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HAMMER WHO?: SEVERIN’S “THE AMICUS COLLECTION” IS SIMPLY SMASHING

Thursday, February 8, 2018 | Blu-ray/DVD

Of all the joys a new release of a not-quite-classic horror flick can provide, context is both the most important and least often attended to. Sure, restoration is great, and pretty packaging a must, but getting to know the minds behind a film, how it was made, just where it ranks among its contemporaries, and why it’s deserving of rediscovery can increase the pleasure of watching such a film immensely.

Gods be praised then, for Severin Films’ recently released AMICUS COLLECTION, which goes a long way to provide this context for not just one film, but three, and show why the UK’s second-best fright factory deserves just as much appreciation as its more well-regarded rival. Often referred to as “The Studio That Dripped Blood,” Amicus Productions was founded by Americans Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg as an alternative to Hammer. Rosenberg, the consummate money man, saw financial opportunity in the UK’s vibrant horror scene, while Subotsky was a film buff with a chip on his shoulder. After Hammer rejected his script titled FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER sometime around 1956, he became hell-bent on blazing his own trail in the industry. As he once put it: “Hammer seem happy to make the same film over and over again. I’m always looking for something different.”

Amicus was indeed that. Unlike the schlocky gothic frighteners churned out by Hammer, Subotsky and Rosenberg used contemporary settings and a layman’s understanding of psychology to craft offerings of a grimmer, more gonzo stripe. In the tradition of Ealing Studios’ 1945 classic DEAD OF NIGHT, Amicus began to produce “portmanteau films,” that is–anthologies in which a handful unrelated shorts are tied together using a common theme, premise, or framing narrative. By their very nature, these package films allowed for a fast, inexpensive shooting schedule and quickly became Amicus’ bread and butter.

Though the Amicus name became synonymous with the portmanteau film, they also produced feature-length narratives with mixed results. Severin’s set does the unexpected–presenting only one of their popular anthologies alongside two of their lesser seen feature-length efforts.  Though few would argue that these films are the very best the studio produced, there’s no denying that they prove just how daring a duo Subotsky and Rosenberg were by showing the full breadth of their creative experiments, successful or otherwise.

First up, we have 1972’s ASYLUM directed by Roy Ward Baker and scripted by Robert Bloch (author of PSYCHO) who adapted four of his short stories for the screenplay. A genuinely intriguing framing story sees Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) interviewing for a position at home for the criminally insane. Martin’s potential employment is to be decided by a challenge—he must interview four inmates and determine which of them is actually Doctor B. Starr, the former head of the asylum who suffered a complete mental breakdown.

From its brassy title sequence, perfectly choreographed to Mussorgsky’s NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN, (in the second best use of the song after Disney’s FANTASIA, of course) to its barking mad conclusion, ASYLUM is a veritable hoot. Though the four tales of terror are relatively simple, they’re bewitching and played charmingly straight by a game cast. Peter Cushing lends his signature manner of grace and menace to the story of THE WEIRD TAILOR, while FROZEN FEAR is deservedly iconic for its images of wriggling, paper-wrapped, limbs. The best of the four is arguably LUCY COMES TO STAY, which would be a sub-par psychological study and lull in the action if it weren’t for the performances of Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland—a truly bodacious pairing, the likes of which only a weirdo genre offering like this could pull off. The fourth story, MANNIKINS OF TERROR bleeds into the framing narrative with results too whacko to spoil.

Though ASYLUM may be corny and nonsensical, these are just elements of its off-kilter charm. It’s eerie tales of minds broken by supernatural occurrences are a ton of fun, as is the film’s refusal to draw a clear line between reality and delusion. It poses the age-old film-set-in-a-madhouse question: Who’s crazier, the doctor or the patient? “Neither and both” shrieks ASYLUM, longing to drive you loony along with it.

Next is 1973’s gloriously, deceptively titled AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, Amicus’ only true foray into period drama. Again, directed by Roy Ward Baker (this time from a novel titled FENGRIFFEN by David Chase) this Gothicized fusion of THE INNOCENTS and ROSEMARY’S BABY stars Stephanie Beacham and Ian Ogilvy as newlyweds marked by a dreadful family curse. Herbert Lom, Peter Cushing and Patrick Magee round out the cast.

Catherine (Beacham) has barely said “I do” to Charles Fengriffen (Ogilvy) before she’s fleeing eyeless specters and ducking bloody fists that burst forth from family portraits. As the hauntings intensify, she discovers that an insidious curse has been placed upon the family by a long dead woodsman (Geoffrey Whitehead) whose ornery son, Silas (also Whitehead) still inhabits a hovel on the outskirts of the Fengriffen estate. With the help of Dr. Pope (Cushing) Catherine vows to discover both the cause of the curse, and its unsettling connection to Silas and her unborn child.

In some ways, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is better than your typical Hammer Horror costume drama, but also lacks the sense of restraint that makes them work. The scares come hard and fast, with very little time wasted before Beacham is screaming and running about the mansion’s halls in abject terror. This initial surge of momentum quickly runs out, and Baker struggles to hold the viewer’s interest amid the onslaught of heaving bosoms and superimposed ghoulies. Fortunately, Herbert Lom almost saves the day in his all-too-brief appearance as Sir Henry Fengriffen, Catherine’s depraved, dear-departed father-in-law, who appears in a flashback revealing the atrocious sin he committed that damned his ancestors for all time.This reveal is nasty, indeed and sends the film rocketing toward an ending that is surprisingly devastating, especially considering the house-of-haunts hokum that came before it.

The last film in this set (as well as the final horror film produced by Amicus) is 1974’s THE BEAST MUST DIE, which is, as Horror historian Troy Howarth dubs it, a “Blaxploitation werewolf who-done-it” that borrows heavily from Agatha Christie and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It begins by informing the audience “this film is a detective story—in which you are the detective.”

Millionaire and big game hunter Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) and his wife Caroline (Marlene Clark of GANJA AND HESS) invite a pack of guests to stay at their rural mansion for a weekend of relaxation and croquet. The group is composed of a diplomat (Charles Gray), a pianist (Michael Gambon), his wife (Ciaran Madden), an artist (Tom Chadbon) and an archaeologist/lycanthrope enthusiast (Peter Cushing) Tom reveals that one of them (perhaps even his wife) is secretly a werewolf, and that they are to stay at the mansion during the three nights of the full moon so that he (and the audience) can deduce which of them is a hairy beast, and kill it.  

The setup is superb, but the execution leaves much to be desired. First time feature director Paul Annett’s television background is somewhat conspicuous and even veteran cinematographer Jack Hilyard (Oscar winner for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) can’t compensate visually for a film that looks cheap, even by Amicus’ standards. The aural landscape contains an abundance of horn-heavy funk music, which may or may not be unfortunate, depending on your proclivity for such things. The beast of the title gets a great introductory shot, but the longer the fluffy dog is onscreen, the less threatening it gets. Most egregious of all, there’s an utter lack of tension or nuance to its scares. Even the infamous “Werewolf Break,” (when the film stops and encourages audiences to share their guess for who the monster is before the big reveal) is shoehorned in, seemingly without rhyme or reason, at a moment of minimal tension. Luckily, the scene that follows, in which each guest must hold a silver bullet in their mouth, is the pièce de résistance of this humble genre mashup. THE THING’s blood test scene it isn’t, but it satisfies. Ultimately, THE BEAST MUST DIE is an entertaining oddity and a fitting coda for the studio’s golden era of unconventional horror highlights. 

Severin Films presents each of these titles separately on three discs along with a fourth disc stuffed to the gills with additional extras called THE VAULT OF AMICUS. All are housed in slick black cases and a handsome box.

Special Features are abundant truly help make this set sing. Most notable is TWO’S A COMPANY, a rarely seen 1972 BBC report from the set of ASYLUM featuring interviews with Milton Subotsky, Roy Ward Baker and Charlotte Rampling, among others. On the same disc, a featurette on Robert Bloch’s career and collaboration with Amicus by David J. Schow is a nice primer on the man’s work as well as a loving tribute.

AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS has the scarcest supplements, and what’s there is almost hilariously unkind to the film. THE BEAST MUST DIE is also short on feature-specific supplements, but what’s presented is great– AND THEN THERE WERE WEREWOLVES: an audio essay by Troy Howarth—being the highlight.

Best of all is the fourth disc, THE VAULT OF AMICUS, which not only contains interviews with Rosenberg and Subotsky themselves, but over an hour of trailers charting Amicus’ start in teen rock movies, to its BAFTA-baiting middle period, to the golden age of portmanteaus and finally, it’s ignominious end producing prehistoric adventure flicks. There’s an optional audio commentary with British Horror Film Writers Kim Newman & David Flint as your guides through all things Amicus that’s a must-listen and is the kind of off-the-cuff, shoot-the-shit, factoid-filled fun feature that only true cinema-lovers like Severin would take the time to include.

Though often eclipsed by Hammer Film Productions’ long shadow, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s Amicus Productions has maintained a small yet loyal fan base drawn to its offbeat cinematic pleasures. From eccentric genre features to devilishly clever anthologies, this American experiment offered an experience that was a breed apart from the monster-centric bodice-rippers of Hammer and proved that shrewd businessmanship doesn’t preclude artistic risk.

Severin Films has gone above and beyond to present three of Amicus’ underseen gems in the best possible format with a mountain of special features. Though ASYLUM is the crown jewel of the set, the other two features are eminently watchable and show just how far Subotsky would go to avoid making the same film twice. THE AMICUS COLLECTION is a must-own for anyone with an interest in Horror history. It establishes the almost forgotten studio as a true innovator in terror and will likely drive you to seek out every anthology and feature it ever released. Still, steer clear of THE DEADLY BEES…some experiments are best forgotten.   

 

Rocco Thompson
Rocco is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and programmer. An avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous, he seeks to bring attention to and recontextualize forgotten or misunderstood films through impassioned study and analysis. His heart belongs to Jason Voorhees, Lucio Fulci, and Elvira. Follow him on Instagram: @rosemarys_gayby