Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Good, The Bad and The Portmanteau

I was glad to see the release on DVD of the film V/H/S as it sees a return to one of my favourite sub-genres of film - the portmanteau horror. Portmanteaus (or anthologies) are like a (comic-)book of short stories rather than a full novel, although there is a central conceit or thread which binds together the individual tales. This often involved a group of strangers thrown or trapped together with each recounting a strange dream or fear they'd had, with the resulting "twist" being that they are all turn out to be dead.

One of my favourite conceits is the antique shop run by Peter Cushing in From Beyond The Grave - all the customers come in and attempt to swindle him in order to get hold of some knick-knack or other - but more fool them, because that mirror they got for half price is actually haunted and contains the trapped spirit of a very persuasive mass murderer!

The conceit for V/H/S involves a group of petty criminals who have been paid to break into a house and retrieve a video tape. They find a dead man sitting in a chair, surrounded by tapes, and each member of the gang vanishes after watching a tape. It's nice to see the moral certainties of the genre continuing as baddies get their come-uppances.

Despite the purposefully grainy, "amateur" nature of the film, the stories are certainly passable, with the first one (about a group of obnoxious frat boys who have the tables turned on them when they set out to illicitly make a sex tape) and the last one (about another group of slightly less obnoxious guys who accidentally gate-crash and mess up an exorcism, thinking it's a Halloween party) being the best.

Portmanteaus hit their heyday in the 60s and 70s, with British film Amicus producing about a half dozen of them, including Dr Terror's House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood and Tales from the Crypt. As well as the horror stalwarts like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, it's always fun to see well-known British faces like Tom Baker, Roy Castle, Alan "Fluff" Freeman, Diana Dors and Joan Collins cropping up - there's a nice pairing for example of Jon Pertwee and Geoffrey Bayldon in The House That Dripped Blood (where Pertwee is a horror film actor who buys a haunted cloak from strange shop-keeper Bayldon). The two had a long standing tv relationship as Wurzel Gummidge and the Crow Man.

Amicus produced its last portmanteau in 1980, The Monster Club, which was also the first one I saw, and aged around 9, it did manage to terrify me, despite probably being one of the least scary of the lot - and having some pretty unconvincing monsters! The Monster Club is set in a nightclub (for monsters naturally) and the stories are interspersed with musical numbers which take up quite a bit of time (although I do have a soft spot for The Stripper, which is belted out by Stevie Lange). The stories are based around a poster of the monster family tree which is derived from the writing of R. Chetwynd Hayes who came up with the idea (and is also a character in the film). The vampire Vincent Price, who befriends him and introduces him to the club, explains:

First we have the primate monsters, vampires, werewolves and ghouls – but everyone knows about those. Now pay attention: A vampire and a werewolf would produce a werevamp. A werewolf and a ghoul would produce a weregoo. A vampire and a ghoul would produce a vamgoo. A weregoo and a werevamp would produce a shaddy. A weregoo and a vamgoo would produce a maddy. A werevamp and a vamgoo would produce a raddy. If a shaddy were to mate with a raddy or a maddy, it would result in a mock (which frankly, is just a polite name for a mongrel).

The first story is about a shadmock which can cause all your skin to melt off - very messy - by whistling - so do try not to make one fall in love with you just so you can run off with his family silver. The poor shadmock lives a lonely life in a gorgeous country house which most of us will only ever get to see if we hold National Trust cards. He is supposed to be vile to look upon, although I think all he needs really is a bit of fake tan and a better haircut. In fact, when my poor fella (trying to be affectionate), stroked my hair the other day, I shouted "Don't! You've made me look like a shadmock!"

For me, the scariest story in The Monster Club was the last one about a film director who, while out scouting for new locations, gets trapped in the isolated village of Loughville. Surrounded by dry ice - it clearly has its own microclimate - it appears full of interbred drooling locals, but in fact they're ghouls who intend to eat him. Only the inn-keeper's daughter Luna, a "humghoul" (a cross between a human and a ghoul) who speaks in a debilitating Norfolk dialect, offers a chance of survival. Sam, the movie director is swash-bucklingly played by Stuart Whitman, who is a long way from the 50s beefcake roles he used to have.

And there's a wonderful "oh no, we're back at the chateau!" moment as the final twist, which to someone who had only ever seen children's films with happy endings, felt awfully unfair and stayed with me for YEARS afterwards. The middle one is about a vampire Dad and is the "comedy" story - there's usually a bit of comedy hiding in one of the segments, particularly cases where someone is trying to exorcise a rambunctious poltergeist. You just have to grit your teeth and see it through, because at least there'll be another story along in 15 minutes or so. That's the beauty of the format.

1980 probably marks the point where it was impossible to produce any more authentic Amicus portmanteaus, as audiences were becoming too sophisticated by then - and anyway, the age of the proper video nasty was underway, and there's an innocence to those portmanteaus that can quickly become kitsch if not done properly.

The series was parodied by Steve Coogan's Dr Terrible's House of Horrible in 2001, with one episode "And Now the Fearing" being a proper homage to the portmanteau involving 3 characters trapped in a lift, and with some wonderfully kitsch 1970s sets. My favourite involves Julia Davies from Nighty Night who is tormented by a murderous coffee table (this actually wasn't that far from the killer piano in an Amicus portmanteau called Torture Garden).

So seeing V/S/H inspired me to do some Amazon searching and I've managed to get hold of all of Amicus' back catalogue. I only have one left to watch - Asylum - which unfortunately I could only get a copy with German subtitles on, but never mind. I hear that V/H/S 2 is coming out soon, so maybe this is the start of new era of portmanteau awfulness!


Anonymous said...

I don’t think it’s an Amicus, but only a fortnight ago I discovered the portmanteau “Tales That Witness Madness” (1973) which unforgettably features Joan Collins coming a poor second to a tree for raw sexual appeal in her onscreen husband's opinion

- matthew davis

Lubin said...

I'm trying to get hold of this one too as I have a vague memory of watching it at some point in the 1980s. Thanks for the tip-off. Another trip to Amazon!