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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

MULTI-STORY TERROR: AN INTRODUCTION TO PORTMANTEAU HORROR FILMS

The portmanteau horror film is one that is composed of multiple short stories that connect within one overall idea, often to a grisly ending. Derived from the French verb ‘porter’ (to carry) and ‘manteau’ (meaning one’s mantle or cloak), the origin of the name is itself a portmanteau – parts of two words joined to create a brand new meaning. I love the term for its evocative suggestion of period elegance, and an apt association with the travelling bag of an enigmatic stranger. Indeed, such a figure can be the linking device in a portmanteau horror film, a mysterious storyteller whose seemingly disparate tales are designed to illuminate or warn their audience. Peter Cushing’s tarot-reader deals out individual demises to his fellow coach passengers in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965); in Tales from the Crypt (1972) a party of lost tourists are each told their fates by Crypt Keeper Ralph Richardson.

There may even be a commonality of place that unites the storytelling in a portmanteau horror movie (also known as an anthology film). The past owners’ grisly history from Amicus’s enjoyably lurid The House that Dripped Blood (1971) springs to mind, as does the clever linking narrative for their Asylum (1972) of a series of patient histories designed to test an interviewing doctor candidate. The sub-genre also lends itself to revenge as an all-consuming connecting motive, such as the systematic Grand Guignol vengeance of Vincent Price’s ham actor upon his most acidic critics in 1973’s Theatre of Blood, or the supernatural punishment suffered by those who steal from Peter Cushing’s antique shop in From Beyond the Grave (1974). 

On the subject of the recurring Mr Cushing, his presence alone almost qualifies as a linking device since he made no less than eight portmanteau horrors in the twelve years between The Skull (1965) and The Uncanny (1977). Moreover, this only covers a selection (albeit most of the best) of the many that were made, mostly by British studios, in an inexplicable craze for them during that period.

Horror fans could be forgiven for thinking that the format only began so recently. A more common mistake is to believe that it started with Ealing’s Dead of Night in 1944 - which we shall examine soon. In fact, the portmanteau horror sub-genre can be traced back to European films of the silent era at least as far as the German Fritz Lang’s 1921 Destiny (reviewed here ). This is essentially a fantasy but one brooded over by Death himself, who claims a woman’s husband and will only release him in return for her saving his life across three time periods and countries. The following year saw the Danish release of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan or Witchcraft Through the Ages (reviewed here) a historical docu-drama of vignettes vividly illustrating terrible medieval attitudes to the subject. Back in Germany, Paul Leni’s more straightforward multi-story narrative was Waxworks (1924), reviewed here 8/1/2016, whereby a museum hires a writer to wax horrific background stories in support of three notorious exhibits including Spring-heeled Jack and Ivan the Terrible.

There were meant to be four tales featured in Waxworks, however Leni ran out of money. Into the future a similar scaling-down occurred, though for a different reason, to the first Hollywood attempt at the format a year before Dead of Night - a handsomely-mounted portmanteau fantasy tinged with the supernatural - Julien Duvivier's Flesh and Fantasy (1943). But that's tomorrow's story...

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful and informative article, Ian. I'll never refer to films like these as simple "anthologies" ever again. Well done!

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