“Beware the fear flasher! And the horror horn!”
If you’ve seen CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966), you know what these words refer to, a gimmick used in this 1966 film to warn its audience of upcoming scenes of violence that were so horrific that you just had to turn away!
Except that they weren’t. None of the violence is shown on camera. Shhh!!!
When I was a kid, CHAMBER OF HORRORS showed up on television quite a bit, both during the day and in the wee hours of the night. It was one of my favorite horror movies back then, and it still is today, even with its silly fear flasher/horror horn gimmick, where the picture would freeze, and the screen would flash red while a loud sound effect blasted. Even as a little kid, I never averted my eyes, so I saw pretty quickly that this was just a gimmick, and the violent murders were not shown. But I still loved it!
CHAMBER OF HORRORS was actually meant to be the pilot for a TV series called “House of Wax” in which the proprietors of the wax museum, the dashing Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova), the very British and intellectual Harold Blount (Wilfred Hyde-White), and the diminutive dwarf Pepe (Jose Rene Ruiz, or as he was billed in the film, Tun Tun), who were all also amateur detectives, would solve various crimes. In this movie, the villain is Jason Cravatte (Patrick O’Neal, in a devilishly scene-stealing performance) who chops off his own hand to escape the police and returns to Baltimore months later to seek revenge on those who sentenced him to prison, including our hero, Anthony Draco.
The film received a theatrical release rather than play on television because it was considered too gruesome for TV back then, How times have changed!
CHAMBER OF HORRORS is wonderfully atmospheric, and while it takes place in 19th century Baltimore, it has the look and feel of a Hammer Film. And while the murders aren’t shown on camera, they are lurid and creative, as Cravatte purchases a series of unique attachments for his missing hand, including a hook, an axe, and even a gun. Yup, Cravatte is an imaginative killer and even whistles while he works in this dark little thriller with a good sense of humor.
Most of the humor comes from Patrick O’Neal’s performance, in a role which would have suited Vincent Price quite nicely. O’Neal is terrific here, and while he did appear in other villainous roles, mostly on television, it’s a shame he didn’t star in more horror movies. He’s really, really good, and for my money, he’s the best part of this movie.
Cesare Danova is the handsome hero, and the film does a nice job pitting the two leads against each other. I mentioned Hammer Films, and there’s a Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vibe throughout, as Danova’s Draco is in pursuit of O’Neal’s Cravatte but remains one step behind the killer, until the film’s final reel, which plays out in exciting fashion as the two battle it out on the floor of the wax museum.
Speaking of the museum, CHAMBER OF HORRORS utilizes many of the same wax museum sets used in the Vincent Price movie HOUSE OF WAX (1953).
Wilfred Hyde-White and Tun Tun are also very entertaining as the two other members of the crime solving team. It’s a shame this movie didn’t catch on and spark the TV series, as it would have been a lot of fun. Not really sure what happened, because supposedly CHAMBER OF HORRORS did very well and made a lot of money back in 1966.
Future M.A.S.H. star Wayne Rogers is also in the cast as police sergeant Jim Albertson, and he turns in a memorable performance. The leading lady is Laura Devon, who plays Marie Champlain, a young woman hired by Cravatte to lure his intended victims to their doom.
There are a lot of neat scenes in CHAMBER OF HORRORS, directed by Hy Averback, including the opening scene where Cravatte forces a trembling minister to perform a marriage ceremony between Cravatte and a woman he murdered; the confrontation between Cravatte and Sgt. Albertson, and the climactic battle between Cravatte and Draco.
Stephen Kandel wrote the screenplay based on a story by Ray Russell. It has an exciting plot, contains memorable and oftentimes humorous dialogue, and also creates neat characters.
The film has an atmospheric and energetic music score by William Lava.
CHAMBER OF HORRORS may not have spawned a follow-up TV series, or gone on to be a classic of the genre, but it is more than just a gimmick movie, in spite of the fear flasher/horror horn. It’s a damn fine horror movie, one of the more atmospheric thrillers from the 1960s not made by Hammer Films.
It was one of my favorite horror movies as a kid. It remains so today.
Looking for a museum to visit? Check out CHAMBER OF HORRORS. But remember, when you see the fear flasher and hear the horror horn, look away! Yeah, I know. There’s nothing to look away from. But it still makes for a bloody good time!