For fans of the "modern" horror genre, the studio that usually springs instantly to mind is Hammer, with their reworkings of venerable, public domain source material like Frankenstein and Dracula. One might be forgiven for thinking, when watching one of the three films in this set culled from the Amicus Productions archive, that these are indeed Hammer productions, for they feature some of the same cast (Peter Cushing) and crew (director Roy Ward Baker), and a lot of the same ambience. Director Baker, in one of the extremely informative and frequently funny commentaries included in this set, insists that the Amicus films are, to quote Monty Python, completely different from Hammer, but a more objective eye may catch more similarities than differences. The Amicus films included in this set do, as Baker avers, take a more leisurely and less gorey approach than a lot of the Hammer films, but they share an overall ambience that will appeal to any lovers of late 50s through early 70s British horror.
The films included in this set are:
And Now The Screaming Starts, a perhaps trifle overlong feature that plays like a very special Night Gallery episode, with new bride Stephanie Beacham trying to figure out if her groom's family manse is haunted, or if she's simply going bonkers. The film boasts impressive production values (as do all the films in this set), and features excellent performances from Beacham, Ian Ogilvy as her husband, Cushing as her therapist and especially Herbert Lom as a really evil ancestor of Ogilvy's. Mixing elements from films as disparate as The War Lord and Rosemary's Baby, And Now the Screaming Starts plays well as a psychological thriller if not an outright shocking horror film.
The Beast Must Die is a fun, somewhat campy spin on the venerable werewolf tale, albeit with a William Castle-esque gimmick--the film starts with a disclaimer that one of the characters is in reality a werewolf and it is our task as audience to figure out which one it is before the end of the film. There's even a "werewolf break" to ponder the various clues before the denouement is bared, along with the werewolf's fangs. This film was obviously (and somewhat hilariously) made in the wake of Shaft, believe it or not, and features a dashing African-American hero played with understated panache by Calvin Lockhart. Cushing shows up here, too, as yet another Doctor, as does an impossibly young Michael Gambon, who even at this early stage in his career has the limpid, world-weary eyes that would define his better-known roles. While lacking the directorial flair of the two other films (both directed by Baker), The Beast Must Die is nonetheless a lot of fun if taken in the right spirit--it's not as deathly and breathlessly serious as the Universal Wolfman series, but that's actually for the best in these proceedings, which play almost like an Agatha Christie whodunit (or at least whoisit), albeit with a hirsute twist.
Asylum is in some ways the most satisfying of the three films, and the most representative of what Amicus was known for--the compilation film. Based on four short stories by famed author Robert Bloch (Psycho), who also wrote the screenplay, Asylum cleverly clothes its portmanteau format in a Beast-like gimmick. This time, a new to the institution doctor, played by Robert Powell, must figure out which of the four patients he visits (and whose creepy stories comprise the film) is in reality his predecessor at the asylum who has since gone insane him (or her) self. Featuring great turns by a host of excellent character actors (including Cushing yet again, as well as Lom, Barbara Parkins and Britt Eklund), Asylum provides the most outright chills of the set and moves between its four stories with ease.
All three of these films look gorgeous, with enhanced 1.78:1 transfers mastered in high-def from 35mm elements. Images are absolutely crisp (with virtually none of the graininess that can sometimes mar early to mid-70s features), with excellent color.
The stereo soundtracks are all similarly excellently realized.
All of the films boast at least one commentary track featuring the director, while Screaming also features Beacham with Ward and another with Ogilvy individually. There's also an illuminating (and at times scabrously funny) feature on the history of Amicus films featuring co-founder Max Rosenberg, who does not hesitate to dis many of his collaborators through the years.
Fans of the modern horror genre, and Hammer Films in particular, are going to love this set. However, anyone with a fondness for well-made, occasionally chilling psychological thrillers will find a lot to love in the three films featured here. Amicus is sometimes referred to as "Hammer's little brother," but this sibling packs its own unique punch.
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