Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
After briefly collaborating on John Llewellyn Moxey’s City of the Dead (1960) and struggling to break into the teen musical market, American-born producers Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg re-entered the British horror market under the Amicus Studios banner. They distinguished themselves from the looming shadow of genre champions Hammer by not recycling that studio's formula. Instead of making more period-pieces based on moldy Gothic mainstays, Amicus produced a series of contemporary-set anthology movies, beginning with Freddie Francis’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). Written by Subotsky himself, Dr. Terror set the template with a wraparound segment that features five strangers boarding a train, where a mysterious figure (known here as Dr. Schreck and portrayed by Peter Cushing) tells each of them a prophetic story with the help of tarot cards. Similar bookending devices cropped up in other Amicus movies, such as Francis’ Tales from the Crypt (1972), where five strangers arrive at a catacombs (via bus, instead of train) where a mysterious Crypt Keeper (Ralph Richardson) reveals their sins. Dr. Terror and Tales from the Crypt even share the same twist, as does Sergio Stivaletti’s The Three Faces of Terror (Italian: I tre volti del terrore, 2004), which shares its Italian title with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), but steals Dr. Terror's’ framing device.
The first story, Werewolf, follows an architect named Jim (Neil McCallum), who travels to make alterations to his old home at the request of the new owner (Ursula Howells). While investigating the foundation, he discovers a mysterious coffin that has been plastered into the wall. Werewolf is arguably the most Hammer-esque of the shorts and offers Francis – a graduate of the Hammer brand of movie making (Paranoiac, 1963; The Evil of Frankenstein, 1964) – the excuse to delve into the Technicolor Gothic of his recent past. In part two, Creeping Vine, a family (Alan Freeman, Ann Bell, and Sarah Nicholls) returns from vacation to find a malicious vine has grown in their garden. This section probably could’ve sustained a longer, perhaps even feature-length run-time with its cheeky corruptions of domestic bliss, deadpan pseudo-science, and charming supernatural vine effects. Its lack of closure is disappointing. Part three, Voodoo, is the comedic tale of jazz musician (Roy Castle) who steals his latest song from a local voodoo ceremony. This hyper-colorful and slapstick-driven middle section really solidifies the differences between the Amicus and Hammer models and, quite surprisingly, doesn’t go overboard with ethnic stereotypes. Part four, Disembodied Hand, concerns an art critic (Christopher Lee) who is menaced by the disembodied hand of a dead painter (Michael Gough), who he drove to suicide (after running him over with his car). Lee’s nebbish and ultimately hysterical performance (a far cry from his more famous straight villain roles), Gough’s doleful presence, and the innovative absurdity of the situation secure Disembodied Hand’s place as the highlight of the entire movie. It was also clearly an inspiration for certain scenes in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987). Things come to an end with The Vampire, in which a doctor (a very young Donald Sutherland) discovers his new French bride (Jennifer Jayne) might be a vampire. Like Creeping Vine, the finale has the makings of a feature-length movie. Its modern treatment of familiar vampire lore and bleak ending was a half-step ahead of its time.
As far as I can ascertain, Dr. Terror’s House of Horror has never been released on North American DVD. This 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray debut from Olive is being released about two weeks before a UK limited edition BD from Odeon Entertainment. The Odeon disc was reportedly color-timed to match the initial release prints Francis himself signed-off on. From what I understand, the palettes of the two BDs are significantly different, but I am not equipped to include comparison screen caps. Minus the benefit of comparison, I can say that Olive’s disc looks pretty good all on its own. The image might be a touch darker than Francis and cinematographer Alan Hume intended, but it is a horror movie, so the dim lighting and occasionally aggressive black shadows aren’t out of place. Details are tight and patterns are complex, though not quite as sharp as some similar period releases. This softness, as well as minor posterization effects and some noisy edges, are likely the effect of Francis and Hume’s focus choices, not a sign of telecine problems. Despite a bit of clumping, grain structure is steady and pretty natural (some of the scenes have some discoloured blips in place of black grain). The colors may be inaccurate (skin tones and neutral hues, like wood, are a bit orange) , but they’re still bright and generally consistent. There are some minor bleeding issues along the edges, but I believe this can be blamed on either the soft focus or slightly misaligned Technicolor strips.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack meets the basic expectations of a ‘60s horror movie from Britain. The sound quality is shallow without being flat. The dialogue and incidental sound effects are rarely muddled and volume levels are consistent throughout (if not a bit on the low side). Elisabeth Lutyens’ score stands out with its higher fidelity and more complex aural layering. I assume she composed both the more traditionally spooky motifs as well as the bombastic jazz tunes that show up in Voodoo, since bossa nova rhythms pop-up even during scare cues.
There are zero extras on this release.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.