Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The House That Dripped Blood

The House That Dripped Blood (1970) *Note: actual house does not drip blood
Dir. Peter Duffel
Written by Robert Bloch (wikipedia also lists “Russ Jones” but the opening credits do not)
Starring Jon Pertwee, Denholm Elliott, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland

A detective seeking a missing actor (Jon Pertwee, Dr. Who #3) is regaled with stories about other mysterious occurrences which took place in the man’s seemingly abandoned home in the unnecessary framing story to this amiable but minor Amicus anthology. The most interesting thing about the film is its impressive cast and the script from PSYCHO scribe Robert Bloch (we encountered him early this Chainsawnukah season as the writer of the short story that became THE SKULL). But other than its pedigree, this one's a bit on the forgettable side, though not entirely without its merits.

The first and best section involves Denholm Elliott as a horror/crime author who gets so into his work that he begins seeing his murderous antagonist in real life. As we learned in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, Elliott is fucking great at emoting panic and terror, and he uses this power to amp up the tension here rather nicely. This one is a perfect example of a good horror anthology segment, with a simple premise, a steady escalation, a respectable twist, and a lean runtime. After the initial high point, each segment gets progressively weaker --though never quite completely embarrassing-- so don’t get too excited here.


Next up we’ve got Peter Cushing as a flamboyantly dressed bachelor who discovers a sinister wax museum with one figure in particular that bears a striking resemblance to a lost love of his. He’s weirded out by the experience, but becomes strangely obsessed with the statue. When an estranged old friend (Joss Ackland, in equivalently gaudy garb) shows up and becomes equally fixated, you gotta figure things are gonna end badly. Though not as narratively elegant as the first segment, this one gets high marks for its dreamy, surreal visuals. There’s a particularly great dream sequence where Cushing, bathed in intense colors and distorted by fish-eye lenses and weird angles, wanders through a nightmarish wax museum of grotesque and bizarre figures. The film could have used more of this kind of aggressive stylishness, and Cushing, of course, is always a joy to watch even when the story sort of peters out at the end.*

Cushing in an early make-up test for his role as the Hulk.

After that, though, things take a decided downward turn in quality. First, we get Christopher Lee and a likable Nyree Dawn Porter (Blanche Ingram in 1970’s JANE EYRE) in an unfortunately dull tale of a dour widower (Lee) who hires a tutor (Porter) for his severely disciplined young daughter. The tutor becomes fond of her ward and can’t understand why her employer seems so scared of the child, it’s almost like there’s some sort of really obvious horrible secret which relates to her mother and her fear of fire… hmmm. While it’s always fun to see Lee, he doesn’t get a very interesting role here and the twist is telegraphed from about 30 seconds in, making it feel unnecessarily fatty. The cast sells it, but even as a short it feels like there’s precious little story here and an insufficient climax.

Dolls are just the worst.

So that’s a bummer, and the ending --which dovetails into the framing story-- isn’t a whole lot stronger. Jon Pertwee --in a role that seems tailor-made for Vincent Price, who was offered the part but unable to take it due to his contract with American international Pictures-- plays a mincing old horror film vet, who, disgusted with the amateurish production he’s currently starring in, acquires his own vampiric cape from a mysterious shop of evil. Gee, what could go wrong? In a departure from the other segments, this one is broadly comic, full of slapstick and not especially subtle postmodern jokes about the horror industry (as with the CRIMSON CULT two years earlier, it seems horror movie in-jokes were around quite a while before SCREAM came along and let Americans get in on that action). Unfortunately, it’s only mildly funny and noticeably less stylish than the other segments. Pertwee is fine, although of course Price would have been much better (he’d get his own chance at postmodernism three years later in the ultra-weird MADHOUSE) but the story here is pretty silly and not really hilarious enough to make up for it, though it does have some honest chuckles in it. Alas, it sheds any goodwill remaining by subsequently linking back up with the framing story about the detective and attempting to reframe a light farce as a tense horror story (though it is funny that the detective walks around with not just one lighted candle, but with a gigantic five-pronged candelabra which is literally half as tall as he is).

Altogether, any hopes for a classic you might have entertained for this one based on the combination of writer and cast are sunk by director Duffel, who mostly worked in TV and makes a movie which looks like it. Other than the dream sequence in Cushing’s episode, the movie is resolutely unstylish and criminally short on atmosphere, leaving the heavy lifting to the stories which are, alas, at best mid-level Twilight Zone trifles. It’s not offensive, but it’s also pretty unnecessary viewing, particularly since the dull framing story pushes the runtime to an overblown 102 minutes. Elliot and Cushing’s segments alone are probably worth your time, but the rest is highly skippable. Hopefully, Bloch’s other Amicus anthologies, TORTURE GARDEN and ASYLUM, show a little more effort. And they must, because Cushing plays a character named “Lancelot Canning” in one of them. On the list for next year!

*Wikipedia claims that someone named “Russ Jones” scripted this segment from Bloch’s short story, but I can find no definitive evidence that this is the case. If it is, Jones’ own wiki page mentions nothing of it, nor any relation I can find to Bloch or Amicus or films in general.

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, Bloch adapts from his own short stories.
  • SEQUEL: No.
  • REMAKE: No.
  • HAMMER STUDIOS: No, Amicus
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: None, all regulars to this sort of thing.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: One beheading, as seen depicted in eye-poppingly terrible graphic art on the poster.
  • VAMPIRES: Yes! You gotta wait til the last segment, though.
  • SLASHERS: Nah.
  • CURSES: The House seems kinda cursed, but it's not explicit.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? Segment three has some good doll stuff.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid-high, little remembered mid-level Amicus.

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