From the mid-sixties to the early seventies, if you wanted to lose yourself in the world of the portmanteau horror film, Amicus, ‘the studio that dripped blood’, was the where it was at. Formed by American duo Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, the company went on to produce a string of neat supernatural anthology movies, which echoed, at least in their structure, the much earlier Ealing thriller, Dead of Night (1945). Titles like Asylum (1972), Tales from the Crypt (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1974) permeated the slightly troubled minds of a whole breed of Gen-X kids who were glued to late night telly broadcasts. The simple format – four to five scary stories stitched together by a linking narrative, usually a carnival barker type, tarot reader or even estate agent – not only gave the young viewer more value for money, it also ensured there was no time to get bored. Don’t like this part? Hang on there’ll be another coming along in ten minutes or so.
What is perhaps most odd about Amicus films, though, is just how well they captured the spirit of unflinching Britishness despite being made by a largely foreign operation. That ‘Britishness’ conveys itself in the grotty feel of the productions, there is something more ‘real’ and council house ingrained within them. They may offer us daft yarns of werewolves, vampires and voodoo, but they are viewed from the filthy windows of a terrace house and served up in greasy chip shop paper. The studio had long been competition to Hammer, and the bitter rivalry between the two houses was well-known, yet Amicus found itself facing yet another young pretender to its thrown when interlopers World Film Services tried battering down the hatches of its famous crypt keeper doors.
Directed by Hammer stalwart, Freddie Francis, Tales that Witness Madness (1973) cheekily borrowed the portmanteau formula already well-established by Amicus. It’s no surprise that the film is often mistaken for a Rosenberg/Subotsky production, Francis had previously helmed Doctor Terrors House of Horrors (1965), Tales from the Crypt, and Torture Garden (1967), and so the piece fits perfectly alongside its more successful predecessors. And yet there is something unfathomably unique and indescribably icky about the finished movie that it deserves closer examination.
Whereas Amicus often bled into more ‘kitchen sink’ territory and Hammer certainly made the most of its technicolour gothic USP, Tales that Witness Madness edges towards the sci-fi in places. Its linking narrative takes place in a cutting edge mental hospital, and its gleaming hi-tech mis-en-scene, place it a million miles from the antiquated mad house walls offered in Asylum in look at least, it shares more in common with The Andromeda Strain (1971) or Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). The film’s bizarre anthology segments are introduced to us via the testaments of a strange array of unfortunate patients placed in the dubious care of a wild-eyed Doctor Tremayne (Donald Pleasence) and his colleague Doctor Nicholas (Jack Hawkins).
First up is Mr Tiger, where an emotionally challenged young Paul (Russell Lewis), threatened by the constant arguing of his self-obsessed mother and father, conjures up a make-believe wild-cat. It of course turns out to be not so imaginary and the boy’s domestic woes take a turn for the better when his egocentric parents are done away with in an unpleasant bone crunching finale. It’s genuinely unsettling, managing to be both silly and authentically horrifying. The all too late realisation of what is about to happen, which flashes across the faces of his doomed relatives is an unnerving sight to behold. Up next is Penny Farthing. It’s a kind of Wellsian, time travel drama, where antique shop owner Timothy (Peter McEnery) gets literally drawn back into the past by the haunting presence of evil Uncle Albert. The fact that his ‘time machine’ happens to be a possessed Penny Farthing certainly marks this entry as one of the films barmiest, yet the creepy manifestation of Albert, who appears mostly to us as a sepia toned photograph, which can somehow change expression depending on the mood of the situation, provides a shockingly memorable motif, one which will stick in your head long after you may have forgotten the movie itself.
Tales that Witness Madness contains many moments like this, even its most forgettable section, Luau, starring a slightly out of place Kim Novak, still manages to transform a fairly run of the mill (and mildly racist) cannibal tale into something more other worldly and odd. It segments a ham-fisted and very British version of exotica and foreign culture with a pretty good story of lust and betrayal, which rumbles along despite itself and never outstays its welcome. Like everything about this production, there is something safe but at the same time jarringly awkward about it. As if The One Show were presented by Shuan Ryder, it does and doesn’t make sense. Not much sense is to be found though in Mel, the third and most screamingly peculiar tale offered in this or indeed in any other portmanteau effort. Feeling more akin to one of the more extreme episodes of Tales of the Unexpected such as the queasily horrible Georgy Porgy, which also stars Joan Collins, it concerns very much in love couple Brian (Michale Jayston) and Bella (Collins), whose relationship is rocked by the arrival of Mel, who becomes unwelcome love rival to Bella. Mel, is of course dead tree. Dragged in by Brian one day, ‘Mel’ is initially just an aesthetically pleasing bit of wood sculpture but his obsession with the increasingly more sentient ‘thing’ grows into something unhealthier as the sap begins to rise. The fact that Mel takes a serious dislike to Bella informs us that this weird love triangle will not end well.
It’s worryingly disconcerting, playing out like a kind of Emmanuelle meets Pinocchio soft porno, it’s not so much what it shows us as what we’ve already imagined is happening behind closed bedroom doors (think of the splinters for god sake). It’s obviously barking mad, and like much of the film, it, ironically, given the mental hospital setting, seems unconcerned for our sanity. Be assured, watching this will either chip away at your sense of reason or leave you in a fit of giggles. Possibly both. Tales that Witness Madness, is hardly the most pivotal film you’ll ever see. It certainly offers little to alter paradigm of British horror, but for the discerning appreciator of weird clap trap, it is absolutely THE best portmanteau film that Amicus never made, its malformed shape casting an angled shadow across our wandering midnight memories. It’s an insane romp, unpleasantly deft yet laughable and incomprehensibly addictive; and it is of course, as the posters once screamed, ‘An Orgy of the Damned’!