My fascination with British horror films began when I was a teenager and, as I've often mentioned, much of that developed from those classic BBC2 Saturday night horror film double bills, screened in the mid-1970s, that would cycle through the classic black and white Universal 'monster' movies and the more lurid Hammer, AIP, Tigon and Amicus back catalogues. Throw in the equal obsession with Pan Books horror omnibuses, House of Hammer magazine, Alan Frank's lovely picture books devoted to the genre, Monster Mag, James Herbert and...well, my DNA didn't know what had hit it.

Whilst those double bills played out, reminding us of the great legacy of British horror cinema, it was already clear that the horror film was moving on from hyper-Gothic fairy tales and finding a new realism. In the US, it culminated with the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist and here in Britain it was the path from Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and Death Line that took us to the films of Pete Walker, The Omen and Alien. Odeon Entertainment, already exploiting a vast back catalogue on DVD of British noir and dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s, have now turned their attention to British horror with great enthusiasm. Three new releases take us on a journey from the 'portmanteau horror' of Amicus, much beloved of League Of Gentlemen, through to the folk-realist exploitation of Tigon and finally to, what could best be described as, the Gothic horror folly that Hammer never made.

First up is Amicus' Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors. These days it's inexplicably the name of a trade union but back in 1964 it was the moniker of a fledgling production company, under the aegis of Milton Subotsky, producing horror films to rival the better known Hammer output. The difference with Amicus was that they more or less attempted to steer clear of Hammer's Gothic template and struck out with horror anthologies, such as Tales From The Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood, Vault Of Horror and From Beyond The Grave, that established a modernist Gothic situated within a familiar contemporary milieu. This essentially grew out of the writers and the source material they used. Whereas Hammer over-exploited the original Shelley and Stoker classics and other Gothic tropes such as mummies, werewolves and zombies, Amicus employed contemporary writers such as Robert Bloch or based their films on stories from the EC Comics series of the 1940s and 1950s written by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines, and the horror tales of R. Chetwynd Hayes.

When they did explore the Gothic route, it was with a more experimental approach and resulted in interesting redefinitions of the genre such as The Skull, Madhouse and I, Monster. With Dr. Terror the template is established here for the portmanteau film as it creates a linking narrative with passengers on a train journey, with each of their stories spun out by the tarot card reading Dr.  Schreck ('Terror' in German, we are reliably informed). Schreck is played by the legendary Peter Cushing sporting an outlandish pair of eyebrows and a cod Mittle European accent. He's joined on the train journey by a young Donald Sutherland, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman (for a bit of BBC Pick Of The Pops 1960s cred), Roy Castle (more light entertainment cred), Neil McCallum (British-Canadian character actor who worked on many ITC shows) and Cushing's horror sparring partner, and national treasure, Christopher Lee.

The stories get off to a cracking start with architect Jim Dawson (McCallum), traveling to a remote Scottish island to his former home to make alternations requested by the new owner, widow Mrs. Biddulph (Ursula Howells). She is recovering in solitude from the death of her husband. Dawson uncovers the coffin of Count Cosmo Valdemar behind a false wall in the cellar and thus reignites a centuries old werewolf curse. We then switch to killer vines as Bill Rogers (Freeman) and family (the pet dog has 'victim' written all over it) battle with homicidal greenery with the help of the men from the Ministry (Bernard 'M' Lee and Jeremy Kemp doing a great deal of 'pipe and glasses' acting). You'll never be unkind to a tomato plant again.

The mid-point of the film is taken up with some buffoonery from Castle and the Tubby Hayes Quintet as he swipes a voodoo ceremonial tune from a visit to the West Indies (cue Kenny Lynch and a steel band to create that essential atmosphere in the studio) and uses it in a jazz composition with some rather devastating results. It's quite strange now looking at the scenes of Castle braving the jungles to spy on the ceremony and nicking the tune without seeing it in relation to the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965 and the influx of immigrants into Britain amidst what was, socially and politically, quite a tense time. A rather flippant story about mucking around with that 'voodoo music made by them blackies' is rather wince inducing it has to be said. Especially with the mangled inference of cultural differences summed up with Castle prat falling all over the place as he runs away from a perfectly innocent black man he meets on the street and then being visited by a black 'demon' who reclaims the stolen music. Ahem.

Probably the best story in the collection is the one with Christopher Lee as art critic Franklyn Marsh. Lee has already spent much of the film in spectacularly vitriolic form deriding Schreck's fortune telling prowess and, by extension, the premise of the film in general. 'I'll tell you what it means! Absolutely nothing!' he bitches as all the other passengers query Schreck's turning of the final tarot card. He is on fabulous form here as the acidic and, it has to be said, rather queeny critic laying into the daubs of artist Eric Landor (genre veteran Michael Gough). 'My dear sir, the only advice I could possibly offer you is, give up!' he snaps whilst gutting the man's work like a 1960s version of Brian Sewell.

He's hoist by his own petard when Landor tricks him into waxing lyrical about a painting made by a chimp, making him look a bit of berk in front of a crowd of pretentious art lovers. Landor winds him up to such a degree that he decides to mow the man down in his car, crushing his hand and any artistic impulse he ever had. Cue concerned looking doctor intoning 'Artist? Not any more' as the camera zooms in on Landor's amputated arm. This is later emphasised by Gough screaming the place down as he wakes up and gazes on his deformity and his subsequent suicide. But Landor has a war of terror planned - yes, folks, it's the one about the vengeful crawling hand!  It's a wonderfully disturbing, blackly humourous tale and Lee is tremendously funny as he's terrorised by the disembodied limb and can't get rid of it no matter what he tries. Good prosthetic and mechanical effects too that still stand up reasonably well today.

The film's collection of urban horror myths concludes with Donald Sutherland as Dr. Bob Carroll. He returns to the States with new French bride Nicolle (Jennifer Jayne). However, I don't like the way she looks so lasciviously at Bob's injured finger and she seems to enjoy sucking the blood from the wound just a little much for comfort. There's a vampire on the loose and it's her (rather obvious actually), as confirmed to Carroll by his colleague Dr. Blake (Max Adrian). Blake convinces Carroll to kill Nicolle but, as you then discover, it's for purely personal reasons on his part. This is a fittingly moody conclusion with solid performances from Sutherland, Adrian and Jayne. Ignore the cliched rubber bats flapping about and just go for a sustained development of atmosphere brought to you by Freddie Francis' keen sense of lighting and the haunting Elisabeth Lutyens music.

Predictably, the train passengers are hurtling towards a destination other than the one printed on their tickets. 'Who are you?' screams Marsh. 'Haff you not guessed?' intones Schreck silkily. Eeek, it's really the end of the line. Very quaint it may seem, but this first Amicus portmanteau horror hokum is still enormous fun and both the 'crawling hand' and 'vampire' stories are excellent, chock full of great performances and bags of mood and atmosphere. Francis directs with great visual aplomb and uses Alan Hume's superb cinematography and the 2.35:1 widescreen frame splendidly.

This DVD release does rectify some of the deficiencies of the previous Anchor Bay version back in 2003. The print used on that disc had rather badly generated German opening titles, wasn't correctly framed and had a distinctly redder hue to the colour palette. The Odeon disc presents the film correctly framed, with the right opening titles, in a reasonably clean transfer and with more naturalistic colour. Alas, both versions still have the end credits cut in from a very inferior, and presumably, video-tape based source.  I would also recommend you hold on to the Anchor Bay version for the audio commentaries with Freddie Francis and Allan Bryce. Both releases contain a photo gallery and the new Odeon disc has a rather nice collection of publicity stills and lobby cards in colour and black and white.

Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors  - The Best Of British Collection (Odeon DVD ODNF168 - Region 2 - Released 22nd March 2010 - Cert PG)

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1970 - and whilst Hammer, Amicus and AIP continued to carve up the UK horror film industry between them, independent producers were in the ascendancy. One of them was Tony Tenser. Tenser specialised in producing exploitation films and, with his then production partner Michael Klinger at Compton Films, had backed Roman Polanski's first English-language films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). After splitting with Klinger, Tenser formed another company, Tigon, which was a substantial force in British cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, as a producer and a distributor. He supported the career of wunderkind Michael Reeves, producing The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General. It's the latter that brings us back to The Blood On Satan's Claw which I regard as, along with Witchfinder and The Wicker Man, one of the best horror films made in the UK in the 1970s.

Witchfinder had paved the way in the late 1960s for a more overt psychological dimension to horror as well as an emphasis on naturalism in performance (Reeves was adamant that star Vincent Price didn't camp it up in the lead role) and realism as far as violence was concerned. Satan's Claw continued this drive towards naturalism in the way it tells the folk-myth at the heart of the film. The supernatural forces depicted in the film are not dressed up in the chocolate box theatrics of Hammer and are all the more effective because of director Piers Haggard's dictum to get the actors to play it for absolute reality despite it being a period horror piece. In effect, the supernature depicted in the film is merely a symbol of the evil and corruption that can bud from that most innocent of human citizens: children. As a commentary on the decline of the counter-culture into self-destruction at the close of the 1960s it is particularly potent and chilling.

Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) uncovers a one eyed deformed, fur covered skull whilst plowing a field. This discovery seems to unleash a possessive supernatural force, one that consumes the youngsters in the village. The local judge (Patrick Wymark) is asked to investigate, but the skull disappears and the judge ignores Ralph's supernatural fears. However, the force possesses more people in the village including Rosalind Barton, the young bride to be of Peter Edmonton (a young Simon Williams) who is driven mad and sprouts a claw! As she is carted off to Bedlam, the youngsters in the village begin to practice strange rituals and are led by Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) into acts of murder, rape and blasphemy. Ralph rides to a neighbouring town to find the judge and bring him back to try and eradicate the evil as those that come in contact with it are linked physically and mentally to a deformed beast, the Behemoth, that is seeking corporeal existence.

For its first hour this is an incredibly intense experience. The narrative builds slowly to the evening when Rosalind must spend a night alone in the attic room at Peter's house. Director Piers Haggard pumps the film full of paranoia and psychological fear with Rosalind disturbed by a presence in the attic and her husband to be Peter utterly confused by what has happened. There's also a very strong allusion to the symptoms of the present day widening generation gap where parents and other elders become estranged from their children over their values and moral choices. The judge and house keeper Mistress Banham do not approve of the union and when Rosalind inexplicably goes mad, Mistress Banham merely tells Peter she knew Rosalind wasn't suitable. She is badly scratched by the girl whilst trying to calm her down and she falls ill. She then goes missing and there are a number of fruitless searches for her. One of the faults of the narrative here is that we never find out what happened to her.

The older characters do come across as puritanical and disapproving of the way the younger people around them are changing and behaving. The one older man who should be able to connect to the young villagers is the aptly named Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley) whose relationship to the science of natural order parallels the farming community's relationship to nature. Nature is ever present in the film and the evil force that is released and then is reconstituted as a horned beast worshipped by a female figurehead is suggestive of the theory that the witches of the early-modern period were actually the remnants of a pagan cult and that the Christian Church had claimed the god of the witches was in fact the Devil.

The horned God is here, as in neopagan belief, associated with nature, wilderness, sexuality, hunting and the life cycle. The film thus becomes partly a depiction of the demonisation of witchcraft by the Medieval church as well as an essay about mankind's relationship with nature and super-nature. Haggard and his cinematographer Dick Bush visually capture this in some superb use of landscapes dotted with tiny human figures. It seems to reflect the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder where large landscapes are populated by peasants, depicting the rituals of village life - agriculture, hunts, games. The film shares a similar unsentimental quality with his paintings in the way they evoke folk culture

In the first hour, there is an extraordinary sequence where Peter, attempting to work out what it was that sent Rosalind mad, spends the night in the attic. The beast tries to break through the floorboards beneath him and believing he has sealed up the route of entry he falls asleep. He wakes up to find the creature's claw around his throat which he attacks in a frenzy with a knife only to discover it's his own hand he is stabbing and which he then cuts off. It's a very disturbing moment. A memorable scene, and probably one that many of us recall as being the first nude scene we ever saw on television as teens, is where Angel attempts to seduce the Reverend, who in rejecting her is later openly accused of interfering with her in her own bid to get him out of the way.

Equally intense is the death of maid Ellen's two children, Mark (Robin Davies) and Cathy (Wendy Padbury). Mark ends up playing blind man's buff (a strange sequence that's beautifully handled by Haggard), is strangled to death and hidden under a woodpile whilst Cathy is attacked, raped and then stabbed to death by Angel and her growing following. It's the latter that's played to the hilt by Hayden and Padbury and it's both unsettling and gruesome. There's a bizarre paganistic ceremony that proceeds the rape, witnessed by both young and old (there's a very Goya-esque old crone in the crowd that adds a bizarre touch) which echoes much of the later similar material in The Wicker Man. The major problem with these developments is that whilst Ellen shows much remorse over Mark's death, she barely registers Cathy's and it doesn't come across as real enough behaviour for the character.

As the tide turns against Angel and her perverse band of followers, one of them, Margaret (Michelle Dotrice) is captured and thrown into the river, using that tried and tested 'drowning' method to see if she is a witch. Ralph rescues her and they discover 'the devil's skin' growing on her thigh and, in one of the film's more squeamish sequences, they order the local quack to cut it out. All of this is backed by a quite extraordinary score from Marc Wilkinson (reviewed here) who builds an intense hysteria into these scenes, giving them a real edge.

The film hits problems in the final half hour. The judge and his men decide to take action and the narrative devolves into the traditional horror film climax of angry villagers bearing burning torches whilst marching to confront evil in its lair. Although there's a nod to Bergman in a lovely shot of the gang marching across the wide expanse of fields, the climax does feel rather rushed too. The judge witnesses a ceremony where Ralph is about to be sacrificed and then saves the day by lancing the horned creature with the biggest ceremonial sword you could possibly clap eyes on. It's done well with Haggard using some great hand held shots, slow motion and some freeze frames that cleverly emphasise this final confrontation between man and beast. The beast itself isn't terribly well realised and Haggard wisely shoots and cuts around it.

Holding all this together are a number of great performances. Patrick Wymark as the judge is terrific, prepared to let evil take its course before taking the necessary action to remove it; the gorgeous Barry Andrews makes Ralph appealing as the unconventional hero of the film and the equally lovely Linda Hayden is pure malevolence as the possessed Angel. It looks wonderful, the score is disturbing and Haggard's directorial flourishes give the film a naturalistic power that elevates the Robert Wynne-Simmons script. Definitely up there with Witchfinder and The Wicker Man for me.

The transfer on Odeon's DVD is really superb. It's in the right ratio and it's anamorphically presented as opposed to Anchor Bay's grainy letterbox version of a number of years ago. This restoration boasts colours that are vibrant and fresh, with good contrast and a clean and blemish free transfer. You also get the original mono and a 5.1 surround mix but alas you'll need to hold onto your Anchor Bay version for the commentary with Haggard, Wynne-Simmons and Hayden, the interview with Hayden and other bits and pieces. They ain't on this disc. You do get a stills gallery with some nice colour shots and video covers.

Blood On Satan's Claw - Digitally Remastered Widescreen Edition (Odeon DVD ODNF158 - Region 2 - Released 22nd March 2010 - Cert 18)

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Finally, in 1972 comes The Asphyx. It provides something of a transition between the decorative period Gothic of Hammer and the modernism of British horror such as Scream And Scream Again and Death Line. The film is bookended with contemporary London based sequences before it delves back into period to tell the tale. There is an extraordinary opening shot here too that follows a police car chasing alongside a train to the scene of an accident. It reminds me of the contemporary settings of Theatre Of Blood but as abruptly as we get to the scene of the accident we are transported back 100 years to meet 'mad scientist' Sir Hugo Cunningham and his family.

The Asphyx was the directorial debut of Peter Newbrook who formed Glendale with John Brittany after the collapse of Titan, a previous independent film making effort in partnership with Robert Hartford-Davis. Newbrook was also second unit cameraman on Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia and he obviously pulled some strings here to enlist top cinematographer Freddie Young to shoot this. It may have its faults as a film but it looks absolutely stunning thanks to Young's luscious visuals.

Back to 1875 then and scientist/philanthropist Sir Hugo Cunningham - who seems to have single-handedly invented moving pictures and electricity - has discovered that the dark blur on his photographs of the dead or dying aren't due to his dodgy camera but are physical proof of the spirit leaving the body. However, when a tragic boating accident kills his son and his fiancee, he sees this phenomenon on the film he's made and it is actually moving towards the two victims. He makes a rather strange leap of logic to conclude that what he has seen is an ancient creature called the Asphyx which takes away the life force. After proving his theory during the recording of a public hanging and using a 'light booster', he believes he can trap the Asphyx before it reaches the body and potentially confer immortality on the victim.

Driven by grief over the loss of his son, he quite literally uses a guinea pig to experiment with ('that guinea pig can't die!') and successfully makes it immortal (I'm not making this up). Obsessed, he convinces his adopted son Giles to help him become immortal and in doing so he will confer the same gift on Giles and his fiancee and step-daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire). They will live forever...

The story is both a mix of intriguing social and personal concerns - capital punishment, free will, family loss and grief, and some rather risable Gothic elements - immortal guinea pigs, mad scientists and strange non-sequiturs about cameras with zooms, miraculous light giving crystals, an immortality casket and death dealing machinery.

Interestingly, its themes regarding the afterlife, immortality and spirituality were all Victorian obsessions. These were formed in the face of shifts in religious thought which liberated people from accepted visions of hell and how science scared them by challenging the possibility of an immortal soul and thus the hope of heaven. These doubts profoundly affected the Victorian culture of grief and mourning and the film is very much an essay in the morbidity of that culture. The themes here also echo much of the early 1970s  transhumanist thought on immortality and life extension, especially the 1972 book Man Into Superman.

Naturally, it all goes hideously wrong for Sir Hugo. The moral of many scientific romances of this sort is usually to warn us against tampering with nature and that's no exception here. They abuse a poor chap dying of tuberculosis to prove their theory that the only way to capture the Asphyx is when death is about to occur. Hugo's obsession extends to an attempt to capture his own Asphyx and achieve immortality and then foisting that upon Giles and Christina in a bizarre collection of near-death experiences via electrocution, the guillotine and asphyxiation by gas. Scared and insecure, his daughter agrees to oblige her father’s wish but with tragic results. Well, if you will leave an immortal guinea pig running around the laboratory! 'My Asphyx! My Asphyx!' cries Sir Hugo as he cuddles the loathsome little rodent and realises it's just him and the pig for company as the film flashes forward to 1972. Hugo, looking rather worse for wear, and the guinea pig, looking completely unchanged (why?) trudge the streets until miraculously, if you hadn't already guessed, he ends up in the car crash sandwich that opens the film. Cue end titles.

Much of the film is rather florrid, from the sumptuous Victoriana-porn of the production design and costumes, accentuated by Freddie Young's gorgeous photography, to the two central performances. Robert Powell is great as the adopted son Giles and gives a committed, steely portrayal, playing it entirely straight. Robert Stephens as Sir Hugo is a force to be reckoned with. His superb Sherlock Holmes from Wilder's The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes seems to be the template but his performance here is bigger and madder and really worth watching.

The direction is simple, mainly consisting of a set of wide masters and close ups and it is often slightly stilted and desperately needs some of the adrenaline that Hammer would inject into a project like this. The Asphyx itself is an interesting visual effects creation, clearly a puppet of some kind, and it convinces because the sound effects of its howling add a really disturbing dimension to its portrayal. It remains an intriguing curate's egg of a horror film, full of interesting ideas and good performances but also full of unintentionally hilarious plot developments (the guinea pig!).

This DVD set includes the original shortened UK version and the US longer version (12 mins approx) and the film been restored beautifully by BBC Post Production. It's a spotless transfer that looks gorgeous in its 2.35:1 ratio with vibrant colour, immaculate detail with good contrast and flesh tones. Extras include a restoration featurette that does show you how vastly improved this transfer is, the trailer and a stills gallery.

The Asphyx - 2 Disc Special Edition (Odeon DVD ODNF161 - Region 2 - Released 22nd February 2010 - Cert 15)


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One Response to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors, The Blood On Satan's Claw & The Asphyx / Reviews”
  1. Loving your blog!
    With your love of the classic horror films I thought you might want to support our campaign to bring back the old BBC2 Horror Double Bills!

    You can sign the petition here :
    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/bringclassichorrorfilmsbacktothebbc/

    And you can join the Facebook Page here:
    http://bit.ly/bRgk5e

    We'd love to have you as a supporter and would welcome any comments or feedback from you!
    Thanks for listening. :-)

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