This was the first of Amicus' famous portmanteau horror films
, and is also one of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee's many joint credits. I've seen it before, but a long time ago now, and it was on the Horror Channel on Friday, so I settled down with a nice glass of whisky.
There are five individual story segments, one for each of five travellers in a railway carriage who successively have gruesome fortunes read for them from Dr. Terror (Peter Cushing)'s tarot pack - or his House of Horrors, as he calls it. Of the five, I had of course vividly remembered Christopher Lee's segment, in which he plays a bombastic and irascible art critic who ends up being pursued by a disembodied hand. It's a decent story, a great role for Lee, and has the bonus of also featuring Michael Gough as a mischievous artist who shows up Lee's character and pays a terrible price for it. I had also remembered fragments of two of the others - one about triffid-like sentient plants and one about voodoo music. But I must confess I had forgotten the first and last (about a werewolf and a vampire respectively) so completely that if I'd seen then in isolation and without the linking narrative in the railway carriage, I would have sworn blind that I'd never seen them before.
I suspect it's probably because they just aren't very good stories. None of them are exactly stellar, to be honest, even Lee's. Their arcs are predictable and their characters do things which don't really make sense as soon as you start thinking about it. But the film as a whole is charming nonetheless. Part of the reason why has to be its utterly unlikely cast, which includes rare film appearances for Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch
, as well as a young Donald Sutherland (who had already worked with Lee a year earlier in Il castello dei morti vivi 1964
). Not an ensemble you'd readily imagine for a mid-1960s horror film )if, of course, it weren't for the fact that it actually happened), and yet somehow it works. Well, that is, I could do without Roy Castle's goofing around, but even he encapsulates something of the '60s vibe which makes these films so endearing, while I thought Alan Freeman was genuinely good. Meanwhile, the director Freddie Francis (dear to me especially from his work on Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
) creates plenty of atmosphere with claustrophobic close-ups and deliberately disorientating action sequences, and Peter Cushing infuses the central narrative with a genuine air of fear and menace - like, of course, the true professional he always was.
The story about the voodoo music probably deserves a bit more comment, too, even if (like the others) it was never going to set the world alight as an example of the story-teller's craft. It involves Roy Castle's character, a jazz musician whose agent gets him a gig in the West Indies, and who hides in the bushes while he is there writing down the tune used in a local voodoo ceremony. Back home in London, he works it into a new jazz composition, but when his band performs it, a terrible wind blows up out of nowhere, and he flees in panic through the streets, only to find himself confronted alone in his apartment by a vengeful voodoo god. At first sight, it looks a bit like a contribution to the kind of debates people have nowadays about cultural appropriation, since several West Indian characters warn Castle's character not to steal the music for himself, or voice dialogue about how what has done is an affront to their god. But it would be quite surprising to find a British film from the mid-'60s genuinely making such a post-colonial case - and especially one which also features Castle putting on a 'comedy' West Indian accent when he first finds out where he is going. In the end, I think the way it is all coded is more like 'white people - don't get mixed up in all that nasty black stuff!', rather than 'white people - show some respect for black culture'. Still, though, it at least shows some awareness of and anxiety about the origins of jazz music, perhaps capturing a small step on the way towards thinking about these things a little more sensitively.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.