So while the night skies drop below freezing and howl outside, we at the farm are looking to keep warm, huddled, and cosy from the elements and the evil wolves gnawing at our window frames. Mrs Sex Farm is a bit broken due to being foolish enough to play sports at her work, and she knows that sports doesn’t agree with her. Right now the place throbs with the heat from electric blankets, the stink of deep heat wafts all over the flat. Alas, because I´m taking care of her with tea and curry, we’re missing the wonderful night of cinema action over at KEX hostel as well as the showing of ‘Possession’ over at Bíó Paradís. Bugger.
But no mind, because we still have the wonderful Sunday Cult film Corner on the go, and for this weeks section of our “October Horror” season, we shed a light on a small but influential part of British horror cinema – AMICUS FILMS.
When I were a young lad, it was often the case that late on a weekend night on the BBC, we would get a classic British horror film before the station closed for the night. Often films from the ’60s, and ’70s, their garish colour pallette and down at heel low budget look were a real eye opener to these young eyes. Many of the films shown would be from Hammer, but they would also show some of the output from AMICUS. It could be said that AMICUS was the runty sibling to the gothic grandeur of Hammer’s output. but it would be unfair to say that they were inferior Hammer’s films often contained supernatural monsters, your Vampires, Werewolves, etc. whereas many of the subjects of AMICUS films were of a decidedly gritty realist, noir feel. Instead of monsters, many stories would involve the protagonist meeting a nasty end by supernatural or spooky means, often a karmic reaction to them being involved in trying to get away with a grisly deed, such as murder, infidelity, or greed.
The films that made AMICUS famous in horror circles was the portmanteau horror movie. A Compendium of scary tales hinged by a framing tale, scene, or theme. AMICUS made several portmanteau movies that would go on to become major cult classics, and one of the best known is the first of our double bill. ASYLUM, was made in 1972 and was directed by Roy Ward Baker, from the script by Robert Bloch (Of ‘Psycho’ fame).
The opening shot has Robert Powell in a car driving on a foggy country road to the Gothic “Asylum” of the film’s title, a secluded hospital for the incurably insane. Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” plays, telling us that there is going to be some bad shit happening at this place. Powell plays Dr Martin, a psychiatrist being interviewed for a new job at the Asylum. While there he is met by the Asylum head (Patrick Magee) who, as part of a test, asks him to interview the patients so he can determine which of them is Dr, Starr, the former head of the Asylum who underwent a complete mental breakdown. Each of the inmates tells their story to Martin, tales of grisly murder, voodoo, killer dolls, and evil friends.
What makes ASYLUM better than your usual low-level chiller is the well paced direction and camerawork. The setting of the hospital is full of low natural light, fusty rooms studded with oak and leather, creaking staircases and long darkened corridors, studded with macabre pictures of deranged mental patients from days of yore. A really spooky setting indeed. The opening framing scenes are really well done, with the intellectual sparring by Magee and Powell setting up the tone and accent of the film. The tales themselves are rather effective little chillers, eschewing the usual gore and monster madness for rather tense tales that give a nasty little twist in the payoff in the story’s climax. The acting in this film is of a higher standard than you’d come to ecpect form films of this type, with a cast of actual heavyweights that, as well as Robert Powell, include Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, and Charlotte Rampling. And the final scene at the end of the cinema is especially chilling and nasty. definitely one to watch with the lights off
While AMICUS was best known for the portmanteau horror movie, they also ventured into more traditional horror films. But even then they still managed to put a twist on the conventions of the canon. A great example of this is the second of tonight’s amicus horror films, THE BEAST MUST DIE. Directed in 1974 by Paul Annett, the screenplay was written by Michael Winder, based on the short story “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish, It stars Calvin Lockheart as Tom Newcliffe, a millionaire who invites a group of people to his secluded mansion. Once there, he informs the group that he believes one of them to be a werewolf and that he is going to find out which one and kill them. All of the group have wither an interest in werewolves, or have displayed unusual behaviour in the past that Newcliffe believes to be signs of lycanthropy. As the night progresses, the group find that they have to work together as the werewolf starts to kill the people in the mansion.
While THE BEAST MUST DIE is by no means a classic horror films, it does mess with the normal horror canon a little by splicing the monster movie with the detective mystery. After a rather funky and interesting opening scene, the film settles into a rather standard mystery thriller along the lines of a Agatha Christie film. what is different is the “werewolf break,” a pause in the action, were upon a narrator asks you the audience to guess who the werewolf is, based on what has happened in the movie. This final break gives you 30 seconds to make your decision, with a ticking stopwatch the only sound you hear. It actually makes build a huge amount of tension towards what is a thrilling climax, which is good as the clues themselves are not that great. Essentially, as more people die, it just becomes a blatant guessing game (It also didn’t help that one of the US titles actually gave the plot twist at the end away!). in between there are long, boring pieces of exposition and pseudo science monologues (Most from Peter Cushing as the werewolf “Expert,” Dr Lundgren). Overall a fun, if somewhat lightweight film.