Why does the portmanteau format lend itself so well to the horror film genre? Well, principally because, I think, there's only so much meat on any horrific bone. The best spooky tales are usually short, told around the campfire or as bedtime stories to a nephew you don't particularly like. One has to remember that the classic horror films - Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and their ilk - are usually little over an hour long, and even they are mostly censor-friendly drawing room discussions about morality and vol-au-vents.
A certain amount of that is necessary, of course: it establishes mood and an air of normality. Modern day horror films forget about that and just go straight to the horror. Horror, horror, horror, blood, spurt, murder, scream, horror horror horror. Keeping your actual scaries short and to the point has been forgotten by a lot of filmmakers recently. Forgotten, too, is that figurative or imagined horrors are actually far more effective than watching a man have his knees cut off with a Flymo.
The portmanteau horror is perfect in this regard. Often the segments are no more than 20 minutes duration, building towards a climax which is fundamentally more in the viewer's mind than on the screen. This has the double-barrelled benefit of leaving an imprint on the viewer's mind as well as pleasing the studio accountant. A bloke who used to be a baddie in a James Bond film being approached by two hairy hands. Fade to black.
This week I have been watching portmanteau horrors - mainly those of Amicus Productions, the fabulously schlocky British company run out of a shed by two American film writers and producers in the 1960s and 1970s, who specialised in the genre - until nothing I saw any more looked normal to me. I had to eat my dinner with a long handled spoon, lest the peas gained consciousness twixt plate and mouth. Then the idea struck me. I should do a blog post about my favourite portmanteau horror films!
This is a daft idea, as I should actually do that for Chop's Top Fives, which specialises in such things. So instead I decided to pick my five favourite segments and assemble what would be to my mind the ULTIMATE PORTMANTEAU HORROR FILM. Oh mamma.
|This is already the ultimate portmanteau horror film, if I'm honest with you.|
Story 1: ...and All Through The House (from Tales From The Crypt (1972))
Joan Collins, as a total bitch, thinks nothing of murdering her husband by running him through with a sword on Christmas Eve while their daughter sleeps upstairs. Gathering his magnificently orange blood in a sherry glass, she stages the thing to look like an accident whilst also admiring his life insurance policy and listening to Christmas carols on the radio. But! This programme was interrupted to reveal that a homicidal maniac had escaped from prison dressed as Father Christmas. Actually he looks like Frankenstein's monster after a night on the Stella dressed as Father Christmas. The inevitable ensues.
I find this one particularly effective as it plays right into several of my most enduring fears, namely escaped homicidal maniacs and also strangers appearing at the window at night. If you're not afraid of these two things, I think you are brainwrong.
Story 2: Creeping Vine (from Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964))
Alan "Fluff" Freeman's young family return from holiday to find a particularly aggressive (and sentient) vine has taken root in their garden. Having resisted all attempts to be dug up, it then emphasises its claims to the house by killing Fluff's pet dog and also a Ministry of Agriculture scientist sent to investigate. Eventually, the family find themselves trapped in their house, entombed entirely by the greenery.
I have picked this story not for its particular scariness or for its brilliance, but for its effect on my imagination. I first saw this film aged about 15, and I can honestly say I have not seen a bramble, a vine or a piece of bindweed since without thinking about it. It makes me the most particular, ferocious and unrelenting gardener since Agent Orange.
Story 3: Wish You Were Here (from Tales From The Crypt (1972))
Another pick from my favourite portmanteau of them all. A wealthy, if ruthless, businessman loses everything including his life. Luckily his wife is on hand with an enchanted statue and three wishes, which she uses to particularly gormless effect.
This choice is a nod to the more traditional horror themes. Most portmanteau films feature at least one of the old horror film faithfuls - vampires, werewolves, zombies - but none of them feature in my list. However, this reworking of the old tale of the monkey's paw and its three wishes is a good replacement. I particularly love the scene where the man catches a glimpse of the grim reaper (riding a motorcycle) in his rear-view mirror.
Story 4: Drawn and Quartered (from The Vault of Horror (1973))
Tom Baker, well cast as a mad artist, finds that his art dealer, agent and a noted art critic (art critics festoon portmanteau horrors) have conspired to devalue his art so they might buy it cheap and then sell it dear whilst he is in Haiti. Haiti, people, Haiti. So, Tom tootles off to the nearest hut to "purchase some voodoo". Painting his own voodoo portraits, he then extracts his revenge on the wrongdoers back in London, with fairly scant regard for his propensity to paint self-portraits until it's rather too late.
This story has everything. Voodoo. Tom Baker saying the word "voodoo". Splendidly-OTT acting. Gory scenes - a man chopping his hands off with a paper-trimming guillotine being a particular highlight - and some more figurative scenes of horror left to the viewer's own imagination. Jackpot!
Story 5: Ventriloquist's Dummy (from Dead of Night (1945))
Michael Redgrave plays a particularly gifted ventriloquist with a perhaps rather-too-sentient dummy. That dummy is always getting him into scrapes. Not least when he ends up shooting and wounding a fellow ventriloquist and being sent to prison. When he gets a visit from an old friend (the kind with a wooden head), all kinds of psychological fun and games commence!
No portmanteau collection could be without this story, the most famous from the film that is the grandpappy of the entire genre. The acting is first rate and the story memorable enough that it's fair to say it's probably accountable for the majority of phobias of ventriloquist's dummies that have followed it.
* * *
(Special mention: Poetic Justice (from Tales from the Crypt (1972))
Peter Cushing plays a man who the local residents association think is bringing down the tone and value of the neighbourhood, so begin to oust him by a regiment whispering campaigns, bullying and psychological torture. Following his suicide, a year to the day, Zombie Cushing has his revenge.
This is perhaps the most powerful story in any portmanteau horror that I know of. So powerful, in fact, that I could never include it in my ultimate film compilation. Peter Cushing was the godfather of portmanteau horror stars, and his performance is magnificent. Magnificent to the point you're more likely to cry than scream. Especially once you remember that Cushing was reeling from his wife's death at the time the film was made and is playing a lonely widower. It tears your heart out. Which, given the turn of events later in the tale, is pretty ironic.)