Saturday, 27 February 2016

'Friendly' rival

Amicus, the studio whose name means ‘friendship’, was Hammer’s most notable competition in the British Horror film industry.

The brilliant documentary analysing Amicus horror, film by film, by fan Derek Pykett.

Hammer has instant brand recognition - Kate Bush never wrote a song about Amicus.  My experience of their films, as I suspect is many other film fans’, is reading about a Hammer film I once enjoyed only to discover it was actually made by their main rival.  

Having an even smaller budget than most Hammer productions, Amicus founded the concept of hiring actors on a by-day basis, rather than on contract for the entire film.  This meant that they could afford some impressive names - many of Hammer’s main players including the unholy duo of Cushing and Lee - and well-established British performers appeared to have no issue with filling in a free day here and there on an Amicus film.  The shorter segments of the studios many anthology films presumably also made this system so workable.

So the similar casts and genre meant it is often easy to confuse the output of the two studios.  In actual fact, there are many fundamental differences between the methodology and product of the two. 

One can only imagine how Milton Subotsky felt when his concept for remaking Frankenstein was rejected by Hammer studios, only for them to release their own version which propelled the studio to international horror film stardom.  The fact that he then set his own studio up in direct competition with them is perhaps a good indication.  
But my impression is that this rivalry was probably a one-sided affair, more of an issue for Amicus than it was for the Hammer juggernaut.

My own introduction to Amicus films came via two strong Doctor Who connections:
Their Daleks films from the mid-sixties, and a vampiric Jon Pertwee in The House that Dripped Blood.
I have room in my heart for both British Houses of Horror, but many insist on playing the two off against one another.  Sweeping statements are made when the two studios are inevitably compared (listen to Matthew Sweetman's expertly made but very Amicus-centric documentary here: but having seen a lot of the output of both, I thought I’d analyse the oft-repeated ‘received wisdom’ for myself:

1. Unlike Hammer, Amicus specialised in anthology films

That's some cast , Amicus, and not an anthology film.
This one is true, although Amicus didn’t solely produce portmanteau films.  Milton Subotsky was strongly influenced by the first british horror anthology, Ealing studios Dead of Night, and after Amicus films first successful venture in this genre, Doctor Terrors House of Horrors, many more were to follow.  Their final horror anthology was From Beyond the Grave, coming full circle with once again featuring Peter Cushing as the innocuous seeming, but sinister, link between the different stories.  

Perhaps the closest Hammer came to the portmanteau form was an early and aborted American-made television anthology Tales of Frankenstein and their two 1980s British TV series.

2. Unlike Amicus, Hammer specialised in Period and Gothic settings

Stephanie Beacham in contemporary Hammer film Dracula AD 1972 and
 (inset) Period Amicus film And now the Screaming Starts.
Broadly, but not completely, true.  Hammer set their thrillers and comedies in contemporary times, and towards the end of their run Christopher Lee’s final two appearances as Dracula and the Valerie Leon vehicle Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb were all in a ‘modern’ setting.
Likewise, Amicus trod onto Hammers period pitch with their Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde adaptation I Monster, and 18th Century horror: And now the Screaming Starts.
In my opinion, they were all successful productions.

3. Amicus got bigger names than Hammer

Before he was a shonky animatronic puppet, the Crypt Keeper was played by
knighted British thespian Sir Ralph Richardson.
Possibly true. casting Sir Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins, Denholm Elliot, and the coup of having Cushing, Lee and Vincent Price appear in the same film, were all Amicus achievements.
Hammer tended to rely more upon an established repertory of accomplished performers, some of whom, like Christopher Lee, Stephanie Beacham, Oliver Reed and Joanna Lumley, became famous after their horror breakthroughs.

4. Hammer offered glamour, whereas Amicus was more about the uncanny amidst the everyday.
Many believe that Hammer can be distilled into sex and horror, flesh and blood which is a blunt, but difficult to deny, analogy.  In fact, Hammer stylishly presented these fundamental aspects in the form of an adult fairytale, morality plays where lines are clearly drawn and expertly performed.
By virtue of Amicus films' mainly contemporary settings, there is far less fantasy and stylisation in late '60s and early '70s decor and apparel. (But this can possibly be balanced against the casting of exotic screen beauties like Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland). 

5. Amicus gave (arguably) the leading man of both studios, Peter Cushing, more opportunity for range in his roles.

Tales from the Crypt: Peter Cushing certainly never got to play a zombie for
Hammer (or win an award for it!)
Given the wonderful character roles Amicus offered Cushing, including his award-winning performance in Tales from the Crypt, this is difficult to deny.  An actor of his skill can delineate Baron Frankenstein from Doctor Van Helsing, but it is far more subtle than the differences between Doctor Shreck, Arthur Grimsdyke and the Temptations Ltd Proprietor for Amicus.  To say nothing of his delightful Doctor Who.

6. Amicus ended with successful family-friendly fantasy adventures, whereas Hammer foundered with attempting to establish ‘Action Horror’.
This is a tragic example of bad timing on both sides.  It’s true that Amicus successfully managed a reinvention in the face of the decline of British horror films, turning instead to popular Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations for the school holiday market.  In some ways, this was a return to the feel of their mid-sixties Dalek films. Sadly, the perhaps inevitable parting of the ways between Amicus partners Subotsky and Max Rosenberg ended the company and cut this resurgence short.

Hammer, in the meantime, more or less invented a combination of Gothic horror and action adventure with The legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and the sadly unmade Vampirella, failing to find its audience at the time. The studio could not compete with the new wave of expensively-produced horror from the US and wound down. 
Four decades later, however, it’s sometimes hard to find anything else but big budget action horror at the cinemas!

Action horror is everywhere now, but Hammer invented the genre decades ago.

So let’s not fight, as viewers we will be the only losers in the end.  Better to open your heart to both - there’s no reason not to love the films from the Hammer House of Horror, and Amicus - the Studio that dripped Blood.

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