Saturday, 3 September 2011
It's Better By Rail
Amicus boss Milton Subotsky considered the seminal ‘Dead of Night’ (1946) to be the greatest horror film ever made so, as soon as he could, made his own portmanteau (the first of many) ‘Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors’ (1964). It’s a classic.
The framing story is straightforward enough, with five men boarding a train at a London station. At the last minute, Dr. Shreck (Peter Cushing) joins them. As they set off, Shreck (‘terror’ in German) pulls out a Tarot deck and, to pass the time, tells each man his fortune.
The stories are, of course, uneven in tone and quality, but, in summary, are: an ancient family feud enacted with the help of a werewolf; Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman has trouble with a psychopathic vine; annoying jazz clown Roy Castle (backed by jazz giants Tubby Hayes, Shake Keane and others) steals a melody from a Voodoo ceremony and lives (sadly) to regret it; snide critic Christopher Lee is menaced by the disembodied crawling hand of a dead artist and, finally, a goofy pre-stardom Donald Sutherland has the misfortune to find out that both his wife and his boss are vampires.
The director is the brilliant Freddie Francis, who creates a sickly, oppressive world where reality and fantasy are permanently blurred and horror and foreboding hang in the air. The nightmare is reinforced by some excellent performances although, as usual, it is Peter Cushing who holds the film together. Cushing, bearded and with a thick accent, resists the temptation to go large, sticking to his tried and tested formula of subtly underplaying the character. Cushing is the master of economy, and his precise gestures and facial expressions lend the whole production credibility, enabling the leap of faith required when it is revealed at the climax that Shreck is actually Death, and that his travelling companions were all killed in a train disaster soon after departing.
The closing scenes, in which the dead men leave the carriage and shuffle off despondently into whatever is waiting for them on the other side, are genuinely chilling: a great end to a great film.