From the second half of the 1950s to the mid 1970s, Hammer Films ruled supreme as Britain’s masters of horror. But the company was not unrivalled, as several other producers sought to cash in on the horror boom. Some, like Planet Productions, came and went quickly; others, like Tigon, dabbled with horror as a part of their wider production slate. But one company stayed the course, building a reputation that might not have rivalled Hammer’s, but which ensured them a cult following that survives to this day. That company was Amicus.
Amicus was formed by American producer Milton Subotsky, who moved to the UK in 1959 after distributing films to US television for ten years. His US based partner, Max J. Rosenberg, was the man who would find the money, while Subotsky was in charge of the ‘artistic’ side – getting the films made.
The pair first dabbled in horror in the mid-Fifties, and could claim to have kick-started the Hammer cycle, as they submitted an idea for a new Frankenstein film to Associated Artists Productions, who in turn passed it on to Hammer. While the Subotsky/Rosenberg screenplay, entitled Frankenstein and the Monster, was considered too short and too derivative to be filmed, the pair were paid off and the experience – not to mention the huge success that Hammer subsequently had with The Curse of Frankenstein – set them on the road to fifteen years of horror and fantasy production.
The first Amicus film actually predates the company. The City of the Dead, better known as Horror Hotel, was made before Subotsky settled on the Amicus (meaning “friendly”) name and the film is credited to Vulcan Films. Made just prior to Psycho, this occult thriller is notable for killing off the heroine midway through the story – much as Hitchcock would do later the same year with Janet Leigh.
An effective shocker, The City of the Dead holds up surprisingly well today (and thanks to its public domain status, is pretty easy to see). The crisp black and white photography and the pre-Wicker Man approach to the subject matter make it stand out as a quality film. It also sees a early non-Hammer British horror appearance from Christopher Lee. Lee, along with Peter Cushing, would become as much regulars for Amicus as they were for Hammer during the 1960s and early 70s.
The next four Amicus films were of a very different strain – It’s Trad, Dad (aka Ring-A-Ding Rhythm – Subotsky’s favourite of his films!), Just for Fun, Girl of the Night and Lad: A Dog (a ‘touching’ tale of a disabled boy and his pet) were mostly forgettable youth and family films. There was little to suggest that The City of the Dead had been anything more than a one-off.
Subotsky was a vocal advocate of ‘family entertainment’ throughout his career – something that would have an increasing effect on his approach to horror and fantasy as time went on – and he seemed an unlikely person to create a studio that would rival Hammer, who had eagerly embraced the ‘X’ certificate and were willing to push it as far as they could. But Subotsky was first and foremost a businessman, and he knew that horror would sell.
In 1964, Amicus returned to the genre with a film that set the scene for a decade of horror. Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors took its title from an obscure 1940s film and its format from the classic Dead of Night (1945). Consisting of a series of short stories, linked together by Peter Cushing as a sinister tarot card reading doctor who predicts death for all his travelling companions during a train journey. The film set the tone for much of the subsequent Amicus output – over the ensuing years, Subotsky made the portmanteau film his trademark. While Hammer concentrated on the gothic, Subotsky mostly kept his films firmly set in the modern day, and had a particular affinity for the anthology (he was once quoted as saying he liked the format because it didn’t give the audience time to get bored!). It also allowed him to boast surprisingly starry casts, as it was cheap and easy to hire big name actors for a few days work on a short story.
Doctor Terror is, in fact, a rather mixed bag – some stories (such as the vampire tale with Donald Sutherland) work well; others just drag or seem silly. But the film was a box office success and set Amicus on the fantastique road. In fact, they rarely made anything outside the genre from that point on. The company never reached the production levels of Hammer (who were making several films a year, across a variety of genres, at their peak) and for the most part stuck with what they knew would sell.
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In 1965, for instance, apart from the compilation film The World of Abbott and Costello, all four Amicus productions were horror or science fiction. Best remembered of the films is Doctor Who and the Daleks, a popular reinterpretation of the BBC series with Peter Cushing in the title role. The film deviated considerably from the TV series format, but was successful enough to spawn a sequel the next year, Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD. Although a considerably better film, it was less successful (possibly because the audiences flocking to the first film were rather disappointed with the changes made) and plans for a third film were shelved. Interestingly, for contractual reasons, both films were credited to ‘Aaru Films’.
The other 1965 films were the somewhat awkward giallo-like thriller The Psychopath, The Deadly Bees (which is as dull as every other killer bees film) and The Skull, an ambitious but plodding adaptation of Robert Bloch’s short story The Skull of the Marquis de Sade. Poor as the film was, it did mark the beginning of a long relationship between Bloch and Amicus. This was consolidated in 1966 when he supplied the source material for the second Amicus anthology, Torture Garden.
Not to be confused with Octave Mirbeau’s erotic classic of the same name (the title is, in fact, nonsensical and has nothing to do with the film), this turned out to be another uneven collection, despite having some excellent short stories as inspiration. Directed by Freddie Francis (who would become a regular for Amicus), only the story The Man Who Collected Poe, with a twitchy Jack Palance, came close to matching the original Bloch story.
Also in 1966 came two science fiction films. The Terrornauts, directed by Montgomery Tully, was a pretty awful children’s film, while Freddie Francis made the slightly better They Came from Beyond Space, a paranoid tale of invading aliens and mind control. Science fiction, it seemed, was not something Amicus excelled at, lacking the budget and the ideas to make it work. However, it did fit with Subotsky’s wish to make family films.
A couple of lean years followed. 1967’s sole Amicus film was forgotten thriller Danger Route while 1968 saw Thank You Very Much, a kitchen sink drama, and an attempt to move upmarket with an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. None of these films made much impact. 1969 saw the intellectual science fiction drama The Mind of Mr Soames and, more significantly, Scream and Scream Again.
It perhaps shows how out of touch Subotsky had become by this time with audience – and genre fan – tastes that he had a dislike of the film. Interviewed by Cinefantastique in 1973, he commented “strangely enough, Scream and Scream Again made a lot of money and that was different from any film we’ve ever done. I don’t know why, it wasn’t all that good. It might have been because we used three top horror stars and it had a very good title.”
Or perhaps it’s because it spoke to modern audiences in a way that the increasingly old-fashioned Amicus horror films that followed didn’t. One imagines a company like AIP would have noted the success of the film and reacted accordingly. Amicus, unfortunately, blithely ignored it and went back to their safe formula.
1970 saw The House That Dripped Blood, a decent anthology film again based on Bloch stories. It was more successful than Torture Garden, and even the token comedy story (The Cloak, starring Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt) worked. Less successful was I, Monster, directed by Stephen Weeks – a young filmmaker with a unique vision that often made his films hard work. Putting an pseudo-arthouse director in charge of an adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for a commercial filmmaker like Subotsky was always going to be problematic. Shooting it in a new, experimental form of 3D was utter madness.
Opinions differ on what exactly went wrong. Subotsky cheerfully blamed it on Weeks’ ‘inexperience’; Weeks says it was non-starter from day one. It was certainly Subotsky who insisted on the 3D format (which turned out to not work) – he had something of a fixation with the format, announcing several 3D movies in the 1970s, none of which were made. Even if the 3D had been successful, it’s hard to see how it would have saved this stilted, talky film.
1971 saw the acclaimed and very un-Amicus psycho thriller What Became of Jack and Jill?, an unpleasant tale of granny killing that fits well with other British twisted tales of the era (Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly, Goodbye Gemini, Straight on Till Morning), as well as the more traditional Amicus anthology Tales from the Crypt.
Taken from the EC comic books, this compendium proved to be the biggest Amicus horror hit and might be the best of the series. More or less all the stories work, and while the film doesn’t have the gleeful black humour of the original stories, it is nevertheless ghoulish fun. A sequel was inevitable, and The Vault of Horror, unfortunately not as good, appeared a year later.
Also in 1972 came Asylum, again based on Robert Bloch stories. Two anthologies in one year? I’m afraid so, and Asylum suffered from weak material – presumably, the best (or at least most movie-friendly) Bloch stories had been used up, and this was very uneven.
In 1973, Amicus strayed into Hammer territory with the period piece And Now the Screaming Starts. It wasn’t the best timing – Hammer themselves were struggling to sell their gothic horrors by this point, and this rather plodding imitation didn’t do well.
The same year saw the final anthology, From Beyond the Grave. Hailed by some as the best of the series, it benefited from above average stories by R. Chetwynd Hayes, a witty linking performance from Peter Cushing and fresh direction by Kevin Connor.
The final Amicus horror film was the eccentric The Beast Must Die in 1974. You have to credit Subotsky for taking a chance on this inadvertently hilarious film, which has Calvin Lockhart as a latex suit-wearing big game hunter who invites a group of people to his country estate, believing one of them to be a werewolf. A mix of murder mystery, horror and The Most Dangerous Game, the film includes the infamous Werewolf Break, where audiences were supposed to shout out who they think the werewolf is. There are no records to show what audiences ACTUALLY shouted…
Curiously, Amicus had their biggest hit at a time when the British film industry in general seemed on its last legs. In 1975, they made the prehistoric romp The Land That Time Forgot, which was a huge box office success. Horror was suddenly out – not only were giant monster films making more money, but they also fitted in with Subotsky’s own wish to make wholesome films for kids to enjoy. It was followed in 1976 with another Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy adaptation, At the Earth’s Core, which proved to be another popular success.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Subotsky and partner Rosenberg was becoming increasingly strained, and in 1977 the business was dissolved. Although a further Burroughs romp, The People That Time Forgot, was in development at the time, it would eventually be credited to American International Pictures. Rosenberg, never high profile to begin with, continued in distribution and production, often uncredited (among his executive producer credits are The Incredible Melting Man, Bloody Birthday, Cat People and Perdita Durango). Subotsky, not a great money man, was left floundering. He finally teamed up with Andrew Donally to form Sword and Sorcery Productions.
In the mid-Seventies, Subotsky had toyed with the idea of filming Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, but finding them too violent, instead went for Lin Carter’s Conan knock-off Thongor. Subotsky planned a major action epic, family-friendly of course, with little dialogue, lots of stop motion effects and Dave Prowse in the title role. Harley Cockliss was brought in as director and the search for financing began. AIP showed interest but wanted to make changes. Subotsky declined, fearing that they wanted to turn it into an R-rated movie.
Eventually, United Artists agreed to back the film and gave S&S development money. Storyboards and monsters were designed and Thongor in the Valley of the Demons was scheduled for production in 1980. Six weeks after announcing the film, UA dropped the project, possibly because all their money was being gobbled up by Michael Cimino’s epic flop Heaven’s Gate.
Other films that failed to get off the ground included comic book adaptations The Incredible Hulk, Creepy and Eerie and science fiction epic The Micronauts. Then Sword and Sorcery finally did get a film into production, it was a return to what Subotsky knew best – a three story anthology about killer cats called The Uncanny. This was followed by lacklustre psychological thriller Dominique, like its predecessor a Canadian-UK co-production. Neither film was a success.
By 1980, Subotsky was in something of a quandary. Having poured most of his time and money into the now defunct Thongor, he’d also spent his remaining financial resources buying the rights to six of Stephen King’s short stories. He needed to make a film, and soon.
Now, you might wonder why, having bought the rights at a time when the author was at his cinematic hottest (with The Shining and hit mini series Salem’s Lot), Subotsky didn’t make a King movie. Instead, he dusted off an old screenplay and set about making his grandest folly, The Monster Club.
Like From Beyond the Grave, the film was based on short stories by R. Chetwynd Hayes. But unlike that film, The Monster Club became a textbook example of How Not To Make a Horror Film. Again, part of the problem was Subotsky’s fixation on family entertainment. As far back as The House That Dripped Blood, he’d wanted to make a film that kids could see (in Britain; in America, these films were routinely rated PG anyway). He’d complained bitterly that the BBFC had rated that film ‘A’, only to change it to ‘X’ on the insistence of the distributor. Condemning sex scenes as ‘boring’ and expressing a dislike of ‘gratuitous’ violence, he was now determined to make a horror film for all the family. The only problem was that this was 1980. A Fangoria generation was fixated on Dawn of the Dead, Phantasm and Friday the 13th and were just gaining access to those films – and stronger – through home video. Kids didn’t want to see a horror film aimed at them. And if the kids weren’t interested, adults definitely weren’t.
Worse still, the film was incredibly dated and pitifully under-budgeted. I remember sitting in my local cinema watching this film as the audience hooted, howled and yelled abuse at the awful monster masks, the tired direction by Roy Ward Baker and the terrible rock bands that Subotsky though would add youth appeal (B.A. Robertson? The Pretty Things?). In the year that audiences were flocking to violent slasher films, Subotsky was still thinking that Vincent Price and joke shop level werewolf masks were the way to go. Rarely has a film been so spectacularly out of step with reality. The film bombed, failing to even secure US distribution, and plans for a sequel (Monsters and Meanies, would you believe!) were quickly abandoned.
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Subotsky’s career was pretty much over. He did co-produce the TV mini series The Martian Chronicles, and in later years had credits on Cat’s Eye and The Lawnmower Man – that shrewd investment in Stephen King stories at least paid off to that level. He died in 1991. Rosenberg died in 2004.
Amicus never achieved the popularity or reputation of Hammer, and truth be told, their films rarely equalled those of their great rival. But the company did produce a handful of entertaining, sometimes excellent, sometimes terrible movies and they deserves to be remembered with a mix of affection and frustration.
David Flint, moviesandmania.com