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Amicus - The Little Horror Studio that Could

by Mike Haberfelner

December 2009

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When mentioning the British horror cinema of the 1960's, people almost invariably think about production house Hammer and its unmistakable output first, and that's hardly surprising given that studio's amazing output of genre entertainment - yet there was another British company that was something of a runner-up for predominance in British horror, and that company was Amicus. Of course, Amicus films never quite reached the popularity of its bigger rival Hammer and only released a fraction of Hammer's output, both within and outside of the genre. Compared to Hammer, Amicus was always the little studio that could - a studio that often took over ideas (as well as actors and directors) from the bigger rival but then transformed them to turn them into something quite generic. Because while Amicus has often been dismissed as a Hammer-copycat (and its films were certainly similar to a degree), in all the studio has developed a quite distinct in-house style over the years that made its best films as easily recognizable as Hammer's best films were.

 

There are a few curious fact about Amicus though that I don't want to hide: While it was by all means a British film company and its films had a very British flavour to it, it was actually owned by two Americans, Max J.Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who both got their start in the US-American filmbusiness and also produced their first few films together there before relocating to Britain. And while they in later years became known for their horror films, both Rosenberg and Subotsky tried their hands on a few other genres before zeroing in on the shocker, and even the first handful official Amicus releases were not exactly scary stories.

 

But wait, I'm getting way ahead of myself here, before I'm giving all the best facts away, maybe I should start my story at the beginning and tell it in chronological order, wouldn't you say?

 


 

Max J.Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky

 

Mas J.Rosenberg was born in 1914 in the Bronx, New York to a furrier father. He initially worked as a lawyer, also had certain ties to the communist party (which he later renounced), but eventually he became caught up in the film industry in 1945 as a distributor of foreign movies, the most prominent probably being Der Blaue Engel/The Blue Angel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) and Roberto Rossellini's Roma, Città Aperta/Rome, Open City (1945).

In 1954 Rosenberg traded in the big screen for the small, and produced a kiddie program with the self-explanatory title Junior Science. His partner in crime was fellow New Yorker Milton Subotsky, who also wrote the series.

 

Milton Subotsky was born in 1921 in New York. In World War II, he served in the Signal Corps and was in charge of editing training films, which pretty much laid the groundwork for his later movie career.

After the war, Subotsky was quick to realize the possibilities of this new medium called television, and he wrote and produced various programs.

 

As mentioned above, it was on television (on Junior Science, to be precise) that Max J.Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, later founding fathers of Amicus, first met, and it must have been a match made in heaven, because the two of them would soon trade in the small screen for the big one alongside each other and remain together for the next 20 or so years - which is a mighty long time in the film business.

 

In all, Subotsky was probably the creative head of the duo, as he scripted several of the movies they did together, while Rosenberg handled the finances, and even when their production outfit relocated to the UK, Rosenberg allegedly remained in the USA for most of the time.

 


 

Vanguard

 

In 1956, Max J.Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky formed the (US-American) production company Vanguard, which was supposed to be little more than a production house catering to the drive-ins across the country giving them films comparable to those produced by AIP, Allied Artists and similar companies.

 


The first subject that they decided to exploit was rock'n'roll, then a new and hot sort of music, and thus for their first film Rosenberg and Subotsky gathered some of the more prominent music talent of the day - both black and white - plus legendary disc jockey Alan Freed, one of the driving forces of the world conquest of rock'n'roll, and put all of them together in a rather silly yet likeable musical, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956, Will Price), the story of a slightly air-headed teen (Tuesday Weld) trying to get the right dress and the right boy for her prom, all of which is framed by two shows, each consisting of several musical performances, hosted by Alan Freed. Milton Subotsky not only wrote the script for this one but also a handful of songs, while the likes of Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and La Vern Baker perform their hits. Maybe it should be noted here that Tuesday Weld didn't do her own singing in this one, her singing voice was provided by Connie Francis - and the opening credits of the film don't make a secret out of it, nor does it hurt the film, as Ms Weld's spirited performance holds the feeble story together just nicely.

 


Rock, Rock, Rock became big enough a success that Subotsky and Rosenberg decided to pretty much use the film as the blueprint for next year's Jamboree (1957, Roy Lockwood), another teen romance with much music. The main differences between this one and Rock, Rock, Rock are probably that the resident disc jockey of the film is no longer Alan Freed but Dick Clark (who along with Freed was credited with discovering rock'n'roll for a [white] mainstream audience), Connie Francis lends her singing voice to Freda Holloway instead of Tuesday Weld, and musical acts include Fats Domino, Frankie Avalon, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chris Howland.

 

It wasn't long though before Vanguard for whatever reasons broke the mold of being just another drive-in movie production house and started producing more high-brow dramas like The Last Mile (1959, Howard W.Koch), a film about a death row prisoner's (Mickey Rooney) last hours based on the play by John Wexley, and Girl of the Night (1960, Joseph Cates), in which Anne Francis plays a prostitute, a topic virtually taboo topic in 1960 USA.

However, while both The Last Mile and Girl of the Night were very ok films, they didn't bring the recognition nor the box office returns Subotsky and Rosenberg would have hoped for - so before long Vanguard found itself producing the family movie Lad: A Dog (1962, Aram Avakian, Leslie H.Martinson) - a film that's best described as the male version of Lassie - before fading out of existence.

 

Not that anyone would have missed little Vanguard in 1962, as by itself it has hardly left a ripple in movie history, while also in 1962, another little productionhouse began to take shape ...

 


 

Becoming Amicus

 

In the early to mid-1950's, horror was considered box office poison. Sure, there were plenty of science fiction films around that incorportated horror themes, but nobody even considered making a gothic horror film - that is, until 1957, when a small and previously rather undistinguished British production company, Hammer, released The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher), which was produced on a low budget but raked in a fortune.

There are rumours around that a) Milton Subotsky wrote a Frankenstein-script for Hammer but Hammer-head James Carreras turned it down in favour of the script that was actually filmed, and b) that Max J.Rosenberg had his hands in the production of The Curse of Frankenstein - but neither of these rumours can be independently verified (even though Rosenberg has actually made it into the IMDb as the film's producer while certainly not being mentioned in the movie's credits itself), and while at first glance, these stories seem to make perfect sense, on closer observation they sound just too good to be true and seem to be the stuff myths are made of rather than actual facts. That's not to say that these claims are actually wrong, they just might turn out to be true after all - however I haven't found proof for either of them and prefer to not believe such stories.

 


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Anyways, The Curse of Frankenstein had an impact on Rosenberg and Subotsky inasmuch as they turned their attention towards the UK - though British tax incentives for filming in the country might have been another reason - and set up shop there to produce a low budget horror movie of their own, The City of the Dead/Horror Hotel (1960, John Llewellyn Moxey). The City of the Dead though, based on a story by Milton Subotsky, was nothing like The Curse of Frankenstein or any of the subsequent Hammer-horrors of the time, it was filmed in black and white as opposed to Hammer's output that pretty much brought colour to the horror genre to begin with (though there of course have been earlier horror flicks in colour), it was not a period piece like pretty much all of the early Hammer-horrors, and for some reason, the film, which was entirely shot in Nettlefold Studios in Surrey, England, was set in the USA - even if the story about a town ruled by witchcraft could have easily been set in the UK (or pretty much anywhere else in the world) just as well. But the film had Christopher Lee, whom Hammer had made a star only recently, turning in another villain-performance. And while on a pure narrative level, The City of the Dead might be less than great, it's also an atmospheric little shocker, and one that dares to kill off its heroine (Venetia Stevenson) halfway through the movie ... and the film was shot at a time when Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho (1960), which used a similar plottwist, wasn't yet released.

However, when compared to the larger-than-life Hammer-shockers, The City of the Dead, a decent genre piece taken by its own merits, had little to offer in terms of spectacle, and thus did little to launch the horror production company we have today come to know and love as Amicus - and technically, The City of the Dead wasn't even an Amicus-production but produced by a company called Vulcan, which only ever released a handful of films but was its own production house that was not controlled by Subotsky and Rosenberg.

 

Be that as it may, The City of the Dead certainly had a whole deal more to do with the house style the studio eventually became known for than the first official Amicus-release, It's a Trad, Dad!/Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (1962, Richard Lester).

Thematically, It's a Trad, Dad! is a throwback to the first films of Subotsky and Rosenberg's Vanguard-movies, in which the plot was little more than a hanger for a sheer endless variety of performances by popular hitmakers of the day, including Gene Vincent, Chubby Checker, Del Shannon and a host of British Dixieland (!) bands. And while Richard Lester, whose debut film this was, certainly brings spots of his trademark surreal comedy to the film, the movie as a whole still is little more than a musical revue that might be charming for its many stars but not necessarily for anything beyond that.

 

Just for Fun (1963, Gordon Flemyng), Amicus' next film, is pretty much more of the same, another musical revue with a bit of plot thrown in. This time, the musical performances are handled by the Crickets, the Tremeloes, the Tornados, the Vernon Girls, the Breakaways and the Springfields, among others, and popular discjockeys of the time Alan Freeman, David Jacobs and Jimmy Savile (more than a decade before Jim'll Fix it) also made appearances.

 

While It's a Trad, Dad! and Just for Fun were popular enough with (pre-MTV-)teen audiences though and certainly made their money back, they were hardly smashhits at the box office, nor particularly special films in any which way, and nowadays are hardly even remembered by fans of what became to be known as the Amicus-style. This would change though with the next film the studio put out roughly two year after Just for Fun which really put it on the map ...

 


 

The Amicus Omnibus Movies

 


With the beginning of the 1960's, Milton Subotsky and Max J.Rosenberg have relocated their operations more and more to Great Britain, the former because he felt drawn to the country (also artistically), the latter because he saw untapped business opportunities, especially after Hammer had produced a handful of immensely successful and posh-looking films on comparatively low budgets - yet the two were unable to find the right formula to rival Hammer's formula films ... well, until 1965, when Subotsky and Rosenberg came up with a horror anthology titled Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (Freddie Francis [Freddie Francis bio - click here]). The anthology (or portmanteau or omnibus) format was perfect for both men, for the creative head (and scriptwriter of the film) Subotsky, because he was best at writing short stories with macabre endings, for Rosenberg because this way he could hire not one or two but a handful of bigger names and talent recognizable from rival Hammer's shockers for comparatively low wages because he would need each of them only for a few days each - and the biggest of these names are of course Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both Hammer-regulars, and at least one of them has been in virtually every Hammer-hit so far.

But the parallels to Hammer don't even end here, it should also be noted that Freddie Francis - nowadays most widely known as a celebrated cinematographer and deservedly so - has previously directed a handful of Hammer-shockers and was quite well-versed with the studio's house-style.

 

All that said though, Subotsky and Rosenberg did their best to make Dr. Terror's House of Horrors something other than a mere Hammer-knock-off, and in more ways than one they even succeeded: While Hammer-movies always saw the grand scale of things, the fight between good and evil and whatnot, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors' stories are all little morality tales disguised as horror stories with a surprise twist at the end, where Hammer pushed the envelope concerning gore, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors shied away from showing too much nastiness and rather concentrated on macabre details, and while virtually all of the more successful Hammer-horrors up until 1965 were period pieces, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors - and all subsequent Amicus omnibus movies - are set in contemporary times.

 

With Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Amicus had its first winner in its hands, and over the years, the film has even garnered the status of a genre classic - and hardly surprisingly, too, since it's an extremely charming and tightly paced collection of what's essentially five horror shorts - with the themes ranging from a severed hand stalking a man and voodoo to werewolves and vampires - held together by a macabre framing story that sees five passengers of a train travelling to the Beyond. Now sure, the film might not always make perfect sense, but thanks to its handful of well-constructed stories and its light-footed direction, that actually doesn't matter at all.

 


With the horror anthology, Amicus had pretty much found its formula that would not only enable it to compete at the box office with main rival Hammer but also set it apart from that studio - and yet, after the success of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Amicus did not put its omnibus movies into mass production right away but tried its hands on a few other horror and science fiction projects that were more traditional in narrative (inasmuch as they were no anthologies but films made out of one piece) - but more about that below.

However, in 1967, the studio released another collection of horror stories called Torture Garden, again directed by Freddie Francis and starring Peter Cushing, but this time Robert Bloch of Psycho-fame was responsible for the script - and it wasn't his first script for Amicus, either, he has over the last two years become quite a regular collaborator of the studio.

Sure enough, compared to Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Torture Garden somehow lacked in freshness and novelty value, but it was still an enjoyable little collection.

 


After Torture Garden, it took Amicus actually 4 years to release another omnibus movie, but when it came in the form of The House that Dripped Blood (1971, Peter Duffell) - another Robert Bloch-scripted affair -, it had little new to offer - which was just as well, as these films in general were not liked for their innovative edge but for the cute (cute in a macabre sort of way), slightly old-fashioned stories they were telling.

 


The early to mid 1970's though were a time when Amicus, much like its main rival Hammer and the British film industry as a whole, found it more and more difficult to sell its movies internationally due to the resurgence of the US-American film industry and the subsequent rise of the blockbuster phenomenon. But while Hammer tried everything to go into new directions (like erotica or martial arts) without exactly leaving their tried-and-true hunting grounds (with only moderate success), Amicus went almost the opposite way, remembered the film that made it famous - Dr. Terror's House of Horrors - and in the 1972 - '73 period produced no less than four (!) omnibus movies:

  • Tales from the Crypt (1972, Freddie Francis [Freddie Francis bio - click here]) was based on the popular EC Comics of the same name from the 1950's, by then still a source untapped and a logical choice as well, given both the comics and the omnibus movies were macabre little morality tales with a punchline at the end.

  • The Vault of Horror (1973, Roy Ward Baker) was a sequel to Tales from the Crypt inasmuch as it once again took EC Comics as its source material - and it does hold up in comparison to the earlier movie pretty well.


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  • Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker) was another Robert Bloch-scirpted horror anthology. While still charming in an old-fashioned way though, Asylum is one of the lesser Amicus omnibus movies due to a rather sloppy screenwriting job and a lack of good punchlines for the most part.

  • From Beyond the Grave (1973, Kevin Connor) is comprised of 4 short stories by popular British horror writer R.Chetwynd-Hayes, some of whose other work the studio would adapt into another movie some time later.

By 1973 of course, the market had become over-saturated with the format, and nobody cared too much about horror anthologies anymore, something rival porduction house World Film Services had to find out when it put out the Amicus omnibus movie-like Tales that Witness Madness (1973, Freddie Francis), a rather horribly written but reasonably decent looking film, which didn't spark all that much interest. Amicus wisely chose to stay away from the format after that one.

 

In all, when watching pretty much any of the Amicus omnibus movies, it's no surprise why the studio has become known for first and foremost that kind of film, they are all reasonably fast paced, macabre, ironic, usually feature a very decent cast and are directed in a charming, slightly old-fashioned way that makes them appealing not only to fans of classic horror. That said, it's also no surprise the films had actually fallen out of favour by the mid-1970's, at the tail-end of the series they had become more and more interchangeable, they didn't look like modern horror flicks anymore, and many viewers might even have objected to the slightly ironic approach to horror as such, unfortunately.

The studio tried to revive the format one last time in 1980 with The Monster Club (Roy Ward Baker) - but more about that later.

In any case, omnibus movies however were not all that Amicus had to offer ...

 


 

Doctor Who

 


In 1965, when Amicus hit the jackpot with their omnibus movies, they also launched their first venture into science fiction - and to that end again borrowed a page from Hammer: In the 1950's, even before the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer licensed Quatermass, an immensely popular sci-fi TV series, from the BBC to adapt the series multipart episodes for the big screen - to considerable international success.

By the 1960's of course, Quatermass was a thing of the past, but a new BBC-science fiction show had taken Great Britain by storm, Doctor Who. And especially that series' main villains, the Daleks - essentially extraterrestrial hovering half-robots that looked like man-sized pepperpots which were created by the show's regular writer Terry Nation - were extremely popular with the audiences. So it was only a question of time until somebody brought Doctor Who and the Daleks - both of which debuted in 1963 - to the big screen, and that someone was of course Amicus.

 


The first Amicus-produced movie Doctor Who and the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng) was released in 1965, right at the first height of the Daleks' popularity, and it was a remake of the creatures' debut episode, simply titled The Daleks (Christopher Barry, Richard Martin), which was released in 7 parts in late 1963/early 1964. In the movie (which by and large follows the TV show) inventor Doctor Who (Peter Cushing) takes his nieces and a friends on a trip through time and space to be taken to a planet on which the evil Daleks and the benign and humanoid Thals fight one another - and after enduring several threats, the Doctor and his companions help the Thals defeat the Daleks.

Unfortunately though, despite the addition of colour and a bigger budget, Doctor Who and the Daleks was no match for its television blueprint: For one, the duration of the TV show was cut down in half, which isn't a bad thing as such (as it could have helped pacing), but it takes away much of the complexity of the original while adding very little in terms of action. Also, the original was high on atmosphere (a result of the low budgets the show was produced on back them) while the (not really high-budgeted) movie limits itself to telling the story, then the film is at times aimed way too much at the kiddie market, something especially the episode it is based on didn't bother about that much (even though kids were the target audience), and finally, Peter Cushing, usually a very dependable actor (and one of my favourites) gives one of his worst performances here, playing Doctor Who as an avuncular, harmless character, who's essentially toothless, especially when compared to William Hartnell's self-absorbed and cranky Doctor of the original (while interestingly, under normal circumstances, William Hartnell was no match for Peter Cushing, acting-wise).

 


Whatever the shortcomings of Doctor Who and the Daleks were, it was successful enough at the box office at least in Great Britain to cause Amicus to quickly produce a sequel, Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966, Gordon Flemyng), a remake of the second ever Daleks-story, The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964, Richard Martin), in which the Daleks try to conquer earth and make the planet into a rocketship, only to have their plans thwarted by Doctor Who (Peter Cushing) once again. This time, the story fared far better under Amicus-treatment, in part because the original serial, running 6 episodes or about 2 1/2 hours, needed some serious trimming to begin with, plus director Flemyng found himself much more at home in earth settings than he did on the Daleks' eccentric (yet under-budgeted) home planet, and Peter Cushing managed to make the role his own the second time round.

 

Again, the film was successful enough at the box office, but plans to make any more Doctor Who and/or Daleks-films were scrapped by Amicus after this one, presumably for various reasons: Mainly because Doctor Who and the Daleks might have been huge in Great Britain, but their international appeal was incredibly limited. On top of that, even in the UK, audiences were presumably not all too willing to see something on the big screen they have seen on television only a couple or so years ago. And on top of that, Amicus' Doctor Who-films might be entertaining, despite or even for their shortcomings, but they were not exactly masterpieces ...

 

(By the way: Fanboys never tire to point out that the Doctor Who from the Amicus movies was a human, earthbound inventor while the one in the television series was an alien Timelord from planet Gallifrey - which is essentially true, but when Amicus made its two Doctor Who-films, the Doctor's origins were not established or even alluded to [and maybe not even thought up] in the series yet.)

 


 

Feature Films

 

After the success of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Amicus was wise enough to not just relie on the formula of anthology movies - at least not right away - but produce (with varying success) a string of genre films that mostly remained true to Dr. Terror's House of Horrors in genre but consisted of one single narative.

 


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The first of the studio's standalone-mvoies was The Skull (1965, Freddie Francis [Freddie Francis bio - click here]), a rather wild tale about a collector (Peter Cushing) of macabre artifacts who one day stumbles upon the skull of Marquis de Sade . which is possessed by an evil spirit that before long turns the collector into a mad killer.

Sure, the basic plot of this film is silly as hell, however, Freddie Francis' light-footed direction and a great cast (Cushing plus Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Jill Bennett, Patrick Magee, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee) make the film at least worthwhile, and for their house-style alone, one can't but love these early Amicus-shockers.

By the way, The Skull was based on a story by Robert Bloch of Psycho-fame, not the last thing he wrote for Amicus ...

 

The Skull was followed by The Psychopath (1966, Freddie Francis), with Bloch being responsible for the actual script - and in the years to come, Robert Bloch would become the busiest writer at Amicus apart from Milton Subotsky himself. As a novelist, Bloch is rather overrated just because he has written the novel Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) was based on, but his scripts were pulpy yet sleaze-free enough to fit perfectly with Amicus' output - even though the films based on his screenplays are a bit hit-or-miss. The Psychopath though was one of the better films from the studio, a slick and even slightly surreal thriller about a present day serial killer whose trail might lead back to World War II.

 


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The Deadly Bees (1967, Freddie Francis) on the other hand, a script Robert Bloch adapted from a novel by H.F.Heard together with Anthony Marriott is a rather feeble attempt to rip off Alfred Hitchcock's classic animal horror The Birds (1963) - but Freddie Francis is no Alfred Hitchcock (though Francis had his qualities as a director without a doubt) and the script he was given to work with certainly lacked excitement as well. That all said, The Deadly Bees holds a certain charm despite everything, but I would attribute this to the Amicus house-style more than anything else ...

 


In 1967, Amicus made two more excursions into science fiction, The Terrornauts (Montgomery Tully) and They Came from Beyond Space (Freddie Francis) - but these films, that were on a more serious, grown-up level than their Doctor Who-efforts (which were mainly kiddie-fare), prove just one thing, that the studio was a bit of a fish out of water when it came to science fiction. Just like The Deadly Bees, the two science fiction films are not without their charm, but hardly films Amicus would have ever become famous with ...

 

Another film from 1967, Danger Route (Seth Holt), sees the studio tackling the espionage genre - and the resulting film is a rather interesting little thriller, mainly because it did (for lack of resources) not go the James Bond-way of creating a big spectacle (which many other studios have tried with only limited success), instead tells a tight story that's more plot- than action-based. Be that as it may, the film has failed to become a classic and is nowadays regarded as nothing but an oddity in Amicus' filmography.

 


Even more than Danger Route, The Birthday Party (1968, William Friedkin) was anything but a typical Amicus movie, but rather an absurd drama lifted from a play by Harold Pinter, who also wrote the screenplay. While essentially a good film, it wasn't too big a success back in the day, but one of the earliest works of later star director William Friedkin. Milton Subotsky and Max J.Rosenberg are both said to have been very fond of The Birthday Party though.

 


Another Amicus-oddity is A Touch of Love/Thank You All Very Much (Waris Hussein) from 1969, a drama about an unmarried woman (Sandy Dennis) that is much more ambitious than the studio's usual output  - but the lack of success soon would return Amicus to the folds of more familiar horror territory ... but not before another rather unusual film, The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970, Alan Cooke), in which Terence Stamp plays a man who has been in a coma since infancy and now sees the world as a grown-up through the eyes of a kid. It's all ok as long he's kept under supervision, but then he escapes ...

 


Despite (or because of?) its interesting concept, The Mind of Mr.Soames did not become a big success for the studio, so the studio fell back onto horror in 1971 with two films, above-mentioned omnibus movie The House that Dripped Blood and I, Monster (Stephen Weeks), a Jekyll and Hyde-adaptation in all but name with Christopher Lee in the lead (for some reason called Doctor Marlowe and Mister Blake in this movie) supported by his frequent screenpartner and Amicus regular Peter Cushing. I, Monster though is definitely one of Amicus' lesser efforts, a film that fails to lend anything new to its tried and true story while also failing to revive its known virtues.

 

More fun is What Became of Jack and Jill? (1972, Bill Bain), a macabre little thriller about a couple of youngsters (Vanessa Howard, Paul Nicholas), who try to get their hands on an old lady's (Mona Washburn) money by convincing her that radical youths have taken over the country and plan to do away with all old people. Too bad this film is quite so obscure ...

 


 

Decline

 

It's hard to put an actual date to the begin of the decline of Amicus, some might say it was when the studio started to put its omnibus movies into mass production circa 1971, others might even argue it was back in 1967, when with a couple of science fiction and an espionage flick they tried to conquer new ground and failed (see above), or in 1969/70, when their more unusual films A Touch of Love and The Mind of Mr. Soames failed to attract much attention (or box office returns).

 

I have however decided to date the beginning of the studio's decline with 1973, when even their omnibus movies had run out of steam and the studio was desperate to get a new formula working. 

(Interestingly, 1973 was also the year William Friedkin's The Exorcist, the first horror blockbuster, was released, the film that changed the face of the horror genre forever, for better or worse. And yes, in a bitter twist of irony, it was exactly the same William Friedkin Amicus did give one of his first assignments with The Birthday Party.)

 


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Interestingly, Amicus' first attempt to break new ground was producing a gothic, And Now the Screaming Starts (1973, Roy Ward Baker), which was taken by its own merits a very decent old-fashioned horror flick with an excellent cast (Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Stephanie Beacham, Ian Ogilvy), yet it was a film released at exactly the wrong time: By 1973, even main rival Hammer, which had been successfully producing gothics from 1957 onwards all through the 1960's, had to realize the old formula had run out of steam (and was by 1973 struggling to repeat past triumphs at least as much as Amicus) and had therefore by and large seized to produce them - and thus, And Now the Screaming Starts was met with little enthusiasm at the box office.

 

Madhouse (1974, Jim Clark), a co-production with AIP starring Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here], Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry, was more in line with current days, it pretty much resembled AIP's earlier British co-productions (with other studios) like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, Robert Fuest) and Theatre of Blood (1973, Douglas Hickox), in both of which Price finds himself at the center of a killing spree in the UK (though usually it's Price who does the killings) - by 1974 though, the (a bit limited) formula had pretty much run its course, and since Madhouse also simply wasn't as good as the earlier movies, it failed to create too much of a buzz.

 


The Beast Must Die (1974, Paul Annett) is a bit of an oddity in Amicus' filmography (or would be in anyone else's biography) as it is an attempt to combine the funkiness of the then current blaxploitation cinema with the a bit dusty conventions of werewolf-movies, done in the decidedly British and slightly old-fashioned may the studio has become known for. If you think this recipe spells disaster, you are of course right, The Beast Must Die is one of the worst films in the studio's filmography, and its entertainment value is of a rather unintentional nature.

 


With the horror genre ailing, Amicus once again turned its attention towards science fiction in 1975, and to author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who besides his Tarzan-stories had also written quite a few science fiction stories.

The first Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation Amicus - once again in cooperation with AIP - did was The Land that Time Forgot (1975, Kevin Connor), a film in which a submarine crew plus Doug McClure find themselves on an uncharted island that's inhabited by cavemen and dinosaurs. Done on the cheap of course, the dinosaurs are less than convincing while the basic plot is silly in a pulpy sort of way, B-movie veteran Doug McClure, already a few years past his prime, is not the greatest actor ever (in fact, he's pretty wooden), and the retro decors (the film is set in 1916) make the whole affair seem instantly old-fashioned - yet there is something about this film that also makes it endearing, and maybe it is the film's shortcomings ...

 


Interestingly, The Land that Time Forgot, certainly not the best film Amicus has brought out of late, caught on with the audiences, so much so that the studio - yet again together with AIP - released another Edgar Rice Burroughs-adaptation in 1976, At the Earth's Core (Kevin Connor), in which Doug McClure (again) and Amicus regular Peter Cushing mount a giant drilling machine in the early 20th century to make their way to the earth's core, and on the way, they have adventures not at all unlike those McClure had in The Land that Time Forgot. If anything, At the Earth's Core looks even cheaper than The Land that Time Forgot, and again the film has a pulpy, even trashy charm ...

 


In 1977, The Land that Time Forgot got a sequel, The People that Time Forgot (Kevin Connor). The film was again co-produced by AIP and starred Coug McClure, plus Patrick Wayne and Dana Gillespie, but by 1977, the year of the big budget sci fi adventure Star Wars (George Lucas), interest in B-adventure fare like The People that Time Forgot was decidedly on the decline, and thus the line of futuristic low budget adventures was discontinued thereafter.

 


Milton Subotsky and Max J.Rosenberg actually parted ways in the mid-1970's, but they left the company intact nevertheless, and in 1980, Subotsky produced his last film under the Amicus-banner, The Monster Club (Roy Ward Baker), to nobody's real surprise another horror anthology, but seasoned with a few contemporary music acts and a striptease performance. The story of this film, based on a book by R.Chetwynd-Hayes just like From Beyond the Grave from 1973, is about a vampire (Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here]) feeding on the blood of his favourite writer (John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here]) to then tell him a few horror stories in exchange. The film, which also stars Anthony Steel, Donald Pleasence [Donald Pleasence bio - click here], Britt Ekland, Stuart Whitman and Patrick Magee, was however not too successful either on a quality level or commercially, and proved above all else that the time for horror films like Amicus used to make them was definitely over.

 


 

After the Split: What Became of Milton and Max?

 




As mentioned above Milton Subotsky and Max J.Rosenberg parted company around the middle of the 1970's, around the time that the company's films' became less and less certain to produce box office returns. Both Subotsky and Rosenberg did remain in the business however, though both eventually relocated to the USA again.

 

Milton Subotsky, while still in the UK, tried his hands on another horror anthology, The Uncanny (1977, David Héroux), though this film was doomed by its almost unworkable concept to turn cute cats into creatures of horror. Subotsky's next British production was the by now largely forgotten Dominique/Dominique is Dead (1979, Michael Anderson), a film about a widower (Cliff Robertson) haunted by his dead wife (Jean Simmons).

 




After producing Amicus' swansong The Monster Club, Subotsky returned to the USA to produce the TV-miniseries The Martian Chronicles (1980, Michael Anderson) based on the stories by Ray Bradbury, then concentrated on bringing a handful of Stephen King-novels to the screen. Unfortunately though, Subotsky's King-adaptations Cat's Eye (1985, Lewis Teague) - an anthology, much to Subotsky's liking -, Maximum Overdrive (1986, Stephen King), Sometimes They Come Back (1991, Tom McLoughlin) and The Lawnmower Man (1992, Brett Leonard) are not among the better films based on the author's books and stories.

It should perhaps also be noted here that Subotsky gave up screenwriting in the mid-1970's, with At the Earth's Core - and who knows, maybe some of his later films would have benefitted from his screenplays.

Subotsky died in 1991 in London from heart disease.

 




Like Subotsky, Max J.Rosenberg produced his first non-Amicus films in a long time in 1977, the interesting yet obscure science fiction-Western Welcome to Blood City (Peter Sasdy) and the rather forgettable The Incredible Melting Man (William Sachs). Over the years, Rosenberg tried his hands infrequently on a number of films, most of them genre fare like Bloody Birthday (1981, Ed Hunt), Paul Schrader's less than perfect Cat People (1982), the Western/murder mystery/comedy The Comeback Trail (1982, Harry Hurwitz), which was also Buster Crabbe's last film [Buster Crabbe bio - click here], Invasion Earth: The Aliens are Here (1988, Robert Skotak), and Anything to Survive (1990, Zale Dalen), a rather bad TV-drama about a snowed-in family starring a young Matt LeBlanc.

The last film that Rosenberg ever produced was possibly also his most interesting post-Amicus effort: Perdita Durango (1997), the Álex de la Iglesia-directed not-really-sequel to David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990), a film that's as immoral as it's enjoyable - though a bit low on storytelling and character development ...

Max J.Rosenberg passed away in 2004 in Los Angeles, California ...

 


 

Resurrection

 

By and large, Amicus is thought to have dissolved somewhen in the mid-1970's, not even taking into account that The Monster Club was produced by the company in 1980. But even dating the demise of Amicus to 1980 would be wrong, because Max J.Rosenberg actually never completely gave up on his company, running it with Julie G.Moldo from 1977 onwards. Thing is, he kept the comany dormant during all those years, producing movies for other companies (often also with Moldo's invovlement) while not being the main investor, and still cashing in license fees for his old films from television and home video - which sounds like a very sensible thing to do for a man of Rosenberg's ilk and which is why so many of the studio's films are available on DVD today.

 

When Rosenberg died in 2004, that still did not mean the end of the company, Julie G.Moldo, who was production manager and production secretary during Rosenberg's reign, stepped up to become Amicus' co-owner together with Robert Katz, who had been in movie and television production since the mid-1980's. Eventually, Moldo and Katz considered it a good idea to open the gates of the production arm of their company again - figuratively speaking of course, as in the 2000's, Amicus did not have any studios of its own.

The main directive of new Amicus was to produce movies with a contemporary feel to it (which unfortunately also meant a move from the UK to the USA) but without losing the company's spirit - also genre-wise (meaning horror).

 


Flix.com

The first film to be released by Amicus was originally to have been Clown, but who knows what happened to that film really. The film that the studio released instead as second generation-debut though was all the better: Stuck (2007) by Stuart Gordon. By and large, Gordon is a sometimes ingenious but most of the time just uneven director who has put out many a dud - but Stuck is very probably his best film since Re-Animator (1985), and it's less of an all-out shocker but more of a dark and macabre morality tale with sparks of comedy - just like the best stories of the studio's omnibus movies from 30 to 40 years ago. Sure, the film did not look like an Amicus-movie of old, and British locations and talent are missing here, still it's beautifully photographed, the main cast (Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby) is more than competent, and the film is a whole lot of morbid fun - I mean, a film that has one of its leads (Rea) sticking through a car's windshield for most of its running time can't be all bad, now can it?

 


Unfortunately, Stuck was not necessarily an indicator for things to come, as Amicus' next project was the forgettable It's Alive (2008, Josef Rusnak), an unnecessary remake of Larry Cohen's original (click here) [Larry Cohen bio - click here].

Future Amicus-projects include an adaptation of Stephen King's From a Buick 8 to be directed by Tobe Hooper with a tentative 2011 release date - and that doesn't sound like a too good idea, as Hooper still carries around weight in the horror community for making the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but to be quite honest, he hasn't made a film that was even half as good since. And Stephen King might have written the source novels for Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma) and The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick), but dozens of his other books and stories were adapted into sub-par horror flicks for the big and small screen over the years ... including some that Milton Subotsky had produced (see above). And looking at Hooper's and King's last collaboration, the horrible-for-all-the-wrong-reasons The Mangler (1995), one isn't exactly trembling with expectation concerning From a Buick 8.

 

All that said, whatever the company's future projects might be, they can't detract from Amicus' glorious past, and somehow it was really nice to see it come back in the first place - and when it came back with a film as much fun as Stuck that honoured the studio's tradition without looking old-fashioned, that was even better ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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