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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chamber of Horrors (1966) review


Patrick O'Neal (Jason Cravette), Cesare Danova (Anthony Draco), Wilfred Hyde-White (Harold Blount), Philip Bourneuf (Inspector Matthew Strudwoick), Laura Devon (Marie Champlain), Wayne Rogers (Sgt. Jim Albertson), Tun Tun (Senor Pepe De Reyes), Tony Curtis (Mr. Julian)

Directed by Hy Averback

The Short Version: This sadly obscure horror movie pilot for an aborted television series has finally found its cult film home on DVD. Highly recommended to Gothic horror mavens, it gets better with subsequent viewings. Lively performances, an en-gross-ing storyline and an exceptionally bombastic score hit all the right horror notes.

Ladies and gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see contains scenes so terrifying the public must be given grave warning. Therefore, the management has instituted visual and audible warning at the beginning of each of the Four Supreme Fright Points. The Fear Flasher is the visual warning. The Horror Horn is the audible warning. Turn away when you hear the FEAR FLASHER! Close your eyes when you hear the HORROR HORN!

Jason Cravette, a homicidal maniac, is finally captured, aided by a trio of amateur criminologists who also happen to be the proprietors of 'The House of Wax', a wax museum in Baltimore that specializes in serial killer exhibits. Cravette manages to evade the hangman's noose, but is presumed dead in a freak accident losing a hand in the process. Some time later, Jason returns to take revenge on those who condemned him to death using assorted lethal blades attached to the stump where his hand once was dismembering various body parts from his victims.

Long available in grey market editions, this enjoyably macabre film was originally a proposed pilot for a mystery-horror series that was eventually deemed too horrific for television and ended up as a theatrical feature. The show never happened despite the last scene setting things up for the next "episode". The movie itself is quite good with lavish sets and good performances all around. The character of Cravette and the fog enshrouded locale gives off a 'Jack the Ripper' vibe, only this butcher who takes "mementos" from his victims, uses a gorgeous tavern girl from New Orleans as his unwitting accomplice.

The opening scene starts things off on a ghoulish note as our villain, Jason Cravette forces a priest at gun point to marry him to the woman he's just strangled to death. The necrophilic implications are clearly in evidence and Cravette's even visits a brothel where he desires his trick to pretend she's dead. Patrick O'Neal expertly pulls off this sadistic persona although the scene where he severs his hand defies plausibility.

What with the grisly storyline, you'd figure there'd be some gore on display. The violence and bloodletting is minimal, but does possess an air of grimness akin to the Hammer Films of the period. Those fans who can accept such a presentation with little in the way of onscreen brutality and viscera are the ones who will get the most out of this movie. Others will likely be bored with it all. Still, the musical score by Bill Lava is quite good and risible. Incidentally, some of the sound effects heard in the film will be recognizable to fans of Warner Brothers cartoons and how suitable that Lava would be the music composer considering his lengthy credits doing the music in hundreds of cartoons for Warner and DePatie-Freleng.

The scenes in the wax museum are a highlight of the movie and contribute heavily to its appeal. The owners of said establishment relish in the waxen depictions of villainy and psychotic murderers. In fact, it's their waxworks of Jason Cravette that reveals him to still be alive once an eyewitness identifies the dummy visage. The film also has William Castle styled gimmickery in the form of the 'Fear Flasher' and the 'Horror Horn'. These sounds and sights precede the killings as well as the tame sequence where Cravette cuts off his hand.

While the look and cast successfully capture that unique British horror feel, it's odd seeing Wayne Rogers here as the determined cop on the case, Sgt. Albertson. Rogers will be instantly recognizable to viewers as Capt. John McIntyre from M*A*S*H. He was also in the incendiary television movie ATTACK ON TERROR: THE FBI VS. THE KU KLUX KLAN (1975) that was based on a true story. The recently deceased Tony Curtis has a cameo role as a card player. He's not credited, but his appearance is possibly down to helping out someone involved in the production. William Conrad does the opening narration.

Tony Curtis in a cameo appearance in the CHAMBER OF HORRORS

While it never veers into outright gory territory, CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966) is occasionally trashy, although extremely tame by today's standards. It's definitely worth watching for lovers of horror that takes place in a period setting. It's a shame the proposed TV series never got off the ground. The proprietors of the 'House of Wax' showed lots of promise.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers double feature DVD paired with THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966)


The Film Connoisseur said...

What a great way to open a movie! Turn away when you hear the horror horn! I laugh at these old movies when they say things are "so horrifying" and when you finally see the movie, they are anything but that. Its interesting in the sense that it lets you see how innocent audiences where back then. I wonder how those same audiences would react to a screening of SAW 7 for example?? Or Cannibal Holocaust? It boggles the mind!

Never saw this one, but would like too because of the Hammer film feel you say it has. Love those old fashioned horror movies.

venoms5 said...

This double feature is worth buying for CHAMBER OF HORRORS alone, Fran. The Chris Lee Fu Manchu flick is also good, if a low key Bond style thriller that accentuates the villain. It's just an extra incentive to the flagship title on this disc.

Dr. Sarcofiguy said...

O'Neal appearance/look in this is remarkably Vincent Price-ish. And you're right about Wayne Rogers! OMG that's hilarious to see him in something like this.

venoms5 said...

You are absolutely right, Doc! He is rather PRICEy in this movie! I was never a fan of M*A*S*H, but I had to do a double take upon seeing him in this. After being exposed to a certain brand of show for so long it's kind of jarring to see a particular actor in something entirely different.

Carl Manes said...

I overlooked this one at Big Lots, but I am already regretting it! It was off my radar, but it sounds like it could be a lot of fun V, will have to scour the racks again ;)

venoms5 said...

I think you'll dig it, Carl, especially if like British horror. It mimics that style nicely.

Mr Philip Swan said...

Have finally caught up with this for the first time since 1966, when it was double-featured with a re-release of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? As it turned out, JANE was 'the movie that changed my life' (introducing me to Davis and Crawford, who in turn broadened my interest in films, until then limited to horror films) CHAMBER was good fun on re-watching, though it very much looks like the TV movie or series it was intended as, and owes enough to MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX that those films should have received screenplay credit!

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