[Blu-ray Review] Severin Releases 2018’s First Great Blu-ray with ‘The Amicus Collection’
Back during the golden age of cinema, there were a number of studios dedicated to the wonderful world of horror. Universal Studios is widely credited with getting the ball rolling with their Universal Monsters flicks beginning in the 1920’s. The Universal Monsters were quickly followed up by Hammer Film Productions and their gothic horror masterpieces. Most people are aware of the output of both Universal and Hammer as well they should be. The two companies to launch some of the biggest names in horror and create some of the most iconic moments the genre has ever seen.
In the early 1960’s a third company entered the horror game — Amicus Productions. Founded by American producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, Amicus was based at Shepperton Studios in England. Amicus used a number of directors and stars from the Hammer world that created a bit of a catch-22 for the company. On one hand, the name talent helped the films stand above the rest, but at the same time, they were often times mislabeled as works of Hammer.
In recent years as the horror Blu-ray market has soared, the films of Amicus have started to get a bit of a second life. Classic Amicus films like The Skull and Dr. Terror’s House of Horror have seen gorgeous Blu-rays releases that have helped remind those that may have forgotten just how wonderful Amicus was. Severin Films recently paid the greatest tribute to the legendary company with the Blu-ray release of The Amicus Collection.
The Amicus Collection is a stunning new 4-disc box set featuring three classic Amicus films — Aslyum, And Now the Screaming Starts and The Beast Must Die! — and one Severin-produced feature of Amicus related goodness.
Asylum — 1972 — Dir. Roy Ward Baker
Asylum is a horror anthology written by Robert Bloch and consisting of 4 individual stories and one wrap-around segment to tie the whole piece together. In the wrap-around, Robert Powell plays a young doctor that shows up at an asylum for the incurably insane for a potential job. Upon his arrival, he meets a wheelchair-bound doctor that explains that there is no hope for the patients in this asylum and that any doctor wanting to work there will have to pass a peculiar test. The reasoning for this test is a result of the insanity of these particular patients — standard methods won’t work here.
The test for the young doctor, as odd as it may be, is rather quite simple. He must visit with each patient currently committed to the asylum and figure out which one is Dr. B. Starr, the former head doctor of the asylum that was recently transferred over as a patient. As the doctor bounces around from patient to patient we hear their stories about how they arrived in their current position and why they believe they’re not crazy.
My favorite story of the bunch if one called “The Weird Tailor,” which is actually a strange name because in the story it isn’t the tailor that is strange but rather the suit he is making. Bruno Morse plays the tailor and his business is struggling to stay afloat when one evening he gets a mysterious visit from a man named Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing). Mr. Smith wants a suit but it must be made from strange fabric and can only be sewn after midnight. Despite his concerns, the tailor takes the job because he needs the money. He soon discovers he’s made a grave mistake when he learns the suit can re-animate the dead.
Like most anthologies, some stories are better than others with the Asylum. But the beauty is that if you don’t like one just wait it out and in 15 minutes you’ll be onto something new. For my personal tastes, I dug all stories involved, but the third one (“Lucy Comes to Stay”) is easily the worst of the bunch. The wrap-around story is engaging and moves everything along nicely and ends in a rather bizarre and shocking fashion. It’s one of those endings that is sort of a twist on a twist. You think you know what happened and then one more thing happens that makes you question everything. It works very well here.
This disc, like all others on the set, is loaded with special features. There’s an archival piece that aired on the BBC back in the 70’s called Two’s a Company and it’s kind of like a mini-doc on Amicus and it’s founders, Subotsky and Rosenberg. It features a bunch of fun interviews and it’s just cool to know that back in the 70’s the BBC was shining a light on a relatively little horror studio. Maybe the most fascinating featurette is writer David J. Schow sharing his thoughts on Robert Bloch. As I’m sure everyone is aware, Bloch is one of the most famous horror authors of all time and his story is a fascinating one. Schow, having served as an editor on three volumes of writing from Bloch, is the perfect man to guide us through the life of one of the most important names in horror.
Other bonus features include audio commentary with Roy Ward Baker, Neil Binney and Marcus Hearn, a featurette titled “Inside the Fear Factory” that takes a look at Amicus Production and a quick little featurette where Fiona Subotsky, the widow of the late Milton, remembers her husband and the work he left behind.
And Now the Screaming Starts — 1973 — Dir. Roy Ward Baker
And Now the Screaming Starts is my least favorite film on The Amicus Collection, but don’t take that the wrong way because it is still a ridiculously fun flick. This story, based off a novel written by David Case, is about Catherine (Stephanie Beacham) and Charles Fengriffin (Ian Ogilvy) a newly married couple that move into the Fengriffin estate. Soon after moving in, Catherine begins to fall victim to a curse left by a servant to the Fengriffin family many years ago.
One thing that makes this film stand out from most other Amicus films is that it takes place in the 1800’s, whereas most of their other efforts take a more modern approach. This film being set in 1795 gives if that more gothic, Hammer look. And this is really where the film really shines because it looks really gorgeous. There is so much detail in the set design and costumes. Two major contributors to the films look are the fact that it was shot by British DP Denys Coop and it takes place in Oakley Court.
Oakley Court is a gothic country house located in Berkshire. This is arguably one of the most famous locations in all of cinema. It served as the setting for number of Hammer production but was also prominently featured in films like the William Castle remake of The Old Dark House, the mystery-comedy Murder By Death and of course it served as The Frankenstein Place in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These days Oakley Court is a hotel and maybe number one of places I need to stay.
What holds the film back is that it never really takes off. The family curse is a really great idea that could have unleashed a whole lot of chaos, but it never really gets to that point. Yeah, some people die, that’s true, but it mostly serves as just an annoyance and that’s too bad.
The special features are plentiful. There’s a really great 15-minute featurette called The Haunted History of Oakley Court. This is basically a tour of the legendary location that touches base on the number of films that made use of this wonderful locale. The 15 minutes is a bit of a tease though because I feel like you could easily put together a full 90-minute documentary on this historic building.
Another cool addition is an archived audio interview with Peter Cushing that is absolutely wonderful. It’s just over 10 minutes, but in that brief time Cushing talks a great deal about his illustrious career. I could just listen to Cushing talk for hours. Not only was he a terrific actor but he was a truly fascinating man.
Another special features include two audio commentaries, a radio spot — I love me some radio spots! — a trailer and a quick segment with journalist Denis Meikle on the film.
The Beast Must Die! — 1974 — Dir. Paul Annett
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you took the made a werewolf film within the world of a Clue-like murder mystery and shook it all up with Blaxploitation? If you have I’ve got great news for you because The Beast Must Die! fits that description to a t! God, I love this movie.
Calvin Lockhart stars as millionaire big game hunter Tom Newcliffe and he invites a bunch of friends to his rural England mansion to spend a lovely weekend with he and his wife Caroline (Marlene Clark). His friends happily agree because who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend in a swanky British pad? Unfortunately, they soon find out that Tom invited them with an ulterior motive. Tom believes one of them is a werewolf and he has a serious of tests lined up to find out just who. Oh shit!
The Beast Must Die! perfectly takes all the werewolf tropes we know and love and works them into this murder mystery all while having a funky ass soundtrack lead the way. I assure you that it’s all as amazing as it sounds. If that’s not enough to sell you then maybe Peter Cushing and Michael Gambon can do the trick because both actors play significant roles in this film. The film also features something called a “wolf break.” You’ll have to watch the film to know what that means.
The Beast Must Die! is, in my opinion, the best film on The Amicus Collection. It’s the most unique and original. I honestly can’t think of a single other movie that is truly like this one. It also serves this set as a bit of a bonus because it’s the only one of the three features that will not be available to own later individually. My guess is because it’s probably the one film that doesn’t have great elements available. Whereas And Now the Screaming Starts and Asylum both look incredible, The Beast Must Die! does live a bit to be desired. The film is a bit soft and there isn’t as much detail. Given Severin’s track record I think we can safely assume they just didn’t have the elements available to clean this one up as much as they would have liked. I don’t really consider this to be an issue — the movie is still all kinds of awesome — but it is worth calling out just so folks are aware.
The special features here include an audio commentary with director Paul Annett and then a brief interview that’s just under 15 minutes on the film. One interesting tidbit from the interview is that Annett talks about this film would be ripe for a big budget remake. Also included is a trailer and an audio essay from the extremely talented Troy Howarth.
The Vault of Amicus — 2017
Bringing The Amicus Collection to a close is a Severin original known as The Vault of Amicus. This disc is a collection of all sorts of Amicus goodies over the years — trailers, interviews and so forth. It’s a bit reminiscent of the Severin kung fu trailer releases, but for Amicus. The trailers and promos are for me the big winner for me here. I love to throw on a trailer compilation in the background as I’m doing whatever and here you get over an hour of them from Amicus. The trailer for The Skull is included and that’s one of my all-time favorites. It features those wonderful shots from that give you the POV of the skull that is really quite cool.
If you’re wanting to watch the trailers and also learn more about the films there’s a lovely audio commentary that goes with the trailers featuring Kim Newman and David Flint. Newman and Flint and two incredibly knowledgeable horror writers from the UK. Severin has done this in the past with their trailer releases and I’ve always appreciated. They sort of play like watching long extended episode of Trailers from Hell — side note: Severin should team up with Trailers for Hell for something.
This disc also includes nearly four hours of interviews, holy hell! The overwhelming majority of interviews is a series with Philip Nutman talking about Amicus with Milton Subotsky. The other portion of interviews are with Subotsky’s partner, Max Rosenberg, and he is interviewed by Jonathan Sothcott. There is an overwhelming about of info produced here. Basically, anything you could ever want to know about Amicus, you’ll learn with The Vault of Amicus.
The Amicus Collection is a stunning set and easily the best release of 2018 so far. This collection shines light on a classic horror studio that has been a tad forgotten in some regard. Thanks to Severin that should no longer be the case and we should start to talk about Amicus in the same fashion we talk about Hammer and the Universal Monsters.