Sunday, November 12, 2017

House on the Tracks

I'd think it difficult to be led astray by the title of 1964's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Though as a matter of fact we never see Dr. Terror's house--but it is a satisfyingly lurid horror anthology film, the first of a series for which British studio Amicus would become famous for in the 1960s and 1970s. Like most of those films, it features Peter Cushing, joined in this case by his friend and frequent Hammer co-star Christopher Lee. Both effectively play against type and the film's greatest flaw, its thoroughly illogical screenplay, even kind of contributes to how good it is. It's almost nightmare logic.

The framing story takes place on a train, not a house, where Dr. Schreck, played by Peter Cushing, tells the fortunes of five men in the car with him, one after another. Each story ends in doom for its subject, one of the movie's logical problems being that no-one asks if they can't avert fate now that they've been given foreknowledge. Though an unsurprising and effectively strange conclusion to the film arguably solves this problem.

Schreck's name means terror in German and Cushing plays the character with a thick accent and a lot more hair than is usual for him. A bigger departure, though, is Christopher Lee as one of the compartment occupants.

His story, the penultimate, is about revenge in the art world. "Disembodied Hand" bears a lot of resemblance to a story from the Tales from the Crypt comics, "The Maestro's Hand". Lee plays a vicious and conceited art critic named Franklyn Marsh who's embarrassed when an artist named Eric Landor (Michael Gough) tricks him into praising a painting by a chimpanzee.

It seems meant to prove a point he'd been making when Marsh had been publicly bashing an exhibition of Landor's paintings--Landor makes the argument that art is totally subjective and that its power resides in the viewer. Marsh's view of art as a measurable skill is rocked by the revelation of the chimpanzee artist so thoroughly that he goes quiet and literally runs away whenever Landor enters a room. As such, a disembodied hand that tries to strangle Marsh later in the story might be interpreted as a manifestation of repressed psychological issues.

And that's supported by Lee's nervous, fussy performance and it's really a highlight of his virtuosity to watch this alongside his natural and exuberant performance as Rasputin in Rasputin: The Mad Monk. Though I wonder if it really would've been so hard to say maybe a chimpanzee has talent. The fact that the ape's art is better than Landor's might have been a nice way to turn the insult around, Marsh really had to put his foot in it to make Landor's prank work, a slightly unlikely scenario, another thing that seems dreamlike.

Maybe the most dreamlike story in the film is the second one starring Benard Lee as a scientist trying to save a man and his family from a carnivorous vine inexplicably attacking his house.

There's no explanation for it, the plant just seems to've gone crazy one day. It's also difficult to understand why it's so hard to defeat.

The final story features Donald Sutherland as a doctor who brings his French wife (Jennifer Jayne) home to New York with him. The story is about vampirism and makes absolutely no sense, filled with motivations that turn on a dime. Sutherland is weird to watch, contemplating the murder of his wife with a wooden stake with only vague, mild distress.

There's absolutely nothing in this story to make you think it was shot anywhere near New York--apart from Sutherland, all the American accents are unconvincing and every scene was clearly shot on a sound stage.

But I like the look of it, the Technicolour in this movie is sort of gorgeously brash, particularly in the first story which is a sort of combination werewolf and haunted house story set in Scotland (again, mostly sound stages).

The film also features a story about a musician punished by supernatural forces for stealing a melody from a Haitian Voodoo ceremony, the weakest story in the film but weird enough to be enjoyable. The whole film is slightly unhinged fun.

Twitter Sonnet #1053

Two rivers make an absent third alive.
A sibling text appeared in pairs of notes.
A quiz delayed'll fade the brain's archive.
A grey and quiet crew deploy their boats.
Descending sizes stretch the cauldrons out.
In boiling clocks the hands are useless oars.
The gentlest tree contorts for leafy gout.
And ev'ry eve a cat conducts the tours.
The shadow horns replaced the scales in mind.
Ouroboros in human hearts decayed.
Expanding lungs of darkened walls rewind.
And slowly lids of metal eye cascade.
As straw inside investors try to birth.
A metal ice revisits corp'rate Earth.

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