Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors

by Charlie Largent May 18, 2024

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
Vinegar Syndrome
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee
Written by Milton Subotsky
Photographed by Alan Hume
Directed by Freddie Francis

Universal’s classic horror films were inspired by Victorian literature, Hammer Films was inspired by Universal, and Amicus Productions was inspired by Universal, Hammer, and comic books—specifically Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, cartoonishly grisly diversions that delighted the playground set while scandalizing parents and Congress alike.

Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg were already familiar with such mildly rebellious material—in 1956, they co-produced a rockabilly programmer starring Tuesday Weld called Rock, Rock, Rock. When those producers launched Amicus in 1962, they banked on It’s Trad Dad, a fast and loose jukebox musical aimed squarely at teenaged ticket-buyers. Notable as Richard Lester’s first feature, it was critically acclaimed in England but did little business stateside, a deficit that only heightened Subotsky and Rosenberg’s already keen awareness of their competition.

They seemed particularly focused on the success of Hammer Films and American-International Pictures; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee ruled Saturday matinees and Roger Corman’s elegant shockers continued to pack drive-ins. While It’s Trad Dad stumbled in the states, Corman’s Tales of Terror was drawing crowds with its combination of humor and horror. It was also an anthology. So, why not an anthology starring Cushing and Lee?

Produced by Amicus in 1965, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was a spook show divided into five risible campfire tales told with a relatively straight face by director Freddie Francis. It would be the sixth movie helmed by the groundbreaking British cinematographer who regarded such low budget fright films as a challenge: “I got a certain amount of enjoyment out of knowing that each of (my movies) was better than the script.” The director had his work cut out for him on Dr. Terror, Subotsky’s screenplay is the least compelling aspect of the film.

Francis and Subotsky agreed on one thing, these so-called portmanteau films, like O.Henry’s Full House or Dead of Night, depended on a sturdy but flexible framing device that could accommodate the disparate stories. Subotsky dreamed up a good one for Dr. Terror; Cushing plays the title character, a man named Schreck who materializes aboard a train car already crowded by five weary commuters—an architect, a family man, a jazz musician, a doctor, and a critic. Carrying a small satchel that might contain medical instruments or magic tricks, the black-cloaked Shreck presents himself as an oracle—his “house of horrors” is actually a deck of Tarot cards that can predict the future. His bored companions are expecting a harmless parlor trick, but they’ll soon be begging for mercy. 

Schreck’s first volunteer is Jim Dawson, an engineer who’s been given the chance to renovate his childhood home, a lonely cottage whose atmosphere is poisoned by the memory of a long dead sorcerer and part-time werewolf named Cosmo Valdemar. Ursula Howells plays Mrs. Biddulph, the home’s current owner whose maternal nature provides the only bit of warmth in this chilly cabin, a cozy feeling that evaporates when Dawson discovers the tomb of the mummified Valdemar. Neil McCallum, one of the voices on Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, plays Dawson, and his story takes an unexpectedly eerie turn—it appears that there’s more than one shapeshifter around the old homestead.

Allen Freeman stars in the next story, a garden variety thriller about a creeping vine that won’t stop creeping. Bernard Lee, best known for bossing around James Bond, is a scientist who thinks he has a solution for the deadly weeds (he doesn’t). Subotsky’s story is so under-cooked it makes the next segment seem inspired. Jazz musician Roy Castle stars in a cautionary tale about a greedy bandleader who rips off the melody of a voodoo ritual with extremely predictable results.

Equally predictable but, thanks to its star-power, a lot more fun, is the unambiguously titled Disembodied Hand (Subotsky’s titles were as lazy as his imagination). The episode stars Christopher Lee as an insufferable art critic (like Vincent Price in Theater of Blood, Lee seems to relish ripping the critics) and Michael Gough as the artist who does most of the suffering. And does he ever—humiliated by Lee at a show opening, Gough turns the tables only to be run over by the outraged critic. Landor loses a hand under the wheels of Lee’s car—but the hand returns to avenge its owner.

Lee and Cushing provided the marquee names but the final episode, Vampire, boasts a real up and comer in Donald Sutherland who plays a young doctor with marital problems; his wife is a vampire. Max Adrian plays his mentor who has a convenient cure for troublesome bloodsuckers. It’s an amusing segment and ends with one of the characters revealing their true nature—a nice segue-way that allows Schreck to unveil his own identity—surprise, surprise, he isn’t human. The passengers, perhaps exhausted by their ordeals, seem resigned to their fate as they wander toward a train station that doubles as a gateway to the cosmos.

It was the end of the line for those unlucky travelers but Amicus was just getting started, they had found their formula and rode it for the next decade and beyond—you didn’t need Schreck to predict their success with such titles as Tales From the Crypt (a faithful adaptation of the comic directed by Francis) and The Vault of Horror (directed by Roy Ward Baker). One of the pleasures of the new Blu ray release from Vinegar Syndrome is the superb picture quality that restores cameraman Alan Hume’s work to its original luster, especially in the beautiful 4K transfer (the package also comes with a standard Blu-ray Disc). The upgrade is a service to Francis’s work too, his direction of this memorable Saturday matinee has a special appeal to a certain generation—it’s comfort food for baby boomers.

The disc comes with a good assortment of extras including new interviews, archival documentaries and more. The full lineup of extras can be found Vinegar Syndrome’s site.

Here’s Edgar Wright on Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors:

3.8 4 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jenny Agutter fan

It was neat seeing a young Donald Sutherland.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x