Archive for the ‘Amicus Productions’ Tag

The Crimson Cult or Barbara Steele Is Green with Envy (1968)   2 comments

cult poster

British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have a certain macabre look to them. The lighting is dim and Gothic architecture and misty moors abound. The films also look similar because they often cast a veritable repertory company of actors. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Barbara Steele, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Magee, and American actors like Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith, and Jack Palance often appeared in low-budget films made by Hammer or Amicus Productions.

hammer

In Britain during that era, Hammer Productions was the largest and best known of the horror houses. Hammer Productions kept the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy going long after Universal Studios had forgotten them. Hammer’s horror films often starred Lee and Cushing and that alone induced people to buy tickets. At the same time Hammer was running Van Helsing ragged, Amicus Productions was also making horror films. Though Amicus made full-length films like THE DEADLY BEES and THE SKULL, portmanteau horror movies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT gained that studio the most attention.

amicus

Competing with Hammer and Amicus and sharing office space at Hammer House in London, Tigon British Film Productions made fewer films, but often used the same actors, sets, and props as the other studios. That means you can see Lee and Cushing in Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, Amicus’ VAULT OF HORROR, or Tigon’s THE CREEPING FLESH. Often directors like Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker shuttled back and forth between studios as well. All three studios showed a little gore and a little skin and all three were popular with audiences.

tigon

Tigon cast its actors for 1968’s THE CRIMSON CULT or CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR from the Hammer/Amicus horror repertory company. Most of the actors had worked together in earlier films. THE CRIMSON CULT leads Christopher Lee and Michael Gough appeared in films together including HORROR OF DRACULA for Hammer in 1958 and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR for Amicus in 1965. Lee and Boris Karloff starred in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD for MGM in 1958. Familiarity breeds comfort.   The fact that these seasoned actors had already worked together allowed them to converse naturally on camera. The best scenes in the film feature the leads sharing a drink and a few barbs before a fire.

lee brandy
“An then the Prime Minister said, Chris…he calls me Chris.”

After his brother goes missing, Robert Manning (Mark Eden), antiques dealer and bon vivant, travels to Craxted Lodge in fictional Greymarsh to find him. The lodge’s owner, Morley (Christopher Lee) and his niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell) invite Manning to stay at the lodge while he searches for his brother. There he meets friendly torture-device expert, Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) and crabby Elder (Michael Gough). Naturally, Manning’s arrival coincides with the annual bacchanal commemorating the burning of an infamous witch in the village. Manning gets on well with Morley and even better with Eve. Wink wink nudge nudge. He has fun while he’s awake, but at night Manning has hallucinogenic nightmares involving ritual sacrifice and document-signing. In his dreams, Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), an ancient witch sporting green makeup and horns, and her animal mask wearing cohorts try to force Manning to sign an ancient agreement. In his dreams, he fears signing the contract will mean losing his soul.

sign here
“You sure you don’t want that TrueCoat?”

Later Manning stumbles upon secret passageways and an altar room, both of which figure prominently in Hammer films and his frightening dreams. With all the talk of contract signing, I couldn’t help thinking of other films in which the characters are coerced to ‘just sign here’. Manning’s dreams remind me of a psychedelic version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, but with less coffee and more blood rituals.

moody
“Pentagrams are for closers.”

The interplay between Morley, Marsh, and Manning is my favorite part of the film. The screenplay by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln has enough witty banter for actors like Lee and Karloff to have fun with.  As usual, Lee plays an erudite aristocrat who tells only enough to make you suspect him of something. The looks and asides between him and Karloff are priceless. What about Marsh? Is he the crazed occultist invading Manning’s dreams? He does have a mysterious air and a weird hobby.

karloff
“Cindy-Lou who?”

Manning and Eve have real chemistry too and their mature love affair is a far cry from most of the American films released in 1968. Vernon Sewell directed THE CRIMSON CULT and it looks as if he had a blast. The party scene, the witch-burning festival, and even the costumes suggest the film-makers were enjoying themselves. Still, a few questions remain. Will Manning find his wayward brother? Will he be able to resist the beautifully verdant, but evil Lavinia Morley? Will Manning stop chugging Professor Marsh’s fifty-year-old cognac like a teenager at a keg party? And finally, who will win the mellifluous voice contest, Karloff or Lee?

 

THE CRIMSON CULT bears only a slight resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s story, THE DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE. In that, a college student who studies math and folklore begins to have dreams of witches and child sacrifice while living in an accursed house in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts.   The hero also dreams of traveling to other dimensions and meeting intelligent shapes. The filmmakers decided to stick with the more corporeal aspects of the story.

dear
“He’s too old for that hood.”

THE CRIMSON CULT’s distance from Miskatonic University matters less than the presence of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff in one of his last roles, Barbara Steele with horns, and a weird party featuring guests drinking champagne off a woman’s body years before Salma Hayek did it in that Mexican vampire bar. Despite the absence of Cthulhu or even Yog-Sothoth, THE CRIMSON CULT has enough secret doorways, plot twists, and Christopher Lee to make it fun to watch.

bsteele
Understated.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared earlier in the Brattle Film Notes blog.  Here’s a link.  Brattle Theatre

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Tales from the Crypt (1972)   3 comments

crypt poster

Five strangers, lost underground during a guided tour of some catacombs, find their way into a stone crypt. The door closes behind them locking them in with Sir Ralph Richardson clad in a monkshood.

ralph
Who wants to play charades?

The crypt keeper (Richardson) commands them to sit and proceeds to tell them why he’s summoned them. This anthology horror film brought to you by the good folks at Amicus Productions consists of five stories originally found in the comic books of William Gaines. Written by Gaines, Al Feldstein, and Johnny Craig and adapted for the screen by Milton Subotsky, Tales from the Crypt was the fourth portmanteau horror film made by Amicus. Patterned after the Ealing Studios’ 1945 film Dead of Night, the popular films told each character’s separate horror tale to its captive audience.

joan2
Did anyone see an ant?

The first story, “And All Through the House” stars Joan Collins, domestic bliss, and Santa. In “Reflection of Death”, Ian Hendry kisses his wife and kids and goes for a ride. “Poetic Justice” stars Peter Cushing as a sweet old man grieving the death of his wife. He loves children and dogs and has nothing but good on his mind. His evil neighbors find his quaint ways too messy for their fashionable neighborhood.

peter
Why are they so mean?

“Wish You Were Here” is a modern take on W.W. Jacobs’ story “The Monkey’s Paw”. The final tale, “Blind Alleys” stars Patrick Magee and Nigel Patrick in a memorable segment which reminds you about that thing they always say about karma.

magee
Even my kids think I’m creepy.

Full of hyperbole and graphic violence, the stories’ comic background give the film a theatrical flair. They pull you in and the performances ground the film. Full of seasoned actors, Tales from the Crypt is believable in spite of its over the top storylines.
Freddie Francis, who won two Oscars for cinematography (Sons and Lovers, Glory) and many British and European awards and nominations for films like The Elephant Man and Cape Fear directs this film as a straight horror/thriller and can ratchet up the suspense when he has to. He trusts his cast of veteran character actors to come through and they do. Joan Collins goes a bit over the top in her segment, but that’s why we love her.

guests
I brought dip.

I’ve long been a fan of anthologies and Amicus knows how to make them. Hammer gets all the glory, but I prefer these lower budget stories. We’ve seen the actors before and the sets are recycled, but the stories are a lot of fun.

In reading about this film I found out that Peter Cushing wanted the part of Arthur Grimsdyke.  Originally cast in “Wish You Were Here”, Cushing requested that he play the part of the kindly widower instead.  He had just lost his wife in real life and was instructed to play himself.  It’s a sweet role.

If you like anthology horror as much as I do, please check out my review of Vault of Horror also on this blog.

Oh I almost forgot.  My favorite part of Tales from the Crypt was when the crypt keeper, Sir Ralph Richardson first appeared and my teenaged daughter said, “Hey, is this Time Bandits?”  Smile-inducing.

evil
Clean up all this evil.

The Deadly Bees (1966)   1 comment

deadly bees

Vickie Robbins (Suzanna Leigh), a British pop star with a grueling schedule has a breakdown during a taping of a Shindig-like show.

shindig
I’m stressed.

Her doctor orders her to recuperate on a friend’s farm on remote Seagull Island. A few weeks on a quiet farm in the country sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Well, it would be if it weren’t for all those deadly bees. You see farmer and all around jerk Ralph Hargrove (Guy Doleman) keeps bees and spends most of his time experimenting with them to create a race of superbees or bees that can juggle or do your taxes or something. The film never quite tells you. That leaves Ralph’s wife, Mary (Catherine Finn) to run the farm. Their marriage leaves something to be desired as well. Ralph appears to be overly friendly toward the publican’s daughter and Mary is more devoted to her dog than any pesky humans. When Mary’s dog is attacked and killed by bees, the idyllic farm takes on a more sinister mood.

doggie
Why do they always pick on the dog?

Mary blames Ralph for the death of her beloved pet and an already strained relationship careens over an embankment. Vickie starts noticing odd things about her host and she soon suspects he’s using his bees to dispatch people he finds superfluous. She meets H.W. Manfred (Frank Finlay), beekeeper and gentleman farmer who fuels Vickie’s suspicions. After Mary meets the same fate as her pup, Vickie and Manfred pool their knowledge to try and thwart Hargrove.

face bees
Why can’t we keep our honey in a jar like other people?

Amicus Productions, a studio considered a lesser Hammer Studios, produced some terrific low budget horrors in the 1960s and 70s. They often used Hammer actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as well as big name actors and some who once had big film careers. Amicus specialized in portmanteau horror films like THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, TORTURE GARDEN, and VAULT OF HORROR and made some full-length horrors as well. Despite their reputation for low budgets, Amicus had good production values and hired talented actors and writers. Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, STRAIT-JACKET) wrote the screenplay for THE DEADLY BEES along with Anthony Marriott and Gerald Heard from his novel A Taste for Honey. The story originally appeared as STING OF DEATH as part of the ELGIN HOUR television series and starred Boris Karloff. Director, Freddie Francis (THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, TROG) helmed a few Amicus films including several anthology films.
I liked THE DEADLY BEES. Despite the bee effects (superimposing film of swarming bees over the actual film), there was some real suspense and the film had more surprises than I expected. The acting was really good. A lot of the cast straddled high and low budget films throughout their careers. The weird bee science was fun. I love the idea of attack bees that respond to scent and music. I recommend THE DEADLY BEES. I think it’s the first killer bee film so it started a genre I love. It also has an odd cameo. In the opening scene set during the taping of a pop music show, we see a band called The Birds perform. No, they’re not the Turn, Turn, Turn Byrds, but they are the band Ron Wood played in before he joined the Rolling Stones. Their tune isn’t bad either.

Buzzzzzzzzzzz.

ron
I could buy and sell all of you.

Vault of Horror (1973) 31 Days of Horror   1 comment

poster vault

Five men meet in an elevator over which they have no control. Sounds…like Tuesday morning in a large office building, right? Not so fast. The elevator takes them to a basement vault (of horror!) where they sit at a nicely set table and have drinks. Ahhhhhhhh! The film is British, after all. As the men begin to talk, they realize they all have frightening dreams so one by one they tell their stories. So begins this portmanteau horror film set in modern day (1970s) England. The five tales, directed by Roy Ward Baker (A Night To Remember, Don’t Bother To Knock) involve betrayal, revenge, and murder. And vampires! William M. Gaines and Al Feldstein of EC Comics and MAD Magazine fame wrote the stories and they boast an exaggerated, dramatic flair. All five storytellers have one thing in common. They’re all nasty people.

five
Lesser X-Men cosplayers

Daniel and Anna Massey (real life brother and sister) play siblings in the first tale. The characters they play must have had some awkward family dinners. In the second segment, Terry-Thomas and Glynis Johns are newlyweds starting a less than idyllic marriage.

glynis
Tell me again the dinner was late.

Curd Jürgens and Dawn Addams travel to India searching for novelty for their magic act in the third. They find it. In the fourth story, Michael Craig and Edward Judd partner up in a plot that goes awry. Their tale also stars Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies from the old Doctor in the House TV series. In the last of the five parts, Tom Baker ditches the TARDIS and gets a lesson in voodoo in Haiti. Denholm Elliott appears as well.

voodoo
Did you bring your co-pay?

These vignettes boast a stellar cast of British film and television actors. Some act as part of the Amicus Productions repertory company and some appear in small cameos. Amicus made a number of anthology horror films like Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), and Tales From the Crypt (1972) and often used actors borrowed from Hammer films like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and even Vincent Price to headline its casts.
My attention span rivals that of an adolescent gnat so I love anthology films and short stories. The plethora of character actors in these films makes it fun too. While Vault of Horror lacks the depth of a full-length feature film, it makes up for it with its inventiveness, cool cast, and inside jokes. At one point Michael Craig reads a paperback copy of Tales From the Crypt and later looks almost directly into the camera and says, “There’s no money in horror.” If you watch Vault of Horror with a sense of humor and enjoy the campiness, you’ll enjoy it as much as the cast seems to.

knife
You feel a sharp pain where?

I wrote this for the 31 Days of Horror challenge on cinemashame.wordpress.com @cinemashame on twitter.

I’m @echidnabot on twitter.

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October 3, 2014

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