Sunday, 30 March 2014


The Amicus Films of Peter Cushing : Part One of a serial feature written by Troy Howarth with images and design by Marcus Brooks

When Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky partnered up to produce films, they initially had their eye aimed squarely at the youth market.  They scored early hits with rock and roll films like Rock, Rock, Rock! (1956) and the early Richard Lester film It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), but it was their moody black and white chiller City of the Dead (1960, aka Horror Hotel) which would point to their later fortunes.  City of the Dead had been produced under the name of Vulcan Productions, but by the time they revisited the genre in the middle of the decade, the credits would read “An Amicus Production.”  Amicus, incidentally, was the Latin word for “friend,” indicating that the company was established with the best of intentions.

Truth be told, the distribution of work at Amicus was pretty much split thusly: Rosenberg set up the deals and Subotsky focused on the creative end of the partnership.  It was Subotsky who had enthusiasm for horror, sci-fi and fantasy; Rosenberg would have been quite content producing anything that turned a profit.  As such, their working relationship would prove to be harmonious—for the most part.  Dissent and hard feelings would settle in over time, but in the beginning it was a match made in heaven, with the two New Yorkers feeding into each other’s strengths.

When they decided to turn their energy to making horror pictures, they were well aware of the success that Hammer Films were enjoying in the UK.  Subotsky, in fact, had approached Hammer's Anthony Hinds with the idea of doing a remake of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) in the mid-50s. When Hammer went off and did a very different take on Mary Shelley’s original novel, Subotsky felt cheated and would often vocalize a critical attitude towards Hammer’s output in interviews. 

Subotsky preferred his horror with a bit of subtlety; to his thinking, Hammer’s shockers were too garish, too gory, too needlessly sexy.  Thus, it came as no surprise that the horror films he oversaw were comparatively “old fashioned” in their approach. Still, Subotsky and Rosenberg knew that they needed star power to help sell their films and they wasted no time in courting Hammer’s two biggest names, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Lee would top-line City of the Dead and would be brought back to star in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), the first of the Amicus anthology films.  To play the fortune-telling Dr. Schreck, they would enlist the services of Peter Cushing.  The combination of Cushing and Lee was good for box office and with Hammer veteran Freddie Francis also in tow to direct, some viewers may well have thought that they were seeing a new Hammer film!

Dr. Terror would establish a very different approach, however, one which would distinguish the Amicus product from that of Hammer.  Hammer’s films were typically period pieces.  They reveled in lurid scenes of gore and sensual sexuality.  And above all else, they were always single narrative pieces.  Amicus’ films, on the other hand, would be contemporary.  They would avoid explicit gore and seldom so much as touched on the subject of sex or sexuality.  And they would often embrace the anthology format which had so impressed the young Subotsky when he saw Ealing Studios’ seminal Dead of Night (1945).

The formula would prove to be successful.  Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was a box office hit and it even snagged some favorable notices from the critics, many of whom were put off by the excesses found in Hammer’s films.  If Subotsky and Rosenberg were taking “the high road” in some respects, it was due entirely to Subotsky’s own feelings on the matter; if Rosenberg had produced such a film on his own, there’s little doubt that he would have hewed closer to Hammer’s example.  No matter how one views it, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors made an impact and it remains one of their most purely enjoyable confections. Freddie Francis directs with style and energy, Alan Hume’s widescreen color photography is properly colorful and atmospheric, Elisabeth Lutyens contributes a spare, but chilling, soundtrack.

If it has a failing it’s in the script, written by Subotsky himself.  The stories are a pretty routine lot and at least one of them (the Voodoo segment with Roy Castle) is basically an uncredited rip-off of Cornel Woolrich’s story Papa Benjamin, which had been adapted as an episode of the popular Boris Karloff-hosted TV series, Thriller, in 1961. Even so, the stylish execution and generally excellent performances help to elevate it and result in a generally enjoyable film.  Like most anthologies, it’s uneven—one good story here, one so-so one there—but when it works, it works very well indeed. They would continue to refine the formula in later films.

The experience of making Dr. Terror would prove satisfying for Peter Cushing. He enjoyed getting to play a real character role, with makeup and an accent to boot, and he responded to Subotsky’s almost childlike enthusiasm. Indeed, the two men would find in each other kindred spirits. Much has been written about Cushing down through the years, but little of it touches on the complexity of the man. He had his faults, like anybody else, but one of his great strengths was an unerring sense of loyalty to his friends. In Subotsky, he found a producer whose love for creating mirrored his own.

If Cushing had issues with his writing, as he had with that of Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster, for example, he kept his concerns to himself—or at the very least broached the topic in gentle terms that didn’t ruffle any feathers on Subotsky’s part. Much like the “marriage” of Subotsky and Rosenberg, the union of Amicus and Cushing would prove to be a productive and happy one; it would also enjoy a happier resolution in the long run.

For their next collaboration, The Skull, Cushing would return to play the lead, with Lee along for the ride in the capacity of “guest star.” Freddie Francis was again brought on board to direct and he would deliver what was for all intents and purposes his masterpiece as a director.

The slight screenplay, adapted by Subotsky from Robert Bloch’s story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”, served as an ideal framework for the director to indulge in his love of mobile camerawork and artfully composed compositions. It may well be a case of style over substance, but so what?

As a mood piece, The Skull is remarkable well done. It’s even a little eerie in spots, as Cushing’s character, an obsessive collector of occult memorabilia, succumbs to the malefic influence of de Sade’s skull. Subotsky managed to assemble a top notch cast for the film: in addition to Cushing and Lee, it featured the likes of Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Jill Bennett, George Coulouris and Michael Gough.

This reflects a key strength of Subotsky as a producer—his unerring ability to entice top drawer talent to appear in genre films by offering them roles that could be filmed quickly, thus enabling them to earn a little extra money in between more “important” film and theatrical commitments.

Cushing was given an opportunity to carry the film, appearing in almost every scene and helping to ground it in reality.  He’s splendid in the role, which is in some respects one of his most under-appreciated performances.  He is relaxed and commanding when needed, but gradually conveys panic and fear as the character’s life begins to spiral out of control.

It’s a marvelous, low-key, naturalistic performance from an actor who could sometimes fall back on mannerisms when he didn’t have something more substantial to work from.  It, too, would prove to be a hit for the company and Subotsky would waste no time in continuing the association. Their next venture(s), however, would prove to be controversial among fans and sci-fi buffs in general, with many viewing the end result as something of a low point for both the studio—and the actor …

Written By Troy Howarth
Images and Design: Marcus Brooks

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