Despite being born in the seventies and running this most English of websites, I fucking hate everything about the seventies in the UK. But I’ve realised that a big chunk of portmanteau history exists there thanks to the likes of Amicus Productions who were responsible for this five-part anthology film.
The Vault of Horror is a great example of the genre even if it does occasionally resort to the kind of plummy Englishness that makes you remind your American friends that far from being upper-class toffs, we’re all really just a nation of drunken, football-obsessed idiots.
The linking premise is quite interesting. Five men enter an elevator that bypasses their intended ground floor destination and takes them to the basement. Unable to leave, they instead take advantage of the table full of booze ahead of them and start telling each other about the bizarre dreams they have been experiencing. Each tale is presented as a portmanteau segment.
*Massive spoilers ahead*
Midnight Mess is a short, pointed tale of a murderous sibling, Harold, who decides his best way to his now-dead parents’ inheritance is to kill his sister. Before visiting her he drops into a nearby restaurant but is surprised when the owner turfs him out at 7pm and says they have to close.
After dropping in on his sister and stabbing her (complete with some hammy reactions from her), he exits her house and sees the restaurant is indeed open.
He settles down in there for a meal (because alibis and shit like that weren’t really a factor in the ’70s) only to find that all their food is disgusting. Of course, it would be. They are serving human blood clots. Say what? Yep, everyone there is a vampire and when they realise he’s not, he gets a tap in his neck and they drain him dry. Oh, and his sister turns up too because she’s a goddamn vampire too. Damn!
It’s a great story but those fangs, though.
The Neat Job stays away from the supernatural and instead tells the story of Arthur Critchitt played by the devilishly caddish Terry Thomas. He’s a clean freak and is exasperated by his wife who keeps messing up their house and all of his OCD tidiness systems that he has in place.
One day she decides to really spruce the place up but unfortunately suffers a chain of ridiculous accidents that echo this fantastic comedy scene from Amazon Women on the Moon. But for her there is no comedy, just the whining of her husband.
Of course, she snaps and puts a hammer through his skull. The segment ends with her seemingly seeing things his way as she decides to put everything in its correct place. The camera moves away to reveal his organs all stored in labelled jars in his workshop.
This Trick’ll Kill You takes us back to the supernatural. Sebastian, a magician prick with a horrible wife, is in India looking for new tricks. He spots a man and a woman performing an Indian rope trick and attempts to figure out how it is done.
When that fails, he attempts to by the trick from the woman (an English actress who has been ‘browned up’ for the role… sigh) who informs him that there is no trick and that the rope is magic.
His wife and him decide they’ll steal it and invite the girl to their hotel room to perform the trick. Once there they kill the woman and start performing the trick. Sebastian manages to charm the rope into a vertical position. His wife climbs it, screams and vanishes before the rope starts attacking him.
This scene could have been a disaster but is excellently executed. The rope whips the shit out of Seb before hanging him. The sort of Indian lady then turns up in the bazaar because she’s all magic and whatever.
Okay it’s not the best story, and is the joint-worst in the movie, but the rope scene is good enough to carry it.
Bargain in Death is the other runt of this litter. It tells the story of two men who plan an insurance fraud by having of them fake his own death. At the same time two medical students are discussing the merits of stealing a body to get some practise in.
Maitland takes some sketchy drugs to slow his heart rate down and is buried alive. His friend Alex decides ‘LOL I’ll keep all the cash, fool’ and goes to the graveyard at the planned digging up time so that he can just sit there laughing a bit. What a prick!
The problem is that the two med students have arranged with the gravedigger to exhume Maitland’s body. They dig him up just in time as Maitland gasps for breath. At this point, Alex crashes his car like a twat.
While the students are looking at the crash, the gravedigger who is keen to get his cash, finishes Maitland off with a shovel to the head.
Drawn and Quartered is the final segment and is the best one. Good lord, it is a beast of a portmanteau segment. Moore (played by Tom Baker in bad motherfucking form) is an unsuccessful painter who, for reasons I can’t fathom, is living in Haiti. He finds out that actually, he’s way more successful than he knew. His dealer, distributor and a critic have been telling him lies and have been selling off his paintings for lots of money.
He decides to ask one of the local for super voodoo powers. Uh-oh. The voodoo priest gives him the painting hand of doom and tells him to paint his victims.
Back in London, Moore paints the three men. He stabs out the eyes on the first one (who is then blinded), chops off the hands of the next (who comes a cropper thanks to a paper guillotine) and then goes to see his dealer Diltant (a young-ish Denholm Elliott).
He reveals the portrait of Diltant to him and paints a red dot on his forehead. Diltant pulls out a gun but realises that he is powerless to resist as he points the gun at himself and pulls the trigger.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Moore also has a self-portrait. Uh-oh! And when a workman drops some paint thinner on it by accident, Moore is killed.
As the men ponder the meaning of their dreams, the elevator doors open to reveal a graveyard and as they enter they start to decay. A voice over by Sebastian (magic prick from story three) reveals that they are dead and are forced to re-tell the stories of their evil deeds for eternity.
Overall, this is a great portmanteau. It has a strong linking story, two great sections, one good one and two weak ones. You need the weak ones though. It’s tradition. We will definitely be returning to the seventies for more portmanteau goodies in the future so stayed tuned.