After the success of other portmanteau horror films, Dead of Night (1945) especially, screenwriter Milton Subotsky fashioned an anthology horror film for the small Amicus Studios. Amicus’s name would eventually become synonymous with horror compendiums like Tales From the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973). Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors fashioned itself as Hammer Horror-adjacent, snatching Bray Studios two leading men, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, while putting them in highly different roles than they’d been known for previously. Add in rising stars like Donald Sutherland, a blend of cheesy comedic and supernatural frights and you have all the ingredients for a stay in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors!
Five men board a train bound for Bradley where they meet the mysterious Dr. Schreck (Cushing). Telling each man his destiny from his “house of horrors,” or tarot deck, Dr. Schreck explains that after hearing their fate they’ll have a chance to change it. Five stories soon unfold with each man realizing they have little to look forward to when the train pulls into the station.
Amicus poached the the holy trinity (of sorts) for Dr. Terror. Director Freddie Francis directed several Hammer films including The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and Dracula Has Risen From His Grave (1968). Later on he’d become Amicus’ journeyman director, helming the aforementioned Tales From the Crypt. Cushing and Lee were more well-known as Hammer’s de facto dynamic duo, usually playing Dr. Van Helsing and Dracula, respectively. Here they get the opportunity to wear each others’ skin with Cushing playing the villainous Dr. Terror (complete with magnificent fake eyebrow work) to Lee’s uptight skeptic.
Having taken in other anthology horror films puts Dr. Terror at a slight disadvantage since other movies have had the chance to perfect the formula. Because German knowledge always ruins everything (talking to you, Star Wars!) Schreck’s arrival, and the reveal his name literally means “terror,” you’d have to be living under a rock to not realize his ulterior motives and what the eventual ending will be. The predictability doesn’t necessarily negate the film’s enjoyment, it just leaves you thinking of other films to transition to that boast the same twists. With that, the film’s epilogue may be predictable but it still packs an unsettling punch, particularly if you’re unnerved by death and questions of the afterlife like I am.
With these movies, let’s tackle each vignette one by one.
WEREWOLF: Let’s be frank, the titles will immediately reveal the twists of each segment. None of the vignettes break the horror mold, and with the Hammer pedigree it’s unsurprising seeing a werewolf (and a later vampire) segment here. What is interesting is that neither Cushing nor Lee are involved in either. Werewolf follows Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum) who unearths a corpse in his ancestral home. Horror rule 253: There’s never a reason good enough for opening a coffin you uncovered. The actual reasons for the werewolf’s existence and its historical significance lacks proper payoff, maybe because the segment is so short, but it’s a fun blending of a mummy plotline with a hirsute twist.
CREEPING VINE: This one is just ridiculous! Although not listed as being intentionally comedic, it’s hard fearing a vine or the shaking shrub that’s meant to terrorize everyone. Films involving unconventional sentient objects – or, if you’re into vine-based horror, 2008’s The Ruins – revolves more around how the group deals with being isolate. Not so here. Bill Rogers (Alan Freeman) and his family return from vacation and discover a mysterious vine that they can’t cut down. Literally, there’s some type of force field which throws garden tools away from it. There’s no backstory because anyway to rationalize this would be ridiculous and bog things down in the scientifically impossible, so you’re left with a few characters not realizing a stick with some leaves is being thrust towards them. By the end, when the family finds themselves trapped with a few large leaves pushing on their windows, you just gotta roll with it.
VOODOO: For some reason this feels like the longest one, dealing with a musician (Roy Castle) who steals a song from a local West Indies voodoo tribe only to discover bad things happen. For some reason voodoo was a hot commodity in horror films from the 1940s to the 1960s and every movie employing the religion uses it the same way; it consists of made-up Africans dancing and making things happen. There’s little respect for the religion itself and is utilized purely as an example of foreign agnosticism. The actual consequences of Biff Bailey’s thievery looks to be some wind, until the final reveal. Much of this segment feels like filler, with long musical diatribes that bog down everything.
DISEMBODIED HAND: Up to this point Lee’s entire character can be summed up with one word: “Nonsense.” His skepticism and uptight mien makes sense when his segment details his career as an art critic humiliated by a rival (a pre-Alfred Michael Gough). But you should know – horror rule #353 – to never mess with Christopher Lee. His character ends up running Gough’s Eric Landor down with his car, causing Landor to lose his painting hand. Much like The Tell-Tale Heart, Lee ends up haunted by a dead man’s hand.
VAMPIRE: This one is the best of the group, featuring Donald Sutherland as a small-town doctor who believes his new bride is a vampire. Sutherland is a great everyman in horror, and his baby-face naivete leads him to consult an older doctor for advice. The short’s twist plays on the unknowing competition between the two, suffice it to say one of them didn’t know they were playing a game. The reveal of the vampire and the whodunit is very inventive and plays out beautifully. I wouldn’t mind seeing this turned into a full-length film, allowing the ambiguities to blossom.
Olive’s recent Blu-ray release of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors looks gorgeous and will play well to fans of 1960s-1970s horror anthology, specifically the ones Amicus distributed. Like others in the genre not every short is a winner, and things are predictable, but the actors and frights feel fresh and creep up on you…not unlike that vine.