The House that Dripped Blood (1971)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: May 8th 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
If I were tasked with writing the entry for “cinematic comfort food” in the dictionary, I’d almost certainly list the Amicus anthology efforts as a prime example. Over the course of a decade, the stalwart British outfit produced seven portmanteau horrors, all of which are reliably steady, exemplary efforts in the format. Whether you’re talking individual segments or macabre frame stories, you simply can’t go without mentioning the likes of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror. Nestled between these landmarks, however, were the “minor” efforts, a designation that truthfully undersells them since there’s not a dud among the bunch. Amicus’s third such outing, The House That Dripped Blood, is among these ranks, and even it boasts a murderer’s row of horror icons starring in a ghoulish array of stories inspired by the pages of Weird Tales, Fury, and Unknown, collected and scripted here by original writer Robert Bloch.
It features one of the best wraparound hooks to boot, as Scotland Yard detective Holloway (John Bennett) investigates the disappearance of film star Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee). The actor’s last known whereabouts involved an old house in the country, prompting Holloway to visit the local police station, where the presiding officer offers a puzzling examination: it’s the house itself, which sports a long, sordid history of vanishing tenants. Before long, Holloway has pulled up a chair to take in officer’s lurid tales detailing the fates of a tortured author, a lovelorn stage actor, a desperate father, and, eventually, the missing actor at the center of the investigation.
“Method for Murder” opens the grisly business with a familiar but unnerving tale involving a horror writer (Denholm Elliot) and his haughty wife (Joanna Dunham) scoping out the titular house. Her perpetual sneer reveals her hatred for the place, but he’s quite enamored with it, claiming it’s the perfect place to inspire his unhinged work. It turns out to be too good, as he’s soon haunted by visions of the madman (Tom Adams) he’s writing onto his pages: at first, he believes it to simply be his imagination running wild, but a more disturbing suggestion arises when the man continues to appear right before him, yet remains completely invisible to his wife. Director Peter Duffell peppers some unsettling imagery into this delirious, meandering tale, with the fleeting shots of Adams’s psychopath proving to be most striking. Often appearing as an almost subliminal manifestation, this madman’s face is the first of many indelible images strewn throughout the film, and even a late twist does little to diminish his presence. The delirious, topsy-turvy ending—full of murder, betrayal, and awful folks receiving their just desserts—is the stuff of classic Amicus, as the increasingly devious Adams and Dunham share a demented, violent final scene.
Arguably the film’s most memorable segment (on account of being immortalized on the poster art), “Waxwork” features retired stockbroker (Peter Cushing) taking up residence in the home, only to be enchanted by another house of horrors nearby when he stumbles upon a wax museum. He immediately fixates on an exhibit featuring a woman that appears familiar to him: though the impressionist narrative doesn’t completely illuminate the matter, it’s clear he’s haunted by some woman in his past, and now he believes he sees her encased in wax right before his eyes. His illusions are seemingly shattered when the waxwork’s proprietor (Wolfe Morris) explains the display is actually inspired by his own wife, a savage murderess—hence explaining why her wax doppelganger also holds a severed head.
Naturally, Cushing elevates this otherwise sleepy little tale: without knowing the details of his heartbreak, it’s obvious that his heartache weighs on him. His every move feels haunted in some way, and only a visit from his friend (Joss Ackland) seems to stir him from his forlorn existence. Even this, however, eventually only brings pain since his friend is also preoccupied with the same woman and is similarly entranced by the very same wax exhibit in town. Both men are due for a predictable reckoning (again, the final shot appears on the film’s poster), but it’s no less gnarly: as usual, a wax museum makes for a delightfully macabre horror locale, especially when it inspires an otherworldly, candy-colored nightmare like this one does. Plus, the final twist allow Morris to really lean into his role as the gradually unhinged museum owner—by the end, he’s graduated from harmless carnival showman to the sort of leering, scuzzy carnie you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.
It’s at this point that the Scotland Yard detective has decided he’s heard enough nonsense from the officer in charge, prompting him to seek out the realtor responsible for leasing the home in question. His investigation leads him to the office of A.J. Stoker (John Bryans), whose surname is a hint of things to come. In the meantime, however, Stoker delivers the third—and for my money, the anthology’s best—tale, which finds John Reid (Christopher Lee, receiving top-billing despite first appearing 45 minutes into the film) moving into the sketchy home with his daughter Jane (Chloe Franks). Duffell and company deftly play off of expectations here, as Lee’s reputation as a horror baddie immediately casts suspicions over his actions: just why is he so adamant about removing himself and his daughter from society? What awful secret lurks between them? Why is the little girl especially afraid of fire and barred from playing with dolls?
When a nanny (Nyree Dawn Porter) probes into these questions, both she and the audience are met with quite shock: maybe it’s not the father we should suspect but rather the daughter, who hoards writings on witchcraft and isn’t afraid to wield their powers. “Sweets to the Sweet” is a segment aimed right at my heart like a pin pointed at a voodoo doll. Full of black magic and sinister rites, it’s a stealth killer kid movie snuggled right into this anthology, giving The House That Dripped Blood a vintage British occult vibe that I find irresistible. It’s not often that you see a young girl steal the show right away from Christopher Lee, but Franks does so with ease here, tormenting her on-screen father by reminding him of her deceased mother in the worst possible way.
With this story now added to the legion of grisly details, Stoker finally arrives at explaining what the detective (and the audience) has been waiting to hear: just what happened to the missing movie star that recently rented the house? We learn that Henderson was in town to film yet another vampire movie, a genre over which the aging star feels some manner of ownership, having featured as a bloodsucker for decades. For his latest outing, he acquires a cloak from a nearby shop, and doesn’t think twice about the owner’s bizarre behavior: the old man can’t get rid of the garment quickly enough, and cryptically mutters about being able to rest in peace now that he's rid of it. Upon trying the cloak on for the first time, Henderson is astonished to discover his reflection missing from the mirror, the first of several disconcerting revelations that lead him to conclude his next role will be extremely method.
A clever angle for its time—this was back before meta-horror was anywhere near being played out—“The Cloak” feels like it’s primarily aimed at horror fans. There’s a lot of inside baseball stuff, like when the egotistical Henderson loudly, snobbishly proclaims that even he doesn’t make vampire movies like they used to, back when Bela Lugosi was Dracula and “not this new fellow,” referring to Pertwee’s co-star from the previous segment. Casting Ingrid Pitt as an actress in Henderson’s latest movie is also a clever gag that points the way towards the segment’s final twist. This is definitely a case where you’ll see it coming, but it’s so goddamned awesome that you don’t really care—which just about sums up how a lot of these Amicus anthologies work.
You know what you’re getting when you indulge his particular craving, and The House That Dripped Blood delivers the studio’s patented flavor, right down to its signature frame story climax. More than most anthologies, Amicus’s efforts often cleverly intertwine the wraparound story with its segments before providing a satisfying climax, and this outing is no different. Dovetailing out of the final segment, the film’s ultimate climax arrives when the inspector finally enters the house itself to uncover Peterson’s fate. His answer—not to mention a fourth-wall shattering address to the audience—captures the spirit of Amicus Productions: demented, playful, and altogether charming in a way that leaves you wishing they were still making them like this.
Fifteen years after it arrived on DVD, The House That Dripped Blood finally makes its Region 1 Blu-ray debut courtesy of Scream Factory, who has quietly been pumping out a ton of terrific vintage horror during the past few years. This is another solid effort, as a handful of special features accompany the lovely, pristine video transfer. Two audio commentaries headline the supplements: one features Duffell and author Jonathan Rigby, while the other boasts insight from film historian Troy Howarth. A newly-produced interview with second assistant director Mike Higgins provides further first-hand accounts of the production, as he scatters in various anecdotes in with the schematics of what it’s like to work on an anthology film.
A “vintage” featurette from 2003 (no, I am not prepared to accept this as “vintage”) also makes the cut. Mostly narrated by Duffell, it also features some input from a handful of stars, including Pitt, who looks back on the film fondly. A brief overview of how the film came together at Amicus gives way to Duffell’s musings on the script, the production, and, eventually, the final product. While he still wasn’t too fond of the film’s title (he campaigned to call it Death and the Maiden), he wistfully recalls the film’s success, noting that House is from a bygone era of horror, where religious mysticism could save the day instead of “Arnold Schwarzenegger or Batman.” He also points out a cool Easter Egg: during his segment, Christopher Lee’s character reads The Lord of the Rings, the actor’s favorite book, and, eventually the source text for those “lovely movies,” as Duffell calls them.
Trailers, radio spots, an image gallery, and a combination Amicus radio/spots gallery (which features selections from several of the studio’s efforts) fill out another solid disc from Scream Factory. While home video enthusiasts rightfully sing this label’s praises for its more high profile (read: 80s and 90s horror) releases, let’s take a moment to appreciate their willingness to dig into deeper, slightly more obscure vaults from time to time. Better still, let's hope they continue down this path of vintage British horror, a scene with plenty of fertile ground that's yet to be tilled on home video. In fact, look no further than Tyburn Film Productions, the company founded by legendary director (and Amicus regular) Freddie Francis's son, who entered the family business by producing a handful of horror films, most of which have yet to surface on home video here in the U.S. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: