Marking the 89th birthday of co-founder Milton Subotsky, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
As a purveyor of cinematic horror in the 1960s and ’70s, Amicus Productions was Britain’s only serious rival to Hammer Films, whose personnel (e.g., Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, directors Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker) it borrowed on a regular basis. Ironically, the studio was founded by the American producers Max J. Rosenberg (1914-2004) and Milton Subotsky (1921-91).
Also a screenwriter, Subotsky received the story credit on an early effort that was technically a Vulcan Production, John Moxey’s City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960), a splendid tale of witchcraft featuring Lee in a solid supporting role. He later scripted the first official Amicus production, Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), which started a signature series of anthology films.
Subotsky based one of the earliest Amicus films, Francis’s The Skull (1965), on horror author and screenwriter Robert Bloch’s classic “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Bloch was then hired to adapt his own published stories into Francis’s Torture Garden (1967), Peter Duffell’s The House That Dripped Blood (1970) and Baker’s Asylum (1972), each of which utilized the anthology format.
Amicus eventually became the first studio permitted by publisher William M. Gaines to film stories from the eponymous E.C. horror comics of the 1950s in Francis’s Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Baker’s The Vault of Horror (1973). But it also made several significant contributions to the SF genre, including the only feature films to date based upon the long-running BBC-TV series Dr. Who.
Unveiled in the Doctor’s second adventure, “The Daleks” (aka “The Dead Planet”), the titular mutants inside their metallic casings, whose primary goal is to “Exterminate!” humans, soon became the most enduring of his interstellar adversaries. Thus, an adaptation of Terry Nation’s serial seemed a safe bet for Amicus to introduce the Doctor to the big screen—and in color—for the very first time.
Written by Subotsky, with additional material by the show’s script editor, David Whitaker, Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) changed the Doctor from the Time Lord of the series to an eccentric human inventor, played by Peter Cushing. The film was directed by Gordon Flemyng, who worked almost exclusively in British television for the thirty-odd years of his decidedly unremarkable career.
The Doctor’s invention, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), is disguised as a police call box, and can travel through time and/or space. It does both, whisking the Doctor and his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey) to the planet Skaro in the distant future, when Barbara’s clumsy boyfriend, Ian Chesterton (Roy Castle), stumbles against the controls.
Poisoned by nuclear war, Skaro is inhabited by two races: the peaceful, humanoid Thals, and the deadly Daleks, which are protected by their mechanized armor. Joining forces with the Thals, the Doctor and his companions undergo the usual quotient of captures, imprisonments, and escapes, but ultimately defeat the Daleks by interfering with the magnetic forces that control their futuristic city.
Cushing and Tovey were back, with a bigger budget, the same screenwriters, and essentially the same crew, for Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), based on Nation’s second Dalek serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Ian and Barbara were supplanted by police constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins), another comic foil, and the Doctor’s niece, Louise (Jill Curzon).
In 2150, the Daleks are excavating in England with evil intent, hoping to blow out the Earth’s magnetic core by planting a bomb in a fissure, effectively turning the planet into a giant spaceship. This ambitious plan is put to rest when the Doctor reprograms their human slaves, the Robomen, and diverts the bomb down an unused shaft, so that the magnetic pull draws the Daleks down to the core.
Allan Bryce’s Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood tartly (but not necessarily inaccurately) dismisses their next SF efforts, Montgomery Tully’s The Terrornauts and Francis’s They Came From Beyond Space (both 1967), as “the two worst films the company ever produced.” Each was based on a decidedly pulpy paperback (Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid and Joseph Millard’s The Gods Kate Kansas, respectively).
Francis told me in an interview for Filmfax that after budgeting for both movies, Amicus spent most of the money on The Terrornauts, leaving very little left over for him. “So we were trying to do this film with not much money, and I thought it was a rotten film anyway,” he said. “That was another Subotsky script [indeed, his writing was widely considered the studio’s weakest link], which I didn’t interfere with.”
In The Terrornauts, a group of humans is spirited off into space and subjected to a series of intelligence tests, before being plunged into the middle of a war between alien races. Francis’s film concerns another alien race, this time taking over humans to effect their mysterious plan, which turns out to be nothing more menacing than trying to get from our moon to their own world to die at home.
More ambitious and intelligent, but faring badly at the box-office, was Alan Cooke’s The Mind of Mr. Soames (1969), based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine. Reminiscent of Charly (1968), it stars Terence Stamp as a thirty-year-old man awakened from the coma he has been in since birth, with Robert Vaughn and Nigel Davenport as doctors in disagreement over how to educate him.
Scream and Scream Again (1970) was an odd hybrid of horror and SF, and of personnel from both Amicus and American International Pictures, then expanding into England. Star Vincent Price, director Gordon Hessler, and screenwriter Christopher Wicking had already worked together at AIP, while Rosenberg and Subotsky produced the film, and Lee and Cushing co-starred.
Based on Peter Saxon’s The Disorientated Man, this historic teaming of horror’s “big three” is a disorientating experience indeed, with multiple settings and plotlines that seem unconnected at first. Finally, it becomes clear (relatively speaking) that Price’s character has been creating a race of deadly, super-strong “composites,” which are infiltrating various governments to control the world.
Amicus also produced some of the few films based on SF novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known as the creator of Tarzan. Financed—and distributed in the U.S.—by AIP, The Land That Time Forgot (1975), its sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977), and At the Earth’s Core (1976) were all directed by Kevin Connor, as was their last anthology film, From Beyond the Grave (1973).
Land and People concern Caprona, a lost continent on which, as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, dinosaurs still exist at the time of World War I. The survivors of a British ship, including American Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure), are taken aboard the U-boat that torpedoed them, and clash with the crew before encountering prehistoric creatures and mysterious tribes of cavemen.
At the Earth’s Core is set in another fictional world, Pellucidar, to which Tarzan himself paid a visit in one of Burroughs’s sequels. McClure starred as David Innes, who journeys to the center of the Earth in a giant drilling machine, with Cushing as Abner Perry, the absent-minded professor who accompanies him, and Caroline Munro as Dia, the primitive princess he rescues from assorted perils.
Amicus was in fact disintegrating as the Burroughs films were being made; Subotsky left the company in 1975, after Land was completed, and the company was officially dissolved even before People was released by AIP. But while its track record was mixed and its production values never as high as Hammer’s, Amicus is fondly remembered for the genre entertainment it offered for a decade.