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Thursday, December 21, 2017

THE AMICUS COLLECTION -- Four Blu-ray Reviews by Porfle




"THE AMICUS COLLECTION" is a Blu-ray box set from Severin Films which contains the following titles: And Now the Screaming Starts/Asylum/The Beast Must Die!/The Vault of Amicus.  Here are our collected reviews of each separate title.


ASYLUM (1973)



I missed out on most of the cool-looking Amicus productions covered in "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine when I was a kid. Except TALES FROM THE CRYPT, which I did get to see at the drive-in when it came out and was duly impressed and entertained. 

Which is exactly my reaction to finally getting to see another quintessential Amicus anthology feature, ASYLUM (Severin Films, 1973), surely just as aptly representative of the small but hard-working studio that seemed to rival Hammer in its own modest way, but with a personality all its own, back in the 60s and 70s.

With super-efficient producing partners Max Rosenberg and Milt Subotsky handling the business end of things while hiring the best artistic and technical people for the actual filmmaking duties, ASYLUM ranks as one of their finer efforts thanks to a tight script by Robert Bloch ("Psycho") and what amounts to a pretty impressive all-star cast.



Robert Powell, best known by me from such films as TOMMY, THE SURVIVOR, and the TV mini-series "Jesus of Nazareth" (in the title role, no less), is Dr. Martin, a psychiatrist applying for a position in an asylum for the criminally insane. (I especially enjoyed the robust rendition of Mussorgsky's "A Night On Bald Mountain" that accompanied his country drive to the secluded location.)

The institute's eccentric boss, Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), informs him that his predecessor, Dr. Starr, recently went violently mad himself and is now a patient with an entirely different personality.  Rutherford tells Martin that he has the job if he can interview the patients and ascertain which of them is actually Dr. Starr.

Thus hangs the anthology aspect of the film as Martin visits each patient in turn and listens to their stories, which we see in flashback.  They amount to a potent mix of spine-chilling horror tales, each boasting a kind of slow, deliberate storytelling that I find quite satisfying as well as an atmospheric British ambience with that pleasing 70s vibe. 


Things start out with a bang when patient Bonnie (Barbara Parkins, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) tells the story of "Frozen Fear", the most lurid and visceral tale in the collection.  In it, she and her lover Walter (Richard Todd, THE LONGEST DAY) plan to do away with his wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms) via dismemberment. 

Ruth, however, has been dabbling in voodoo and, even in death, turns out to be more than just the sum of her...parts.  It's the liveliest and most grotesque entry, and my favorite. (The film's spoileriffic trailer dwells particularly upon this segment.)

The next story, "The Weird Tailor", has the debt-ridden title character (Barry Morse of "The Fugitive" and "Space: 1999") accepting a lucrative commission for a very strange suit of clothes by a mysterious stranger (played by the great Peter Cushing).  The purpose of the odd suit of clothes turns out to be quite a shock for the old man, and for us when the supernatural tale reaches its violent end.


"Lucy Comes To Stay" offers a two-fer of great leading ladies with Charlotte Rampling (THE NIGHT PORTER, "The Avengers") and Britt Eklund (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN) in a story of overbearing husband George (James Villiers, REPULSION) plotting against his mentally-unstable wife while her friend Lucy stops at nothing, including murder, to protect her.  It's the most low-key entry with a predictable twist, yet I found it involving enough, especially with such an appealing cast.

The fourth tale, "Mannikins of Horror", takes place right there in the asylum with Herbert Lom as patient Dr. Byron, a man whose hobby is fashioning doll likenesses of his friends and colleagues.  He claims that he can project his soul into his own miniature self, animate it, and use it as a weapon of vengeance against his most hated enemy, who happens to be one of the asylum's inhabitants. Which, in a delightfully staged sequence, is exactly what he does.

The individual flashback tales are involving to various degrees, while the framing story inside that big, Gothic asylum ultimately delivers the goods for a twisty, satisfying finish. 

Direction by Roy Ward Baker (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS) is solid and thoroughly professional as are all other aspects of the production, and, while not really gory, it's still strong stuff for its time.

The Blu-ray from Severin contains their usual lavish bonus menu beginning with "Two's A Company", a 70s-produced BBC report on the making of the film which, in addition to cast and crew interviews, features fascinating thoughts on filmmaking from Amicus co-producer Milt Subotsky himself.  Recent interviews of David J. Schow (regarding his friend Robert Bloch) and Fiona Subotsky (about her husband Milt) yield much information and insight. 

The featurette "Inside the Fear Factory" offers directors Roy Ward Baker and Freddie Francis and producer Max J. Rosenberg talking about Amicus. There's also an informative commentary track with Baker and camera operator Neil Binney, reversible cover art, and two trailers.
 
ASYLUM is solidly made, nicely atmospheric, and just plain fun genre filmmaking that this horror fan considers time very well spent.  


AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973)



The title of the original novel by David Case was "Fengriffen", with Roger Marshall's screenplay similarly dubbed "The Bride of Fengriffen."  To the actors' dismay and my delight, the title of this 1973 Amicus production ultimately became AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (Severin Films). 

I find this not only more interesting-sounding but quite apt, as leading lady Stephanie Beacham (DRACULA A.D. 1972, "The Colbys") and various of her co-stars emit piercing, full-bodied screams every five minutes or so in reaction to some unbearable horror visited upon them by the script.

It all starts when 18th-century British nobleman Charles Fengriffen (genre stalwart Ian Ogilvy) brings his new bride Catherine (Beacham) home to the rustic but extravagantly elegant family estate in the country.  (Perennial film location Oakley Court provides the lavish exteriors, with equally elaborate interiors constructed and shot at Shepperton Studios.)


What Catherine doesn't realize--and which both Charles and everyone else take pains to hide from her--is that due to the heinous crimes of Charles' grandfather Henry against his woodsman Silas (Geoffrey Whitehead), there's a terrible curse on the house of Fengriffen that's to be visited upon the first virginal bride to reside there.  (For which she, to her grave misfortune, qualifies.)

This offers director Roy Ward Baker a chance to punctuate the formal, richly Gothic atmosphere with shocking flashes of lurid imagery as the horrified Catherine is subjected to ghostly visions such as a bloody hand plunging through Henry's portrait and glimpses of the disembodied but ambulatory hand making its way around inside the house while a spectral Silas appears intermittently at the window with gory holes for eyes. 

We're led to wonder if such visions are real or merely figments of her heated imagination--that is, until various household staff and others connected with the Fengriffens begin to die off in violent ways.  Catherine herself needs no more convincing after a spectral presence seems to force itself upon her sexually on her very wedding night, setting into motion what will become the eventual ghastly fruition of the curse.


Baker's surehanded directorial experience on such classics as A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, ASYLUM, and FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH comes into play as he moves the camera fluidly within the spacious indoor sets.  Lighting, costumes, and other production details also contribute to give this film a look beyond its relatively modest budget.

This look is similar to that of the earlier Gothic-tinged Hammer films, and indeed seems to be trying to fill the gap left by Hammer's move at the time toward a more modern image.  Yet it somehow retains what I think of as the distinctive, perhaps indefinable visual ambience of an Amicus production.

Even with its R-rating, gore is kept to a minimum although that severed hand stays quite busy and Silas' bloody axe gets its chance to swing as well.  A couple of implied rape scenes (one featuring second-billed Herbert Lom in a revelatory flashback as the evil Henry Fengriffen) and some brief nudity add to the adult content.

The closing minutes also contain a scene in which a grave is desecrated in such a violent way that it comes off as shockingly morbid, and almost makes everything that came before seem sedate in comparison.  The final twist is no less effective for its predictability--the fact that what we expected all along finally comes to pass is, in fact, somewhat satisfying.


Performances are fine, with the always-reliable Ogilvy and the wonderfully expressive Beacham aided by supporting castmembers such as Patrick Magee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, ASYLUM) as a family doctor all too familiar with the curse, and the aforementioned Lom in his brief but effective flashback scenes. 

Distinguished genre legend Peter Cushing doesn't make his appearance until around the halfway mark or later, but he makes the most of his role as a psychiatrist who tries to make scientific sense of what's happening to Catherine and those around her.  Even in those moments when the film's stately pace begins to lag, he and the other leads are always interesting to watch.

The Blu-ray from Severin Films offers a lovely remastered print with only the occasional rough patch.  The bonus menu is nicely stocked as usual, with a lengthy, clip-filled featurette about Oakley Court hosted by horror authors Allan Bryce and David Flint, an audio interview with Peter Cushing (with accompanying photo montage), a review of the film by horror author Denis Meikle, plus a trailer and radio spot.  Two seperate commentary tracks are available, one with Roy Ward Baker and Stephanie Beacham, the other with Ian Ogilvie, and both are marvelous fun to listen to.

AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is one of those simmering Gothic tales that might've been a bit slow for me in my younger days, but now it's just the thing for me to settle into and enjoy like a good book. Only turn the pages in this book and you never know when a bloody hand or an eyeless woodsman with an axe are going to jump out at you.   


THE BEAST MUST DIE! (1974)



One of the most hard-and-fast rules of cinema is that any movie is worth watching if it has a "Werewolf Break." 

Okay, I made that up, but I do find it to be true in the case of the 1974 Amicus werewolf thriller THE BEAST MUST DIE! (Severin Films), which not only does have a "Werewolf Break" but happens to be the only film I can think of to boast such a distinction.

It opens with a lively title sequence featuring eccentric millionaire Tom Newcliffe (American actor Calvin Lockhart, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT) being hunted by his own ex-military security staff in order to test their capabilities. This is in preparation for an antipated guest--namely, a werewolf. 


Newcliffe, in fact, has invited a varied array of men and women to his secluded estate for the weekend, believing one of them to be a werewolf and looking forward to the opportunity of hunting it down to satisfy his sadistic lusts for sport and blood, as he does every other kind of wild beast he comes in contact with.

Thus, we already get a strong THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME vibe, especially when Newcliffe makes it clear that none of the guests--that is, werewolf suspects--is free to leave the grounds until one of them has been exposed and terminated. 

There's also sort of a low-rent Agatha Christie flavor a la "And Then There Were None" and "Ten Little Indians", including even the traditional gathering of the suspects and surprise reveal at the end. (The script is actually adapted from a short story by James Blish, author of the very first Star Trek novel "Spock Must Die!")


What makes this variation on the old saw so much fun--besides, of course, the werewolf angle, which will have the attention of old-school monster fans from frame one--is the pure, undiluted 70s-era cheesiness of the whole thing. 

While capable enough, the direction by Paul Annett, as well as cinematography,  editing, and some rather broad acting, give the film the look and feel of a quickie TV-movie of the era. 

The original score by Douglas Gamley is perfectly fine and even somewhat reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann until he tries for a 70s funk-rock effect, which recalls the old thwacka-wacka 70s porn-movie backing tracks.

This, however, by no means hampers one's enjoyment of the film.  Rather, it increases it for viewers with a taste for fine cheese who revel in seeing such a cast, including Peter Cushing, Anton Diffring, Michael Gambon, and Charles Gray, taking part in such goings on. 


Calvin Lockhart himself overacts his role with such magnificent abandon that I kept wishing he could skip the werewolf and go up against Rod Steiger in a ham-actor cage match. 

With three successive nights of full moons, THE BEAST MUST DIE! gives us plenty of furious action (although the murky day-for-night photography sometimes makes it hard to see just what's going on) as well as lots of ensemble drama pitting the hot-blooded hunter against his own reluctant guests as he tries to trick each into revealing his or her hidden lycanthropy.  This includes even his wife, Caroline (Marlene Clark, who also tends to emote rather robustly).

When we see the werewolf itself, it's rather disappointingly played by an actual canine rather than a person in werewolf makeup (which I, being a lifelong fan of such films as THE WOLF MAN and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, would much prefer). 

I got used to this, however, and was primed when the film finally paused for its delightfully hokey "Werewolf Break", a gimmick harkening back to the days of William Castle in which we're given thirty seconds to weigh the clues and decide the true identity of the werewolf.  (I was wrong, and you probably will be, too.)


The Blu-ray from Severin Films looks good despite occasional imperfections in the source material.  Personally, I prefer my vintage monster flicks with a hint of the old grindhouse look since that's the way they used to look running through a theater projector for the thousandth time back in the good old days.  So to my eyes, the film looks just fine.

Special features include an audio essay by horror historian Troy Howarth, an informative commentary track with director Paul Arnett, the featurette "Directing the Beast" with Arnett again, and the theatrical trailer.  These extras, like the film itself, are exclusive only to the Severin 4-volume set "The Amicus Collection", which also includes "Asylum", "And Now the Screaming Starts", and "The Vault of Amicus."  Both English and Spanish soundtracks are available, with English subtitles.

There are those, of course, who will find this  practically unwatchable if they require their horror films to be more costly, refined, and sophisticated.  That's fine for them, but I'm one of many who can watch a movie like THE BEAST MUST DIE! and relish it every bit as much as those other ones--and, occasionally, even more. 


THE VAULT OF AMICUS (2017)



So you like Amicus Pictures, and you also like trailer compilations, eh?  Well then, Severin Films has just the thing for you--namely, their new Blu-ray collection entitled THE VAULT OF AMICUS (B&W/color, 63 min.), which gathers 30 or so Amicus trailers from 1960-81 together into one nice, watchable batch and also adds a commentary track and a couple of lengthy interviews with the company's founders, Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, for good measure.

It's exclusive to Severin's new 4-volume boxed set, THE AMICUS COLLECTION, which also contains Amicus classics ASYLUM, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, and THE BEAST MUST DIE!  The trailers for these show up later, of course, but the disc begins with Rosenberg and Subotsky's pioneer foray into film, a pre-Beatles teen music show called "Ring-a-Ding Rhythm" which is delightfully out of touch with where pop music was headed at the time.


What follows is an account of how the producing partners followed trends, tried new things, learned their craft through trial and error, and ended up putting out a widely-varied body of work which happened to concentrate mainly upon horror and science-fiction, the two most lucrative genres for the independent filmmakers. 

Some of the more familiar titles in the latter category are "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors", "Dr. Who and the Daleks", "The Skull", "Daleks Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.", Robert Bloch's "The Psychopath", "The Terrornauts", "They Came From Beyond Space", "The Mind of Dr. Soames", "Torture Garden", and one of their least successful efforts, "The Deadly Bees." 

A departure for them was the spy thriller "Danger Route" with Richard Johnson.  Forays into more high-brow and/or experimental territory would come with such films as "The Birthday Party" with a young Robert Shaw (who would later play Quint in "Jaws"), "What Became of Jack and Jill" (a psychological thriller), and "Thank You All Very Much" with Sandy Dennis.


But it's the good stuff (as far as I'm concerned, anyway) that Rosenberg and Subotsky kept coming back to.  As the commentary points out, experience taught them what worked and what didn't, so they just kept doing what worked as well as they could.

This resulted in a string of classics and near-classics that gave Hammer Studios a run for their money in the 60s and 70s, with such titles as "The House That Dripped Blood", "Scream and Scream Again", "I, Monster" (Christopher Lee doing Jekyll and Hyde), "Asylum", "And Now the Screaming Starts", "The Beast Must Die!", "From Beyond the Grave", "Madhouse", and that beloved duo of EC Comics adaptations, "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror."

Later, Amicus would venture into Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy-adventure romps with "The Land That Time Forgot", "At the Earth's Core", and "The People That Time Forgot."  Rosenberg and Subotsky's partnership would conclude with "The Uncanny" and "The Monster Club."


This is the stuff I read about in "Famous Monsters" magazine as a kid and was occasionally lucky enough to see on the big screen. I particularly recall seeing "Dr. Who and the Daleks" as the second half of a double bill with "Night of the Living Dead."  The colorful and relatively cheerful "Daleks" came as quite a relief for a kid who just endured Romero's grueling nightmare of terror for the first time.
 
The trailers, as usual for a collection such as this, are a mixed bag with some more interesting than others, but all in all it's a splendidly entertaining set.  Casting was an Amicus strong point, so many of them are jam-packed with familiar faces such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, Patrick Magee, Caroline Munro, Ingrid Pitt, Diana Dors, Harry Andrews, Carol Lynley, Robert Vaughn, Nigel Davenport, Patrick Wymark, Doug McClure, Robert Powell, Terence Stamp, and many others.

The commentary track by horror authors Kim Newman and David Flint is knowledgeable and fun, with nary a dead spot.  The bonus menu consists of very lengthy, in-depth interviews and remembrances by Rosenberg and Subotsky themselves (with accompanying pictures) which should prove absolutely invaluable to any interested parties. 


The trailers themselves have that wonderful grindhouse look that fills me with nostalgia--most of them look like they've been around the block a few times. (Look for the really cool Easter Egg for some fun TV spots.)

THE VAULT OF AMICUS, like any good trailer compilation, is a treasure trove of juicy clips from lots of great movies, in this case the best of a legendary production duo whose solid genre output kept us horror and sci-fi fans going back in the days before such things became mainstream and plentiful.  It's the kind of nostalgia that you just want to settle into and wallow around in for awhile.


Order THE AMICUS COLLECTION (Blu-ray 4-volume box set) from Severin Films

Asylum and And Now The Screaming Starts can be ordered separately.





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