Terror waits for you in every room!
A Johnny-come-lately rival to British horror movie juggernaut Hammer Films, Amicus Productions cranked out a respectable series of bargain-budgeted fright and sci-fi titles in the 1960s and 1970s, commencing with 1965's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Amicus' best-remembered feature today is probably the EC Comics-derived Tales From the Crypt (1972), but several other Amicus pictures of the era—including Asylum, And Now the Screaming Starts, and the psychological thriller The Mind of Mr. Soames—delivered plenty of solid entertainment for the genre fanatic.
A relatively tame entry in the Amicus line, The House That Dripped Blood never garnered the accolades of its aforementioned stablemates. But seeing mention of a script by horror master Robert Bloch (Psycho, Strait-Jacket) and a cast featuring Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, even shock lovers unfamiliar with this film may find themselves tempted by its long-awaited DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Scotland Yard's Inspector Holloway (John Bennett, The Fifth Element, Minority Report) is investigating the disappearance of a popular film actor who recently vanished under suspicious circumstances. The trail leads the dour detective to inquire about the countryside estate the missing star had rented during the shooting of his latest picture. As Holloway interviews the local constabulary and the real estate agent who manages the property (the agent's name is "A.J. Stoker," which I believe is what the meddling kids in the Mystery Machine used to call a "clue"), it becomes clear to him that several other odd occurrences have befallen those unfortunate enough to rent the place…
Method for Murder: Horror novelist Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Trading Places) and his wife Alice (Joanna Dunham, Scandal) move into the mysterious manor to get some peace and quiet while Charles pens his latest masterwork. At first, Charles is thrilled with the results—the story, which centers around a serial strangler named Dominic, fairly flows from Charles's fingers onto the typewriter keys. That is, until Charles begins to believe that Dominic may not be a figment of his imagination…
Waxworks: Retired businessman Philip Grayson (Peter Cushing, Star Wars, Top Secret!) and his friend Neville Rogers (Joss Ackland, K-19: The Widowmaker) encounter a peculiar little museum with a compelling Chamber of Horrors. It features an unusually lifelike wax statue of Salome bearing the head of John the Baptist—a statue that reminds both men of lost loves. But there's something not quite right about either the waxworks or its reptilian owner (Wolfe Morris)…
Sweets for the Sweet: John Reid, a stern, authoritarian widower (Christopher Lee, currently enjoying a career renaissance in both the Star Wars prequels and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) hires schoolteacher Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter, Hilary and Jackie) as a live-in tutor for his young daughter. Ann can immediately see that little Jane (Chloe Franks, Straw Dogs) has been traumatized by some dark tragedy in her past, and that the girl's relationship with her martinet father is severely dysfunctional. But she could hardly guess exactly how dysfunctional, or why…
The Cloak: Prima donna film actor Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor in the long-running British fantasy teleseries, Doctor Who) has been reduced to starring in campy, low-budget horror flicks. The shoddy nature of his current production, Night of the Bloodsuckers, doesn't prevent Paul either from attempting to seduce his co-star Carla (Ingrid Pitt, Where Eagles Dare, Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers) or from striving for wardrobe realism, as in the old black cloak he purchases from an eerie costume shop. But Paul wrings more verisimilitude from the cloak than he ever bargained for, when he discovers that donning the dusty drapery magically transforms him into a genuine vampire…
Anthology films are always a crapshoot. It's a challenge for most filmmakers to come up with one compelling story to tell, much less several—never mind devising a credible linking device to tie the disparate narratives together. Amicus Films, snatching a handful of pages from the classic EC horror comics, made a specialty of anthology-style horror pictures, some (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror) borrowing their components directly from William M. Gaines's infamous four-color gorefests, others simply aping the format.
The House That Dripped Blood follows the typical anthology pattern: it contains one exceptional segment (the first story, Method for Murder), a couple of pretty good ones (Waxworks and Sweets for the Sweet), one that doesn't work well at all in this context (The Cloak), and a clutter of framework material that is largely superfluous. As one might theorize from the PG rating (a PG horror movie?), none of these tales will frighten even the most timid viewer—though Method for Murder is spinetinglingly suspenseful and boasts a twist ending worthy of Rod Serling, and the second and third chapters manage to be at least satisfyingly creepy. But with some deft direction by Peter Duffell and uniformly sharp performances by the standout cast, the entire package is crisply made (despite a budget that had to have been minuscule even for its time) and holds audience interest from beginning to end.
Speaking of Serling, this quartet of stories from the pen of Robert Bloch plays very much like the often-televised anthology pilot Night Gallery (in which tyro Steven Spielberg directed the legendary Joan Crawford). Bloch also contributed screenplays to numerous other horror- and science fiction-based TV series—including three to the original Star Trek—and one can only wonder whether some of those scripts grew out of ideas the scribe couldn't fit into The House That Dripped Blood, or the other Amicus anthology Bloch wrote, Asylum. With the terror level here dialed down to minimum wattage, House could easily air on broadcast television unedited, and its segments would have been right at home as episodes of Night Gallery or any of its myriad imitators.
Its limitations aside, The House That Dripped Blood is still a delight to watch. Fright film legends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both give finely nuanced and subtle performances (especially Lee, an actor not generally known as a model of subtlety), and Denholm Elliott practically steals the picture with a brilliant piece of acting as the beleaguered author who may or may not be hallucinating. Ingrid Pitt fans will find her looking ravishing here, though she gets shoehorned into a thankless (if self-parodying) role alongside shameless ham Jon Pertwee in the film's weakest element. (The Pertwee/Pitt vampire tale almost feels as though it stumbled in from another anthology, being mined mostly for humorous effect while the other stories play themselves straight. This chapter might have worked better earlier in the film—its presence at the movie's conclusion, following three tales that have led the viewer to expect an ending along more serious and chilling lines, is a disappointment.)
Lions Gate dresses The House That Dripped Blood in an attractive 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer for its DVD debut. Although the anticipated scratches and flyspecks that come with more than three decades of age (and believe me, I know them from personal experience) are present, the Lions Gate tech crew has done a wonderful job of eliminating as many of these print artifacts as possible. They're also accomplished a spectacular revitalization of the film's color palette, all the better for us to be horrified (and, if one was alive and clothed at the time, shamed) by the garish, fluorescent fashions of the late '60s. The disc is, for practical purposes, free from digital errors. The film probably hasn't looked this great since its theatrical run.
The keep case copy advertises a stereo soundtrack. That comment may indeed be accurate, but if so, the separation is so minimal as to be imperceptible. For all that my ears could determine, the track might as well be mono. For what it is, this is a clean, inoffensive soundtrack without too much of the brittle shrillness typical of horror flicks of similar vintage. It's adequate enough to give us distinct dialogue and a good listen to the complex and surprising score by Michael Dress.
The primary relevant extra included in the package is a brief (about seven minutes) interview with producer Max Rosenberg. The conversation was recorded live at Hollywood's Egyptian Arena in the summer of 2003, following a preview screening of the restored movie. The now-octogenarian Rosenberg confesses that when he dreamed up the title of the film, he had no idea what kind of story or stories might go with it—he just liked the way The House That Dripped Blood sounded. He also adds a few tidbits about his career and about Amicus Productions. Far too many clips from the movie have been padded into this piece to mask how little actual talking Rosenberg does here. At least it's something. (Sadly, the audio commentary by director Peter Duffell and a recent documentary short featuring Ingrid Pitt, both of which appear on the UK DVD release of the film, are absent from Lions Gate's North American platter.)
Clicking the Lions Gate logo on the menu page will serve up the original trailer for The House That Dripped Blood, looking as though Max Rosenberg left it in his humidor for the past 30 years. The trailer has been outfitted with some new opening titles that tout the film as "a cult classic" and its stars as "Star Wars' Peter Cushing" and "Lord of the Rings' Christopher Lee." It's followed by a trio of trailers for other Lions Gate horror releases (Night of 1,000 Corpses, Cabin Fever, Beyond Re-Animator).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Title aside, The House That Dripped Blood contains not a single, solitary iota of blood—dripped, spilled, or otherwise disembodied. Not even one drop. I can hear the Fangoria crowd whining even as I type. My daughter, the teenage Buffy the Vampire Slayer aficionado, kept asking me, "People used to think this was scary?" Sigh.
Hardcore gore freaks titillated by the lurid title may wander away wondering what the fuss is about. The rest of us can savor this well-crafted, suspenseful, and effectively acted film for exactly what it delivers. If you recall fondly those old Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and Ghost Story TV programs that could send an electric shiver up your spine without splattering a gallon of Red Dye #40 on the camera lens, or if you just want a pleasant flashback to a simpler time in the annals of the scream screen, rent this one some dark and stormy night. If you're a collector of British horror classics, save The House That Dripped Blood a space of permanent honor on your DVD shelf.
Although favorably disposed toward the defendant and inclined to dismiss all charges, the Court finds it appropriate to suspend final judgment until Inspector Holloway has filed his completed investigation report with the clerk. Um…what's become of Inspector Holloway, anyhow? Has anyone heard from him since he went looking at that old house?
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Producer Max Rosenberg
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