On Halloween, six strangers gather to share stories of terrifying things they saw, things that they can never forget!
Hello brave souls! This Halloween on Ghostly Film, we are looking at portmanteau horror. You know the kind of thing? A handful of scary stories gathered together into one film. For those awful moments when you can’t decide whether you want to see a film about zombies, werewolves, witches, curses or killer plants. Why not watch a film that contains a story about each?
Since many anthology films had different directors make each sequence, we have used the talents of six different writers. Each in turn will tell you about a segment from a horror anthology, a tale that what was, for them, so strange it has seared itself into their memory forever…
Paul Duane on
Toby Dammit, from Spirits of the Dead, (1968)
Fellini most likely never read the minor Poe tale, ‘Never Bet The Devil Your Head’, on which he based the script for Toby Dammit. He took from it only the protagonist’s name and the grisly decapitation which ends the story. But he somehow managed to capture, better than practically any other filmmaker, the feel of Poe – the high-pitched, hysterical awareness of approaching death. And Fellini, when he began Toby Dammit, was still recovering from a case of pleurisy so serious that he’d been given up for dead (and even been the recipient of a telegram from the Pope). It feels like he brought something of the dreadful and seductive feeling of having one foot in life, the other in death, into this extraordinary short film.
The story here is almost negligible, the atmosphere is everything. But what story there is concerns a dissipated, drunken British actor, played by Terence Stamp, who has lost all belief in what he does, and along with it, any interest he’s ever had in love or companionship or life. He’s come to Cinecitta to be given an award by the Vatican, for whom he’s about to play the lead in the first ever Catholic Western, “something between Dreyer and Pasolini, with a pinch of Ford”. From the moment he steps off his plane, he’s in a nightmare world where people have been replaced by mannequins or cardboard cutouts. But Toby barely notices. He’s obsessed with getting the Ferrari that he’s been promised as his prize for attending the dreary awards ceremony and participating in the ritualised chat show that precedes it.
Fellini and his writer / collaborator Bernardino Zapponi isolated what was, to them, the intrinsic spirit of Poe: the ever-increasing dread building to a sudden and grotesque finale. To achieve this, Zapponi imposed a discipline on his director, causing him to drop the quirky non-sequiturs he loved so much (a scene of Toby Dammit in Western gear, supposedly from the movie he was due to make, was shot but dropped at the screenwriter’s insistence). The result is the most concentrated and linear film of Fellini’s career.
What we have here is something very unusual – a successful transposition of Poe’s aesthetic into the contemporary world. Maybe it’s unusual because very few really great filmmakers ever even tried – Edgar Ulmer’s delirious version of The Black Cat is the only other example that comes to mind – or because most people find a consideration of Poe’s technique inseparable from his world of dripping cellars and sepulchres and the perpetually unexpected Spanish Inquisition.
On the contrary, Satan appears here in the guise of a little girl, bouncing a ball, evil disguised as innocence. It’s not the most original idea Fellini ever had (and some think he borrowed it from the great Mario Bava), but the final encounter between Satan & Toby Dammit is genuinely, beautifully disturbing.
Viv Wilby on
The Haunted Mirror from Dead of Night, (1946)
Ealing’s horror anthology Dead of Night is most remembered for its final and lengthiest segment in which Michael Redgrave plays a ventriloquist possessed (or is he?) by his dummy. Excellent as this section is (and Redgrave shows himself an actor on a different level from most everyone else in the film) it is something of an odd man out, missing a common element of the other stories – that the uncanny events or supernatural encounters follow a sexual awakening or transition.
This idea gets its best and fullest expression in the central story of the haunted mirror, directed by Robert Hamer. Googie Withers plays Joan, a sophisticated and confident young woman, soon to be married to Peter (Ralph Michael). As a pre-wedding gift, she buys him a large and elaborate mirror from an antique shop but when Peter looks into it he sees himself, not in his modern bachelor pad, but in a panelled bedroom complete with four poster bed and roaring fire. Like Peter, the audience finds this profoundly disorienting; the first time I saw it I wasn’t even sure if I was looking at the same actor (Michael’s bland looks suit this story of shifting personality well).
As the mirror takes hold of Peter, it brings on a descent into jealousy and rage that mars the early weeks of married life. Mirrors are frequent symbols of fractured selves of course and the story does not ignore the psychological dimension of what might be happening. At one point, a panicked Peter sums it up neatly: “The trouble’s not in the mirror, it’s in my mind.” With its emphasis on beds and bedrooms (watch it to see how often they feature), on private, interior spaces, it’s a Freudian’s delight.
There is an explanation (the mirror had belonged to a Byronic squire, driven homicidally mad by a riding accident that confined him to his bedroom) and a solution (breaking the mirror) and Peter is let off the hook. What disturbs though is the suspicion, anger and murderous violence concealed within the outwardly happy marriage this story reflects back at us.
Mr Moth on
The Ghouls from The Monster Club, (1981)
The Monster Club is strange as hell – the linking frame has an elderly Vincent Price telling stories to an equally crusty John Carradine (playing a fictionalised R Chetwynd-Hayes, on whose stories these are based) in the confines of the titular club, interspersed with none-more-80s performances from the likes of BA Robertson and The Pretty Things. Those stories range from a grisly twist on Beauty and the Beast through a novel vampire story to a very British take on the zombie flick. This last one is the segment that made the strongest impression on me.
The Ghouls has the energy and pace of a good short story, as anthology segments must. Characters are introduced, motivations inferred, events occur. Stuart Whitman is Sam, a picky film director whose desire to personally find the perfect location for his horror film backfires somewhat when he finds himself the unwitting star of a real nightmare. The first bad sign is literally a bad sign – he turns from the comfortingly familiar English motorway signage to see Goughville indicated with the creepiest signpost in history.
If that wasn’t enough to make him think twice, he has to drive through some eerie mist to get to the village. One look at that curtain of gloom and I’d be back to London post-haste, but old Sam is either fearless or oblivious. This may look like a classic Hammer village, where villagers will be fearful of whatever monster prowls their local countryside; nailing up garlic, clutching crosses and muttering about silver into their pints, acting as a warning that Things Are Not As They Seem. But this is Goughville. In Goughville, the villagers are not as they seem – flesh-eating ghouls who have exhausted the supplies ransacked from the parish churchyard and now need fresh meat to live…
To me, it’s the most effective of the Monster Club sections. The others have their moments, but are either too goofy or just not scary enough. And sure, there’s plenty to chuckle at in The Ghouls, but the eerie claustrophobia that presses in on Sam and the viewer once we arrive in Goughville is palpable. It helps, I think, that it’s clearly shot in a studio. It adds to the unreal stillness. The location shots as Sam and Luna (his half-ghoul love interest and yes that’s pretty much her entire character) escape are quite jarring when they come; the ghouls seem out of place in the sunshine. Everything is a little off, a little wrong. There is even a short, very odd, hand-drawn section explaining the backstory, which was presumably cheap but works very well to create the sense of an eccentric tale being spun from folk memory.
And then there’s the story’s final moments, when Sam realises his fate; the image of the ghouls pressing in at the windows of the car has haunted me since I saw it as a child. I’ll be honest, I volunteered to write this piece mainly to verify that it wasn’t a false memory. Imagine my delight when this happened:
This is the third film by Roy Ward Baker that I’ve raved about on MostlyFilm, without even knowing it. Clearly the man had a knack for creating images that stuck with me; the survivors in the dark sea around the Titanic in A Night to Remember, the march of the alien army in Quatermass and the Pit and now this. Thanks, Roy. No stranger to the anthology horror genre, he directed the Amicus classics Vault of Horror and Asylum; The Monster Club, though not Amicus, feels almost like the end of that particular style (the slicker, fancier Creepshow debuted just a year later) and it’s probably fitting that it was Baker who saw it out.
Blake Backlash on
An Act of Kindness from From Beyond the Grave, (1974)
For the most part Amicus films are as cosy as they are cruel. Something very nasty happens to Nigel Patrick in Tales From the Crypt but mostly because the character (cruel warden at home for blind ex-servicemen) was a bastard. Snooty art-critics, snobby neighbours, jealous spouses – they all get what’s coming to them in an Amicus films. After all this was Britain in the sixties and seventies: rotters got their comeuppance as surely as pubs were smoky and fruit juice was a starter.
It’s a little but harder to know where you are in From Beyond the Grave. Everything is familiar but slightly off at the same time. Peter Cushing is there to link the stories, but he’s all twinkly and Northern, which is somehow more unsettling than him being solemn and sinister. He even smokes a pipe cannily: Harold Wilson’s House of Horrors. Cushing plays an antique-shop owner and in the second segment of the film, he sells a medal to Christopher Lowe (Ian Bannen). Lowe uses the medal to impress an apparently shabby and obsequious ex-soldier called Jim Underwood (Donald Pleasence). Underwood invites Lowe round to his house for a cup of tea, and introduces him to his daughter. This is Emily, played by Angela Pleasence who looks, at one and the same time, striking enough to be like no other human being whoever lived, and very like Donald Pleasence. Naturally, Lowe becomes sexually obsessed with her. He’s soon a regular visitor at the Underwood flat, preferring the company of Emily and her lovely homemade cakes to that of his wife (Diana Dors) who only takes her cigarette out her mouth when she wants to insult him.
One night Jim goes out to meet some old Army pals and leaves Lowe alone with Emily. She makes Lowe a steak pie and an offer. ‘I wish to serve you,’ she says. ‘I will do anything you ask. Anything at all. But you must ask.’ If this all sounds rather fruity to you, then you’re right because the next shot is the two of them in bed together, so we have a fair idea of what Lowe asked her to do.
The story is uncanny, pervy and blackly comic – as if Luis Bunuel popped over to direct this segment. When Emily presents Lowe with a wee knitted Diana Dors doll and big pin, she is, once again, scrupulous about telling him she will only do what he asks her to do. He buries his head in her hair and prevaricates for a bit before delivering an order as mealy-mouthed as it is Freudian: ‘All right. If it makes you happy. Drive the thing in.’
Well, yes. Quite.
Kate le Vann on
Mel from Tales That Witness Madness, (1973)
When you start asking why, you can’t stop. It’s nuts. But the off-logic doesn’t come from the supernatural; it’s more to do with the domesticity of the 1970s being odd now. It’s like our world, with husband Brian (Michael Jayston) going for a run in tight lycra (or whatever they had before lycra) and telling his wife he’ll hoover up the mess he made – but isn’t our world. He smacks his wife, Bella, on the bum and brings her fags and boxes of chocolates before nipping to the pub. The wife, Joan actual Collins, wears empire-line baby-dolls and ties ribbons in her hair to seduce him.
It’s always seemed a tragedy that Joan Collins did her worst work at the peak of her incredible searing beauty. She’s so sexy in this. No one would turn Bella away to sweet-talk a dead tree with inconsistently visible cleavage and yet Brian brings home Mel, who is just that, because she has caught his eye in the woods. His reaction on first seeing her is a puzzling, “OH NO!”, because my god is he happy with the tree. He settles her on their cream shag pile and immediately starts petting her bark to create something “interesting”. He seems to be claiming it will make an artistic talking point in their small country cottage. As well as sporting a single, tempting breast (sometimes), Mel walks around a LOT, shakes her branches a LOT, rotates as if on a Sale of the Century turntable, and shoots out metallic spikes along her branches like a flick-knife. Bella somehow misses all of these tricks, but she knows Brian too well: she’s sceptical, then resentful, then murderously jealous. But who will win? Wife or tree-mistress? I bet the ‘twist’ ending hasn’t surprised a single person since it was made.
Mel was written by a woman, actor Jennifer Jayne, which should make it more interesting because it’s a story of female rivalry, but doesn’t, because Mel is a bloody tree. Jayne had worked for director Freddie Francis in Hysteria at Hammer and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors at Amicus. Francis went on to make the sexy cult chiller Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly and Amicus’s Tales From The Crypt, and he hired Jayne to write the script for this portmanteau, Tales That Witness Madness (which is like Amicus but isn’t Amicus), where the protagonists are linked as fellow inmates in what would then have been called an insane asylum. He recalled that the producers insisted on “horrifying it”, aiming for another Crypt, but the movie’s gentle humour is a closer match with Mumsy. A cat-eyed Kim Novak, who must have had the chance to do a Columbo that year, almost manages to switch on some real American glamour in her chapter (a dodgy voodoo story, in which she replaced Rita Hayworth!) but it has too much of that particularly British kind of fleshy gore to be scary-scary. Instead, it’s weird-scary, Surbiton-scary, which is to say: not very scary. The acting in the other parts is more professional, but I revisited Mel, which stars the voice of Gold from St Ivel and the face of Cinzano, because it felt like an ad from my youth. It’s fun, but I can only really recommend it to tree-fetishists, who are called dendrophiles, and Joan Collins completists, who are called lexdextrophiles.
The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill from Creepshow, (1982)
The George A. Romero / Stephen King 1982 horror ensemble Creepshow is dark, twisted and laced with humour, although second story The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill takes this idea right to the edge. While King himself plays the starring role with the hammy comedic tics of a proto-Mr. Tumble, and Romero lays on the B-movie weirdness with a dramatic synthy score, practical effects and zany dream sequences, the tale here is relentlessly grim.
A rural simpleton (King) stumbles upon a crashed meteor, and in his eagerness to snatch it so he can sell it for a fortune (okay, $200), picks up a nasty infection that results in vegetation growing over his body. Nothing makes it better – taking a bath only makes it worse – and soon his ramshackle house is smothered in leaves and moss. And then, alone, he blows his leafy brains out with a shotgun. That’s almost how it ends, but not before a radio weather report confirms 30 days of coming rain that will ensure the extra-terrestrial foliage spreads even further…
While the other parts of Creepshow benefit from having typical evil-doers either terrorizing their prey (Father’s Day) or getting their comeuppance (Something to Tide You Over), …Jordy Verrill has Stephen King in a pair of dungarees falling foul of his own hillbilly stupidity. He’s a vaguely sympathetic character given no sympathy whatsoever; instead King and Romero invite you to laugh at his demise.
It’s therefore a rather uncomfortable watch. Despite the comic book framing, over-the-top acting and gosh-darn dialogue, under the surface there’s nothing much funny about it at all. Neither is it a scare-fest. There’s a disconcerting mundanity to the whole thing in place of jump cuts and gore. All of which makes this 13-minute short Creepshow’s most horrifying moment. It’ll leave you shocked and miserable. And wary of meteors.