Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Effigy In a Turtleneck

The laws of the universe are very clear when it comes to horror anthologies, and even more Windex-sprayed crystal when said anthologies are included in February’s Shortening:

You must have a doll story.

While past entries here at the Doll’s House include the ventriloquist laden Dead of Night and punchy puppet tale Screamtime, this year’s installment comes to us in a more subdued format with only a minor brush of dolldom. Let’s see if 1974’s From Beyond the Grave survives the month:

Quick Plot: Based on the stories of Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, From Beyond the Grave tells four tales carefully linked by Temptations Limited, an intriguing little antique shop run by the great Peter Cushing. With the motto “Offers You Cannot Resist,” Temptations Ltd. attracts a varied clientele of a slightly disingenuous nature.

Our first customer is none other than David Warner in the form of a slippery bargain hunter who slyly talks Cushing down on the price of a valued antique mirror. As you might guess, holding a séance revolving around an antique mirror that you conned out of creepy Peter Cushing is not going to have the happiest of conclusions.

The next tale is titled “An Act of Kindness” and beings cheerily enough as Christopher, a bored office manager with a miserable wife and distant child, befriends a poor veteran selling matches. Since said poor veteran is played by Donald Pleasance, Christopher finds himself desperate to impress the man, lying about having served in the war with the help of a military medal bought under false pretences from our new favorite antiques shop. Such service claims help worm Christopher into the heart of his new friend’s daughter Emily (played by the Juliet Landau-esque Angela Pleasance).

It’s here where the tag ‘doll’ probably found its way into From Beyond the Grave, as An Act of Kindness sees miniature wedding cake toppers as key in its big finish. There’s also a brief, but well-executed act of violence involving a miniature effigy wearing a turtleneck. ‘Miniature effigy wearing a turtleneck’ is, as you’d imagine, close to being the greatest word sequence ever typed. The fact that this segment has a naughty twist is really just gravy.

Next up is “The Elemental,” wherein the jerky Reggie tries to swindle Mr. Cushing by switching price tags on an inexpensive snuff box. This leads Reggie down a possessed path of sorts that forces him to enlist the aid of a kooky psychic and her exorcism skills.

Last but not least is “The Door.” In the final tale, a young man named William buys the titular hinged fixture from Cushing and debates dipping his British hands into the open and full cash register. Not surprisingly, said door seems to open an entryway into a netherworld of sorts haunted by a genuinely creepy murderous occultist.

A late Amicus production, From Beyond the Grave was the first feature film directed by Kevin Connor, a man who went on to work steadily in television after the memorable Motel Hell.  While this film steers fairly clear of the all-out camp of that film, it does manage to have quite a healthy dose of naughty humor about it. The stories have a pleasant (or Donald Pleasance) balance of winks and scares, making From Beyond the Grave a nice little treat for the anthology enthusiast.

Lessons Learned
An office manager is just a jumped up clerk

A woman hath a more enduring quality

Subways are generally packed with evil elementals (not that we didn’t already know this)

Don’t ever try to eff with Peter Cushing. Not only can he slit your throat with those cheekbones, but he also most likely has supernatural control over everything he touches and will ensure you suffer a grisly comeuppance

It’s surprising that From Beyond the Grave doesn’t come up more often in discussions about anthologies. While it’s far from the great entertainment of something like Creepshow or brilliant twistiness of its closer peer Asylum, this is a tight little ride with no real dull spots. Throw in a cast of genre-friendly faces, a few true surprising twists, some effective moment of eeriness, and an effigy wearing a turtleneck for a darn good night of atmospheric horror.

Shortening Cred: Though the dolls of “An Act of Kindness” didn’t quite prove to be the driving force behind some of the terror, From Beyond the Grave remains the most recent film in my memory to feature an adorable effigy wearing a wool turtleneck. Happy February!

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