the buff (as in The Wicker Man) or masturbating on the telephone (a la Get Carter). Baker was probably too much of an “Old School” director for that, nevertheless piling 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.
Asylum is just one of those films that’s always going to look rather grainy on blu-ray (there’s little to choose between this transfer and the one on Severin’s recent Amicus box set)… House That Dripped Blood fares a bit better, grain-wise, on this showing. In terms of extras, the Asylum disc carries an audio commentary with Baker and Camera Operator Neil Binney, the Inside The Fear Factory featurette, the BBC’s on-set report Two’s A Company, David J. Schow’s appreciation of Robert Bloch, the reminiscences of Subotsky’s widow Fiona and a theatrical trailer… all of these familiar from other recent editions. There’s a reversible poster and reversible sleeve options, with the choice of vintage or new Graham Humphreys artwork. The booklet, which I haven’t seen, will feature essays by Allan Bryce, Kat Ellinger and Jon Towlson.
Purchasers of THTDB are marginally better provided for vis-a-vis supplementary materials. A new commentary by Troy Howarth joins the previously heard one from director Duffell and Jonathan Rigby. Second AD Mike Higgins gets to have his say in another fresh featurette. Then there’s the familiar ‘A’ Rated Horror Film short, comprising interviews with Duffell and cast members, also the trailers, radio spots, reversible poster and sleeve options you’d be expecting and another booklet with the assessments of Brycie, Kat and Mr Towlson.
BTW, did anybody out there not guess who Dr Starr was? C’mon guys, get a grip…