Watched this afternoon with ms_siobhan
, this is one of those films I should have seem bloomin' years ago, but somehow hadn't. It's an Amicus portmanteau film, featuring four stories about tenants in the same creepy, isolated old house, and starring not only Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (each in their own separate segment), but also Denholm Eliot, Ingrid Pitt and (slightly more surprisingly) Jon Pertwee. It is not, of course, to be confused with Hammer's The House That Bled to Death
, which I did see many years ago, and is an episode from their Hammer House of Horror TV series featuring a house doing pretty much exactly what it says in the title.
The stand-out characteristic of this film for us was the sheer volume of meta references to the wider horror / fantasy / macabre tradition. The agent who lets out the house to each set of tenants, for example, is a Mr. A.J. Stoker of Hynde Street, Braye (this review includes a screen-cap of his to-let sign
). The significance of 'Stoker' should be obvious; Bray Studios
was Hammer's main base in the late '50s and early '60s, and I think
Hynde is probably a reference to Anthony Hinds, one of Hammer's most prominent and prolific producers and screen-writers (though the spelling obviously also recalls Hyde of 'Jekyll and...' fame).
There is much more, though. The house boasts a fabulous library of horror-related books, both literary and academic. Just a few of the titles I can remember seeing on screen include Dracula
(of course!), The Vampire: His Kith and Kin
by Montague Summers
, The Haunted Screen
by Lotte H. Eisner, a compilation of stories by authors such as Mervyn Peake (as ms_siobhan
pointed out, a portmanteau book for a portmanteau film), another book called The House Of Death
, etc. Meanwhile of course
the established star image of the leading cast members was milked for all it was worth. Denholm Elliott's character was tormented, Peter Cushing's a kindly gentleman, Christopher Lee's brusque and stand-offish and Ingrid Pitt's alluring and (before long) a vampire. As for Jon Pertwee, who had been playing the Third Doctor for about a year on screen by the time this was broadcast, his first appearance was in a yellow vintage car - not actually Bessie
, but jolly similar-looking.
Each story segment was individually very good. They are all the work of Robert Bloch
, and contain twists which make it almost impossible to discuss them without being spoilery. But anyone who enjoys British horror films of this era will definitely like them. They are very nicely directed indeed by Peter Duffell, who explains some of his aims and techniques in a 20-minute featurette included on the DVD - like coloured lighting, and good dramatic use of a large staircase and gallery, at the top of which characters can appear, looming above / behind others down below. The location settings are excellent, too - obviously the house itself above all, but also some nice scenes on the streets of a local small town in Peter Cushing's segment.
Of the four segments, though, we felt that although the fourth was very good in itself, it was a bit out of place alongside the other three. The film is full of meta-references, as I've noted above, but this one tips into playing them overtly for laughs, and that felt a bit jarring after the atmosphere of disquiet carefully created in the three previous stories. The fourth story is Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt's, and I've already mentioned its opening scene with him in a pseudo-Bessie above. Things continue from there. He is a horror film actor - perhaps a role which might better have been given to Cushing or Lee, but then again it is played so
meta and hammishly that it might have seemed over-kill hanging on their shoulders. He declares that he grew up with the great classic horror films, including Dracula
, but carefully specifies that he means the one with Bela Lugosi, "not this new fellow" - the new fellow whom we had just seen in the previous segment, of course. Then he buys a vampire's cloak from the elderly proprietor of a costume shop, played by Geoffrey Bayldon
- then famous as Catweazle, but, as ms_siobhan
realised, made up and costumed to resemble Dr Pretorius from Universal's Bride of Frankenstein
(1935). And then the full-on vampire stuff with Ingrid Pitt begins, and it is all very silly and great in and of itself - but just not quite right after a series of tense psychological horror thrillers.
Other than that, though, a real classic, and one which certainly delivered the goods as a Christopher Lee film. He wears The Jacket (fans will know the one I mean) in some scenes, but also a very nice finely-tailored dark suit in others, speaks in the clipped, authoritative manner that his Dracula uses when he gets the chance (beginning of Dracula
(1958), several scenes in Scars
), and stands around being tall and looking down his nose at people quite a lot. We also get a good range of cold politeness, violent anger, suppressed fear and some excellent painful roars and contortions. I'm fairly sure ms_siobhan
would express the same satisfaction with Mr. Cushing's contribution to the work, and can certainly report that she made some very approving comments about his wearing of cravats.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.