Well in the scary-stakes it’s not a very good horror movie, and while it’s tempting to suggest it just hasn’t aged too well, I doubt it was all that effective at scares back when it was first released in 1965. But there’s much affection for this film. Its the first of the Amicus portmanteaus, a series of horror anthologies that are rather a sharp contrast to Hammer’s gothic bloodletters, and has just been released in a fine extras-laden Blu-ray here in the UK. Indeed, if you approach the film as a piece of indulgent fun rather than horror, you can get quite a lot from the great casting and geek-ish in-jokes. However if you’re looking for short tales with twists and scares you’ll find more reward from a few episodes of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone, which generally feature better writing and have aged considerably better.
But then again, I guess no-one watches Hammer films these days for a good scare do they? Horror films have moved on, and the rewards of watching these older horrors are different now. It has to be remembered that as tame as they may seem today, many of these horror films had trouble getting past the censors of the time. So if nothing else they are perhaps a reminder of more innocent times and gentler horrors and if it’s fun you are after then this film can be a rewarding two hours, particularly if you’re a fan of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and enjoy seeing familiar faces from your childhood pop up, such as Roy Castle and Alan Freeman.
The five stories are framed by a narrative set onboard a train, in which five strangers sharing a carriage are joined by the strange Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing with an accent as odd as his characters name) who uses his Tarot cards to predict each of their futures. Each tale spins off the chosen cards- the first segment is a Werewolf story, the second a tale of an intelligent killer plant, the third a story of voodoo, the fourth a tale of an art critic stalked by an artists disembodied hand, and the fifth a tale of man who has unwittingly married a vampire.
It has to be said, summarising them the stories seem quite promising and there is plenty of variation in them in regards pacing and mood even if they are rather dodgy in execution. I’ve seen zombies with more life in them than Alan Freeman’s performance in his segment, but that same segment is enlivened by the casting of M himself, Bernard Lee, and seeing him clearly inebriated and worse for wear throughout all his scenes (which had to be edited together using material of him sitting down or sober enough to stand). Watching Roy Castle is a treat for those of us who grew up with him presenting BBC’s Record Breakers, Donald Sutherland looks ridiculously young and Christopher Lee quite adept at comic timing (unless thats just an accidental by-product of his script) On the whole its rather a fun film but firmly in the shadow of Hammer’s spicier efforts.
The film itself, considering it was always just a b-movie and hardly intended to be treasured for posterity has been scrubbed up pretty well with a decent remaster. The widescreen presentation displays the fine framing and the picture has reasonable grain and little sign of any heavy DNR; the colours are vivid and the mono soundtrack is clear. Extras include a one-hour making-of doc, a commentary track and an old doc on Christopher Lee that many will have seen before but is a welcome tribute considering the actors sad passing not long ago. It’s even graced by being packaged in a brilliant steelbook with great artwork. It’s easy to see the love and affection and high regard this film is held in by horror fans. Even though I may sound rather disparaging here (my own tastes leaning more toward the Hammer films) it is still a fine addition to any Horror fans collection. Just expect more (unintended) titters than scares.