Though Hammer Studios were the champions of British horror cinema for much of the 1960s (and were still able to make a good showing from time to time in the 1970s), Amicus Productions also deserved to be in the conversation. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s production house, like Hammer, didn’t exclusively focus on horror – they got up and running by turning out some low-budget teen musicals like It’s Trad, Dad, they did the Dr. Who movie adaptations with Peter Cushing as the Doctor, they did a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations (one of which, The Land That Time Forgot, had script contributions by Michael Moorcock).
They’re primarily remembered for their horror output, mind. Many of their releases were portmanteau horror films – the sort of thing which Games Workshop recently imitated with The Wicked and the Damned, where rather than having a single full-length story you have a group of shorter pieces (usually three or so) with a thin framing device connecting them all. I find the subgenre kind of mediocre a lot of the time, to be honest – it all too often seems to be an excuse to fob off onto audiences stories which are too weak to be standalone movies or TV episodes by themselves and pass off quantity as quality.
However, Rosenberg and Subotsky did also produce a number of more conventional single-story horror movies, like The Skull which I’ve previously enthused about. Here Amicus often managed a similar tone to Hammer without coming across as imitators; many Hammer talents like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee also did work for Amicus, but whilst Hammer focused on historical settings for most of their golden age, Amicus’s horror was usually set in the modern day, often giving it a bit more of a contemporary feel.
For this article, I’m going to tip my hat to Subotsky and Rosenberg by taking a look at the first and last horror movies the two would co-produce.
City of the Dead
Strictly speaking, this 1960 release isn’t an Amicus movie – it’s credited to Britannia Films. However, there’s reasonable arguments for considering it a secondary member of the Amicus canon, or a prelude to it, since its producers included Subotsky and an uncredited Rosenberg and the approach is very much in keeping with that of the horror works Max and Milton would put out under the Amicus banner.
The story is based around the town of Whitewood in Massachusetts. During a witch-burning fad in 1692, actual Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) and her accomplice Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) sell their souls to Lucifer; for the low, low subscription cost of two virgin sacrifices a year, they get immortality and power over the town. In the modern day, Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) narrates this story to his class of students, to a mixed reception. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson) is one of the more receptive students, and wants to do more research on the subject; Driscoll can hook her up with a lovely hotel in Whitewood, and suggests she visit on a research trip. In the US market, this movie was called Horror Hotel, so you can probably guess where this is going.