Amicus Horror Compendium
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Vault of Horror (1973)
29th Nov 04
London. Five men, all strangers to one another, enter a downward lift, one by one, each man entering the lift at successive floors. They expect to exit the lift at ground level but are instead taken to a strange underground vault, wherein sits a table, some chairs, and a small bar. Confused, they exit the lift to have a look around this strange room, only to have the lift doors close, leaving them stranded in the strange room. Strangely unperturbed, they each proceed to pour themselves a drink. One of them comments on how the scenario reminds him of a recurring dream. He tells the others about this dream. It seems that all five of the strangers have a similar story to tell. Now it’s your turn…
In the early 1960’s, two New Yorkers, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg set up Amicus Films. It seems strange that two Americans were responsible for some of England’s best-loved and very British horror films. The Amicus company was a very credible rival horror studio to Hammer throughout the 60’s and 70’s and produced some of the best, campy horror flicks to ever come out of the UK. Most Amicus flicks were generally formatted as anthologies and tied together with a fairly tenuous warp-around story. While Hammer films were generally set in bygone days, the rivals preferred to place most of their stories in the altogether more uncomfortable context of modern day, thus giving them a charming and characteristic contemporary flavour. The anthologies they produced all had very similar structures and, if the truth be told, once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. While this may be true, once I saw one, I WANTED to see them all. This is meat and two veg horror story telling but it tastes so good. Must be organic…
Vault of Horror comprises five short stories which depict the recurrent dreams of each of the five men. Each of the men dreams of themselves as being thoroughly nasty individuals who eventually die in horrible circumstances. The first story is fairly pedestrian and average. The second, however, plays as a hilarious dark comedy and stars Terry-Thomas as an ageing upper class twit who decides to marry a little lady so that she can keep his house tidy. Unluckily for little Eleanor, Terry-Thomas is as obsessive-compulsive-disordered as he is gap-toothed and makes her life hell as he constantly explodes in outbursts of anger towards her. On one occasion, she moves his underwear from drawer to another, thinking that she is doing the right thing. Mistake! Thomas gets up one morning, darts to the chest of drawers and, without looking, puts on a pair of Eleanor’s frilly pink pants. His reaction is priceless, as he exclaims “But my underpants have always been in the second drawer on the left, folded double with the buttons on top!” But it gets worse, and as his rantings swell in volume and nastiness, so Eleanor’s sanity crumbles, making more messes and mistakes than ever in a hilarious performance. In one scene, Thomas repeatedly shouts “Can’t you do anything neatly?” over and over again until the poor wee lady wife bashes him on the head with a hammer. The twist ending of this tale is great – Eleanor applies Thomas’s manifesto of neatness and tidiness to her disposal of his body, as she places individual parts of him into neatly marked glass jars, laughing uncontrollably like the tormented bitch she is. “Everything in its place…” Errr…indeed. Definitely one to watch with any friends with obsessional compulsive disorder.
With solid-as-ever direction from Roy Ward Baker (Asylum, And Now the Screaming Starts, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), the compendium structure rolls along at a satisfying, comfy pace as the strange and quirky accounts of the individuals’ nightmares take us into some very strange subconscious places. While all five stories definitely have certain value – and opinion is often very split with regards to this – everyone seems to agree that the strongest story is the fifth and final segment, starring the fabulous Tom Baker, shortly before he donned his scarf and became (little) Britain’s best-loved doctor. Baker plays a painter who lives on the island of Haiti. After an old friend who happens to be on the island pays him a visit and informs him that his art is selling for a lot of money in England, Baker decides to place a voodoo curse on each of his colleagues who cheated him back in the UK. What he paints, happens. When he paints a portrait, anything he adds to the person in the portrait physically happens to that person. Sounds like a lot of fun doesn’t it? Well, it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that at the beginning of this story, he is finishing off a self-portrait which he must now look after with his life, quite literally. If anything happens to his own portrait, the voodoo curse will backfire on him and what this story cunningly depicts is not only his crusade to punish those who have wronged him, but to keep the self-portrait free of any harm. What we have here is a sinister variation on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray theme and it works a treat as we panic with Baker, running home, out of breath, to take the portrait out of his safe where it cannot breathe. Its effectively creepy material and Baker is brilliant in the role in this final story.
The wraparound story ends in an appropriately bleak fashion as the vault door opens and the men walk out into the night and disappear into the darkness, one by one. In summary however, The Vault of Horror is not a bleak picture, but rather a quintessentially British piece of genuine horror entertainment with an excellent cast that also includes Denholm Elliot and Curt Jurgens (Stromberg in The Spy who Loved Me!). Sheer bloody minded and darkly funny entertainment is what Amicus did every well. The stories are not simply scary little tales, but comedic and quirky slices of very classic British entertainment. More tea please, vicar.
Other Amicus films worth checking out are The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, From Beyond the Grave. Avoid And Now the Screaming Starts! - it’s rubbish.