Ready for this? I’ve NEVER seen an Amicus film before. I know, I know. You’re aghast, right? Paul McNamee, Peter Cushing Movie Marathon Mastermind and he’s never seen an Amicus movie? Is he for real? Well, rest assured I’ve put things right since I started writing this paragraph earlier (in fact, I watched ‘em before I started writing, but I’m not above confusing my trusty Cushettes every once in a while). A pair of 1972 films later and I’ve developed a feel for what this Hammer-lite studio was capable of and to be honest, I’m of two minds. (Note that I set out with the best intentions of watching three films but the copy of Dr. Terror my friend Kirby lent me wouldn't work on my VHS player. Worst excuse ever? Easily...)
Now, portmanteau is one of my favourite words but I’d rather think of these films as ‘anthologies’. Each of these three flicks comprises a couple short stories wrapped around a framing story of some short and as a result Sir Pete’s involvement varies from picture to picture. In the first, for example, he has very little screentime and as such Asylum is far from being a Peter Cushing Film (though he still receives top billing, perhaps unjustly). Still, long after he’d left the screen I soldiered on (bravely – in its final third this movie demands bravery) so’s I could offer a rounded opinion on the whole affair even if Britain’s Best has less than half an hour’s worth to strut his stuff.
Robert Powell (Dr Martin), Patrick Magee (Dr Lionel Rutherford), Geoffrey Bayldon (Max Wells). Frozen Fear: Barbara Parkins (Bonnie), Richard Todd (Walter), Sylvia Sims (Ruth). The Weird Tailor: Barry Morse (Bruno), Peter Cushing (Mr Smith), Ann Firbank (Anna), John Franklyn-Robbins (Stebbins). Lucy Comes to Stay: Charlotte Rampling (Barbara), Britt Ekland (Lucy), James Villiers (George), Megs Jenkins (Miss Higgins). Mannikins of Horror: Herbert Lom (Dr Byron)
Director – Roy Ward Baker, Screenplay/Based on Short Stories by Robert Bloch, Producers – Max J. Rosenberg & Milton Subotsky, Photography – Denys Coop, Music – Douglas Gamley, Makeup – Roy Ashton, Art Direction – Tony Curtis. Production Company – Amicus Film Productions.
The first thing you’re forced to notice about Asylum is that there’s classical music playing over the opening credits. It sits somewhere between quite pretentious and really ill-advised and downright silly. You’ve heard it before – "Night On Bald Mountain", which famously appears in Fantasia – but it’s so overfamiliar that hearing it in this context makes it sound ludicrous. That said, Amicus hasn’t really room for delusions of grandeur, and Asylum is hardly punching above its weight. As the (bright yellow) credits roll, I’m disappointed not to see a great big “PETER CUSHING IN”, and his name shares the screen with two other names which is an initial hint at how let down I’m destined to be by his brief role. On a side note, the art director is named Tony Curtis, but I’ve this niggling suspicion that it’s not the same guy I’m thinking of (who runs the petrol station round the corner from my neon mansion).
Douglas Gamley gets the music credit but it’s Mussorgsky’s works that make up most of the film’s score, with “Gnomus” used equally overworthily (this week’s Brand New Word) as our hero spies a series of artworks on a really dull staircase. Seriously gang, this staircase, it’s like the least interesting staircase in any horror movie ever. If you want your horror movie taken seriously, hire a staircase art director. Poor show, Tony Curtis. Poor show. Also of interest (presumably to SOMEBODY) is that the movie was written by Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch. So, yeah, that’s a sentence or whatever.
Direction is courtesy of Roy “Legend Of The” Ward “Seven Golden” Baker “Vampires”, making this the second of three collaborations with Cushing in the 1970s. He does the best he can with the material but a couple of scenes involving a marauding action figure and re-animated limbs get the better of him, I’m afraid.
The film was released in America under the altogether superior title HOUSE OF CRAZIES with the flabbergasting tagline “Come To The Asylum...TO GET KILLED!” which as invitations go is fairly inhospitable. After a promisingly daft segment in which the man Fleming wanted for Bond chops up his wife only to have the bits return to terrorize him and his girlfriend, Cushing finally appears in “The Weird Tailor” which I can assure you that despite titular evidence to the contrary was not penned by a five-year old. Herein, he pays a, well, a weird tailor (he’s... German...that’s weird, I guess?) to craft a suit (Cushing Pronunciation – “syoot”) for his unseen son out of some truly rad reflective material. The tailor Bruno elects to accept, seeing as his landlord’s breathing down his neck for cash monies and he gets to work on the garment under Cushing’s strict instructions only to work at night from a very peculiar set of measurements. Look, I’m gonna cut straight to the quick, the son’s dead and Peter wants to resurrect him but he gets shot (by his own tiny gun) and then Bruno’s even weirder girlfriend puts the syoot on a mannequin named Otto which comes to life for some reason and then wrecks the place but Cushing’s already dead so I’m not really paying attention and...
Look, he does his best but he’s not really given the time to work his magic. There IS a Cushing Ruckus but it’s not likely to qualify for shortlisting for the Academy Award For Best Cushing Ruckus (I mean, have you SEEN Seven Golden Vampires?!), and despite a sense of distance to his performance (he’s in mourning, after all) there’s not much to see. Afterwards there’s a really crap story about Britt Ekland getting up to divilment and a final piece about another one of the House’s Crazies making a little robot effigy of himself to run about and kill things but as soon as Cushing keeled over I zoned out. That tends to happen when your favourite actor departs a film you only watched to see him in. Will the next offering far any better?
Ralph Richardson (Crypt Keeper). All Through the House:- Joan Collins (Joanne Clayton), Chloe Franks (Carol Clayton), Oliver MacGreevy (Maniac Santa). Reflection of Death:- Ian Hendry (Carl Maitland), Angie Grant (Susan Blake). Poetic Justice:- David Markham (James Elliott), Robin Phillips (Elliott Sr), Peter Cushing (Arthur Grimsdyke). Wish You Were Here:- Richard Greene (Ralph Jason), Barbara Murray (Enid Jason). Blind Alleys:- Nigel Patrick (William Rogers), Patrick Magee (George Carter)
Director – Freddie Francis, Screenplay – Milton Subotsky, Based on Stories from the EC Comic Book, Producers – Milton Subotsky & Max J. Rosenberg, Photography – Norman Warwick, Music – Douglas Gamley, Makeup – Roy Ashton, Art Direction – Tony Curtis. Production Company – Amicus/Metromedia.
Another Amicus Anthology, Another Abuse of classical music (this time it’s Bach’s Tocatta And Fugue in D Minor, also from Fantasia, fact fans, but this film is SO much less sincere than Asylum that it’s perfectly suited tack). Once again Gamley runs away laughing with the music credit, while Tony Curtis returns on art design, as does the similarly “did that just say?” Joan Carpenter on makeup and Milton Subotsky on general Amicusry. Tales is directed by Freddie “Not Terence Fisher” Francis. That may be a little harsh, but I don’t care how many Oscars he’s won, when he took over the Dracula films for Hammer he stuck those stupid red and yellow filters onscreen every time Lee showed up like it WASN’T the worst idea in the world.
This time, Cushing gets second billing to Joan Collins. I find that I don’t know a lot about Collins. I’ve seen her in another Cushingening, Hammer’s Fear In The Night, but I didn’t even remember that ‘til I Wikipedia’d it and most often when I see her mentioned I’m certain I’m actually thinking of Joan Rivers. Patrick Magee also returns from the previous film for further episodic antics.
Early on, Collins and four men (one of whom looks enough like Alec Baldwin for me to mention it but not nearly enough, I think, for most people...) go off wandering moments after being warned by a nice gentleman not to lose their way and encounter a man (I’m presuming from the dub that he’s a ventriloquist, at this point) in a robe sitting on a giant skull throne. If this is anything like the frame for its sequel The Vault Of Horror I’m fairly certain where this is leading, and if it is...well, I’ll let you know when we’re done if I was right (though do note that if I’m in fact wrong, I will lie about it).
Each of the strangers recounts a tale and Collins’ takes place on a cozy Christmas Eve as her husband sets about planting presents, reading the paper (boasting the excellent orphaned headline “KIDNAP BABY”) and sipping scotch to sumptuous sounds. Poor Mr. Collins then, at the whim of his lady wife and not entirely willingly, dies all over his shiny newspaper and she begins cleaning up to the ongoing soundtrack of Christmas classics. I must admit how disappointed I was that she didn’t say “mummy’s just killed daddy, dear, shan’t be a moment” in response to her guldering upstairs daughter, which is further proof that I should be in the movies business in the 70s, somehow.
Then it’s announced on the radio that “a crazy” as Asylum would identify him has escaped and sure enough a loon dressed as Santa Claus (I actually wrote 'satan' there, twice, by accident. Hell, he might be Satan, this being a horror film and all, but I doubt it) shows up at the window to gift her some festive grief. Satan Claus sets about massaging her though in retrospect it’s more of a strangle that just doesn’t look like a strangle is all. Anyway, then the film cuts back to the Crypt (from whence, TALES...) and so on for the entire movie.
The second segment has an amazing grey-faced jump scare and I’m nearly certain Michael Palin speeds away in a car, but is generally unmemorable.The fourth concerns a retelling of the old yarn about the wish-granting monkey’s paw (in astonishingly cruel fashion) and the last features the due comeuppance of a torturous director of a home for the blind which asks a little more of its audience’s suspension of disbelief than is warranted, but it’s the third section, “Poetic Justice”, that concerns us as Cushing fans, for it is here, in the film’s best section, that Sir Pete appears.
This time, it’s as nice old Mr. Grimsdyke, whose property is sought after by a local bastard with machinations set about in order to make Sir Pete’s life rather less liveable. Friendly with the local kids and his family of awesome dogs, it’s not long before vicious rumours and a call to the pound see him stripped of company before an influx of venomous Valentine’s Day cards push him over the edge. Granted, messing about with the Ouija Board in a film like this is asking for trouble (and you really think Cushing would know better) but on the whole Grimsdyke deserves so much better than he gets. I practically spat at my screen when his dogs were taken from him. Anyway, he dies and pops back a year later as a big blue corpse (this week's Arms Up Moment) and the film never really recovers from this moment of insurmountable excellence. It really is totally wicked.
This is the first time I’ve seen Sir Pete in this category (for lack of a better term) of acting. Grimsdyke is old, unkempt, somewhat frail but with a spark behind the eyes. He’s neither particularly gentlemanly or outright menacing and thus less like the majority of Cushing’s characters, and if you fail to sympathize with him you really have no heart, you worthless meanie. Get out of here!
Also I was right about that business earlier. Totally ghosts. Also, after witnessing their tales, Crypt Keeper Ralph Richardson suggests RIGHT TO CAMERA that I may be next. That’s not fair at all. Those guys were all major jerks. I just review movies...
In summation – A much better film. It shares little in common with the inferior Asylum, and I think it owes too much of its style to the EC Comics series on which it’s based to boast an ‘Amicus Style’, but it certainly has its own ghastly identity with which to come calling. Still, I thought Hammer films could be trashy... Amicus has, on that count at least, bested them at their own game.
REVIEW: Paul McNamee
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks