Amicus Brief: Remembering Britain’s Other Fright Factory

What looks like a film made by Hammer Studios, sounds like a film made by Hammer Studios and smells like a film made by Hammer Studios, but is not a film made by Hammer Studios, the prolific production house of British horror films that flourished from the 1960s-1980s?

The answer is Amicus Productions, Hammer’s archrival in cranking out eerie, scary sagas out of England featuring top-flight casts and top-tier writers, directors and production designers.

Amicus was actually born out of anger towards Hammer, the United Kingdom-based enterprise that resurrected such characters as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, all immortalized by Universal Pictures in the 1930s.

Two Americans were the brains behind Amicus: aspiring screenwriter Milton Subotsky and producer Max J. Rosenberg. After producing and writing some rock films (Rock! Rock! Rock! with Alan Freed, Chuck Berry and Tuesday Weld among them), Subotsky penned a Frankenstein feature that Hammer reportedly plucked parts out of for their own film without crediting the writer-producer. Vowing to gain revenge, Subotsky teamed with money man Rosenberg, who had produced Hammer’s 1957 hit The Curse of Frankenstein, to enter the Hammer-styled world of terror with 1960’s City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel), an atmospheric tale of witchcraft with Hammer star Christopher Lee as a professor with intimate knowledge of a small town’s demonic history.

After City of the Dead encountered distribution problems in the States—probably because the film was shot in black-and-white, as opposed to the garish color schemes that were a Hammer trademark—Subotsky and Rosenberg went back to the drawing board, cranking out more youth musicals (including Richard Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad). The duo ultimately returned to shock cinema a few years later with 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.  Like many Amicus releases to come, and taking a cue from the classic 1945 Ealing Studios film Dead of Night, Dr. Terror’s was a “portmanteau,” boasting several eerie tales held together by a framing story. Lee was again engaged to star, this time joined by two more Hammer standbys, actor Peter Cushing and director Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein).

Penned by Subotsky and photographed by Star Wars cinematographer Alan Hume, Dr. Terror’s premise posits Cushing as a diabolical fortune teller on a train who gives tarot readings to different passengers. The occult-oriented stories involve werewolves, killer plants, vampires and voodoo—oh, my! Lee was cast as an arrogant and murderous critic; others in the ensemble included Michael Gough, Bernard Lee (“M” from the James Bond series) and a young Donald Sutherland.

The film was successful, giving Subotsky and Rosenberg footing in the fright game—albeit with significantly lower budgets than Hammer. In fact, Amicus’ formula for cutting costs of their “portmanteau” films was to cast name actors in small roles so they would only be paid for a few days of work.

The multi-story format would be used by the company many times over the years, as evidenced by their follow-up to Dr. Terror’s, The Skull, also released in 1965.  Cushing was once again recruited, this time playing the lead role as a collector of unusual objects who comes to own the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Eventually, his possession of the artifact leads him to delusions and murder.

Subotsky’s script adapted a story by Robert Bloch (Psycho), and Francis was enlisted once more to call the shots. The results are gorgeous to look at and unsettling at the same time. Helping to add to the chill factor is the motley supporting group of Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Michael Gough, Nigel Green and Patrick Magee.

Throughout the next several years, Amicus would mix their darkly humorous “portmanteau” pictures—such as the all-star E.C. comics-inspired Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, Asylum, The House that Dripped Blood, and Torture Garden with Jack Palance and Burgess Meredith—with single-story shockers like The Deadly Bees and the Bloch-written The Psychopath.

Occasionally, Amicus would delve into other areas of interest. For example, the company would bring the popular BBC TV show Dr. Who to the big screen in the form of 1965’s Dr. Who and the Daleks and  and 1966’s Dalek Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. Peter Cushing headlined both efforts as the Doctor, simplified and altered considerably from his TV “Time Lord” persona by Subotsky.

Likewise, Amicus tried their hands at thrillers such as Danger Route (1967), a Bondian suspenser directed by Seth Holt (The Nanny), with Richard Johnson as a British operative enlisted to kill a defected Soviet agent; William Friedkin’s adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1968) starring Robert Shaw; and the ambitious box-office disappointment The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970), about a man (Terence Stamp) that scientists try to bring up to speed after having been in a coma since infancy.

The experiments didn’t end there for Amicus, but to minimize the future risk, Subotsky and Rosenberg stuck within their most comfortable genre. Scream and Scream Again (1970), co-financed by American-International Pictures (AIP), featured Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but the horror/suspense/spy thriller end result was quite a bit different than the science-fiction story by Peter Saxon it was based on. While a box-office hit, the production of the film proved a chore, with Subotsky and his script discarded by AIP and director Gordon Hessler (The Oblong Box).

Then there was I, Monster, a Jekyll and Hyde story with Lee in the title role, Cushing putting in a brief appearance and plans to film it in 3-D. Christopher Lee took the main role (his last for Amicus), with Peter Cushing giving a brief supporting appearance. The film was eventually released sans 3-D even though material on screen still reflected scenes menat to be projected with an extra dimension.

Into the 1970s, Hammer attempted to corral a younger audience by taking Christopher Lee’s Count to Swinging London in Dracula A.D. 1972. Amicus, meanwhile set out to fill the gap of gothic horror with Roy Ward Baker’s …And Now the Screaming Starts, a grislier and more risque affair by Amicus’s typical standards. Set in England at the end of the 19th century, the film stars Stephanie Beacham as the recent bride of Ian Oglivy moves into a large family estate where she begins having disturbing visions and is raped by a ghost. Eventually, the source of her horror is learned by a doctor/investigator (Peter Cushing) as disturbing family secrets are revealed.

After a return to anthology films, a Peter Cushing/Vincent Price pairing in Madhouse, Cushing and an oddball werewolf film called The Beast Must Die (Tagline: “One of these eight people will turn into a werewolf. Can you guess who it is when we stop the film for the WEREWOLF BREAK? See it … solve it … but don’t tell!), Amicus took a step in a different direction, getting into the Edgar Rice Burroughs business with a series of special effects-filled fantasy outings such as The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core and The People That Time Forgot, all helmed by Kevin Connor who got his directing start with the Amicus anthology from Beyond the Grave. Somewhere during these films’ productions, Subotsky and Rosenberg ended their professional relationship. Subotsky, a pop culture maven, went on to produce 1980’s all-star omnibus The Monster Club and TV miniseries the Martian Chronicles, directed by Roy Ward Baker, while Rosenberg, a one-time art film distributor, had his hand in several films including 1997’s Dance with the Devil (aka Perdito Durango), directed by Alex de la Iglesia and starring Rosie Perez.

Both have since passed away, Subotsky in 1991 and Rosenberg in 2004. A tribute to their work can be found in the new documentary Amicus: House of Horrors, an exhaustive look at the studio, its films and their creators, released by Alpha Home Entertainment. The British film written and directed by Derek Pykett uses rare still photos, trailers and interviews to tell the saga of the Amicus scaremeisters. Along with various technicians and such veteran actors as Geoffrey Bayldon and Geoffrey Whitehead, Amicus: House of Horrors showcases reminisces by filmmakers Kevin Connor, Stephen Weeks (I, Monster) and Peter Duffell (The House That Dripped Blood).

All add color to the already colorful—mostly red—lives of Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg and their underdog enterprise, Amicus Productions.