Last installment, I covered anthology movies (which are almost invariably horror movies) from their 1920s beginnings up through Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath in 1963.
The success of Black Sabbath seems to have been the prompt for England’s Amicus Productions (a Hammer competitor) to release an anthology movie of its own. Intentionally or not, Amicus ended up redefining the anthology subgenre and assuming a leadership position that would last nearly a decade.
This column will treat all anthology films released during the Amicus ascendancy.
DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (UK, 1965)
This was the one: the trendsetting film from Amicus that not only proved a big hit but also redefined the subgenre by making the frame tale as exciting as the separate stories themselves.
Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky originally drafted the script in the late 1940s inspired by Dead of Night (covered in my previous column). He recruited Hammer regulars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, with Cushing playing Dr. Terror.
Watching it nowadays, you might be forgiven for wondering how it could possibly start a trend. Perhaps its biggest flaw is its spreading itself so thin with five separate stories being told within the frame.
It’s like how the original 1958 Hercules inspired more than 200 sword-and-sandal movies through 1965. It’s not the best of its kind, but it felt new at the time, and it gave ideas to others.
GALLERY OF HORROR (USA, 1966)
In some states, they actually got away with calling this one “Dr. Terror’s Gallery of Horror.”
It’s a poor man’s imitation of the British original. It also features five stories, each with a trick ending that you can probably guess.
It’s easily the worst of all anthology pictures, although the stories are surprisingly sweet, never sadistic.
John Carradine narrates the stories and Lon Chaney Jr. (hamming it up) appears in one story as a mad doctor.
TORTURE GARDEN (UK, 1967)
Here’s the second of Amicus’ seven anthologies, and for some fans it’s the best of them all.
Burgess Meredith wears eyeliner and plays Dr. Diablo (or Diabolo) in the frame tale, where five carnival guests are treated to stories (visions) of their own evil futures.
The fifth story melds into the frame tale, and the viewer isn’t sure what’s a dream and what’s real. What makes it so successful is its consistency: each story is strong, and the frame is strong, so – for a change – there are no weak spots.
In the most popular story, Jack Palace and Peter Cushing play rival Poe enthusiasts ready to fight to the death over some choice Poe artifacts. Several moments are scary, and they are never ruined by the continuous tidbits of campy glee.
Scripter Robert Bloch is most famous for Psycho. If you only see one anthology movie in your life, see this one.
SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (France/Italy, 1968)
More highbrow (not to mention high budget) than the typical anthology picture, is this three-part Poe anthology from acclaimed European directors Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, and Federico Fellini. It’s artsy, sexy, and surreal, never frightening but often startling.
The third story, featuring Terence Stamp as “Toby Dammit,” is a satire of Hollywood’s uneasy mix of highbrow pretentions and lowbrow greed.
Dammit mocks the film industry establishment… but did he really make a deal with the Devil?
BIZARRE (UK, 1970)
Not sure if this one belongs on our list, but here goes. Also known as “Tales of the Bizarre” or “Secrets of Sex,” this is an exploitation anthology film complete with full frontal male and female nudity, depicting six battles between the sexes in 1969.
Each of the six episodes mixes horror (or something supernatural) with comedy.
Tilting the picture more toward horror than comedy is the narrator in the frame tale: a 1000-year-old mummy, still in his wrappings!
The whole thing is a mishmash, but it’s pretty unusual and creative.
THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (UK, 1971)
Here’s the third of the Amicus anthologies, and it’s either the best or second best of them all.
In a gorgeous Georgian-Gothic country mansion, four stories unfold, each occurring at a different time with different residents in the house. Each flawed protagonist has a personal struggle. Some may triumph while others may succumb.
Self-referentiality is another common element in anthology films, and here two stories are self-referential in terms of horror writing or horror production.
In the first of the two, a horror writer thinks he sees one of his villainous characters in the real world. In the second, a horror actor finds a cape that gives him the abilities – and appetites – of a real vampire.
It’s Robert Bloch writing again, and it’s Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee again in meaty roles.
ASYLUM (UK, 1972)
Now here’s the fourth of the seven Amicus anthologies, and it’s the whackiest of the bunch. I think it veers into silliness, but some people including Creature Features writer John Stanley think it’s great.
Peter Cushing appears as the father of a mysterious “son” but you’ll probably best remember Herbert Lom as the creator of small “dolls” that come to life.
Each story unfolds within an insane asylum, as the inmates relate what drove them over the brink.
This was writer Robert Bloch’s third and final anthology film script.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (UK, 1972)
This fifth Amicus anthology was the company’s second such picture in under a year. They were riding high.
The title, as you probably recognize, comes from the granddaddy of print horror anthologies: EC Comics’ flagship comic series Tales from the Crypt (1950-1955). Two of the stories hail from that series, while the other three hail from EC’s companion series, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.
It literally unfolds in a crypt, where five trapped tourists tell stories. Five is generally the maximum number of stories in an anthology film, or six if you count the frame.
True to the comic series, Crypt mixes humor and gore in several stories. Yet there is something downbeat about the production, perhaps a tinge of the pessimism that underlay so many movies (of all kinds) from the early 70s.
Of the Amicus films we are comparing, it’s probably third or fourth best.
THE VAULT OF HORROR (UK, 1973)
This sixth Amicus anthology uses EC Comics as inspiration once again, using the publisher’s second-most-popular comic for its title. Four of the five episodes actually hail from EC’s Tales From the Crypt comic, while the fifth was adapted from EC’s Shock SuspenStories.
It’s always decent, never great, and a little contrived as the five storytellers find themselves trapped in an elevator which we presume counts as the “vault.”
The first story stirred controversy with its gore, as vampires stab a faucet into a victim’s neck to use as a blood tap. Ick! Some of the goriest frames were cut and apparently lost.
The last story features Tom Baker as a manic artist taking revenge on a greedy agent.
I prefer Baker when he acts easygoing as Doctor Who but have to admit he’s great when playing a madman.
ENCOUNTER WITH THE UNKNOWN (USA, 1973)
This dull low-budget American anthology is more about the classic Twilight Zone TV series than any EC Comics series. Rod Serling actually narrates, but he clearly didn’t have a hand in the poor, unimaginative scripting.
Three stories unfold, but they are all unrelated and there isn’t even a frame tale to tie things together.
It’s basic stories – a prank gone wrong, a mysterious portal, and a ghost. The portal one was my favorite, since it’s a mysterious hole in the ground.
But there’s little reason to watch the movie unless you’re a Serling completist.
Everything ends at around 80 minutes, but then the film takes another 10 minutes just to repeat scenes from before.
TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (UK, 1973)
This independent production features four stories about inmates in an asylum. Two of the stories are familiar, but the other two are so strange as to become unforgettable.
The most famous of the strange stories features a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins as a housewife whose husband installs a feminine-looking tree in their living room. Collins gets jealous and nasty (and who could blame her) as her husband shows more romantic interest in the tree than in his wife.
The second of the strange stories is difficult to describe… but it has something to do with Uncle Albert’s old-fashioned “penny farthing” bicycle that transports riders forward or backward in time.
These two stories alone make the movie worth checking out. The movie’s scripter was a woman, something increasingly common but still unusual in the early 70s.
FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (UK, 1973)
Unlike nearly all other anthology films, this film features four stories that all unfold in the same place and at the same time; one story simply flows into the next so that it’s more like episodes of a single story.
The common setting – an antique shop run by Peter Cushing – serves like a frame in which we glimpse a mysterious shadowy customer in between the episodes.
None of the stories will stick with you like those of Torture Garden or even Asylum, but the stories are consistent in quality, giving a sense of unity that even the best of anthology pictures usually lack.
The stories are linked thematically as well, as each protagonist tries to cheat Cushing in one way or another – and receives supernatural comeuppance.
This was the last Amicus horror anthology, but the small production company had one final triumph: The Land that Time Forgot with Doug McClure in 1975.