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March 2010

Dr Terror's House Of Horrors

cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Roy Castle, Alan Freeman, and Michael Gough

director: Freddie Francis

88 minutes (PG) 1965
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Odeon DVD Region 2 retail
[released 22 March]

RATING: 6/10
review by Gary McMahon

Dr Terror's House Of Horrors

Five strangers board a train carriage, and they are joined there by the mysterious Dr Shreck (Peter Cushing). Shreck is the German word for terror, but the doctor seems like such a nice old man... And so begins Freddie Francis' Dr Terror's House Of Horrors, one of the lesser Amicus portmanteau films to grace the screen back when this kind of film was a mainstay of British horror cinema.

Dr Shreck proceeds to predict with a deck of tarot cards (the 'house of horrors' of the title) what will happen to each man when he reaches his destination. The five stories are variable in quality, and not very effective, but there's something about the anthology format that always makes these films worthwhile. What helps immensely is the calibre of acting talent on show - actors who could make even the sketchiest of parts into something quite special, despite the lazy writing.

The first story is Werewolf, a rather pedestrian effort featuring an architect (Neil McCallum) called back to the ancestral home he was forced to sell in order to advise on some structural alterations the new owner wants doing. Whilst there, he discovers a coffin behind a wall in a cellar, and an old family legend begins to make sense. The pay-off is banal and the whole thing has a lacklustre feel. Every time I watch the film I forget about this segment.

Creeping Vine is slightly better, but also rather silly. The weird-looking 1960s Radio One deejay Alan 'Fluff' Freeman and his comb-over return home from holiday to find that a strange vine has taken root outside his home. He and the wife try to dig it up, but the plant is having none of it: it screams when they try to chop it down and somehow manages to throw a pair of shears across the yard. A man from the ministry is called in, but he ends up throttled to death, and when his boss (played by the mighty Bernard Lee) arrives we are treated to a cumbersome finale featuring a wobbly plastic plant and a flaming newspaper brandished as a weapon.

Roy Castle camps it up in Voodoo, aided and abetted by Kenny Lynch. Yes, that's Kenny Lynch. And he gets to sing. I think this tells you all you need to know about a sub-standard tale with a stolen voodoo tune and the predictable revenge set in motion for the shifty musician plagiarist. Castle and Lynch try their best to act like a poor man's brat pack, and only end up looking silly, man.

Disembodied Hand is the best of a weak bunch, with Christopher Lee's grumpy art critic running down Michael Gough's smug artist after he is humiliated at a showing of the latter's work. The artist's hand is severed in the incident, and after he shoots himself the hand returns for revenge... Again, it's all rather predictable, but the two leads give solid enough performances to ensure that we are sufficiently distracted from the plot to have some fun. The rubbery hand is a real high point; its clumsy movements are a treat for all the wrong reasons.

Finally we have the imaginatively titled Vampire, in which Donald Sutherland's new French wife is suspected of being... yes, you've guessed it: a vampire. Will wonders never cease? Urged on by the local small-town doctor, Sutherland decides that potential victims must be saved from his blood-sucking spouse. The twist ending is dreadful, and ensures that the stories end on a rather flat note.

The final twist is lodged in the admittedly superior framing device, but we guessed it all along, didn't we? Nevertheless, Cushing and Lee are good enough to make the show worth your time, despite the insipid stories. Try as I might, I find it impossible to dislike a film as feckless and good-natured as this one. It isn't scary, and all the 'surprises' are signposted well in advance, but somehow you don't seem to care. It's the kind of film they just don't make anymore, and it would be lazy criticism to state that's a good thing - because it isn't. If more films like this were produced today, perhaps the horror genre would have a slightly better reputation than it currently enjoys.

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