ASYLUM (1972) / AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS! (1973) / THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974). Beginning in the late 1950s and winding down in the mid-1970s, Hammer Films cornered the market on color-drenched horror flicks featuring blood, bosoms and sturdy genre players like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Yet the outfit wasn't the only one snagging a piece of the pie, as Amicus Films found some measure of success with its own terror tales. The DVD outfit Dark Sky Films has seen fit to release three such movies under the banner The Amicus Collection, with more flicks hopefully on the way. Amicus' productions often lacked the atmosphere and production values that distinguished the Hammer line, but they were rarely less than entertaining, bolstered by impressive casts and ghoulish plotlines straight out of a vintage EC Comics title.
Although Amicus was largely known for horror anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood and Tales From the Crypt, Asylum is the only multistory film included in this batch of DVD releases. Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth) plays Dr. Martin, who arrives at an insane asylum in the hopes of landing a position. He learns that the head of the institute, Dr. Starr, has suffered a breakdown and has been locked away with the other loonies. But if he can deduce which patient is really Dr. Starr, then the job is his. The stories spun by the disturbed residents offer no real surprises, but the movie's terrific final twist makes it all worthwhile. Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland are among the name actors appearing in the various vignettes, and the movie makes memorable use of Mussorgsky's "Night On Bald Mountain" as its opening credit theme.
With its period setting and attendant costume and set designs, And Now the Screaming Starts! is perhaps the Amicus film most likely to be mistaken for a Hammer release. Saddled during production with the even worse title I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, this is a fairly involving drama, set in 1795 England, about a bride (Stephanie Beacham) who moves into her husband's (Ian Ogilvy) family home and gets raped by a vengeful spirit. As she attempts to solve the supernatural mystery surrounding her, she's perpetually plagued by a shifty groundskeeper (Geoffrey Whitehead) and a disembodied hand. Playing a concerned doctor, Peter Cushing arrives at exactly the halfway mark of this 90-minute movie.
More Agatha Christie than Lon Chaney Jr., The Beast Must Die borrows the reliable Ten Little Indians template and shapes it to meet the demands of its creature-feature trappings. Millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) invites five guests to spend the weekend with him and his wife (Marlene Clark) on their country estate, waiting until they're isolated from civilization before revealing that he suspects one of them is a werewolf -- and that he plans to hunt and kill the creature before the weekend is up. Peter Cushing costars as a professor well-schooled in lycanthropic legend, while a young Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the most recent Harry Potter flicks) appears as another of the suspects (who knew he was in movies this far back?). The twinkly '70s music, more suited to an episode of Charlie's Angels than a horror flick, precludes any pretense of genuine suspense. But there is the novelty of the "Werewolf Break," which gives audiences 30 seconds to figure out the identity of the wolfman (or werewoman).
All discs include audio commentaries and cast biographies; Asylum also includes an interesting featurette on the history of Amicus.
All titles: **1/2