There are certain names that are forever linked with the horror genre. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff will always be remembered for their work on the early Universal creature features. Where those two and Universal left off, Christoper Lee, Peter Cushing and Hammer picked up. Playing Dracula and Van Helsing respectively, Lee and Cushing will probably go down in the annals of the genre much like Lugosi and Karloff before them. So then how is it that a horror film, an anthology film no less, with both Cushing and Lee can go unremembered for so long? How can a film with two of the all-time greats in the genre and a young Donald Sutherland not make the jump from VHS to DVD in the states? How is it that I’m just now hearing about “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” given all that it has going for it?
Because it’s just not that good of a film. Despite having so much going for it, “Dr Terror” winds up being a truly forgettable film. While there are certain segments of the film that really work, namely Christopher Lee’s segment, the film on whole is slow and plodding. Say what you will about modern attention spans, but this is a very difficult film to get invested in. While the framing narrative is one of the most creative in the genre (five men share a train car with a tarot card reader named Dr. Schreck who goes through the men’s fates one-by-one), the exposition involved in the initial setup is just too much. Whereas other anthology films like “Creepshow” or “Tales from the Hood” launch into the first story in around five minutes, “Dr. Terror” takes what feels like a solid fifteen to actually get into the first story, which is unfortunately itself, an incredibly slow, plodding story involving a architect and a werewolf.
The action doesn’t really begin to ratchet up until the second story, which involves a man-eating plant, but by that point you’re already nearly a half hour into the film and in my case, already lost. While the second story is decent, it’s followed up by another weak story involving a jazz musician and a voodoo curse. Easily the worst story of the bunch, this third story kills nearly any momentum this film has built. Even worse, it’s twinged with that old-school “exotic African voodoo” racism vibe that makes some of the scenes a bit uncomfortable to watch.
If you can get past the third story, the fourth story is actually really solid and enjoyable. Christopher Lee plays an art critic that gets duped by an artist he frequently pans. Lee then sets out to get revenge on the artist and things backfire and quickly go off the rails. This story feels like a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone” and is the gem of this film. The fifth story is also pretty decent and revolves around Donald Sutherland and his new wife, who may or may not be a vampire. The story’s a bit heavy handed and hoaky, but at the same time, that’s kind of the charm with older horror films like this.
Really the biggest problem with “Dr. Terror” is how the amazing ensemble cast is completely mis-used and squandered. Just reading the credit list sounds like a “who’s who” of ’60’s and early ’70’s horror, so you would expect to see some great acting and chemistry from those involved. Unfortunately, given the narrative structure of the film, each of the leads winds up carrying their own individual story and not really interacting much at all. Despite their vast on-screen history (even by the time this film was made), Cushing and Lee share maybe 5 minutes of on-screen time. Sutherland is barely in any of the interstitial scenes until the introduction of this story. It's an absolute waste of a powerhouse lineup.
After watching it, it’s pretty easy to see why “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” is such an obscure film given how much potential it seems to have from the outside looking in. It suffers from pretty much every negative of the anthology format while never really seizing all the opportunities the format offers. Despite having an incredible cast, the heavy hitters rarely share the screen and instead are tasked with propping up weak, poorly paced stories on their own. While some of the pacing problems can be explained by the deterioration of attention spans over the years, it still stands that this is an incredibly slow moving film, filled with very few redeeming elements. The Christopher Lee-led segment itself is worth the time it takes to stream the film and fast forward fifty minutes, however the rest of “Dr. Terror” is pretty mediocre and resoundingly answers why this film has been forgotten.