Short forms have always been most successful in evoking horror, as our ancestors well knew, drawing into the darkest shadows for pleasure and instruction, creating stories because it is only in the 'made up' that we truly understand ourselves. One of the more demanding and time honored forms of written literature were 'frame" collections, wherein individual short tales were lent structural unity and thematic resonance by a central, leading plot that tied the disparate elements together, Chaucer related his Canterbury Tales and Buccachio his Decameron. Infamous (and influential) EC Comics did as much on a smaller scale, employing as their 'frame' not so much a surrounding concept as 'characters' that supplied continuity: the Crypt Keeper, the Old Witch, the Vault Keeper each introduced EC's frightening fables, lending a sense of unity to the perverse proceedings. Anthologies were no stranger to the horror genre in either literature or cinema, but the earliest to encase separate stories amidst a framework was Dead Of Night, which also happens to also be one of the best. It wasn't until several years later, during the heyday of Hammer Studios, that Amicus, their most successful competitor, began to specialize in the form. Dark Sky has now collected one of Amicus Studio's earlier omnibus frame effort Asylum together with And Now The Screaming Starts and The Beast Must Die for a triple threat of terror. The result is an affordable three set collection charting the more distinctive efforts of one of the few rivals of Hammer Studios.
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Established in the late 1950's by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky to produce educational films, Amicus focused on horror from the mid-1960s onwards. They rivalled Hammer as a production unit for several years, sharing stars, crew, and directors. The poorer cousins of Hammer, their product was always enjoyable but often lacked the viscera and style of Hammer. Focusing on a more modern atmosphere, Amicus delighted in sensationalism of an enjoyably campy sort, often falling into the camp of shlock. Fear is featured as often as fright, and no where is this more apparent than in their 'portmanteau' movies. From Tales From The Crypt to The Vault Of Terror, these fear feasts approached horrific themes and characters in a modern yet playful manner, separating them from the gothic mannerisms of Hammer, and the by then increasingly brutal horrors portrayed in America and across Europe -- small wonder, considering their comic book source.
American writer Robert Bloch penned many of these scripts, celebrating monsters and madmen with his trademark wit, irony, and dark humor. Asylum, produced in 1972, was scripted by Bloch from his own short stories, and his playful yet deadly approach to characters facing nightmares of consciousness and the supernatural are enjoyable, frightening, and, yes, silly. They often mock the very instincts they seek to exploit. Whether the self-referential humor and unsurprising 'surprise' endings please or agitate will depend on your own willingness to have fun with the anxieties that disturb you.
Available in the past from Image, and a dependable seller as a washed-out, improperly framed VHS release, Asylum is finding the attention its deserves. The plot, featuring a handful of horrific, irony-laced nightmares from Bloch (culled from pre-Psycho magazine and anthology sales ), is chillingly clever. Ripe with similar elegance (if occasionally forced plot contrivances) as The House That Bled To Death, the story centers around the arrival of young, eager psychiatrist Dr Martin (Robert Powell) at 'ye old insane asylum' to begin his new job. Expecting to meet one Dr Starr, he's instead accosted by wheelchair-bound Dr Rutherford (hypnotic-eyed Patrick Magee), who claims to have been attacked by one of the inmates.
Disconcerted, Dr Martin is told that his employer has became one of the patients! Rutherford makes an agreement with the young psychiatrist: if he can decide which of the patients is Dr. Starr after interviewing the four inmates, he gets the job. Already an air of foreboding is established by the catchy dialogue, unexpected plot-twist (which Bloch excelled in -- sometimes overmuch) and a tension-filled atmosphere. This last element only increases as Roy Ward Baker, the underrated director, infuses chills with dead-on humor. The meat of the film lies within the first person narration of each inmate's life and crime, itself both a device for drawing together the inmates into a supernaturally charged environment of terror and as a prelude to an impressively down-beat ending which, unlike many of Amicus' offerings, feels truthful in its abeyance to earlier plot-points.
Greeted by leering orderly Max Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon), who ushers him through the rooms, Martin first meets Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), ex-mistress to Walter (Richard Todd), who axed up his wife (Sylvia Syms). This first entry is a satisfying if unoriginal story of vengeance. A student of the occult, the wife's body parts spring to life. The sight of her frozen digits moving about is both harrowing and hilarious. The second entry, "The Weird Tailor," features charismatic Peter Cushing as a mysterious stranger who asks a harassed tailor to sew him together a magical suit, careful not to stray from the demonic directions of an occult tome. Bruno (said tailor), unaware that the suit is intended to bring the man's dead son back to life, finds doom not fortune in this modern folktale. The third portion introduces us to Barbara (Charlotte Rampling), a schizophrenic whose 'friend' embarks on a murder spree. This tale of split personality and repressed sexuality is characteristic of Bloch's fascination with insanity. The last (and best) story features the extraordinary Herbert Lom as Byron, a doctor laboring under the delusion that he's capable of animating dolls by the power of his mind, transferring his energy into their shells to command their deadly actions . . . except it isn't a delusion
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the feature is represented by lovely, vibrant colors. The picture is sharp without any noticeable grain or scratching. Audio is also well represented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, which is clear and concise. Featuring a Hi-Def widescreen print, 16X9 enhanced, from the original 35mm negative, this is the best Asylum has ever looked!
Extras is where this package brings something new to the table, offering us a tour of the production, including thoughtful and intimate commentary by director Roy Ward Baker (& cameraman Neil Binney), the former of which is delightful and personable, revealing the dedication and skill of the man. This insightful addition to frightfilm trivia is followed by theatrical trailers for And Now The Screaming Starts, Asylum, and The Beast Must Die, all of which were produced by Amicus. Also on board is a still gallery and informative Bios for Roy Ward Baker, Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Britt Ekland, Milton Subotsky & Max J. Rosenberg. Whew! Liner notes follow, and last but certainly not least is an additional treat -- "Inside the Fear Factory," a generous featurette exploring the life and times of the studio that fear built! A dark gift for horror fans this summer!
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AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS
And Now The Screaming Starts looks very much like a Hammer film. While several critics resist its dark charms, both the story and its direction evoke an undeniable sense of doom. Fine performances and nightmarish atmosphere evoke a lively sense of infectious terror. Speaking to modern audiences with surprisingly adult themes of familial crime and rape, this sensational story is nevertheless rooted in a beautifully captured past of gingerbread Faerie-Tale sensibilities. Directed by the unerringly professional, workman-like Roy Ward Baker, a director who contributed some of the seventies finest if oft-neglected fright films with taste, daring, and intelligence, And Now The Screaming Starts was crafted between his work on the omnibus Amicus films for which he is primarily remembered. Often ranked behind fellow Hammer directors Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis, Baker weaved ominous nightmares with innovative camera work and intense atmospheric verve; despite occasional lapses of logic in the scripts he was often forced to use, his movies have a unique charm. Based on the supernatural novel Fengriffen, this visual feast of lush surrealism, lust, and occult re-occurrence is an uneven if worthwhile addition to traditional gothic horror. Nothing particularly new in terms of general theme, owing much of its suspense (and structure) to the revenge tragedies popular before even Shakespeare wielded a quill, the treatment of cyclic retribution, corruption, and possession is engaging and surprisingly exploitative.
Focusing on a feud between a corrupted land barren of yore and a balefully miss-used servant, this 18th century pot-boiler centers on young Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy), who brings his blushing bride Catherine (Stephanie Beacham) to the family estate in England. Upon setting foot in the centuries-old ancestral domain, Catherine suffers visions which are themselves linked to a foreboding portrait of Charles's grandfather Henry (Herbert Lom). Soon enough, the lovely Catherine believes that a specter with blood pouring from his eye-sockets is keeping tabs on her; she is rapped by an apparition on her wedding night, and the entire household soon finds themselves menaced by a disembodied hand. Not always a strong point with Amicus, characterization is emphasized herein, the length and complexity of the story allowing for a heated, emotionally abusive interplay between husband and wife. Present and past also weave a macabre spell. Charles refuses to reveal the tragic past of his family or his suspicions to Catherine, who sinks into helplessness with each passing night. A deadly, haunting back-story of debts, damnation, and conspiracy provides a sinister backdrop to an already frightful tale of spectral rage. When Catherine discovers she's pregnant, she breaks down. This supernatural tale of cuckolding and 'the sins of the father' being visited upon the 'son' (through, it seems, the woman gets the worst of it all) is both intelligent and subversive for its time. Discovering that her ghostly attacker resembles the woodsman Silas (Geoffrey Whitehead), Catherine receives little aid from the family doctor (Patrick Magee), a fellow with secrets of his own. Peter Cushing is called in as a specialist to investigate the case as mesmerizing flash-backs reveal the family's haunted past.
A definitive change of departure from their anthology films, Amicus gathers the talents of Baker, Cushing, Lom and Magee for a story equal parts psychological attack and Gothic sensationalism, complete with antiquated setting, desperate heroines, and supernatural curses. The past is just as much a character as the cast, intruding upon the present and threatening the future of innocents. This invites audiences to experience pathos and catharsis, making And Now The Screaming Starts a lovely piece of period filmmaking and an ode to singularly contemporary problems of identity. Baker's direction is inspired as he uses the camera to tell the story, and the performances are surprisingly serious in scenes where such silly devices as crawling hands (Amicus sure loved crawling body parts!) and leering portraits could easily have invited laughter instead of shudders. While the problem of pedestrian effects and over-emphasized stock conventions somewhat hampers the level of intensity in certain scenes, the obvious dedication and good nature that flows through the production makes it shamelessly enjoyable.
A new Hi-Def 16x9 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen Transfer (from a 35mm negative) presents the film in as good a condition as you'll ever see it, lending richness to colors and clarity to images. The audio is also commendable, featuring 2.0 mono. Even more generous are extras that encourage richer appreciation of the cultural context, individual artistry, and unified effort that went into the production. This heaping helping of supplementary havoc includes a commentary by director Roy Ward Baker & actor Stephanie Beacham, and a second track by actor Ian Ogilvy (moderated by Darren Gross). Following these are trailers for "And Now The Screaming Starts," "Asylum," and "The Beast Must Die," the obligatory Still Gallery, Bios for Baker, Beacham, Ogilvy, Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Milton Subotsky & Max J. Rosenberg, and, finally, Liner Notes. A bloody good treat for fear-fans, this horror show of cuckolding curses in dreary Old England is an example of Gothic greatness that no longer exists.
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THE BEAST MUST DIE!
While the quality of Amicus product varied greatly, even the more bizarre, less successful entries are commendable in their willingness to attack non-traditional genre elements with unrepentant idiosyncrasy and fervor . Perhaps one of their most intriguing if uneven attempts at full-length horror was The Beast Must Die. The last gasp of Amicus, who had weathered the social changes that tore the bottom out from under Hammer, this crazy mix of deduction, William-Castle-like 'cheese,' and ancient lycanthropy is a modern monster movie and nod to the post-modern self-referencing of such later fear films as Scream.
In a hopelessly convoluted plot, Tom Newcliff (Calvin Lockhart), an arrogant, wealthy hunter who has pursued every animal imaginable (shadows of The Most Dangerous Game) save for -- yup, you guessed it, a werewolf -- invites some associates to an estate complete with James Bond-type gadgetry. Gathering a carefully selected group of authorities in anima behaviour, folklore, and lycanthropy, Tom turns a vacation in his isolated country mansion into a nightmare. One of these folks is a werewolf, and a good part of the film focuses on him spying from a specially designed monitor room. Once he discovers the identity of the beast, he plans on killing it. Loosely adapted from a story by James Blish -- more often associated with science fiction than horror -- this mingling of morbidity and idiocy owes as much to the plot-tangling of Agatha Christie as to exploitation, succeeding more often as 'camp' than serious drama.
Proclaiming itself as "A detective story - in which YOU are the detective," this shlocky attempt at modernizing the folklore terrors of the werewolf is as humorous in its failings as it is enjoyable when the story and direction allow a more serious atmosphere of supernatural horror to resonate. The plot owes as much to the traditional 'who-done-it?' conventions of the British mystery thriller as to the supernatural. A single narrative whose emotional effectiveness to thrill and terrify is hampered by an unconscious tongue-in-cheek sentiment, The Beast Must Die still manages to fuse fun and fear. Whereas the Amicus anthologies poke fun at themselves, inviting audiences in on the joke, celebrating the conventions of genre by embracing both their ability to terrify and inspire laughter, this movie is often unconscious of its ridiculousness, achieving humor unemotionally, and thus is more camp than cult.
Chosen by Subotsky and Rosenberg to direct, Paul Annett's mad mixture of blacksploitation, adventure vehicle, and horror thriller never quite realizes what it is, but it sure has fun getting there! Unable to support its many plot-twists , the movie lacks direct focus. But you won't care because there are enough werewolf attacks, verbal-whippings, and hard-toned physical action to keep you riveted. Atmosphere and setting lend undeniable power to the proceedings. The expansive, lush yet foreboding grounds and beautifully shot interior designs are seeped in gothic mood, with shadows lurking in corners and subtle meaning playing over the exquisite faces of such thespian legends as Peter Cushing. Characters themselves are surprisingly believable (certainly more so than the plot as a whole), lent additional depth and tension by the aforementioned lighting, the later of which hovers like a spirit of destruction over all.
Among the invigorating characters are the tense pianist Jan Jarmokowski (Gambon), Paul Foote (Chadbon), a medical student once involved in an experiment of cannibalism, Arthur Bennington (Gray), a civil servant whose employees often disappear, and desirable Davinia Gilmore (Clark), a friend of Tom's wife. Of special note is Caroline Newcliffe (Clark), Tom's perpetually guilty-looking wife. Similar to a game of Clue, the viewer is presented with hints before the emergence of the much-debated "werewolf break," a goofy nod to the kind of William Castle showmanship where audiences are asked to select the identity of the werewolf. Friends, movies just aren't this fun anymore.
The picture quality here is no less pristine than Dark Sky's other recent Amicus releases, including the 16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen Transfer and a lively audio track. In a round of impressive extras (some culled from other releases, others created exclusively for this edition), a commentary featuring director Paul Annett (moderated by Jonathan Sothcott) allows us to explore his relationship with Amicus and his thoughts on Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg. In addition, he discusses fear-fave Peter Cushing, and his dislike of the "werewolf break' that, it appears, he didn't approve of. "Directing The Beast!", an interview with Annett follows, discussing a variety of trivia, including working with the dog (the film's werewolf), meeting Cushing, and other minor if entertaining info. We also get a still gallery and bios for Annett, Cushing, Gray, Diffring, Lockhart, Milton Subotsky & Max J. Rosenberg. Liner notes are followed by a touching Paul Annett tribute to Peter Cushing and trailers.
Review by William P. Simmons
|Released by Dark Sky Films|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|