I spent some pleasant hours over Christmas immersed in a book about Britain’s other leading producers of horror films.
For around a decade, the only consistent rival to the supremacy of Hammer Films in the genre was Amicus, best-known for its seven ‘portmanteau’ collections of short horror stories.
As Brian Mc Fadden points out in Amicus Horrors: Tales from the Filmmaker’s Crypt (Midnight Marquee Press, 2013), Amicus was not a studio in the traditional sense. It was a company that consisted of two American producers – the creative head Milton Subotsky, working in Britain, and finance man Max J. Rosenberg, based in the US. It did not own the premises where it made its film, but rented studios at Twickenham and Shepperton, where it produced some of Britain’s best-remembered horror movies.
Subotsky had seen Ealing Studios’ great collection of ghost stories Dead of Night (1945) and he realised that the format could be used for films with more overtly horrific material and catchpenny titles. Hence, the anthologies for which Amicus is best known: Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood, Tales From the Crypt, Asylum, Vault of Horror and From Beyond the Grave, all made between 1964 and 1973.
Successful as most of those films were, they have been given remarkably short shrift by critics. It’s no surprise that the mainstream press of the time treated them off-handedly, but even experts in the genre have given them little credit. Kim Newman’s excellent Nightmare Movies is among many to dismiss Amicus’s oeuvre as pretty unthreatening. “The overall impression is of about fifty mini-movies in which something supernaturally horrid happens to an embarrassed guest star,” he writes.
It’s true that the Amicus anthologies were never as lurid as the titles might suggest. Whereas Hammer’s films became more explicit, in the areas of gore and sexuality, as they went along, the Amicus films show little evidence of the cultural changes that were happening around them. David Pirie’s fine book A Heritage of Horror quotes Subotsky as saying that he made horror films because “it was the only kind of cinema where you could avoid sex and violence”, noting that there was more than a little truth to the joke.
Hammer’s horror films were almost all set in unspecified European locations in the 19th century, yet they revealed a lot about the Britain of their times and the things it was frightened of – including sex, passion, challenges to the social hierarchy, and films that were not ‘realistic’ or made in black-and-white.
Amicus’s films were almost all set in the modern day, and yet they reveal little about the society of their time, other than the kind of cars people drove and the interiors that were considered stylish. (I’m not being flippant; those are among the pleasures to be had from the movies.) And yet Amicus did contribute something important to the genre.
Amicus may not have annoyed the censors the way Hammer and others did, but its films tapped into the same ghoulish sense of fun that informed the Pan Book of Horror Stories collections and the E.C. Horror Comics. (To this day, the horror comics are on the list of banned or restricted items you cannot bring into the UK, so the two Amicus films directly inspired by E.C. were the nearest most people got to reading them.)
What’s more, a lasting legacy of Amicus is its amusing sense of moralism. The segment of Tales From the Crypt in which widower Peter Cushing is hounded to suicide by obnoxious neighbours, only to return from the grave to wreak revenge, is called ‘Poetic Justice’, and that title could apply to many an Amicus story. In one segment of these films after another, people who are guilty of killings, double-crossings and other venal behaviour finally meet an appropriately nasty come-uppance. That same gleeful sense of just desserts often informed the post-Halloween slasher film (although in many of those, the offender had not done anything much more evil than being young and having sex.)
The Amicus horrors that were not anthologies were usually weaker movies. But they did include The Skull (1965), whose slight plot (about Peter Cushing acquiring the skull of the Marquis de Sade) is turned by director Freddie Francis into a memorable Kafkaesque nightmare. And there was Scream and Scream Again (1970), a genuinely disturbing and original mix of SF and horror, which Subotsky himself disliked.
Many accounts present Subotsky as a bit of a philistine and an inveterate interferer with directors’ movies. Certainly he drove some directors to distraction, and I think the films he scripted are generally inferior to the ones on which he hired Robert Bloch, but he has been done an injustice.
As McFadden’s book makes clear, Subotsky was a cultured and personable man. He was also, in 21st century parlance, a bit of a geek. He read widely in SF and horror, both out of personal enthusiasm and the desire to option good material for films. In fact, he claimed that he and Rosenberg between them read 1,000 to 1,500 stories a year. And with his hands tightly on the reins, the films continued to be successful.
McFadden’s book does not boast of being a definitive history of Amicus, and yet it covers, with forensic accuracy, every aspect of the social, cultural and business world that made the films what they were. And towards the end, he gets to the nub of why Amicus and Subotsky himself may have been so unappreciated by critics.
He likens Amicus productions to a genre of mystery story known in the trade as a ‘cozy’ (or, as we in the UK would spell it, a ‘cosy’). “Such mysteries create a feeling of safety and warmth partly because, no matter what the actual setting or time may be, they always take place in a sort of ageless never-never land that somehow reminds us of more innocent days,” he writes.
It is ironic that, while the early Hammer films were derided by the press as shocking and subversive, the Amicus films have been marginalised by generations of critics for not being shocking and subversive enough.
It seems to me that several different kinds of commentators share one common prejudice: that films and literature must be ‘challenging’, i.e. they should unsettle the audience or present it with some hard work. Yet surely, the impulse to draw close to the fire and tell scary, but ultimately unthreatening, stories is as old as fiction itself. And that’s why many of us will always feel a mix of excitement and warmth whenever a film is preceded by the Amicus name.