Caroline Callaghan spoke to Peter Duffell, director of The House That Dripped Blood, when he appeared at the National Media Museum's 7thÂ Fantastic Films WeekendÂ in 2008. She asked him about his work on the film...
Amicus was one of three British film companies (Hammer and Tigon were the other two) which produced a remarkable number of low-budget horror films during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of these films have gone on to achieve cult status.
Formed in 1965 by American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, Amicus produced many genre films, but perhaps most fondly remembered are its portmanteau films. In these, a series of smaller story segments were linked together by a common theme to provide a film anthology. One such portmanteau film was The House That Dripped Blood.
Despite its title, The House That Dripped Blood sought to scare by means of shadow and suggestion, rather than blood and gore. It also boasted a liberal dose of humour.
CC: First of all, how did you get the role as director? Youâ€™d done some TV, but this was your first film I believe?
PD: It was my first “first feature”. I had made a number of what they used to call in those days “B features” – you know, support films. Iâ€™d made a number of those: Scotland Yard and some Edgar Wallace Mysteries. Then I got work in television. So it wasnâ€™t quite my first.
But, how did I get it? Well, I was offered it! [laughs] Milton Subotsky, the producer, was quite happy to employ young directors without any big track record; to give them the chance, as it were. And I think Milton had seen some of my television work and he offered me the job. So there we were. I wasnâ€™t going to turn it down! At that time, there was very little being made in the British film industry except horror movies. It was one way in.
CC: You had a Robert Bloch script for the film, of course. Was there much you, as the director, had to do to that script; to change it in any way?
PD: I did change it. I introduced some scenes. I never met Bloch, although Milton Subotsky knew him well, of course. Heâ€™d done other stories for him. But for my film, I think that Bloch was unhappy with my treatment of “The Wax Museum” story with Peter Cushing. Iâ€™m only told this you know. He was unhappy with it because it shifted the balance of the story from the mad axe murderer who ran the wax museum, to the character played by Cushing. But then Cushing was the star, so it played better that way.
There was an earlier version of it made [for the series Boris Karloff’s Thriller]. My friend, Mark Miller, an American who writes a lot about horror movies, sent me a copy of this earlier version of that story with Oscar Homolka playing the mad wax museum murderer. I have to say, I didnâ€™t think it was very good. It was just clichÃ©-ridden, low-budget writing. When youâ€™ve got Peter Cushing playing the role of the visitor to the museum itâ€™s bound to shift the emphasis. That is the way I saw the story; that this was the important thing – this manâ€™s loneliness, his memories of his dead love, and missing her. It seemed to me right. But I was rather astonished that Bloch didnâ€™t particularly like that.
Iâ€™m not quite sure how he envisaged the fourth story, “The Cloak”. I think that was probably originally straight, and I played it for comedy because it seemed to me the only way to do it.
[In fact, Robert Bloch says in his autobiography: â€œBut due credit must be given to the director for deftly turning the final segment into a send-up of my vampire story, ‘The Cloak’, and thereby improving it a hundred percent.â€]
I did try in the film to get a different look to each of the four stories. In terms of the sets, we used different parts of the house to focus on in each story – although the characters walked through each room – but the centre of each story was in a different room. In that way, I tried to avoid the monotony of the individual backgrounds; so no-one was always looking at the same sofa or bookcase, or what ever.
CC: Thinking about your direction of the film, it has a very gothic feel to it with moody photography, subdued lighting , and so on. Is it easy to see the influence there of earlier films you had seen?
PD: Oh, indeed, there certainly was. I was constantly paying homage to things from when I was a kid. You know, being frightened by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff [laughs] – I did just that.
Yes, and I did make additions – you were saying about changes earlier – but there were scenes that I added. I mean, for example, in “The Wax Museum”, that dream sequence where Peter Cushing goes through the museum, that was something I put in that wasnâ€™t in the script. Somehow, I managed to find half a day to shoot it.
There was another scene I added which was when Nyree Dawn Porter was taking the little girl, Chloe, for a walk [in the story “Sweets to the Sweet”], and Chloe said â€œThat’s a yew tree â€“ a bad magic treeâ€. I wrote that scene in. And I have to say that I mentioned it to Milton Subotsky and he said â€œThat’s unnecessaryâ€. So I shot it when he wasn’t looking! But then he had the grace to accept that it was good, and that’s why it’s in the film.
But one part of the film they did wreck, I think â€“ the producers and distributors between them â€“ was the end of the film, where I did a long sequence of the struggle between John Bennett and Jon Pertwee. I shot their shadows on the wall, and I wanted this at some length with silent movie piano music playing. Because you could not, at that part of the film, go back to the serious horror. I mean, we’d had Jon Pertwee camping it up! So, coming out of the coffin, he couldn’t suddenly become the serious Christopher Lee type of vampire. Therefore, I had to play that end part in the same style. But they couldn’t see it, the producers, and they cut it. But they didn’t make it more serious; they just made it less funny.
On the whole, though, it all came out more or less the way I wanted it.
CC: As with all the Amicus films â€“ indeed, all the British films at that time â€“ you were working to a tight timescale on a low budget. Were there any issues that arose from that? How did you cope with the tight timescale and the low budget?
PD: Well, how does one cope with it? First of all, as director, you’ve got to plan what you’re going to shoot. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to be rigid; you’ve also got to learn to think on your feet, as it were. I mean, there are the occasions with an actor when you plan something one way and the actor says â€œI don’t feel happy doing that. I think I should do it another wayâ€. And the actor could be right. In which case you’ve got to rethink. So you’ve got to learn to do that. Thinking about it, I started filming in commercials. And that was one thing I learnt doing commercials â€“ because, at the time I was doing them, they were very narrative-controlled. You had to shoot little stories in 30 seconds or a minute. For example, the series I did called “The Milky Bar Kid”.
CC: Talking about casting â€“ you were saying just now that sometimes an actor might say â€œMaybe we could do it this wayâ€ – how much influence did you have over the casting for this film?
PD: I cast â€“ in consultation with the producer, of course â€“ everybody except the package stars, who were Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt. They were part of the financing package. They were lined up before. But everybody else â€“ Denholm Elliott, and so on â€“ were cast by me; with the approval of the producers of course.
CC: Are there any stories you can tell us about working with particular actors on this film? Anyone who was especially enjoyable to work with, or, indeed, awkward?
PD: They were all delightful! I mean, take somebody like Denholm, who, after all, was a serious actor outside that genre. But Denholm just did it straight. Because in a horror movie, you must play it straight. Any hint of patronising the genre, or parodying it, and you’re heading for disaster.
So, they were all great. I loved them all!
CC: You were offered other Amicus films, I think â€“ I, Monster and Tales From the Crypt? But you turned them down…
PD: Yes, I did. You see, I didn’t want to make another horror film because I didn’t wish to be typecast as a low-budget horror movie director, which can happen very easily, particularly if you’ve done one that works.
And, in the case of I, Monster particularly, I turned that down for artistic reasons. The film was made because Milton Subotsky had discovered what he thought was a cheap way of making a three-dimensional film. It involved the people coming into the cinema wearing a pair of those coloured glasses they did for 3D but with one lens missing. Well, people aren’t going to sit in a cinema wearing those! Also, you had to have a constantly moving camera. And perhaps you got a kind of 3D effect. But I was against it because I don’t believe a constantly moving camera is the right thing to do for a horror film. I mean, look at a James Whale movie. Very often it’s a static camera. And so I was very unhappy about that, and I turned it down for that reason anyway. Milton subsequently did offer me one or two other pictures, but I held my position and said no, I didn’t want to do them.
CC: But do you have any regrets about doing The House That Dripped Blood?
PD: No, I don’t have any regrets about it at all. I’m very pleased and flattered that the movie is still being seen, and that it’s become, as it has, a cult classic.
The only unhappy thing about it for me is the title. I hated the title, so did Christopher Lee, so did Peter Cushing. All three of us – we thought it was a cheap, lousy title.
CC: You wanted to call it Death and the Maiden, I think?
PD: That’s right, I did. Because I’d used the Schubert string quartet piece of that name in the film. It was a perfectly good title for the film and would have resonated. But Max Rosenberg couldn’t see that. He just said to me â€œWe’re in the marketplace â€“ it’s got to beThe House That Dripped Bloodâ€. So, that’s something I’m not particularly happy with, I’m afraid. But everything else was fine.
CC: OK, that’s everything I wanted to ask you. Thank you very much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
PD: The pleasure was mine.
A version of this interview first appeared atÂ www.pantechnicon.net.