Thursday, January 02, 2003

Why I Love Portmanteau Horror

As a child, I always loved what are called "portmanteau" horror films, and now I never miss an opportunity to watch them if they appear on the telly now.

1. This is a particularly 1970s British genre, although there have been American entries (notably Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt). Portmanteau horror films consist of between three and five separate stories, all bound together by some central theme, and with a very predictable twist at the end. A good game to play while watching portmanteau horror films is in spotting the famous actors (Diana Dors, Donald Pleasance, Kim Novak), as well as those hardy character actors who crop up again and again.

2. These films are very hokey, moreso than normal horror films, very easily parodied, and at least one of the stories tends to verge on comedy. The earliest one that I know of is Dead of Night, starring Googie Withers, about an architect stuck in a recurring nightmare who hears the tales of various guests at a country house. It had stories by E.F. Benson and H.G. Wells, and was influential and ground-breaking in its own right. Many of the stories in portmaneau horror films are about mystical objects that have (unexplained) powers of their own. In Dead of Night there's a magic mirror that shows you a different room when you look into it, and a ventriloquist's dummy that comes to life.

3. Some of my favourite portmanteau films are: Tales that Witness Madness set around a psychiatrist ward where we get to see the reasons why four of the patients are in there. One story involves Joan Collins whose husband becomes obsessed with a dead old tree (!) In The Uncanny, Peter Cushing's research reveals that cats have strange powers of revenge, while in From Beyond The Grave he's an antique dealer, and strange fates befall his customers who try to cheat him. Dr Terror's House of Horrors (a title that sounds like a bad parody of itself), involves tarot card reading on a train, has Peter Cushing AND Christopher Lee, and allows Roy Castle to show off his trumpet playing skills.

4.The Monster Club was an attempt to modernise the genre in 1980, and had Vincent Price as a vampire, taking a victim along to The Monster club and relating three tales about various breeds of monsters. The most notorious portmanteau horror film featured Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror. Ms Black really got to show her acting ability, playing four separate roles, although the best was saved to last when she was pursued by an evil African fetish that had come to life.

5. Portmanteau horror films are rarely very scary, they don't feature much characterisation or make you think too much. They're the horror equivalent of a tapas bar - a bit of everything but nothing particularly substantial. And it doesn't matter if you don't like one story, it'll be over in 20 minutes. Portmanteau horror films also suggest the beginnings of postmodernism in film - directors playing around with structure. Pulp Fiction is the natural extension of the portmanteau horror film.

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