Robert Bloch (1917-1994) is one of my favourite writers. I discovered him at a very early age and I doubt I’ll ever be able to let him go – but how can you not love an author who once quipped, more or less:
“I may seem scary, but I have the heart of a little child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
Luckily for us he was not only funny and scary but highly prolific as a short story writer, novelist and screenwriter. He adapted many of his own short stories for the screen, most notably perhaps in the anthology films he wrote for Amicus, such as The House that Dripped Blood.
I submit this review for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog as part of the celebrations for the centenary of Robert Bloch, who was born on 5 April 1917.
“Terror waits for you in every room …”
Despite the lurid title, this is a very restrained portmanteau – there is in fact no blood on display at all, though there are plenty of ingenious murder methods and plenty of scares, as well as several laughs. Bloch was supplied with a basic premise by producer Milton Subotsky around which he then added four of his pre-published stories. The basic premise sees Detective Inspector Holloway from Scotland Yard (a dyspeptic and impatient John Bennett) called in, to his displeasure, to investigate the apparently trivial but high profile disappearance of a movie star from the house he was renting in a small village. He learns from the local constabulary that other tenants have had problems when staying at the house. There will be four tales, the final one dealing with the missing movie star, which then leads into the climax of the film. We begin with the Inspector being told the first tale by the desk sergeant …
Method for Murder (first published in Fury, 1962)
Starring: Denholm Elliott, Joanna Dunham, Tom Adams, Robert Lang
The first segment is about a horror author suffering from writer’s block (a typically edgy performance from Denholm Elliott) who starts to believe that he is being stalked by Dominick (Tom Adams), the crazed strangler he is writing about. He starts seeing an analyst but becomes increasingly unnerved – is the house exerting a supernatural influence, or is something else going on? Following the original short story very closely, this is a clever tale, shot with flair by director Peter Duffel, and one that ends with a clever pair of neat reversals, kicking the film off very nicely.
Waxworks (Weird Tales, 1958)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland, Wolfe Morris,
Peter Cushing stars in the more reflective and melancholy second segment, playing a stockbroker who has retired to the country and who is pining for a woman he once loved While visiting a local museum of horrors, he is reminded of her in a wax figure of Salome. He is then visited by an old friend (Joss Ackland) who, it turns out, was also in love with the same woman. They both go back to the museum to see the wax figure, leading to a nightmarish climax for an unusual story of longing, sexual jealousy and revenge that for its focus on three sad and lonely men is surprisingly touching and affecting at times (especially once you get past their terrible taste in cravats).
Sweets to the Sweet (Weird Tales, 1947)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Nyree Dawn Porter
Lee stars as the touchy father of a ‘difficult’ daughter who has been trouble hanging on to a nanny. Nyree Dawn Porter takes on the role but starts to believe that Lee is lying about why the child is being kept out of school. And why have candles been going missing? But why is he doing it and why is the daughter (played by precocious poppet, Chloe Franks) so troubled? Bloch kept the basic plot and situation but changed the characters in the story quite a lot, which in fact works much better for Lee’s portrayal, working against his established screen persona. The original story ends with a memorable snap that justifies the title and sadly this has been removed, perhaps it was thought to be just a bit too gruesome in its implication …
The Cloak (Unknown, 1939)
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Jon Pertwee, Jonathan Lynn, Geoffrey Bayldon
Jon Pertwee (in a role originally offered to Vincent Price) plays a demanding actor who is starring in a low-budget horror movie, Curse of the Bloodsuckers, who purchases a cloak to play the vampire but who starts to believe the garment is the real thing when he stops being able to see his reflection when wearing it!
He looked at himself in the mirror, and there was no one there! – from Bloch’s original 1939 short story
Other than the premise and the essential payoff, Bloch’s script changed the original story almost completely, turning a story about a man buying a costume for a Halloween party into a satire about the fakery of the movie business. Unusually for the Amicus anthologies, this final segment, while it does have a few scares, is mostly played for laughs, mainly at the expense of actors and the British film industry in general – and really is a delight. And of course we also have gorgeous Ingrid Pitt playing a gorgeous actress and who is also briefly seen dressed up as a vampire. This provided her with what is now her most iconic image with fangs flaring and décolletage in full flow, though in context it is not meant to be taken seriously at all. In fact, she is giggling the whole time as she bares her fangs!
While he had completely overhauled his original story already, Bloch in his autobiography (Once More Around the Bloch) gives credit to the director for changing the tone of the script for the final segment (who also made some other changes he was less keen on apparently). ‘The Cloak’ in fact originally was meant to be played straight. This segment is great fun and leads into the finale in which the Inspector goes to visit the basement of the house and which leads to a coda that once again shows the debt that these films owed to Subotsky’s favourite film, the classic Ealing omnibus film, Dead of Night.
Although Tales from the Crypt (1972; adapted by Subotsky from EC comics) was the most financially successful of the films, it’s the three written by Bloch that i like the best =- here is a list to the whole lot of them (though technically The Monster Club was not an Amicus film, though made by Subotsky very much in that style).
The Amicus horror anthologies
- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965; written by Subotsky)
- Torture Garden (1967, written by Bloch)
- The House That Dripped Blood (1971, written by Bloch)
- Asylum (1972, written by Bloch) – review
- Tales from the Crypt (1972; adapted by Subotsky)
- The Vault of Horror (1973; adapted by Subotsky)
- From Beyond the Grave (1974)
- The Monster Club (1981)
DVD Availability: The film has been released at various times on DVD in Europe and the US. The best edition features an audio commentary with historian Jonathan Rigby and the director, Peter Duffell. This used to be available part of an Amicus box but I have the English-friendly German release. The image quality is very satisfactory (the image grabs contained in my review are from that version and are used purely for the purposes of criticism and review).
The House that Dripped Blood (1971)
Director: Peter Duffell
Producer: Max J Rosenberg & Milton Subotsky
Screenplay: Robert Bloch
Cinematography: Ray Parslow
Art Direction: Tony Curtis
Music: Michael Dress
Cast: (for the wraparound ‘framework’ story only) John Bennett, John Bryans, John Malcolm