Portmanteau! It is one of those words we don't hear much these days. Portmanteau! ! It strikes fear into the hearts of every horror fanatic or ghoul-fiend across the world. Portmanteau! But what does it mean?
'Portmanteau' was the phrase used to describe the film format of several separate tales tied together into a supposedly satisfying whole. This was usually done through a venue (a house, asylum, nightclub) and the format often made use of the rich seam of horror shorts by some of the genre's best contemporary writers (Robert Bloch and R Chetwynd-Hayes to name but two).
One company did portmanteau with a gusto that bordered on the perverse – Amicus. The supposed arch-rival to Hammer in the British horror stakes during the 1960s-70s, Amicus certainly made the most of their formula with a slew of portmanteau films throughout the era, including Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Torture Garden, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, Vault of Horror, and From Beyond the Grave.
Lucrative the genre may have been (for a while), and these films were certainly studded with the cream of British horror acting talent, but they had their distinct limitations. Perhaps the adorable mess that was the last Amicus portmanteau, 'The Monster Club', best displays these.
Most obvious in 'The Monster Club' is a kind of studio committee myopia which leads to all sorts of strange creative decisions. Seemingly unable to think beyond their staple list of increasingly bored horror leads, they approached Christopher Lee to play the vampire role – which drew a predictably robust response. The part ended up going to Vincent Price, in his only vampire role. Other rather curious decisions include having musical acts to break up the stories, with the bizarre addition of The Pretty Things in their final attempt at a comeback and a dub soundtrack by UB40. One of the stories features some rather ineffective exposition based on artwork, rather than any attempt at special effects. But worst of all is the half-baked, second-hand shabbiness of it all.
But on other occasions it hit the ball right out of the park. The last of the stories from 'The House That Dripped Blood' is 'The Cloak', a story so meta that it would not be out of place amongst 'The League of Gentlemen'. The basic premise involves a hammy horror Thespian and actual vampires, but that isn't really what's going on.
The Thespian in question was originally intended to be Vincent Price, and that is the first layer of self-parody here. In the story the main character of Henderson, when on set shooting his latest schlock horror, rips into his rookie director for the crumminess of the script, the terrible cheap sets and the inexperience of the crew; this is both a general dig at the general crapulence of UK horror at the time but also a dig at Price's notoriously poor relationship with director Michael Reeves on the set of 'Witchfinder General', just two years earlier.
Eventually Henderson was played by the best cravat-wearing dandy of the period, Jon Pertwee, who rips into the script with relish. In one scene he regales the crew with tales of the glory days of horror – when he reels off the greats and mentions Dracula, he remarks “...played by Bela Lugosi, not this new fellow.” The 'new fellow' being, of course, Christopher Lee himself – who appears in another role earlier in the film. Parodying fading horror hams and taking the mickey out of Hammer, your great rivals? Very cheeky!
Of course, the real subject of 'The Cloak' is the whole edifice of theatre and film; Henderson is lured into a wonderfully dank theatrical supply shop (if only these places still existed these days!) on the promise of realism but, of course, gets more realism than he bargained for. I won't spoil the ending, but rest assured when Amicus struck the right impish tone they could make the portmanteau formula work to wonderful effect.
Now – remake starring Mark Gatiss, anyone?