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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)