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Peter Cushing stars in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors

From the video box: On a train ride to oblivion, Dr. Terror joins five other men in their private compartment. Using a deck of Tarot cards, his “House of Horrors,” he predicts grotesque deaths for each one. And Dr. Terror is never wrong. Not ever. The only escape is no escape at all. The only escape is death! (1965, color)

Mark says: It is hard not to compare this Amicus production to a Hammer film. It features mostly British actors and settings, is of the horror genre, and stars two leading men who put Hammer Films on the map, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Unfortunately, this is as far as the comparison can go. The production values for which Hammer is famous certainly do not exist in this film. Amicus also fails to execute the stories in an engaging way, probably because of less than adequate scripting.

That being said, this was a successful production for Amicus, and the studio proved to be Hammer’s leading competitor for many years.

Peter Cushing (Island of Terror, The Curse of Frankenstein) plays Dr. Schreck, a mysterious Tarot card reader who shares a train compartment with five other travelers. Cushing explains that schreck is the German translation for terror. He calls the cards his “house of horrors,” so that solves the mystery of the ludicrous film title.

Don’t get me wrong, Cushing does a great job as the furtive Dr. Schreck, but he’s used primarily as a linking narrative to the five “fortunes” he tells. Each prediction is its own supernatural story, and all the stories end tragically. The stories sort of remind me of the brand of tales presented in Rod Serling’s later tv series, Night Gallery. I’ll briefly discuss each of the five stories below:

The Werewolf: This tale stars Neil McCallum as Jim Dawson, an architect returning to an old family estate to consult with the new owner (Ursula Howells as Deirdre Biddulph) regarding some structural changes she wants completed.

There’s an element of mystery to the story, but we learn early on of an ancient werewolf curse that was placed on the mansion. So, when an old coffin is found buried in the basement walls, we are not too surprised to find what comes crawling out of it nightly.

Some critics admire the pacing of these stories, but I find that the quick keep-the-story-moving pace detracts significantly from any suspense we may have enjoyed. This tale particularly suffers from the rushed pace and still, inexplicably, comes off as dull.

Watch for Peter Madden (Kiss of the Vampire) as Grandfather Caleb and Katy Wild (The Evil of Frankenstein) as Valda.

The Vines: Alan Freeman, the famous DJ, stars as Bill Rogers, a man returning home from holiday with his family. While away, mysterious vines have crawled up his house. We discover that the plants can think (we actually see a “plant brain” through a microscope) and will defend themselves from being destroyed.

The vines first murder the family dog, and then start knocking off all humans who get in their way. This story is so ridiculous that I refuse to discuss it further. I will say it does hold some camp value, though.

(For a more interesting film on killer plants, I recommend The Day of the Triffids.)

Voodoo Curse: Roy Castle is Biff Bailey, a musician who steals a ritualistic voodoo song and suffers the consequences. This is perhaps the most boring of the vignettes. It would be hard to imagine a more anti-climatic ending.

The Hand: Not surprisingly, Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, Horror Hotel) stars in the most entertaining tale of the film. Lee is fabulous as the snobby art critic, Franklyn Marsh, who is particularly harsh on artist Eric Landor, played magnificently by one of my genre favorites, Michael Gough (Konga, Horrors of the Black Museum).

Landor gets back at Mr. Marsh by tricking him into giving a favorable critique of a painting done by an ape. Marsh is extremely embarrassed by the incident. To make matters worse, Landor shows up at all of Marsh’s speaking engagements to torment him with his blunder.

Of course, Marsh does not take favorably to this, and runs Landor down in his car, which causes the artist to lose his painting hand. Depressed by his inability to paint, Landor takes his own life, but his hand lives on to endlessly attack and torture Mr. Marsh.

The story is silly, and perhaps not all that original, but Lee and Gough make it enjoyable. Wisely, more time was spent developing the characters in this tale and the ironic ending is more gratifying because of it.

Christopher Lee is also excellent as the most skeptical member in the linking narrative. It’s a joy to watch Peter Cushing and Lee play off of one another.

The Vampire: A young Donald Sutherland (1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) plays Dr. Bob Carroll, an American recently married to a French woman, Nicolle, played by Jennifer Jayne (you may remember her as Sarah Pilgrim in The Crawling Eye.)

Dr. Carroll, being in love, never noticed that his wife was a vampire. This tale, with a surprise ending, is vaguely amusing and mercifully short. Quick pacing does not seem to hurt this story as much as the others.

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors does have an element of fun to it, but most of the interesting ideas introduced never seem to come to fruition. The conclusion of the film leaves all of the characters suffering the same fate, making the “predictions” moot points. I always come away from this movie feeling dissatisfied.

The fine performances by Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough give this picture most of its validity, but even this combination can not carry the film completely.

Because of the players listed above, I mildly recommend Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. However, this is definitely not one of my favorite horror anthologies.

Scripted by Milton Subotsky (Horror Hotel) and directed by Freddie Francis (Paranoiac, The Evil of Frankenstein).

Produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.

Scene to watch for: The charred hand of Eric Landor (Michael Gough) creeps up on Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee).

Line to listen for: “A plant like that could take over the world!”

Trivia: Peter Cushing’s opening inquiry, “Room for one more in here?” is in reference to another (and superior) horror anthology, 1945’s Dead of Night. Specifically, it references the tale, “Hearse Driver.”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

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2 Comments

  1. I always think of this film in almost the same burst of memory as 1967’s TORTURE GARDEN, another horror anthology film with uneven stories including someone’s ill-placed sense of humor.

    Still, they both have a strong nostalgic connection for me, and I so want to enjoy any horror anthology that I tend to be among the most forgiving of audiences when it comes to this type of film. However, I sometimes think I’m best off letting these stay somewhat more idealized in memory instead of rewatching them after all this time.

  2. Ah, you hit on one of the biggest dangers of reviewing these types of films. There’s always the chance that as an adult the film will lose it’s thrill and charm. Fortunately, I can appreciate films through my “child’s eye” most of the time. However, there have been occasions when I have been deeply disappointed with a movie that I had idealized from childhood.

    I must say, though, that even as a boy I had some taste when it came to monster movies. Most of my favorites then are films I still enjoy today (It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.) Of course, some of the magic is gone, but I still find a lot of joy in my collection.


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