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Vault of Horror

Monday October 31, 2011 in halloween | 70s cinema

Strange situation … almost like a dream.

Hallowe’en treat time: welcome to the Vault of Horror. Released in 1973, this is possibly the best known of the Amicus portmanteau films. Usually comprising of several short twist-in-the-tail segments which starred an array of familiar faced actors, such titles as Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1964) and Torture Garden (1967) stitched the stories together using an overarching theme. A train journey, an eerie funfair, a hospital, an antique shop. Often, as in Dr Terrors House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt (1972), the impending fate of individuals was revealed by supernatural means. For some in came in the persona of a tarot card reading Peter Cushing. Others were subject to the fortune telling of a subterranean monk played by Ralph Richardson.

The Amicus films were produced by the wonderfully named Max Rosenburg and Milton Subotsky. Like its predecessor Asylum, Vault of Horror was directed by the great Roy Ward Baker and gathers the inspired cast of Tom Baker, Michael Craig, Terry-Thomas, Curd Jürgens and Daniel Massey. Together, they assemble inside a lift in a modern day London office block and are plunged into a menacing basement. The prospect of return appears uncertain, so the five settle down to recount their own individual stories – and reveal their own fates – inspired by their own particularly vivid dreams.

  • Tom Baker, Michael Craig, Terry-Thomas, Curd Jürgens and Daniel Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Daniel Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Daniel Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Anna Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Terry-Thomas in Vault of Horror
  • Terry-Thomas in Vault of Horror
  • Curd Jürgens in Vault of Horror
  • Edward Judd in Vault of Horror
  • Michael Craig in Vault of Horror
  • Geoffrey Davies and Robin Nedwell in Vault of Horror
  • Arthur Mullard in Vault of Horror
  • Tom Baker in Vault of Horror
  • Denholm Elliott in Vault of Horror
  • Tom Baker in Vault of Horror
  • Graveyard scene in Vault of Horror
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Like the earlier Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror is inspired by the American EC horror comics from the 1950s that share the same titles (all of the stories are derived from EC although not actually from the original “The Vault of Horror”). Despite this connection, the Amicus films have a particular British 1970s flavour to them as all of them have a “modern” setting in contrast to the period flavour Hammers of the same era. The Vault of Horror casting also helps, in particular a pre Doctor Who Baker and Terry-Thomas in a rare horror role (although he more than made up for the lack of horror on his CV with the two Dr Phibes films around the same time). In general, Amicus provided a feast of screen stars in the portmanteau films. Joan Collins, Edward Judd, Denholm Elliott, Jack Palance and Burgess Meredith – decide for yourself if they were facing up to the end of their careers or were merely going through a fallow spell. Or maybe just having fun.

Anyway, time to go through each story in turn as I know that’s what you’re here for.

Midnight Mess

A man murders his sister for an inheritance and ends up providing a meal for vampires – including his sister. Real life siblings Daniel and Anna Massey appear in this segment, along with scruffy private eye Mike Pratt (from Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased). Midnight Mess is nicely atmospheric – especially the eerily empty town where events are set – and Daniel Massey plays it wonderfully straight, although the story has an ultimate comic element to it. If you happen to eat in the same town, I heartily recommend the clots.

The Neat Job

A woman is driven to distraction by the fussiness of her new husband and murders him, cuts him to pieces and stores him neatly in jars. Terry-Thomas is perfectly cast as the fastidious bachelor, heard to utter such phrases as “How can one live in chaos?” Glynis Johns is equally pleasing as his wife. If you happen to eat with Mr T-T, I recommend that you don’t forget the spaghetti sauce.

This Trick’ll Kill You

A magician and his wife kill to get hold of a genuine Indian rope trick which leads to their unpleasant deaths. Curd Jürgens and Dawn Addams play the very very foolish couple. Probably the weakest segment in the film, and I didn’t feel sorry for either of them.

Bargain in Death

A man’s scheme to give himself the appearance of death and then to collect his life insurance goes horribly wrong. There’s some more comic elements with this one, featuring Arthur Mullard, Edward Judd, Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies (popular in the day in the tv Doctor sitcoms). Bargain in Death is perhaps the most keeping with the EC Comics type of tale, where cunning plotters never get what they’ve bargained for. In fact nobody really comes out on top, except perhaps Mullard as the bemused gravedigger.

Drawn and Quartered

An artist in Haiti is given the power to make whatever he paints come true and uses it to revenge himself on the men who have been living off his work. Tom Baker plays the artist whose victims include Terence Alexander and Denholm Elliott. It’s a credit to Baker that he can deliver a series of absurd lines – including a gem such as “I want to buy voodoo” – without smiling. This is probably the best of the segments, with the revenge being particularly sweet. Look out for a terrifying sequence involving an office guillotine. But most chilling for me is Baker’s beard and Elliott’s peculiar fringe – both disturbing in equal measures.

After passing the time by recounting their dreams, the men discover that they are all dead and must recount their stories, night after night, forever. No real twist there, I’m sure you would agree. Vault of Horror comfortably sits in the genre of oft repeated late night tv horrors. Steve Coogan unwisely chose to spoof it in his Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible series – I say unwise because I don’t think it’s possible to parody something so camp as an Amicus portmanteau horror. Vault of horror has also found itself onto YouTube to delight new fans, and the Amicus films defy the usual inevitability of the US remake because of their charm; stuck in the 70s just like our stars in the office basement.

Trivia

  • The Vault of Horror sits beneath Millbank Tower in London.
  • In Bargain in Death, Michael Craig is seen reading a copy of Tales From the Crypt.
  • There is a rumoured deleted scene from the end of film, showing the characters with skeletal faces as they walk off into the night…

The IMDB entry comes with a health warning for this film: “Several creepy and gruesome moments occur throughout”. I couldn’t agree more, but don’t forget the laughs too.

The Amicus Portmanteau Series

  • Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964). Passengers on a train.
  • Torture Garden (1967). Visitors to a funfair.
  • The House That Dripped Blood (1970). Owners of a house.
  • Asylum (1972). Inmates of a hospital.
  • Tales From the Crypt (1972). Tourists in a set of underground caves.
  • Vault of Horror (1973).
  • From Beyond the Grave (1973). Customers of an antique shop.
  • The Monster Club (1980). Stories told at a peculiar nightclub – the final Amicus film.

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Voices

Friday February 11, 2011 in 70s cinema | david hemmings

The actor David Hemmings appeared in his fair share of obscure films. For every iconic movie such as Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), there are countless lesser known gems such as The System (1964 and co-starring Oliver Reed), Eye of the Devil (1966 with David Niven) and The Long Day’s Dying (1968 with Tom Bell).

Together with his wife Gayle Hunnicutt he appeared in the psychological thriller Fragment of Fear (1970), a film I’m sure I have on VHS although I’m unable to find it. A shame, because it’s now very rare and almost impossible to track down, and it’s worth the price of admission alone for the supporting cast which includes Arthur Lowe and Wilfred Hyde-White. Hemmings and Hunnicutt also made Voices in 1973, a supernatural offering sometimes known as Nightmare. I remember seeing Voices when it was shown as part of the afternoon television schedule in the early 1980s, and it proved an odd choice for daytime tv – especially to an impressionable teenager – as the film is very much in the late night chiller flavour. It’s a very creepy affair that I’ve eventually now caught up with after all those years.

Theatrical poster for Voices

Voices has some similarities with the more famous Don’t Look Now from the same year. And whilst Nicolas Roeg’s film is ultimately superior, Voices (directed by Kevin Billington) is still a minor classic in its own right. The theme of the film, which concerns a couple grieving for their drowned child who make an attempt to revive their troubled marriage, also has echoes in Lars von Trier’s recent Antichrist. More interestingly, however, The Others – the 1999 film starring Nicole Kidman – completely lifts the ghost story element of Voices, going as far as to steal some of the visual flair of the film and even the final denouement. Online reviews I’ve found also liken elements of Voices to The Sixth Sense, proving that’s there’s perhaps nothing original in a successful horror film.

The film begins very effectively, with a mostly silent opening (again a similarity to Don’t Look Now) where tragedy strikes on a boating holiday (and like Antichrist, it’s revealed that a child is put in grave danger due to parental neglect). The parents in question, Hemmings and Hunnicutt as Robert and Claire, are next seen driving through dense fog, attempting to find the remote house that belongs to Claire’s mother. Where they’ll attempt a reconciliation of sorts; flashback scenes reveal that Claire has attempted suicide and spent some time in hospital. Ploughing on blindly through the fog, Robert narrowly avoids a head on collision although they eventually locate the path to the house.

Based on a stage play by Richard Lortz, Voices does at times show its theatrical roots, although this plays to its advantage and creates a very close and claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s a two-hander between Hemmings and Hunnicutt throughout, and the sinister edge to the film is added by Claire’s gradual realisation of the mysterious others present in the house. If the film appears slow at times, it’s certainly worth sticking with for the last half hour where the supernatural element plays out. And even if this film is almost 40 years old, I feel I shouldn’t reveal the shock ending.

David Hemmings had a dual career as a director, and was behind the odd but interesting The Survivor (1981) with Robert Powell and the ghastly Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo (1978) with David Bowie. However he is possibly best known, indirectly, for directing episodes of Magnum P.I. and The A-Team which are these days sadly more likely to grace the daytime schedules than Voices.

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The Man Who Haunted Himself

Friday January 28, 2011 in 70s cinema |

Theatrical poster for The Man Who Haunted HimselfIt’s over a quarter of a century since I last watched the fondly remembered 1970 film The Man Who Haunted Himself. This is where Roger Moore plays Harold Pelham, a businessman who recovers from a near fatal car crash to discover that his life is being plagued by his exact, and slightly sinister, double. Based on the novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham by Anthony Armstrong, the film remains hugely enjoyable.

Pelham is a bowler-clad businessman, essentially very dull. Things become perplexing following the accident, and this is hinted at rather strongly with the momentary glimpse of two heartbeats on the distinctly 1970s hospital monitor. From here there’s a curious, well haunting, series of events with the sudden unseen presence of a second Mr Pelham; arranging, negotiating, playing around. It begins gradually when a buffoonish associate turns up at his house for drinks, although Pelham has no recollection of inviting him round. Similarly, he’s been playing rather well down at the snooker club. Or has he? He certainly can’t remember playing there. The film continues in this vein with Pelham convinced he has a cheeky double, and cheeky is all it is to begin with. Even following the revelation that Pelham 2 has a woman on the side it’s all rather untoward rather than threatening. And, technically, Pelham 2 isn’t married to Mrs Pelham – or is he? Whatever your moral stance, the film certainly goes nowhere near horror – the doppelganger isn’t a baddie in that sense. In fact the scariest scene in the film is when we see Roger Moore in his pajamas.

Moore’s trademark eyebrow raising is in vivid evidence during this film, used to its full potential to register Pelham’s surprise at what’s going on. He also calls the unfolding events “preposterous”, although with a beastly doppelganger doing the rounds “preposterous” might be an understatement. Perhaps a strain on his acting ability might be more apt, and Moore critics may comment that the only noticeable change to his usual acting style is the addition of a moustache. But more on that later. The acting, not the moustache.

Aware that he might be cracking up, especially following a crazed drive across pre-speed camera London in an attempt to confront his nemesis, Pelham enlists the aid of a psychiatrist, although this may not be the most sensible of moves as the psychiatrist is played by the great Freddie Jones. Jones gives one of his trademark eccentric performances, equipped with dark glasses and a suspect Scottish accent. So Jones doesn’t really help, and suggests that Pelham drop his favoured conservative suit and bowler in exchange for an outfit more in keeping with 1970. The choice of grey double breasted suit and pink shirt however proves to contribute to his downfall; after finally catching up with the pretend Pelham he is accused – rather obviously – of being the imposter. The real Mr Pelham wouldn’t dream of dressing like that…

The Man Who Haunted Himself comes just prior to The Persuaders! in the Roger Moore canon. It’s a rare example of Moore playing a character at odds with his more familiar screen persona. If the jokiness on The Persuaders! led into his tongue-in-cheek Bond, then this film is a rare stab of serious acting Roger Moore style. Despite the unintentional humour, I think he’s pretty good in the role. Moore is easy to mock, but the final scene where Pelham meets Pelham is genuinely unsettling thanks to his performance. Apart from Freddie Jones though, the supporting cast is a little underwhelming. Anton Rodgers pops up, although the only interesting thing he does is wear a very fine cravat. The ever reliable Thorley Walters is more welcome as the buffoonish associate.

The film, or at least the version I saw, has some inconsistencies. Halfway through procedures Pelham suddenly inherits a small Mediterranean manservant, which I would personally find more disturbing than encountering your own double in your home. The scene where it is revealed that Pelham 2’s business double dealing has actually resulted in things coming good for his company (Pelham 1 opposed a business merger, Pelham 2 does not) is oddly played twice. Perhaps in a bid to explain a confusing sub plot. I think we are meant to believe that ultimately Pelham 2 is the better sort, forging the better deal by being a little less, well, dull. Certainly, not to give too much away, he comes out on top…

Basil Dearden (who also worked on The Persuaders!) directs. His other notable films include The League of Gentleman and Victim from the early sixties. Later he let down his hair somewhat with The Assassination Bureau. In a horrible irony, Dearden was killed in a car crash shortly after completing The Man Who Haunted Himself. And very near to where it was shot. Spooky…

The Man Who Haunted Himself is essential late night viewing. It’s daft and cosy, and after watching you can potter on up to bed with the assurance that you are indeed yourself and not a doppelganger. Although you might want some reassurance by glancing in the mirror, registering your comfort with a minor raise of the eyebrow. Or at least have a stab at it. Harder than it looks, isn’t it?

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The Blockhouse

Friday August 27, 2010 in 70s cinema | forgotten cinema

In 1974 Peter Sellers revived his flagging film career by agreeing to resume the role of Inspector Clouseau. The Pink Panther franchise produced a run of successful films up until his death in 1980. It’s an odd coincidence that in the year before his “comeback” Sellers played another Frenchman in possibly the most obscure film he ever appeared in. The Blockhouse is not a starring vehicle for him, but rather an ensemble piece where he plays one of seven men trapped in an underground bunker during World War II. The unusual cast also includes Charles Aznavore, Leon Lissek, Jeremy Kemp and Peter Vaughan. It’s a rare straight role for Peter Sellers.

Peter Sellers in The BlockhouseThe Blockhouse is directed by Clive Rees and based on a novel by Jean Paul Clebert, which in turn is supposedly based on real life events. If this is true then it is an extraordinary story. The seven men, all prisoners of war, are trapped underground during the D-Day raids. They find themselves in a German “blockhouse”, an underground shelter with food, drink and – equally importantly – candles to keep them alive for years. And it turns into years. In 1951, so the story goes, two men were rescued from a blockhouse after surviving for seven years, four of them in total darkness.

Thus The Blockhouse is fairly depressing subject matter, although it is compelling viewing due to the excellent performances. Especially Sellers. Despite the megalomaniac he is often portrayed of in biographies, he does not attempt to steal the limelight in this film any way. A truly brilliant performer, who sadly squandered his talent on often substandard material. Peter Vaughan, another actor better known for comedy, is also very impressive as the first to crack under the strain (a piece of trivia: Vaughan also played Sellers’ father in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers). Unfortunately the film quality of The Blockhouse is poor, with the direction uneven. It’s no surprise that Rees did little else. But there are several memorable sequences. Sellers attempting to teach his fellow captives dominoes, an ill-advised bicycle race, and Sellers (again) resolved to his final moments under the earth. This, together with the final scene when the supply of candles comes to an end, is very moving.

It’s strange that The Blockhouse fell into obscurity for so long, and there’s probably a metaphor there somewhere to compare the film with the plight of the seven forgotten men. I’m not aware of it ever being on UK television. Stranger still, it is now available as part of The Peter Sellers Collection on DVD together with Where Does it Hurt? and Orders are Orders, arguably his two other least known films. I would think any Pink Panther fans buying this will be in for a shock.

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Race With the Devil

Sunday February 14, 2010 in 70s cinema |

I was surprised to find that I had never seen Race With the Devil. This 1975 film was chosen as a favourite by the author Sean Hutson in a recent edition of SFX magazine. It stars Peter Fonda and the great Warren Oates and blends a mix of road movie with a dash of Satanism. This isn’t as an accomplished movie as, say, Rosemary’s Baby but is much less mannered and far more enjoyable than Spielberg’s Duel and better than, coming much later down the line, The Hitcher and Tarantino’s Death Proof.

Theatrical poster for Race With the DevilThe premise of Race With the Devil is that of a camping holiday gone very wrong. Lacking here is campside singsongs, barbecues and cool beers, replaced instead by deadly car chases, eerie petrol stations, inefficient cops and – oh yes – snakes. Snakes that make, if this is possible, Snakes on a Plane look very ridiculous indeed. There’s lots of shots of screaming women in this film. And very often of screaming men.

Fonda and Oates play two regular guys out caravanning with their wives, Lara Parker and Loretta Swit (from MASH), who run into big trouble. Possibly the one drawback of the film is that it never settles down into a particular genre. In the early scenes we see a lot of Fonda racing around on a motorbike, stopping now and then to remove his helmet and look pretty. Perhaps a throwback to his Easy Rider days, but unnecessary. Also very early in the film Fonda and Oates happen to eavesdrop on a scene of ritual sacrifice. What begins as what could be a sequence from Carry on Camping (‘ere Sid, have a butcher’s through these binoculars and cop this!”) quickly turns into our main quartet of characters running for their lives. Like Duel, this is a film where the nameless and mostly unseen enemy pursues and pursues, relentlessly and terrifyingly. But, despite how it may have been billed over the years, it remains essentially a chase film, with only a glimpse or two of anything supernatural.

Interestingly, Race With the Devil still works brilliantly despite the fact that its central theme is now over familiar. This is possibly because the best themes will continue to be used; much of this film reminded me of the recent (although obviously much less restrained) Wolf Creek. People get chased by bogeymen. This is film lore, we learn it but it still entertains. We know that Fonda and Oates will fail in convincing the police that they are being followed by Satanists. We know that every single petrol station they visit will have a telephone that doesn’t work and a particularly creepy attendant. We know that it is absurb how they are persecuted so easily (but this is nevertheless still convincing). We suspect (and hope) that this film will end rather bleakly. So essentially Race With the Devil is manipulative of its audience, setting up a ridiculous yet highly enjoyable premise.

I suspect this movie works so well because it is so rooted in the 70s. In the pre-cellphone age a scene shows Parker and Swit visiting a library to research devil worshipping (they end up stealing two reference books). Isolation was so easier to portray 35 years ago. The sheer size and emptiness of America adds to their hopeless plight, an inhospitable and alien landscape where you don’t really have to travel as far as the hillbillies of Deliverence to find trouble.

If I had to find one word to describe Race With the Devil I would describe it as a hoot. By this I mean a film that’s simply very enjoyable but one that won’t stand up to too much scrutiny like, again, Rosemary’s Baby. The scene with the two rattlesnakes inside the caravan is superb. Oates, as always, is a very watchable actor. The director, Jack Starrett, also does a good job in adding to the drive-in exploitation canon that he excelled in. The movie is fast and energetic. What raises it high in the horror genre is its ending; sudden, nasty, shocking and brilliant.

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