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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 6: From Beyond the Grave (1974)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written by Robin Clarke and Raymond Christodoulou, based on short stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Directed by Kevin Connor

The Framing Story:
Peter Cushing:  The Proprietor
Ben Howard:  Burglar

The Gate Crasher:
David Warner:  Edward Charlton
Marcel Steiner:  The Face

An Act of Kindness:
Ian Bannen:  Christopher Lowe
Diana Dors:  Mabel Lowe
John O'Farrell:  Stephen Lowe
Donald Pleasence:  Jim Underwood
Angela Pleasence:  Emily Underwood

The Elemental:
Ian Carmichael:  Reginald Warren
Nyree Dawn Porter:  Susan Warren
Margaret Leighton:  Madame Orloff

The Door:
Ian Ogilvy:  William Seaton
Lesley-Anne Down:  Rosemary Seaton
Jack Watson:  Sir Michael Sinclair

In which our reviewer realizes that he's in for it this time. Since From Beyond the Grave is an anthology film, I've got five short films to synopsize and critique instead of one. My apologies if this winds up being longer than the Bible and even less fun to read.

England's film industry had a reputation for boundary-pushing horror movies back in the Fifties and Sixties, with the legendary Hammer Studios showing that with a talented cast that took the material seriously, bright red stage blood, and low-cut gowns for a succession of gorgeous women it was possible to get audiences to buy tickets to their movies. And, just like in America, in Jolly Old England's movie system everyone wanted to be the second one to do something original. Amicus (the producers of today's movie) were the second-tier horror studio. The Pepsi to Hammer's Coca-Cola, if you will. There's nothing wrong with being second-best, of course, and Amicus carved out a steadily profitable niche riding on the coattails of The House That Peter Cushing And Christopher Lee Built.

In fact, Amicus figured out something that helped them corner a segment of the horror film market, and managed to snare it so tightly that Hammer never tried to steal their thunder over decades of their dominance in the UK's horror film world. Amicus figured out that they could get a cast of affordable and willing stars (for the given value of horror movie "stars") in a film made up of several short stories rather than one ninety-minute narrative. The studio was willing to shoot around the actors' schedules and the result was a series of eight movies released over fifteen years to diminishing yet profitable box office returns. Of course, attentive readers of Checkpoint Telstar saw the release date for this film, and realized it was when the horror genre changed forever in film; The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre both came out in 1974 as well, and altered the cinematic landscape forever. Amicus, Hammer and Tigon (in England) and AIP (in the States) couldn't keep up with the changing times. Which means that this movie, rather staid by comparison to Leatherface and his family, is one of those movies that probably seemed pretty shocking at the time, but has become staid and genteel by comparison to what had come before.

Nobody in Amicus saw Sam Raimi coming in 1974 either, but watching the handheld camera prowl around a fog-shrouded graveyard at a walking pace under the credits made me think of the looping, zooming, hyperkinetic cinematography of the Evil Dead series, if the Kandarian demon whose point of view the audience shares had just drunk a bunch of cough syrup. Those credits, by the way, list the author R. Chetwynd-Hayes, an English writer of supernatural horror who was widely known in his home country but pretty much unheard of here in the Colonies. Think of him as a step down from Dennis Wheatley (whose works had been adapted by Hammer, which fits neatly into my Hammer / Amicus prestige hierarchy).

After we get that atmosphere-establishing graveyard tour the camera pans about ten degrees to the left and the audience is now looking at a back street in London with an antique store called Temptations Ltd. occupying a storefront. Either the graveyard's literally across the street or it's just some editing chicanery. I like to imagine someone walking out of the store, seeing the green lawns of the several-acre cemetery, and asking "How long has that been there?". The store provides this movie's framing device--in an anthology flick you need to explain why the stories are all happening. In the under-seen Nineties throwback film Tales from the Hood there was a crazy undertaker explaining what happened to the bodies in his funeral parlor; in the first Amicus anthology film, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Peter Cushing gives Tarot readings to the doomed subjects of each story. In this case, anyone that buys an antique from Temptations, Ltd. is in for a supernatural event that they either will or will not survive. Canny audience members will quickly realize that trying to cheat the proprietor means you're gonna get murdered by a ghost, or worse. That's because crime and massively disproportionate punishment are par for the course in these kinds of stories. Long before the HBO series, after all, Amicus adapted several EC Comics stories in their Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror films. And those comics were all about rotten people being horrifically punished for their transgressions against their fellow man.

So. Swinging Londoner Edward Charlton goes into the antique store and looks around at creepy mannequin heads (Cushing gets cut into that sequence in a nice visual joke). I don't think I'd seen David Warner wearing modern contemporary clothing in a movie the first time I saw this one, and I'm sure I'd never seen Peter Cushing dressed so shabbily. Charlton decides to buy an antique mirror that catches his eye, and tells the shop owner that he'll offer a tenth of his £250 asking price. Somewhat unexpectedly, the shop keeper accepts the absurdly low offer and Charlton puts the mirror on the mantel in his swinging bachelor pad. He shows it off and tells everyone how he lied to the shopkeeper, telling the man that the mirror was a reproduction rather than the four-centuries-old piece that it genuinely is.

Bad move, Ed.

That night, at a cocktail party, one of Charlton's guests says the mirror looks nice and spooky, like something that belongs in a spirit medium's parlor. Well, there's nothing to do but hold a seance after you hear a comment like that. Everyone places their hands, fingers spread, in a circle atop a candlelit table. Edward takes the lead and tells everyone to empty their minds and concentrate (I can usually do one at a time, myself) until the visions arrive. When they do, it's a doozy. The candle flares up bright blue, which gets everyone's attention. Then a bearded figure dressed in some kind of 18th or 19th century clothing appears in the mirror and Edward is brought to a shadowy realm. The figure stabs him with a rapier and Edward comes back to himself, screaming in pain (and pretty effectively killing the party atmosphere). But he's completely unharmed, at least physically. That night the figure reappears in the mirror and compels Charlton to listen to his orders. The man (or thing) in the mirror needs to be fed, and is in the market for some nice human Type A Negative. Edward brings a prostitute back to his flat (to the comedic disapproval of his pudgy middle-aged downstairs neighbor), but instead of the transaction she was expecting he murders her. Waking up from what he thought was an unusually realistic nightmare, Charlton sees blood on the cushions of one of his antique chairs and then notices that his pajamas are also splattered with crimson.

Things fall apart quickly--Charlton procures more victims for the grey-skinned, emaciated entity in the mirror, and the one time he tries to resist the spirit's commands he gets psychically tortured into compliance. It's got to be harder and harder to find victims to bring back, with the walls and furniture in his flat increasingly spattered with blood. But Edward's a handsome dude and he'd rather not get his brain reamed out by the mirror ghost again, so murder he does (the brevity of the segment works both for and against the film here--on the positive side, the jump cut from Edward meeting a girl at a bar and convincing her to come home with him to the fatal stabbing is nice and shocking. But on the negative side, he sure did start knifing women quickly once the spirit got its hooks in him). Somewhat belatedly he tosses a lamp at the demon-haunted mirror, shattering it, but that act of defiance does nothing to help with the curse.

Pamela, one of his friends, calls Edward up since he's fallen completely off the radar, and he's got to try and sound natural while telling her not to come by (which will result in her death) while the mirror specter hits him with as much mental compulsion as the damned thing can muster. He fails and asks her to stop by after all, but when she actually shows up at his door he sends her away in a scene that impressed me with how sick, desperate and sorrowful David Warner looks (he is always the model of self-possession, whether he's playing a creepy butler in Titanic or the embodiment of evil in Time Bandits).

Shortly after Pamela leaves, the downstairs neighbor is reading a bedtime story about a werewolf to his cat, because this movie is awesome. I strongly suspect he's reading another one from R. Chetwynd-Hayes or a parody of that author's style but I have no way to confirm or disconfirm that, since Chetwynd-Hayes is almost completely unknown in the States and I haven't read anything by him that I know of. Blood drips down onto his book from the upstairs flat, soaking through his ceiling thanks to the bodies under the floorboards of Edward's place. He goes up to complain and it's a good thing for Edward that he only opens the door a crack; the front room is full of bloodstained and turned-over furniture and it looks like the poor doomed curse victim didn't even realize he was stashing bodies literally under his feet. The neighbor knocks on the door after being shut out and Charlton lets him inside for about five seconds before shanking him. At least the cat makes it out okay. And when the mirror entity appears this time, he looks much more human than he ever did before. Looks like the sacrifices are restoring his vitality, just as he commanded.

The creature speaks to Edward after this last killing, obliquely referring to dozens or hundreds of other people who were sucked into the mirror after giving sacrifices to the previous inhabitant over the centuries. It turns out that there's one more thing Edward needs to do in order to finish the ritual, taking the other man's place. Edward's too worn out and haggard to resist walking to his own death when it gets explained to him (or the curse compelled him to do it), and the re-vitalized man trapped in the mirror promises him that at some point over the centuries he'll be able to walk among the living again.

Which happens sooner than one might expect; workers strip the bloodstained wallpaper and Charlton's apartment gets rented by another young professional man in Swinging London, and several years later (judging by the psychedelic wallpaper and the hippie clothing on the people gathered around) one of his own wine-drinking friends declares the mirror looks like something a medium would have and history starts to repeat itself with a pasty, ectoplasmic David Warner appearing in the mirror. Which is quite a raw deal for the new tenants in his place. As far as I know none of them tried to cheat the shopkeeper at Temptations, Ltd. At least one of them is going to get stuck in the mirror's twilight realm, though.

Speaking of that store, it's time to check in with the shopkeeper again. A young tough is obviously casing the place for a robbery when Christopher Lowe, a middle-aged and middle-class sad sack, walks up and does a little window shopping; the proprietor gestures to some military medals on display in the front window but the man walks off. He does wind up making a purchase, though; a pensioned-off ex-soldier is selling shoelaces and matchbooks in a tray around his neck, standing out on a street corner (and is utterly ignored by everyone else that walks by him). It's Donald Pleasence, which means he looks like he's probably a gnome or other supernatural creature, but so far the only magical place in London is that run-down old antiques shop. He's just a dude named Jim Underwood as far as the movie reveals at this point, though.

Lowe returns home to his tiny little row house and his wife and son, who pretty much openly hate him. In a great bit of casting, his wife is played by Diana Dors, who was billed as "the English Marilyn Monroe"--this role was at least a decade and a half past the apex of her career and I'm sure it was resonant with British audiences at the time to see the former bombshell playing a harridan married to a loser, who was trapped in a life she never would have volunteered to lead. We saw her a couple of HubrisWeens back as the tenacious mother trying to get her daughter back from an orphanage in Nothing But the Night, incidentally. That's because I watch a lot of English movies from this time period when it's time to get alphabetical in October. Her casting here is sorta like Marvel Studios casting Robert Downey, Jr. as a witty, charming, charismatic alcoholic when they started up their own cinematic universe--the audience projects what they know about the performer onto the performance. (Parenthetically, someone needs to make a bunch of different horror anthologies that share the same background at some point, so that all the creepy shopkeepers and psychic readers that hosted the previous films' framing stories can team up in the sixth or seventh movie to beat the Devil in a bunch of linked stories.)

Christopher's meeting with the shoelace salesman was likely the first interaction with anyone that hasn't treated him with contempt in years (we don't see his job at all, but one assumes it's of a piece with his home life, although with less open disparagement because he's got the authority to fire people that sass him to his face). He reacts like a sulky child when his wife details her grievances with him, and it seems like he's at least as much at fault for his own rotten situation as anyone else is.

But it's another intentional run-in with the peddler that sets Christopher's own set of dominoes falling. You see, he feels sympathy for the old soldier because he was in the Army as well (at a desk job in the pay department, which probably made him the best-loved man in the service when the checks arrived on time, but his career was entirely free from combat, adventure or glory). While flattering the "jumped-up clerk"--that's Christopher's wife talking there--the pensioner says that he's sure such an upstanding gentleman must have been decorated over the course of the war (and, in fact, the older man is wearing five medals on his shabby overcoat). Christopher tells the other man he was "attached to the infantry" rather than mentioning he was one of the 85% of the Army that did logistics and paperwork rather than combat, which sets him up to fail again as soon as he says it. I doubt that the British Army gave out medals for neat handwriting, balanced ledgers, or put a wound stripe on any medals for paper cuts incurred in the line of duty. So Christopher will need to come up with something or he's just going to look like a prat to the one person that's treated him nicely in God knows how long. I've never served in any branch of the military but I'm aware of the term "REMF". There has to be an English equivalent to that.

So back to Temptations, Ltd. he goes. He's got his eye on something he spotted in the window, and although I'm no expert on English service medals I'm sure it was something more impressive than the fruit salad on Jim Underwood's chest. The shopkeeper is perfectly happy to sell him the Silver Fiction of Good Conduct Medal, as long as Lowe can show him the certificate he got from his own "lost" one proving that he's got the right to wear one. The poor sap didn't even realize that medals come with paperwork so that people don't get to do exactly what he's trying to do, which should tell you how removed his service term was from the dirtier, bloodier parts of the war. When Christopher promises to bring the certificate with him the next time he's in the shop, the proprietor leaves the medal aside in a glass case to save it for him. And when the old man ducks into the back of the shop (because of reasons), Lowe just boosts the medal and leaves. Well, that's it for him--if cheating on the price of an item is a supernatural death sentence, the shoplifting penalty probably involves getting eaten by tigers.

Jim Underwood's quite impressed with the medal, or at least seems to be, and asks Lowe if he'd like to come around for tea one evening. That's got to be the first social invitation that has been offered to Christopher Lowe in ages, and he accepts, getting lightly buffaloed into it by Underwood (there's no such thing as a polite refusal in a circumstance like that). The older man meets Lowe and guides him to his flat, which is a shabby third-floor walkup with a dimly lit hallway and cramped rooms. When Lowe sets eyes on Jim's daughter Emily he's stunned (at least partially because Angela Pleasence is a dead ringer for her old man).

At least she didn't get his hairline.

Introductions are made all around, and Christopher gets to have some delicious cake and tea. There's a possible Lovecraft reference when Jim says his daughter's "a deep one", but he's ostensibly referring to her intellect. Based on Christopher's reaction, there's something in that tea other than milk and sugar. And back at home, it turns out that Mr Lowe is telling a little white lie to his family to explain why he's been coming home late with great frequency--he's working late hours, and since he's "executive staff" he's not eligible for overtime pay. He's utterly thrilled to be invited back for tea repeatedly, and has a spring in his step while talking to either of the Underwoods that he doesn't have in any other aspect of his life. 

Meanwhile, some weirdo on the street has taken a picture of Christopher's wife Mabel, and we the audience see someone cut a lock of her hair. What all of this has to do with a stolen military medal I just don't know, but when Emily Underwood shows up in the Lowe bedroom wearing a black bridal dress and plunging a dagger into Mabel's sleeping body things are definitely getting weirder. Mabel thinks it's just a nightmare she had, and obviously doesn't attach any significance to Emily's appearance there because she doesn't even know who that woman is.

The next time Christopher stops over to the Underwoods, it's for a home-cooked dinner provided by Emily (a meat pie, it looks like). Jim has to leave for a social engagement with "the lads" (and is wearing perhaps the single widest tie I've ever seen in a motion picture for it), but says that his daughter will get Christopher sorted right out. Which she does, starting out by singing a strange, tuneless song about how "someday you'll be free" and chains being parted and other ominous things like that. When Christopher remarks on the song Emily says she didn't realize she had been singing, and that she forgets herself from time to time.

After dinner Emily offers to serve Christopher as a willing slave, doing anything he wants as long as he orders it. I don't know just how much free will Lowe demonstrates once the offer is made (his face goes unfocused after she tells him this), but Emily does take him to bed while he mumbles something that doesn't make any sense. And when she rises it's in a black nightgown that looks more than a little like the thing she was wearing in Mabel's nightmare. Speaking of ominous developments, she lights a black candle once she gets up from the bed and carries it over to a makeshift altar on the dinner table. When Christopher enters the room he tells Emily to uncover the thing she's got on the table (covered with a black lace wedding veil). It is, as the audience, a voodoo doll of Mabel Lowe. Emily says she can kill Christopher's wife untraceably, but the terms of her bargain is that she must be ordered to do it.

Well, it turns out that Christopher Lowe tells himself that voodoo and magic is nonsense, but literally runs home to see if Mabel's all right after Emily stabs the doll. His son is crying on the staircase and his wife's body is lying in the upstairs hall. It's not a dream, though, but you'd be forgiven for expecting it to be another one when the Underwoods knock on the front door and let themselves into the Lowe house, dressed for a wedding. I missed the subtlety of the cake-cutting the first time I saw the film, but Emily asks first her father, then Christopher, if they want her to carve the first slice and they confirm the order. Which means someone's about to get fucked up. She goes for the cake topper rather than the cake itself, and blood trickles down from Christopher's hairline before he crashes to the table. Then Jim tells the Lowe kid that he and his daughter always answer childrens' prayers. Which is a great twist ending, but one wonders what the hell the swiped medal had to do with anything and why Christopher had to go to the cursed antique store in order to get doomed if it was his son running the supernatural intervention from behind the scenes. Again, this is the second time I've watched this movie and it's only now that I noticed things don't quite hold together for this segment. And it is delightfully nasty to everyone, with great resentful and sarcastic performances from everyone except Angela Pleasence, who is a totally convincing djinn (or possibly angel).

Time to go back to the store and see what else is going to happen to some poor sucker off the street. First there's a bit with that tough getting ready to rob the place when another customer walks in (this time it's an absurdly stereotypical upper-class toff, with tailored suit, bowler hat, and umbrella included). He's in the market for a snuffbox, and is enough of a prat that he swaps the price tags for the one he wants and the much, much cheaper one that's next to it. The shop owner sees it happen, of course, because Peter Cushing knows what you've done. He pops in from the back stockroom with a stuffed alligator (which means that my friend Gavin, who runs The Terrible Claw Reviews, will have to see this movie at some point) and politely asks what he can do for the latest jerk who's gonna get what's coming to him. The shopkeeper's knowledge of what goes on when people buy his wares is made clear in this scene, too, because he says "I hope you enjoy snuffing it," when the customer leaves with his shady purchase.

That customer has the achingly upper-class English name of Reginald Warren, and on his train ride home the dotty woman sharing the carriage with him interrupts his newspaper time to inform him there's an elemental on his shoulder. Since it's invisible, I'm guessing it's air rather than, say, earth or fire. The woman tries to inform Reginald that the creature hitching a ride on his shoulder is a killer, and getting stronger moment by moment. Of course, Mr Warren can't feel or see anything there so he figures it's just another case of the Crazy Person Talking To You On Public Transportation (like the guy who wanted to know my opinion of gay marriage on the El train in Chicago a couple B Fests ago; for the record, I don't think the state has a compelling interest or a right to declare civil rights only belong to one group of people rather than all of them, especially when it doesn't cost me a dime or hurt me at all to have them benefit from that right--which was a considerably more right-wing defense than the random dude was prepared to deal with).

Reginald sees that he's not going to be able to read the Evening News in peace, so he engages the woman in conversation about what exactly an elemental is (Dungeons and Dragons being four years in the future, it's likely that nobody in the film's original audience wouldn't necessarily have known either). The woman explains that the elemental on Reginald's shoulder is a nasty-minded supernatural creature made of bodiless energy. She mentions earth, wind and fire as components of elementals but I'm guessing she means each one can be made of them rather than saying that the creature she's looking at is comprised of all three at the same time. She also warns her disbelieving co-commuter that it's going to feed off of his soul and get stronger day by day.

Reginald seizes on the train's arrival at his station as a welcome chance to bail from the conversation, but Madame Orloff, as the psychic names herself, presses her business card on him before he can fully escape. She also says her "fees are very reasonable," which for some reason does not lead the somewhat stubborn Mr Warren to make an appointment with her for a spiritectomy. But when he gets home, Reginald finds that his formerly loyal and affectionate dog won't go near him and keeps barking. Odd, that, but not necessarily supernatural. Less rationalistic and more upsetting is the way he's holding his shoulder (in an odd, hunched posture that he doesn't notice until his wife Susan mentions it). Worse still is that Susan feels a blow from her husband that he (and the audience) know he never delivered. So there is something going on in Reginald's life and it may well be that elemental. Especially because the marks on Susan's shoulder look much more like scratches from a claw than a bruise.

That night, Susan asks Reginald not to squeeze her hand so hard while they're dropping off to sleep, and it's obvious from the blocking of the shot that her husband isn't touching her. But things go from bad to significantly worse when whatever it is that's holding Susan's hand grabs her by the throat. She understandably thinks her husband tried to choke her (Reg hasn't mentioned the elemental at all, since he didn't believe in it in the first place). He tries to be understanding, but there's only so much he can say or do to placate her when he won't speak about the putative cause of the attacks. Thankfully, though, he didn't throw away Madame Orloff's card so it's time to book an appointment with her. Reginald's address is "Oak Cottage, Hillside, Surrey" which says to me there's few enough houses around that they don't even need street numbers to know where everybody is (comments from English readers explaining how wrong I am about that are welcome below). Madame Orloff tells Reginald he's to fast until she gets there--if he eats anything there's a chance the elemental will possess him and use his body as a vehicle to do mayhem, and it'll just look like Mr Warren down the road snapped one day.

The next morning, Madame Orloff arrives to take care of business (and comments on the elemental's increased size and rank odor; both her and Susan can smell the beast but apparently only the clairvoyant can see it). The psychic says that animals and small children can see the little monsters, and that's why the dog won't come in to the same room as Reginald any more. She claims that he probably picked the elemental up while riding the Tube, but you and I know that Temptations, Ltd. is very well stocked with any kind of curse or supernatural trouble that anyone could ever want.

The curtains having been closed because a bit of atmospheric gloom never did any harm in the clairvoyance business, Madame Orloff starts to do her thing. The threats that Madame Orloff throws at the beast are pretty nasty but they're delivered in a quavery, Pythonesque Old British Lady voice and the monster decides to start doing some poltergeist-style property damage once he feels the lash of Madame Orloff's tongue. It's cool to see furniture fall over and zip across the floor; the exorcism here is like a genteel English precursor to the total mayhem in Evil Dead 2. And since the film was made two decades before CGI would be a standard tool in the kit for special effects sequences, it's all practical effects and whooshing ominous wind noises Foleyed in on the soundtrack.

It's all just a bit too much for the clairvoyant to deal with, and she asks for a drink as an excuse to get Susan out of the room so she can warn Reginald that his wife might attract the elemental once it detaches from him. Then it's time for Round Two of Reginald getting his head massaged while Madame Orloff works on another diss track against the entity. More stuff goes crazy in the room (including another boom from the fireplace, which is always welcome in this kind of film) and Susan cowers while everything breakable shatters on the shelves and the air goes thick with pillow feathers. Madame Orloff's pretty unflappable after the exorcism, and perhaps Reginald learned his lesson because he doesn't try to stiff her on the bill (though he does promise to send a cheque rather than dig into his wallet on the spot).

Some time later (the house is tidied up, so it had to be at least several days since the ritual was carried out) there's a strange dragging noise from the upstairs and Reginald decides to investigate things despite the fact that he's a jerk in a horror movie. The spectral wind from the top floor is one of several clues he ignores while going upstairs and he gets thrown down in a burst of energy. It turns out that warning about the elemental possessing his wife was something he needed to listen to, and the police are going to find something much more like an ordinary "one day the wife snapped and took after her husband with a fireplace poker" homicide than anything that requires holy water and Silver John as a backup plan.

I guess the elemental would have been hanging out on Reginald's shoulder regardless of what happened, but switching the price tags in the shop sealed his doom. That's the working theory, anyway; the final segment is the reason I've got that hypothesis going. Swingin' hepcat William Seaton stops by that evening to impulse buy a massive dark wood door carved with a demonic figure's head from the antique shop, literally bumping into that shady-looking guy who keeps trying to get in the door only to be forestalled one more time. The door is fifty pounds, but William's only got forty in his wallet and he'll be brown-bagging his lunch for a week or two after spending that on the door. The shopkeeper agrees to the reduced price, though, as he did twice before in other segments.

The proprietor tells Seaton that the door used to lead to a room decorated all in blue, but doesn't elaborate past that. He also leaves the till's cash drawer open when he leaves to write out a receipt for the purchase, and unlike the previous three buyers, Seaton doesn't take the opportunity to be a criminal jerkoff when it's presented to him. The door gets delivered to Casa Seaton forthwith. Seaton's girlfriend (wife?) Rosemary goes along with the massive grotesque looking thing when she gets a look at it, but does say that a gigantic door like that should lead somewhere more interesting than a stationery cupboard. She's not wrong, but she also needs to figure out how careful you have to be when you're wishing for things. She describes the room that a big gruesome door carved with a pentagram should lead to, and just like the shopkeeper she declares the room will be blue.

Later that evening William sees a strange blue light on the face carved into the door, and when he opens it he finds that, impossibly enough, there's a large room that hasn't been entered in decades (or maybe centuries) behind it instead of his good correspondence stock. Like a doofus, Williams enters the room (which requires parting the economy-sized cobwebs at the door, because duh, there have to be giant cobwebs at the door). The room's large enough to hold dancing lessons, but currently has a table with one chair sitting in the center of the room. One one wall, of course, hangs the portrait of a nasty-looking gent in archaic formal clothing because duh, that's going to be in here too. I wonder if that guy hangs out with the mirror spectre from the first story.

When William opens the door again he sees only what is physically possible to be there. He tries to tell Rosemary that he encountered that room but she's not really having any of it--until the door opens by itself while William's working on a manuscript on a typewriter roughly the size of an engine block. Those electric typewriters, by the way--they're really more like spaceships. They're not for women any more. I have that on very good authority. Proving that he has self-preservation instincts that make lemmings look like insurance actuaries, William goes into the room when it appears a second time, and peruses a dust-covered book on that table. Turns out he's got an alchemist problem. An evil alchemist problem. And, just like the mirror specter, the alchemist (and the room that he created) needs the occasional infusion of warm human blood to continue existing. I'm starting to wonder how much R. Chetwynd-Hayes covered the same ground with his stories if he's got two evil sorcerers who need blood in the four adapted tales in this movie. Or maybe he wrote a bunch of werewolf stuff that couldn't be adapted in a budget-conscious manner too.

Anyway, William spends enough time reading the Tome of Exposition that the alchemist senses his presence and walks out of the shadows towards his victim. Seaton runs for it and barely escapes, but when he opens the door again it's just writing paper and perhaps a mouse wondering what the big deal is behind that door. He tries to convince Rosemary that they need to flee the house (the book stated that women feed the alchemist's hunger for blood because they last longer under whatever process the evil old man uses). Unfortunately the clock starts to chime as William tries to get away and Rosemary gets compelled to walk towards the door (I've noticed there's not a lot of free will in the curses on display here). William hears her screaming when he tries to make a phone call from the upstairs bedroom and runs down to see the alchemist carrying Rosemary back into the blue room. He might be a bit of a toff but William's brave enough to follow the wizard back into the realm. He's smart enough to grab an antique but usable axe off the wall before he goes in. And he's clever enough to figure out that chopping the door will hurt the alchemist, because he and the door are magically linked together. Blood oozes from the door as William hacks away; the alchemist falls to the floor and the room itself starts to crumble as the spell sustaining it is disrupted. The magician's strong enough to grab William and strangle him, so it's up to Rosemary to pick up the axe and continue the job of breaking out until William can finish things. The room collapsing is a suitably operatic end for this segment (and the film), with the evil warlock stuck in his realm dying in agony and withering into a cobwebbed skeleton before deteriorating into a pile of dust (just like Count Yorga three days ago!).

William and Rosemary replace the door with something more conventional, embrace, and wordlessly decide never to talk about the last day's events ever again. The film underlines Williams' essential honesty as the quality that led him to survive the supernatural events; back at Temptations, Ltd. the shopkeeper counts the money that his customer had a chance to steal and every pound is there where it's supposed to be.

Of course, now that there's nobody else to distract the burglar that has been lurking around in the alley for the entire movie, it's time for him to make his move. He's half the shopkeeper's age or less, and armed with a lead pipe to boot. And he doesn't stand a chance. The previous victims of the various curses probably got off light compared to whatever's going to happen to this guy's soul for firing a brace of loaded flintlocks at the shopkeeper--to absolutely no effect, of course, because Peter Cushing cannot be hurt by non-magical weapons. The criminal's body is pierced by spikes, and I wonder if this shop is yet another place that requires transfusions to stay around--like the blue room, the mirror ghost and the alchemist.

The last shot of the film is the shopkeeper directly addressing the audience, telling us that we're welcome to stop by any time, because there's something in that shop to tempt every single one of us. (If that shopkeeper had a copy of City of Villains that would still play, I'd pay his asking price in a second.) And then it's a fade to black and a bombastic score playing over the minimal end credits.

Oh, man. I love me some horror anthology movies, and Amicus made the best ones as far as I'm concerned. I've seen five of their eight entries in this genre so far (and will see the sixth one at Monster-Rama in two weeks as of this writing), and they live and die by the quality of the framing stories just as much as the segments themselves. This one has my favorite setup of any of the anthology films I've seen--the cursed antiques give a diegetic reason for all of the stuff that happens to the victims in the story segments, but the premise that dealing fairly with the shopkeeper will let you live through the curse elevates the material to a higher plane. It also means that the segments aren't quite as repetitive as they could be, since it's not a foregone conclusion that the protagonists are going to kick the oxygen habit at the end of their individual stories. It might be that The House That Dripped Blood will displace this one at the top of my list for this very particular type of film when I see it, but it'll be damned hard to overcome this movie's wit, cast (especially Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing and David Warner) and overall quality. I eagerly await the opportunity to find out.

"There's still one very important question to ask. If I dress like this, do you think I'll get to meet David Warner?"


  1. Wow, what a cast.

    There's a strong don't-cheat-the-tinker-trader taboo in Patrick Rothfuss novels. I wonder if there's a real world taboo equivalent that the wrapper of this movie is dramatizing.

  2. Heck, it's possible that the book is referring to this very movie. Or that there is, as you said, a "don't rip off the trader" taboo in British culture that would skim right over an American audience's heads.

  3. to absolutely no effect, of course, because Peter Cushing cannot be hurt by non-magical weapons.

    I'm going to assume here that you do in fact mean Peter Cushing, the actor, and not just the shopkeeper character.

    I mean, I'm pretty sure if it had been Christopher Lee, the weapon would need to be silver as well.

  4. Oh, yeah, I meant the actor. Peter Cushing could only be hurt by +2 weapons or greater. Christopher Lee would take damage from silver, meteoric iron or weapons blessed by a level 8 or higher cleric. And of course, Vincent Price did not take damage by any source except his own tobacco use.

  5. I wouldn't sell my soul for a working copy of City of Villains, but I'd certainly offer other people's souls for it. [I'm a villain, duh.]

  6. I'd sell me soul for a new contract that supersedes and breaks the old one under demonic law. Then I'd have my soul back and I'd be in possession of a thing that could break soul contracts. The demons would give me City of Villains back just to stop me from fucking around with their legal system any further, AND I'd still have my soul.

  7. Okay yes, that is a magnificent soul-stealing neopet you have there.

    I was also impressed as hell with Donald Pleasence in drag as his own daughter.