I’m due to start work on a section of an anthology horror film about London entitled ‘Bloody London’, and it made me trawl back through the history of British anthology horror films. The first and best was ‘Dead of Night’, and is the only example wherein the wraparound story is the scariest of them all. although the episode with Michael Redgrave and his ventriloquist’s dummy is disturbing, especially in the scene where it comes to life.
But although they enjoyed a vogue in the early seventies the majority are really not very good; ‘Tales From The Crypyt’ and ‘Vault of Horror’, based on the old EC Comics twist-ending tales, are about the best, although the latter was weakened by squeamishness. The Amicus film ‘From Beyond The Grave’ proved an outstanding example of the genre, even though the stories, from veteran chiller writer Ron Chetwynd Hayes, were pretty simplistic. The second tale, in which Ian Bannen becomes involved with unctuous old soldier Donald Pleasance and his real-life daughter Angela, is imbued with a creepy, mildewed seventies melancholia that’s hard to shake off. An echo of Pinter can be felt in the Pleasance performances, and the low budget worked in the film’s favour, depopulating London’s narrow streets to the point of appearing post-apocalypse.
Portmanteau films of every kind had a happy history in England, from trios of tales by Terrence Rattigan to the fondly remembered but risible ‘Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors’. The latter featured our man at Brentford Nylons, Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, terrorised by plastic weeds in a performance that, in all honesty, has not entirely stood the test of time. ‘Asylum’ featured tales about patients in a mental hospital, while ‘Torture Garden’ showcased the patchy post-‘Psycho’ stories of Robert Bloch.
The portmanteaux were easy to shoot in segments, and although quality control of scripts clearly remained a problem, performances from reliable stalwarts including Herbert Lom, Joan Collins, Glynis Johns, Ian Ogilvy, Ian Carmichael, Margaret Leighton, Terry-Thomas, Peter Cushing and Roy Castle were never less than full-blooded. I think most of them were glad of a couple of days’ work for an envelope of used fivers.
Of the Hollywood portmanteaux, ‘Tales from the Darkside’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ work best, but only half of each film really works. The real problem with the anthology movies is that audiences feel vaguely cheated by watching what appear to be glued-together TV episodes. The best solution is to work them into each other to weave a continuous and seamless film. It will be interesting to see how this attempt turns out.